Why won't my car start?

OK, I have a 1995 Nissan Sentra, which has been starting fine up untill tonight. It turns over, but doesn’t even begin to run. I did get it to kind of run for a few seconds by giving it gas while turning it over or something, but it only sputterted and died after like 5-10 seconds, and I couldn’t even do that again. I realize it would be impossible for anyone to really figure out what is wrong with it just by reading a post, but any guesses or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. One friend suggested that it could be the alternator. Is this a possible problem, and would there be a way for me to check out this theory without taking it in to a shop? Thanks.

If the engine turns over, the battery is o.k. so therefore the alternator is probably o.k. The way you describe the problem, it sound to me like a fuel related problem, since you say you gave it some gas and it sputtered. However, it could be electrical, as in no spark or very weak spark. The easiest way to test for spark is to carefully remove a sparkplug wire from a plug. Hold it preferably with an insulated pair of pliers (rubber handle covers) next to a metal surface. (not aluminum) (about an inch or less away). Have someone turn the engine over. If a spark jumps to ground, it has spark. If it has no spark, you need to find out why. Burned distributor cap or rotor is easiest to check. For the most part, anything other than that requires test equipment.
Good luck.

For a car this new, with it’s fuel injection and engine management systems, I would say it’s time to take it to the dealer unless you are a serious shade-tree mechanic.

It almost certainly is not the alternator, though.

It could also be a vacuum problem. Check the vacuum hoses in the engine. Some years ago I had a car that did exactly what you describe and it was a vacuum hose that was off.

Thanks a lot for the help so far everyone.

Here are some more details/clarifications, if they help:

-The car had no problems when I last drove it yesterday.

-When I went to start it tonight I think it may have began to start and then died, although I’m not sure.

-Now it just turns over, although it seems like it barely begins to start (wants to start).

-I was able to get it to run very poorly, sputtering for a maximum of 5-10 seconds, maybe less, one time by I think pumping the gas pedal and then pushing it down all the way while turning it over. I haven’t been able to repeat that.

-It sounds like it turns over like usuall, but I can’t be sure since I’m not used to hearing it turn over without starting.

I have a basic understanding of cars, but I have several friends who know a decent amount. It seems like I will need to get one of them to help me if I am able to fix anything myself. Is it likely that they will be able to do anything, or is this something that is looking like dealer material? The reason I’m reluctant to take it to the dealer is simple lack of funds, so if anyone has any kind of a guess at cost, let me know. Thanks.

Anthracite got it in one - hock your sunday suit & get thee to an authorised shop. Modern engines are no fun to fix on one’s own.

Of course, you should check that all hoses and cables are correctly connected beforehand. Perhaps you might want to check if the fuel line is clogged ?

S. Norman

Check your fuses and/or circuit breakers. Make certain the electronic fuel pump is doing its job.

How many miles are on the car? Maybe the timing belt/chain has stretched/broken?

don’t forget to check the fuel filter

An engine basically needs four things to run:

-bad pump
-clogged filter
-clogged fuel injectors
-bad computer

-clogged air filter
-leaking vacuum hoses
-clogged PCV

-weak battery
-bad alternator
-bad ignition cables
-cracked distributor
-cruded spark plugs
-bad timing
-shorted wires
-floating wires
-bad computer

Good mechanical condition:
-broken timing belt
-partially blown head gaskets
-poor valve timing

I am sure I did not cover ALL the possibilities. You think you can handle this, go ahead. It may take a lot of money in tools anyway. Otherwise, take Anthracite’s advice.

Sorry Blunt, but this doesn’t sound like something you can fix yourself…unless you have a lot of knowledge and specialized diagnostic hardware. In computer controlled fuel injection systems the computer sets the injectors very low at idle. When you turn the car off the injectors are supposed to open up to allow enough fuel to start. If they don’t you have the problem you are describing. This problem usually becomes noticable when the weather starts to turn cooler. I have been able to start a car with this condition by holding the gas pedal all the way to the floor and continuously crank for a long time. Of course you have to jump the battery to do that. Your best bet is to take it in. Make sure you have them do a diagnostic check of your injection system. Many things will correct this problem short term, but in 3 months your back to where you started. This is of course IMHO, and if it’s a carborated engine then…never mind.

