10 Causes of a Car That Starts Then Dies Immediately

When you attempt to start your car, you normally assume it is going to start without any problems. You’ll hear the engine turning and everything will seem fine. However, there may come a point in time when your car will actually start but then die almost immediately afterward.

There is never a convenient time for your car to suddenly quit working on you when you have somewhere to go. The only thing you can do is figure out what happened, then fix the problem as soon as possible.

Diagnosing a no start or sudden stall condition is often difficult, as there could be many possible causes. This guide is intended to help you narrow down the problem, and possibly even fix the issue yourself.

Common Reasons a Car Starts Then Shuts Off

There are many reasons why your car would start and then stop immediately. If you’ve attempted to start the vehicle a couple times without success, you should avoid trying again so you don’t burn out the starter or flood the engine; you don’t want to risk making more problems for yourself.

1) Bad Idle Air Control Valve

bad idle air control valve

An idle air control valve (IAC) regulates the air fuel mixture of a vehicle at idle. It also manages the idle under changing engine loads, like when you kick on the air conditioning, turn on the headlights, or turn up the radio.

When the idle air control valve malfunctions, you may experience a rough idle or the vehicle may stall entirely. This is especially true on cold starts.

You can try cleaning the idle air control valve to see if it resolves the problem. Sometimes there is an electrical issue inside the idle air control valve that prevents the valve from operating properly.

Many electrical issues of this nature are possible to test for using a multimeter. If the root cause is an electrical problem within the idle air control valve itself, you will likely have to replace the IAC.

2) Bad Vacuum Leak

vacuum hoses

A vacuum leak is a hole in a vehicle’s air intake system behind the mass air flow (MAF) sensor that allows unmetered air into the engine. This throws off the expected air fuel ratio and causes the vehicle to run lean.

If you have a bad vacuum leak, the air fuel ratio will end up being way too lean (too much air) which could cause the vehicle to stall.

Normally a car will still run with minor vacuum leaks, but if the leak is severe, the fuel injectors may not be able to keep up with all the extra unmetered air in the system for a proper burn in the combustion chamber.

You may be able to pop the hood and find something that’s noticeably out of place, such as a vacuum line that has torn or disconnected. If you don’t have any immediately apparent leaks, you can perform a smoke test to find the exact source of the leak.

During a smoke test, a mechanic pumps smoke into the intake system. This smoke will seep out from any holes in the intake system and tell you very quickly if air is able to enter the intake system where it should not be.

A vehicle that uses a speed density system for engine management will have a manifold absolute pressure (MAP) sensor instead of a MAF sensor. These vehicles will raise the idle as if the throttle plate were open when they have a vacuum leak, and are unlikely to stall.

3) Dirty or Faulty MAF Sensor

bad maf sensor

A mass air flow (MAF) sensor is responsible for measuring the amount of air entering the engine on most vehicles. A MAF sensor is very sensitive. Dirt and oil buildup that has blown past the engine air filter can easily foul the sensor. A dirty sensor will often read incorrect air measurements, throwing off the air fuel ratio.

Cleaning this sensor with a dedicated MAF sensor cleaner may solve the issue. If not, test the MAF sensor to see if it’s gone bad and replace if necessary.

If you use an aftermarket air intake, make sure you don’t apply too much oil on the air filter. Excessive oil may blow past the filter and gum up the MAF sensor.

Note: Only use MAF sensor cleaner to clean a MAF sensor. Do not touch the sensor directly or clean it with other methods.

4) Ignition Issue

dirty spark plug

The ignition system is responsible for generating the spark that ignites the mixture of air and fuel in the internal combustion chamber.

If you were to have any issues in your ignition system, like with the spark plugs or even the car battery, then the spark might not be sufficient enough to achieve complete combustion in the combustion  chamber. This could cause the car to die, if it starts at all.

Make sure you have a solid connection at the battery with no corrosion on the terminals. If there is excessive corrosion, try cleaning the terminals. A battery terminal cleaner is made specifically for this purpose and makes the job easier.

Check to make sure your spark plug wires or ignition coils are seated properly on each of the spark plugs. A detached or malfunctioning spark plug wire will cause misfires and often a stall as the engine struggles to stay running on fewer cylinders. 

