What does it mean when it clicks but wont start?

If your car clicks but won’t start, there are a few possible culprits to investigate. In many cases, a clicking noise when trying to start the car is caused by a weak battery. Other common causes include issues with the starter motor, ignition switch, alternator, or starter solenoid.

Common Causes of Clicking When Trying to Start

Here are some of the most common causes of a clicking noise when trying to start your car:

  • Weak or dead battery – If the battery does not have enough charge to turn the starter, you may hear a single click or rapid clicking when turning the key. This usually indicates it’s time to replace the battery.
  • Starter motor – The starter motor turns the engine over when you turn the key. If the starter motor is failing, you may hear clicking but the engine won’t crank. The starter motor may need to be replaced.
  • Ignition switch – The ignition switch sends power to the starter when you turn the key. If the switch is worn out or damaged, it can cause intermittent clicking from a lack of power getting through.
  • Starter solenoid – The starter solenoid is a relay that engages the starter when powered on. A faulty solenoid that fails to close can cause clicking sounds when trying to start.
  • Alternator – If the alternator fails, the battery may not be charging properly causing low power and clicking. Replace the alternator if it is no longer charging the battery.

How to Diagnose the Cause of Clicking When Trying to Start

Here are some steps you can take to determine the cause of the clicking and non-starting issue:

  1. Check the battery voltage – Use a voltmeter to check the charge level on the battery. If it reads below 12 volts, the battery may be too weak to start the engine.
  2. Check battery cable connections – Make sure the battery cables are tightly connected to the battery terminals and free of corrosion.
  3. Try jump starting the vehicle – Jump starting the car with an external battery can tell you if the problem is in the starting system or battery. If it starts after a jump, the battery is likely dead.
  4. Perform starter draw test – This test checks that current is flowing properly to the starter when you turn the key. If current flow is low, it indicates an issue in the starting circuit.
  5. Listen for starter relay clicking – The starter relay or solenoid will make a distinct click when engaging the starter. If you hear the click but the starter doesn’t turn, the solenoid or starter may be bad.
  6. Wiggle ignition switch while trying to start – If the ignition switch is bad, wiggling the key may temporarily get it to start. Replace the switch if this works.
  7. Check alternator output – Use a voltmeter to confirm the alternator is charging the battery above 12 volts while running. If not, the alternator needs to be replaced.

Weak or Dead Battery

The most common cause of clicking but no start is a battery that is drained of power and cannot provide enough current to the starter motor. As a lead acid battery loses its charge, its voltage will drop below the 12+ volts required to operate the starter. The battery may still have just enough charge to make some electrical components work, causing a click or rapid clicking when you turn the key, but not enough current to crank the engine.

Testing the battery voltage with a multimeter is the quickest way to identify if low charge is causing the no start. A fully charged battery will show 12.6 volts or higher. A reading below 12 volts indicates the battery needs to be recharged or replaced if it is old. Keep in mind very cold weather can temporarily lower a good battery’s charge.

It’s also important to check the battery cable connections when you have a no start condition. Loose, damaged or corroded battery cables will prevent sufficient power from reaching the starter motor. Wiggle the cables while trying to start to check for a faulty connection.

If recharging or jumping the battery does not allow the engine to turn over normally, then the battery may be bad and require replacement. Most car batteries last 3-5 years on average.

Signs of a Dead Battery

  • Dim headlights, especially when starting
  • Lack of power to accessories
  • Slow cranking speed
  • Cranking stops before engine starts
  • Battery more than 3 years old

Starter Motor Failure

The starter motor is responsible for turning the engine over when you turn the key to start your car. If the starter motor is worn out or damaged, a clicking noise without the engine cranking may occur. This generally means the starter motor needs to be replaced in order to start the vehicle again.

Common signs of a bad starter motor include:

  • A single loud click or clunk but no cranking when trying to start.
  • Intermittent operation where sometimes the starter cranks and others just clicks.
  • Grinding or high pitched whining noises.
  • Starter spins but engine doesn’t turn over.

In many cases, you may hear the starter solenoid on top of the starter clicking but the starter motor itself does not turn. If the solenoid engages but the motor won’t spin, this confirms the motor has failed and needs to be replaced.

Starter motors are mechanical devices that engage a gear with the flywheel to spin the engine. Like any electric motor, they can wear out over time from normal everyday use. High mileage, hot temperatures and frequent stop-and-go driving can accelerate the wear on a starter motor.

To confirm a bad starter, you’ll need to test its current draw under load using a multimeter. First test the voltage at the starter while it’s not engaged. Then turn the key and test voltage again – it should drop by several volts as it draws current. No drop indicates a bad starter motor that needs replacement.

Starter Motor Replacement Cost

The average cost for a starter motor replacement is between $200-$500 for parts and labor. The starter itself may range from $100-$350 for most vehicle makes and models. Labor takes 1-3 hours depending on location at $50-$150 per hour. Starters on luxury, heavy duty and specialty vehicles can cost significantly more.

Ignition Switch Failure

The ignition switch is responsible for sending 12-volt power to the vehicle’s starter when turning the key. If this switch is damaged or worn out, it can cause intermittent problems with starting including rapid clicking when trying to crank the engine.

Common signs of ignition switch failure include:

  • Clicking sound when turning key but no starter engagement.
  • Key difficult to turn or gets stuck.
  • Dash lights and electronics turn off and on while driving.
  • Requires wiggling of key to start vehicle.

Issues with ignition switches most often occur due to physical wear and tear over time. The tumblers and electrical contacts inside the switch can wear down, causing loss of power to the starter. Contamination with dirt, oil and grease can also cause switch failure.