Maybe you are out of gas?

You’re correct, of course. But whenever my car doesn’t run, for whatever reason, I always start with the most basic, minimal requirements.

In order for an internal combustion engine to run, you need four things:

Proper timing of the above three items

To find out the problem, you “simply” need to eliminate the above suspects one at a time, until you find the culprit.

The list that Centerline gave is a good one. Lets look at it one by one:

Fuel pump: Possible but unlikely. Usually though electric ones are pretty reliable, although your car is now 5 years old. Easy enough to check if you are somewhat mechanically inclined

Clogged Filter: Possible again, but shouldn’t be a culprit. As long as a car is taken to a reputable dealer for routine maintence (or you do thourough maintence yourself) this should not be an issue though, as they are usually changed every couple of years in a maintence schedule. Either way, easy to check.

Injectors: Doubt it. The chances that two would plug at the same time enough that the car wouldn’t run would not be likely. Even then, I bet the car would run on two cylinders, although very roughly.

Computer: Quite possible. No real way to check though short of a self diagnostic. Which, once again, if you have shop manual is easy.

Air Filter: Not likely. At least check it though. If it was that clogged the car would have certainly had downgraded preformance for the past while that the owner would have noticed.

Vacuum Hoses: Car should run, although roughly.

Clogged PCV: Once again, car would run, but roughly.

Weak Battery: Doubt its that weak if you have been able to turn it over that much. However, since you have been trying to start it for a while now, maybe charge it up.

Alternator: Should not stop the vehicle from starting.

Ignition Cables: Unlikely. Make sure they are all tight. I have never seen any develop enough resistance to stop from firing. I have never seen a break unless it was burned through.

Cracked Distributor: Not sure what is meant by that. The cap? The actual distributor casing? Take a look I guess, but I have never seen this either.

Bad Timing: Possible. Did it backfire the last time you drove it? Maybe the timing belt jumped a cog or something. When is the lastime the belt was changed? The should be changed usually every 50K miles or so. Maybe the belt broke. Does it sound “weird” when it turns over? I hope not…that could be expensive.

Shorted/floating wires: Hmmmm. Usually this doesn’t happen unless someone was snooping around in there before hand. Another possibility with that scenerio could be an internal wire break somewhere. That has happened to me. Not nice to troubleshoot.

Broken timing belt: See above

Head Gasket: It should still run. If it was real bad, it would run rough. Maybe leak antifreeze from around the head (top of engine). You may also see antifreeze in the oil (milky color) Worth a check I guess.

Valve timing: See above.

The things I would do myself.

  1. Does it have gas? You think so. Are you SURE?? I once knew a mechanic (experinced too) that did 7 hours troubleshooting on a no-start. Turned out it was out of gas and the guage was broken. He felt like an ass.

  2. Pop open the fuse box. Pull every fuse and inspect it.

  3. Open hood and check the fusible links.

If those failed, I would then check if it is getting spark, fuel, etc. Run the computer through a self diagnostic, but we won’t get into that. The Crank angle sensors on Nissans also have a habit of going. That can give you the symptoms you mentioned. This is discovered through a self diagnostic of the ECCM (computer).

As well, you mentioned it was running fine before, however problems have to start sometime, so that doesn’t necesarily mean all that much.

Good luck!


By any chance had it been raining that night? No other funny noises when starting? Nothing else unusual? My 88 Cougar used to cough and sputter every time I started it in damp weather until it warmed up. I replaced the rotor, distributor cap, and spark plug cables, and everything was hunky-dorey thereafter for 40 or 50 bucks. Well, until the next brake job, anyway. But how that gook got underneath the rubber and on the coil wire contacts I’ll never know.