Next, check your spark plugs to make sure they look healthy, and replace them if necessary.

5) Bad Camshaft/Crankshaft Position Sensor

bad camshaft position sensor

Crankshaft and camshaft position sensors are designed to inform the ECU where the crankshaft and/or camshafts are at all times. This allows the ECU to coordinate the firing of the spark plugs (ignition timing) with the position of the rotating assembly.

If the ECU can’t get a clear signal, the engine may fail to start or die immediately after starting.

Your ECU should throw a check engine light if there is no signal from the crankshaft or camshaft position sensors. Get this code read if you can, as it may tell you the exact wire that is causing the issue.

Inspect the connectors on the crankshaft/camshaft position sensors to ensure there is no corrosion or bare metal on the wires, particularly behind the connector on the engine harness side.

On some vehicles, excessive signal noise or interference could cause issues with the crankshaft position sensor. Spark plug wires are a source of electromagnetic interference (EMF), but this is usually only a problem on some aftermarket setups when this interference isn’t taken into account.

6) Slipped Timing Belt/Timing Chain

bad timing belt

A timing belt or chain that has skipped a tooth will throw off the cam timing, causing the intake and/or exhaust valves to open at the wrong time. Incorrect cam timing may lead to a rough idle, misfires, or a stalled engine.

A skipped tooth could be caused by a belt that was too loose, either due to a failed tensioner or incorrect tensioning procedures.

A camshaft gear that has slipped on the camshaft may exhibit similar symptoms, but is harder to diagnose. This is because a slipped gear will still allow the timing marks to line up, despite the timing being off.

If you know the correct angle of the cam lobes, you will know something is off by the angle of the cam lobes with respect to the cam gear timing marks. 

Correcting either of these issues usually requires about as much effort as replacing the timing belt, though some cams are accessible to experienced mechanics without doing the full timing belt teardown.

If your vehicle has an “interference engine”, the piston or valves could contact each other if the timing isn’t lined up correctly. On these engines, it is imperative to correct the issue as soon as possible to avoid catastrophic engine damage.

7) Fuel Pump Leak

bad fuel pump

If there is any kind of leak in your fuel pump or fuel injection system, it will create problems for the internal combustion process. The engine requires the right amount of air and fuel to mix together for ignition.

If there is a fuel leak somewhere, then the correct amount of fuel may not make it to the combustion chamber. This might be enough to allow the engine to start, but not keep running.

8) Fuel Injection Sensor Issue

fuel injector pressure sensor

The fuel injectors require a certain amount of pressure so that they can inject the right amount of fuel into the internal combustion chamber. The engine control unit communicates with the fuel injector through the sensor that is attached to it.

The sensor keeps track of the amount of pressure in the fuel injector and then transmits this information to the engine control unit. From there, this computer modifies the pressure accordingly.

However, if there is a problem or issue with the fuel injector sensor, the engine will not receive the right amount of fuel for a proper combustion. This could lead to a starting car that dies right away.

Fuel injectors can also clog, which would affect their spray pattern and ability to inject the correct amount of fuel.

9) Bad Carburetor

bad carburetor

The carburetor is a very important component of the internal combustion process on older vehicles that do not use electronic fuel injection. It is responsible for properly adjusting the air fuel ratio to achieve efficient combustion.

If you have a bad carburetor that is malfunctioning for some reason, it will likely throw off the ratio of air and fuel. 

10) Engine Control Unit Issue

bad ecu

An engine control unit, engine control module, or powertrain control module (ECU, ECM, or PCM respectively) is the computer that manages the main engine parameters and programming for the vehicle. Although rare, it is possible for the ECU to malfunction and cause a stall. Generally, an ECU failure will be accompanied with several electrical systems malfunctions, such as missing or invalid sensor readings.

One potential problem that could arise is the inability to control the fuel injection system correctly. This might cause problems keeping the car running after you start it up.

Conclusion

There are many possible causes for a stall immediately after startup. However, it is possible to narrow down the problem to a single component or system to ease the diagnostic process.

