10 Signs Your Car Needs an Oil Change (and/or Tune-up or Service)

Last Updated on September 7, 2021

Engine oil is like the blood of every car. The engine needs oil to lubricate its moving components and keep them operating smoothly. In fact, engines of all kinds need oil in order to function. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a motorcycle, generator, or even a lawnmower. If it’s got an engine, then it needs to be lubricated with oil.

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An engine is filled with parts that are constantly moving and rubbing together. This constant rubbing creates heat from all the friction. You need oil to flow through these moving parts so that it can absorb the heat and prevent overheating.

Oil that’s in good condition accomplishes its task. Old oil doesn’t and need to be replaced. Fortunately, overdue oil change symptoms are easy to spot.

Top 10 Symptoms of Your Car Needing an Oil Change or Tune-up

There are so many different signs and symptoms that will show up and indicate your car needs an oil change and possibly a tune-up (see below for what a tune-up actually means).

When you take your vehicle in for an oil change, the service person will perform an oil and oil filter change as well as inspect your vehicle for leaks and other noticeable issues and then give you additional recommendations on what they think needs to be done.

However, you shouldn’t always depend on them to do this accurately because they might not always catch every issue. This is why you need to pay attention to the signs which indicate that you also need a tune-up of some sorts.

Below are the top 10 signs of your car needing an oil change and/or a tune-up.

#1 – Dark or Dirty Oil

new vs old motor oil

If you’ve never seen clean, new motor oil before, it kind of has a bright amber color to it. But when oil becomes old and dirty from the build-up of residue particles in the engine, then it turns into a much darker, almost black color.

You should make it a habit checking the condition of your oil on a regular basis. Simply remove your oil dipstick and look at the color of the oil on it. Or wipe the end of the dipstick on a paper towel to get a more accurate result. If the oil is dark brown or black, then you need to change your oil.

See Also: Tiny Metal Flakes in Oil (How Serious Is It?)

#2 – Ticking or Tapping Noises

Engine oil gets old and worn after a while. That is why car manufacturers recommend you change your oil every 5,000 miles or so. If you have old oil in your vehicle, then it is likely getting dirtier and thicker.

This will make it harder for the oil to lubricate your engine’s components effectively. As a result, your engine will begin making various metal on metal noises because they are not getting lubricated properly. Get an oil change right away as serious engine damage can result if you ignore the issue.

#3 – Burnt Oil Smell

If the interior cabin of your vehicle is starting to smell like burnt oil, then you know you have some problem with your oil. It usually means there is an oil leak somewhere and causing the oil to drip on hot engine parts.

It also means your engine is likely low on oil and causing your engine to overheat. Take care of the oil leak right away and put in fresh oil.

#4 – Exhaust Smoke

blue or gray smoke from exhaust

If you live in a cold environment then you are used to seeing vapor emitting from the tailpipe of your vehicle. However, if you actually start seeing blue or gray smoke come out of your exhaust, then you probably have an oil leak.

This goes along with a burnt oil smell and the smoke is the result of not enough oil being in your engine to lubricate its parts, due to the leak. So, get that oil leak fixed and the oil replaced.

#5 – Car Stalling

If you’re driving and your vehicle begins to stall, then you could have a small problem or a bigger issue. A small problem would be if you have a clogged fuel filter or bad spark plugs. Something like this can be replaced with a simple tune-up.

A larger problem would be something like a bad fuel pump or clogged catalytic converter which need replacing.

See Also: How to Change Spark Plugs (12 Easy Steps)

#6 – Poor Fuel Economy

bad fuel economy

If you notice your gas mileage is not what it used to be, it can mean you’re overdue for an oil change. As engine oil gets old, it gradually thickens and will eventually turn into an almost sludge-like substance if it’s not changed. Thick oil offers more resistance to the moving parts in your engine which causes it to work harder and use more fuel.

Poor gas mileage can also be due to other reasons but if your oil is dark and much thicker than new oil, a simple oil change will help.

#7 – Overheating

If you don’t have enough oil in your engine or if the oil hasn’t been changed in a while, then it won’t do as good a job of lubricating the engine’s components. This will cause the engine to heat up more and eventually overheat. Getting your oil changed with fresh oil will often take care of the problem.

#8 – Difficulty Starting Engine

If you notice that you’re consistently having problems starting your engine, then you might need to check the connections on top of your battery for corrosion and clean them with a wire brush. If your battery is at least a few years old, it may be time to replace your battery.

You may notice the engine hesitating before it starts up while the lights on the dashboard dim a bit. Clearly, you need a tune-up that involves cleaning the battery posts and terminals or even replacing the battery with a new one.

#9 – Warning Lights

low oil pressure warning light on

The computers and sensors in vehicles today make it easier for them to detect a problem early on before it gets worse. If you notice an indicator light illuminating on your dashboard, use your owner’s manual to see what that light means. Warning lights will warn you about all kinds of problems such as low battery, a burnt out tail light, transmission malfunction, and so on.