If you know anybody who has some experience in basic car mechanics and is willing to help you, have them take a look–at least they’ve got nothing to gain by lying to you. If you can find a mechanic who will use your parts, do it and buy them from auto parts store. From my experience, you’ll be charged at least twice as much for parts at the garage, often more.

From the sound of it, it’s probably electrical or fuel related.

Id also take the air cleaner & top off & try it like that. However, most of the time 80% its the spark plugs. How old are they?

MAP sensor. My brothers minivan did this. It would almost
start, and then die. If you pull the connection to the MAP
sensor, it’ll go into limp-home mode and start and run.
But it’ll not run at it’s best. But you’ll be able to get
it to a repair shop. Don’t ask me where the MAP sensor is
on a Nisson.

Have you run the gas tank empty or nearly empty lately? There is often a layer of scum floating on top of the gas in the tank, that builds up over time. If the gas tank is run almost dry though, this stuff gets sucked into the fuel line, and gets caught up in the filter. Blocking new gas from getting through. Little bits also go through the filter and can kill the fuel pump or fuel injectition points, but they should mostly get caught by the fuel filter. I would change that first.

Thanks again for the continued help everyone. In response to some posts:

Yes, my car was nearly out of gas when this happened. The gas light wasn’t yet on, but I’m sure it was near comming on. I have run it down a lot further though, so I don’t know if that affects anything. I did put some more gas in it to see if it would help, but it didn’t.

Yes, this happened just as the weather started cooling down. I’m in Wisconsin, and it has started getting into the 40’s some nights, and until recently it didn’t get below the 60’s.

From a lot of the posts in this thread it seems like it could very well be just the fuel filter (at least I’m hoping). How hard is it to relpace that? I don’t expect to do it myself, but if I got some help would it be easy to do?

OK…I guess we are bent on trying to fix it ourselves. Here’s what I will do:

First, make SURE you have gas, even if you have to put an extra couple of gallons in.

Next do a visual check: No broken wires, no smell of rubber burning, no broken belts, no loose cables, no cracks on the distributer cap…etc. General good outside mechanical condition.

Then check for spark. Pull out one of the cables on the spark plug, hold it near the end of the plug or point it close to a grounding point (such as a bolt head on the body). DO NOT touch the body of the car, and especially don’t stand in a pool of rain-water. Ask someone to crank the car with the starter and see if you see a consistent strong spark arcing across. If it looks weak, or intermittent, you at least got an ignition problem.

Next, give it air. remove the air filter, find the choke linkage (easy if its a carburetter) and hold it open with something. Try to start the car by pumping a lot of gas. Can’t do this if its fuel injected, although I have got one started by pumping even though its fuel injected…I guess I succeeded in tricking THAT computer.

Now check for gas. This is dangerous without the right tools and knowledge. If the car is carburetted, push down on the choke valve and pump the gas linkage. There should be a stream of gas squirting into the carb. If not, or if its fuel injected, unscrew the gas line where it goes into the engine, get a cup or jar to catch the gas. Have someone turn on the electric if it has an electric pump, or crank the car if not. Again, there should be a stream of gas coming out of the line. If not, time to replace the gas filter, particularly if you hear the gas pump motor whirling. Seems that with the off-brand gas at low prices these days, you can get bad gas easily, either because of the supply, or because some stations have dirty tanks you fill up from, cruding the filter quickly.

If that dosen’t do it. I generally give up. Notice that all of the above merely pertains to maintainence items that if properly done, would have avoided a problem in the first place. As usual, if you choose to do any of the above yourself, be warned about the danger of putting togather in one place high voltages, flamable liquid, and solid metal moving parts along with fingers, hands, arms, faces, hair, clothing…!

open the hood and check for a big ‘on/off’ switch set to ‘off’. (ok, got that one from seinfeld).