While troubleshooting yourself, it helps to have a repair manual or online forum handy for your specific make and model. Some vehicles are more prone to certain issues, and forums contain good information for pinpointing these.

If you do not feel confident in your ability to diagnose the stall yourself, have the vehicle towed to a mechanic you trust for a proper diagnosis and repair.

30 thoughts on “10 Causes of a Car That Starts Then Dies Immediately”

  1. I have a 1997 Mercury Cougar with a V8 and it’s had electrical problems such as the wipers not starting immediately or the trunk light not working. I just dealt with the starting and then stalling immediately. I tried to start it twice and on the third try I kept my foot on the gas at 800 RPM to no avail. I’ll let you know what I find out tomorrow.

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  2. i have a ford type product aswell 1997 recently started acting up when it was low on fuel after a long drive 4.6l dohc lincoln tried to start the car it ran then stalled out hit the key again it fired stalled right out after 3 times of this i decided to press the gas while starting kept the engine reving around 2500 rpm let off press the petal down repeated a few times seemed like it ran after that. Hard not to run the tank low on these old fords they eat gas in town and over 60

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  3. I have a 2008 Ford ranger 4×4 that will starts when you jump it then it dies a few minutes later. Could it be the alternator or what could it be? The alternator is 4 yrs.old.

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    • The alternator is almost always the cause in this scenario but check to make sure all connections on the battery are good and free of corrosion. A voltage test should be done to confirm the issue.

      Reply
  4. I have a 08 Chrysler 200. When I start it, it dies rite away, it does this about 4 out of 10 starts. When it doesn’t die it runs great and has no check engine light on or anything. It seems like it looses connection or something because it just shuts clean off, no sputtering or noises at all, just stalls. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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    • I just bought a 1996 VW Golf Cabrio with 224K km, 5 speed manual 1.6L. Just noticed yesterday after the car was sitting for a few days that when I went to start it, it would crank and start and then immediately shut off. It has an engine immobilized installed by one of the previous owners, so I tried it again and made sure to wait for the second set of flashing lights indicating it’s ok to start and that worked once. I also once tried as another user here did, stepping on the gas as i was starting the engine and that prevented the shutdown. Finally, after all was said and done, I drove around the parking garage for 3 minutes to make sure it was going to drive ok, parked it, turned it off and then turned it back on again to make sure it would still start. I noticed thick white smoke coming from the exhaust. Searches I just did on YouTube and Google say it’s a blown head gasket. Smoke was very white and very thick. Could it have blown as a result of this issue? THe car drives fine otherwise, no issues at all. It’s currently still parked in the parking garage, and of course now with the coronavirus issue I can’t have anyone come to look at it for a while. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. I have a sinking feeling that it’s bad news.

      Reply
      • Since you were starting and stopping it several times, I wouldn’t necessarily blame the head gasket just yet. My 1994 Mazda Miata, which has a perfectly fine head gasket, will smoke white on startup occasionally, especially when it’s been sitting for a while or when it’s cold outside.

        Just make sure the smoke goes away as the car warms up. It shouldn’t be there at normal operating temperature. If your car still blows thick white clouds at operating temperature, that’s when I’d start digging a little deeper to diagnose a possible head gasket failure.

    • Same here, except for the thick white exhaust smoke I have now too (that’s new, only started since yesterday; I’ve only had the car for a week).

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  5. My 2014 Suburban either starts correctly but then almost immediately dies (rpm drops to 0 and everything locks) or everything turns on but the car itself won’t start. After 4-5 tries, I am able to get it on and running. Any ideas?

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    • I always start my troubleshooting at the battery in cases like this. Go to a local parts store to have the battery and alternator tested to make sure they are good. I would have them check for codes while you’re there, since many places will do all of this for free.

      Combustion engines need fuel, spark, and air to run. It sounds to me like it’s either not getting enough fuel or spark at the right time, but unfortunately I can only make a guess without knowing more information.

      Reply
  6. I replaced the distributor on a 350 SMB Chevy. Turn the key, car starts. Release key, car stops. What could cause that? Thank you! If you know, please let me know. The car ran fine before.

