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Engine Trouble: Difference Between Turning Over and Starting

If you’re having engine trouble, it’s important to have a little background knowledge before looking for a car repair estimate to get it fixed. I’m talking about your car engine “starting” and “turning over.” Even though it might not seem like it, and people use the terms interchangeably, they have two completely different meanings. The difference between an engine not “starting” and one that isn’t “turning over” can mean either a cheap fix or a costly fix, an easy fix or a hard fix.

Think of this like a crash course on the subject; a crash course that’s oriented towards making sure you know the difference between the two. That way, when you call the maintenance shop you can tell them exactly what’s going on with your car. If you can identify the difference between the two, it will make your life, and the work for your mechanic, much easier.

So…What’s the Difference?

It’s not unusual that people might find this confusing, and if you do, don’t feel bad! It’s easy to mistake one for the other, but also very simple to differentiate one from the other when you know what to look for. So without further ado, here’s a couple of long-winded definitions describing an engine turning over and starting — and a simple way to tell the difference.

Turning Over 

Before the engine can start or “fire,” it needs to turn over. The term “turning over” refers to the mechanical process the engine uses to start. That process is the starter engaging the flywheel, the flywheel rotating the crankshaft, and then the crankshaft starting the engine. This is that cranking noise you hear when you turn the key – that fast-paced “ruh, ruh, ruh” noise. If you don’t hear it, that means the engine isn’t turning over.


When an engine starts, the mechanical process kicks in and then the engine fires. It’s as simple as that, and anything before the engine firing is considered the process of turning over. Now, if you hear the engine attempting to turn over but nothing happens, that means the engine isn’t starting, but it’s still turning over.

There! Glad that’s cleared up! A simple way to remember the difference is this: if you turn the key and nothing happens, the engine won’t turn over. But, if you turn the key and you hear that cranking noise and the engine won’t fire, then it’s not starting.

Why Is The Difference Important?


While you might not think the difference is important, try telling that to the mechanic on the other side of the phone whose ripping their hair out trying to get a quick diagnosis on your car. If you tell them it isn’t starting because nothing happens when you turn the key, you’re going to confuse the poor guy. So would saying your car isn’t turning over when the engine is attempting to start — see how that can be confusing?

Even if you wanted to figure out what’s wrong with it yourself, you could be doing an hour of research on “why my car won’t start?” when, in reality, it’s not even turning over. You will have wasted time on misinformed research and inspecting your car in all the wrong places. Why? Because, different symptoms mean different problems, and the problems associated with your engine not turning over are much different than the problems associated with your engine not starting (but still attempting to turn over).

Just remember the simple signs: turn the key and nothing happens = your engine isn’t turning over. Turn the key and the engine cranks, but doesn’t actually start or fire = your engine isn’t starting.

Identifying the Issue

engine repair hand

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s clear that engine trouble isn’t very easy to solve. The engine not turning over or starting are both vague and typically there is no way to immediately tell what the problem is. It involves hours of probing, and a trained mechanic will have a much easier time figuring out what’s causing the engine trouble.

But, if you want to try and figure it out yourself, it’s important to understand that there is one thing that will prevent your car from turning over — and it has nothing to do with the engine itself.

It Could Be Your Battery

The battery is the power hub of your vehicle; without it, your car can’t run. If the battery is dead, it can’t send power to the starter, which means the starter can’t activate the flywheel, and the flywheel can’t crank the engine. There could be nothing wrong with the engine itself trying to turn over, it could just be the battery is out of juice. A good way to tell if your battery is dead is by the lights on the dashboard or radio. If these don’t turn on when you turn the key, then the battery is dead.

This is one of the most common reasons why your car won’t turn over/start, so it’s important to keep it in mind if you are trying to figure out the problem yourself. Make sure to check the battery first if your engine won’t even attempt to turn over; it will save you a lot of time if you find out it’s the battery.

Some Other Causes

Aside from your battery, there are a few other reasons the engine might not turn over or start.


The starters in cars have an expiration date and, like everything else, weaken over time. You might notice that it is slow or sluggish in the morning when you first start it. That “ruh, ruh, ruh” noise is now long and dragged out. This is a sure sign that your starter is going and you need to replace it soon. Or the starter could be dead, and that means your engine won’t turn over at all. Which is why, after checking the battery and seeing it has juice, it’s time to replace the starter.

Fuel Pump/Filter:

The fuel pump is an electronic device that sends the fuel from the tank to the engine. If the fuel pump isn’t working, then the engine can’t get fuel. In order to check this, have someone stand and listen to the fuel pump situated at the back of your car as you turn the key. If it sounds like it’s weak or sputtering, or not making any sound at all, chances are it needs to be replaced.

The fuel filter is also part of the fuel system and integral to the engine running properly. These filters can clog over time, and might not be filtering enough fuel through, which means it’s preventing the engine from turning over and starting properly. Thankfully, this isn’t as expensive as fixing a fuel pump.

Ignition System:

The ignition system includes cylinder coils and spark plugs/spark plug wires. Spark plugs and coils also wear down overtime and if you haven’t changed your spark plugs in a while, they could be the reason your engine isn’t turning over.

And Many More Reasons

There are many more reasons why your engine might be having trouble turning over or starting and the most important step when figuring out why is knowing the difference between the two. Without understanding that difference, you might have a hard time trying to describe what’s wrong with your engine. Or worse, you’re going to send your mechanic’s blood pressure through the roof when he or she tries to diagnose the problem.

Understanding the difference is relatively simple once you know what to look for, so pay attention to what happens (or doesn’t) when you turn the key…

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