Leave the cooling system repairs to the pros, and using these three signs of an overheating car, get there before it’s too late.

An overheating car isn’t something you can ignore as a driver. At the first sign that your vehicle’s cooling system isn’t up to the task of keeping your engine temperatures under control, it’s time to pull over as quickly as possible and shut things down to prevent serious damage to your motor.

Of course, it’s always better to avoid putting yourself in a situation where a catastrophically overheating car leaves you stranded. Check out these warning signs that things are about to go south under the hood.

Temperature-Gauge Movement

If your car is equipped with a temperature gauge—and most are—then you’ll likely have noticed that it almost never moves once your vehicle’s engine has warmed up after a cold start. That’s because the majority of car companies have elected to hover the needle at a specific spot as long as temps stay within an acceptable range, as Autotrader explains.

Once that needle starts to climb out of where you’re used to seeing it, however, and head towards the right side of the gauge, it’s cause for concern. Unless you’ve been towing or driving on a race track, chances are the needle is starting to move because there’s a problem with your cooling system. Any out-of-the-ordinary gauge readings are cause to head to a mechanic for a diagnosis.

A Sweet, Persistent Smell

Automotive coolant is made up of a mix of water and ethyl glycol, a type of alcohol that has a sweet smell, especially when hot. If you start to notice this smell when driving, or after parking your car, there’s a strong chance that a small coolant leak or a pinhole in a cooling hose is spraying antifreeze somewhere inside your engine bay, notes Angie’s List. You can also check for any drips or puddles under your car when you first start it, or after parking it, to confirm that there’s an issue.

Steam, Steam, Steam

Any time you see steam coming out from under the hood of your car, it’s time to shut things down as soon as it’s possible to do so safely. The presence of steam indicates a serious breach of a vehicle’s pressurized cooling system, with antifreeze either escaping as a vapor or spilling onto hot engine components and then vaporizing. It’s the most dramatic indication of an overheating car, and one that’s impossible to ignore.

Remember, despite its name, engine coolant is very hot, and you should never open a radiator or touch any components or hoses until the motor has had time to cool down. Leave the cooling system repairs to the pros and use these three signs of an overheating car to get there before it’s too late.

Benjamin Hunting

About the AuthorBenjamin Hunting

Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time.  I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.