You can diagnose ignition switch problems by listening for a click at the switch while trying to start. If you hear a distinct click coming from the steering column, the switch is likely engaging but bad contacts are preventing it from sending power through. Wiggling the key may help temporarily get it to start, confirming the diagnosis.

Ignition switches are relatively inexpensive at $25-$75 for the part. However, replacement labor can add $150-$300 to have a technician remove the steering column covers and replace the switch. Shop prices average $200-$400 total for an ignition switch replacement.

Starter Solenoid Failure

The starter solenoid is an electromechanical relay that engages the starter motor when you turn the ignition key. It allows a small current from the battery to control a high current circuit to the starter. If the solenoid is damaged or faulty, it can cause the rapid clicking sound when you attempt to start the car.

Symptoms that indicate starter solenoid failure include:

  • A distinct single loud click when turning ignition but no cranking.
  • Intermittent operation where starter sometimes works normally.
  • Clicking noise near the starter motor.
  • Solenoid stays engaged with key not in ignition.

Dirt, moisture and electrical issues are common causes of solenoid failure. The solenoid extends and retracts as it engages the starter motor. Eventually the plunger contacts inside the solenoid wear down, causing loss of contact. Replacing the starter solenoid is usually straightforward and costs $50-$150 for the part plus labor.

Alternator Not Charging Battery

While not directly related to the starter system, an alternator that fails to charge the battery will eventually lead to a no start condition. The alternator charges the battery and powers all electrical accessories while driving. So if the alternator stops working properly, the battery will gradually lose power until it has insufficient charge to start the car.

Signs of a bad alternator include:

  • Battery warning light comes on while driving.
  • Dim headlights that worsen at idle.
  • Electrical issues like flickering lights.
  • Battery no longer charging above 12+ volts.

You can diagnose a bad alternator using a voltmeter to check for proper charging voltage at the battery terminals. With the engine running, a good alternator will show 14+ volts if it’s charging properly. No increase over battery voltage indicates alternator failure.

Replacement costs for a bad alternator average $450-$750 including parts and labor. Alternators typically last at least 100,000 miles. Heat, electrical overload and belt issues can cause premature failure.

Other Causes of No Start Clicking

While a weak battery, bad starter, and failed ignition switch account for the majority of no start clicking issues, here are a few other possible causes:

  • Neutral Safety Switch – Prevents starter operation unless transmission is in Park or Neutral. Faulty switch contacts can cause intermittent no start.
  • Park/Neutral Position Switch – Similar to neutral safety switch, it prevents starter operation unless shifter lever is in P or N.
  • Clutch Switch – Manual transmission vehicles have a clutch switch that require depressing clutch to start. Bad contacts cause clicking when trying to start.
  • Immobilizer System – Security systems disable fuel injectors or starter circuits to prevent theft. May cause no crank if error occurs.
  • Low Oil Level – Some vehicles have a switch that prevents cranking if oil level drops dangerously low to avoid engine damage.
  • Bad Battery Cable Ground – Corroded, loose chassis ground connections can prevent proper starter circuit operation.

How to Fix No Start Clicking

Here is a summary of how to troubleshoot and fix common causes of starter motor clicking without engine cranking:

  1. Check battery voltage – Use voltmeter to confirm battery is charged to 12+ volts and holding a charge.
  2. Test battery cables – Wiggle cables while trying to start to check for loose connections.
  3. Attempt jump start – Jump vehicle from another car to test if starter works.
  4. Measure starter current draw – Use multimeter to check for current drop at starter when ignition engaged.
  5. Check ignition switch – Listen for distinct click at switch while trying to start.
  6. Inspect starter solenoid – Listen for audible click indicating solenoid engagement.
  7. Test alternator charging – Confirm 14+ volts at battery with engine running.
  8. Repair or replace components – Fix issues with battery, starter motor, solenoid, alternator as required.

Taking methodical steps to diagnose where in the starting system the problem is occuring will help identify the faulty component that requires repair or replacement. In many cases, this will get your engine starting and running again.

Preventing Starter System Problems

To help avoid starting problems and premature starter failure in your vehicle:

  • Maintain battery – Regularly clean terminals, check fluid level, and keep fully charged.
  • Don’t crank excessively – Limit cranking attempts to 10-15 seconds to avoid starter overheating.
  • Check alternator belt – Replace cracked belt and tension properly to ensure charging.
  • Clean ground points – Remove corrosion on chassis ground straps and engine ground wiring.
  • Fix ignition issues – Repair any damaged key/lock cylinder and switch contacts right away.
  • Check voltage drop – High resistance in starter cables can prevent proper operation.
  • Motor oil level – Maintain proper level and viscosity to prevent low oil cutoff switch triggering.

When to Call a Mechanic

While many causes of starter system clicking can be diagnosed yourself, it’s best to have a professional mechanic complete repairs if you don’t have automotive electrical experience. Especially if the issue involves:

  • Removing and disassembling the starter motor
  • Testing ignition switch circuits
  • Measuring voltage drops and current draws
  • Replacing ignition lock cylinder or switch
  • Checking computer codes related to no start

A technician has the tools and expertise to accurately test starter system components, diagnose problems, and perform necessary repairs. This will give you confidence the issue is fixed properly and prevent a potential breakdown from starter failure down the road.


If your engine clicks but won’t turn over when you turn the key, the most likely culprits are a low battery charge, bad starter motor, faulty ignition switch, or defective starter solenoid. By methodically testing the battery, starter current draw, and listening closely for distinct clicks, you can usually determine the source of the problem.

Replacing weak batteries, worn starter motors, and cleaning or replacing bad ignition switches and solenoids are common repairs to get an engine cranking and starting again. Preventative maintenance like battery care, cleaning ground points, and prompt ignition repairs will minimize no start problems in the future.