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I was driving today and suddenly several of the dash lights (the door open, seatbelt, oil and battery lights) came on together. The brakes became much stiffer, like the car was not running, and there was no additional power to the wheels when I hit the gas. However, the air conditioning and lights still worked.

The temperature gauge was at 50% of max, which is exactly normal for this vehicle on a hot day after driving a decent distance.

After 10 minutes or so with the vehicle off, I tried starting the car again. It turned on, but the indicators were still on. I turned it off again, then tried starting it a second time and the engine turned over repeatedly but the car did not start.

A friend who has been working on the vehicle occasionally said that the oil and antifreeze were 'low' (he won't clarify what that meant) and that the car overheated. However, there wasn't any steam coming off the engine when this happened.

Is it possible for the car to overheat when the temperature gauge is at 50% if the sensor isn't broken? Also, if the oil was low, shouldn't the oil light have turned on at some point before the immediate incident happened?

If someone had been right in front of me I would have hit them, so I'm hesitant to believe my friend in case this happens again. I'm also a little bit aggravated that he is accusing me of being a 'dumb girl who doesn't check her fluids' when I was actively monitoring the temp gauge and dashboard indicators. I carry oil and antifreeze in the trunk so I would have filled them if there had been an indication that I needed to.

Any theories as to what might have caused this issue? Or how the car could have overheated/stopped running despite the indicators not showing any issues?

Any insight is much appreciated! Thanks in advance.

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    Did you actually check the oil-level with the dipstick or did you rely on the warning light? The warning light usually comes on quite late and a temperature gauge can only work if there is enough coolant left so it is submerged. Make sure to regularly check the fluid-levels in the engine-bay. If you are loosing oil and water, something is wrong with your engine. – Daniel Jun 25 '18 at 8:42
  • I didn't manually check the fluids. Thanks for clarifying the logic behind this, as it explains why he keeps saying to check them manually. The car is quite old and requires that someone hold the lid of the vehicle up while I pop the hood, so I tend to avoid actually getting in there. I'm sure there is another solution to this and I'll have to look into that since it is actually necessary. – badpanda Jun 25 '18 at 14:12
  • Usual quick-and-dirty solution for your lid: Broomstick :) – Daniel Jun 25 '18 at 17:29
  • Lol, the issue is when I'm trying to pop the hood; the mechanism (spring maybe?) that prevents the hood from locking again once popped is broken. The metal bar that holds the hood up works fine. But, since you mention it, a screwdriver jammed next to the latch might work or I might actually be able to fix that component myself. Regarding the fluids, he thinks I should be topping them off weekly now. IMO, it is time for a better car. Thanks very much for the help though! – badpanda Jun 25 '18 at 20:42
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Welcome to the site @badpanda. Your engine stalled, that is stopped running completely, which is why your brakes got hard and all the dash lights went on. The engine provides power to the brake boosting system (i.e. power brakes), when you lost engine you lost the assist and you had to push much harder to operate the brakes. Your electrical system was still working which is why your AC fan and lights still worked.

As for what caused the engine to quit, there's too many possibilities to go into, here's some broad categories:

  • Fuel supply interrupted
  • Ignition system (spark plugs, cables, coils, etc)
  • Engine computer failure
  • Vacuum leak
  • Mechanical failure of an engine component

I don't think the problem is oil or coolant related. If your engine seized up because of a lack of oil it wouldn't turn over and if you overheated you'd know it as you'd have steam coming from under your hood, or have gotten a temperature warning.

You car has a computer which runs the engine, this has an interface called an OBD2, which will report certain problems as error codes. If your car is running again I'd get these codes read to find out what happened. If it isn't running then you need to take it to a mechanic, in which case this should be one of the first things they do.

Regarding checking fluids, the sensors in cars generally do not tell you when fluids are getting a little low, they tell you when your car is going to die if you don't do something immediately. So you can't rely on your warning lights to tell you when you need to top up fluids, you need to check your oil with the dipstick and the coolant by looking at the level in reservoir.

  • Red oil light is "no oil pressure! Few seconds of life left in your engine, stop as soon as safe to do so" – Caterpillaraoz Jun 26 '18 at 19:45

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