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  7. When I try to start my car in the morning I have to press the gas for some seconds to keep it running. Otherwise it dies within one second. Rest of the day things work just as they should. What could be the cause of morning stalling?

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    • There are many reasons why a car might be hard to start. In the morning it is colder, so the battery may be struggling if it’s getting old. You may have an issue with the idle air control (IAC) valve, the mass airflow (MAF) sensor may need to be cleaned, or you may be due for a new fuel filter, to name a few things.

      Start with the simple stuff: I would have the battery tested at a local parts store. Typically they do this test for free and if your battery is bad, simply replacing it may resolve the issue. Good luck.

      Reply
  8. I have a honda civic 2005, 150i. The timing belt broke, den it affected de valve and grank sensor, I replace all of that, but now it start den immediate wend off, what could be de course? De engine only runs for a couple of seconds and goes off.

    Reply
    • Your engine is likely an interference engine (most Hondas are), which means it is possible for the piston to contact the valves if the timing belt were to break.

      I would do a compression test to ensure you’re still making good compression on all cylinders. If one or more cylinders come back low, do a leak down test to determine where the leak is coming from. You could have bent valves or scored pistons from the failure. Bent valves will not seat properly and would cause low compression in the cylinder(s) where the piston smashed into the valves.

      Reply
  9. Our 2010 CRV just won’t start. Drove it back from work. Parked it in the drive way and 10 mins later we started the car and it won’t start. Dead

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    • If your vehicle has been sitting for a long time (as many have been during the quarantine), a short trip to work might not be enough to charge the battery for a second start. If your dash lights illuminate but the vehicle struggles to crank, you could try jump starting it to see if this is the problem. Once started, let the engine run for at least 30 minutes to give the alternator a chance to charge the battery.

      Alternatively, you could buy a battery tender and charge the battery without jump starting the car. Some newer cars are not supposed to be jump started. Consult your owner’s manual to know for sure.

      If the battery is 10 years old, it’s probably time for a replacement. Batteries usually come with a month/year sticker that will tell you how old it is.

      Reply
  10. 00 civic si starts up but dies immediately, but if I keep my foot on the throttle it will continue running. idle will remain rough and low for a while after that. After the car has reached operating temp the idle goes up and has no issue starting, what could be my issue?

    Reply
    • I would start by testing the idle air control (IAC) valve, especially if the issue only occurs on cold start idle. If you search “6th gen civic si test iac” you will get some pretty helpful results if you want to test it yourself. Think about grabbing a multimeter if you don’t have one already.

      Reply
  11. I have a 2001 Dodge Ram Van 1500. Haven’t had any issues until recently I went out to start it up and all the power worked, radio and everything but when I turn the key to actually start it, it starts up and dies unless I rev it up. I can rev and it will stay on but dies as soon as I stop. Never had this issue in the 3 years I’ve owned it. Again, the power/radio will work but if I try to turn the heat on, everything dies. Had no issues driving it last week. Wondering if it might be an electrical issue? How can I find a mechanic in my area to come to me? Thanks for any help.

    Reply
    • I suspect it’s an issue with the idle air control valve. The IAC is most important on startup when the engine is cold. I’ve updated the article today with some more information on the topic. Hope it helps.

      Reply
  12. hi
    I got problem in my Toyota AE100. start in morning and after 3 mins engine off.
    but all red light still on. when start again it start and keep going. but it has been doing this nearly 5 days. i can feel the sound of a car is change and while driving seems very heavy .

    hope i got some help.

    Reply
  13. I got a 2001 Montana, it starts, drive 2 blocks and dies, I can restart it but again, 2 blocks and dies, and so on and so on. It doesn’t sputter or anything, it just dies. Has a new battery, I am going to change the fuel filter but I do not think that is the problem, any ideas?

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    • See if there are any codes. It could be an electrical issue where it is having a hard time receiving a signal from the crank position sensor, for instance.

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      • Thanks, I was kinda thinking the same but hoping something else sense I do not have a code reader. I did look for one and was very surprised to see there are several code readers that are between $20-$50, so I am going to research them a little and try to pick the best one. I am an old shade tree mechanic and last time I checked, a couple of decades ago, they where very expensive.

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