Some newer vehicles even keep track of your oil condition (via sensors or set interval) and will tell you when it’s time to change it. In some instances, the check engine light will come on so you will need to use an OBD2 scanner to check for the specific issue or have a mechanic scan it.

#10 – Shifting Hesitation

If you are driving an automatic vehicle, then you should have no problems when your car shifts gears. But if there is hesitation or lag when you shift gears, it could mean that you need new transmission fluid or filters. Of course, it could mean a worse problem as well. That is why taking your car in for a tune-up will at least detect what the problem is.

What is a Tune-Up?

signs car needs a tune up

We’ve all heard the term “tune-up” as it relates to vehicles. You might think a tune-up means getting an oil change and having your windshield washed. But in actuality, there is a lot more to a tune-up than that.

A tune-up means a general maintenance where various components and parts of your vehicle are inspected and replaced if they are worn out. Some of these areas include your fuel filter, PCV valve, air filter, cabin filter, spark plugs, brakes, hoses, belts, and wires.

See Also: Why is There Oil on Your Spark Plugs?

The service person will also check your idle speed, idle mixture, sensors, and ignition timing. If any of these areas are not normal, they will be adjusted appropriately.

When you take a newer car to the dealership to have a 30k, 50k, 75k, 100k, etc. mile service performed, many of these are essentially tune-ups where various maintenance is done according to a set schedule by the car manufacturer.

Many professional mechanics laugh at the term “tune-up”. It’s comparable to how some professionals in the fitness industry laugh at the term “tone up”. The term “tune-up” in a way was created for marketing purposes but it does the intended job of making sure your vehicle in good working condition and any maintenance necessary is performed.


38 thoughts on “10 Signs Your Car Needs an Oil Change (and/or Tune-up or Service)”

  1. I just got a oil change about a week ago as well as my control arm assemble fixed on my 2000 GMC Yukon Denali but now my service engine soon light has came on. So does that mean that I need a Tune-up now?

    • I’d recommend getting your car scanned for any trouble codes. This should let you know why your service light is on.

  2. My car rpm seems to be going higher than my speed…like it jumps up real high when I accelerate, plus when I start my 2014 Sonata the rpm is not on 0. I about a month and a half past due on an oil change, could this be the cause of the high rpm?

    • Doesn’t sound like an oil issue. First check to make sure your transmission fluid isn’t low. Could be a bad torque converter, crank shaft position sensor, or slipping clutch among other things.

  3. I have a 2018 Ford fusion I got it last September. I got an oil change in the beginning of November from taking a couple short range trips. How would I know when it’s time for a tune up. The car runs fine but it’s a bit louder then when I got it so I know it needs something

    • Like most modern cars, your Fusion has an oil change indicator which will let you know when it’s due for its next oil change. With that new of a vehicle, you shouldn’t need a tuneup. Assuming your car is under warranty, you can contact the dealer to have them check out the loudness but it’s likely nothing serious.

  4. My car just started showing blue smoke dfrom the tail pipe after tune up. But even before that it has never produced blue smoke.

    • You might just have had a bit of residual oil that needed to burn off and it’s nothing to worry about. If it continues, take it back to the shop.

  5. I have a 2009 nissan versa standard an it idles low i just got it in may 2019 im going to get an oil change tomorrow to see if thats helps but why would it idol low like it was going to stall??

  6. My corsa 1.4 bought end may has 4000 miles on it,error code 84 is showing,have not changed oil due to my mileage,could this be the reason light is on

    • Fault code 84 for Opels translates to simply “Engine Power Reduced” which would likely cause it to go into “limp home” mode. It’s likely a sensor issue and you’ll need to take it to your dealership since you’re under warranty. Not oil change related.

  7. Hi when I opened my air filter cover there was a brown sludge like substance on it and sometimes when I start and accelerate it hesitates like almost no acceleration does that have anything to do with my oil needing to be changed and should I flush the Engine before Putting in new oil?

  8. I had my oil changed in my 2015 Kia Forte at 67,445 miles. The engine seized at 75,000 miles. The car gave no indication that anything was wrong (no warning lights, nothing until the car actually shut down) and I was literally on my way to have the oil changed when it left me stranded. I had full synthetic in it because that engine requires it. Would the seizure have been due to being just 1k over the recommended change mileage from my mechanic or was this a manufacturer issue?

    • The cause of an engine seizing up is usually lack of oil so being 1k miles over the change interval really had nothing to do with it. You likely had an oil leak which caused the oil level to get too low. That’s why it’s always recommended to check your oil level (and condition) every now and then. Normally, a low oil pressure light would have appeared in your instrument cluster but that’s not a guarantee. Of course, a seized engine could also be due to other things (water inside engine, timing belt failure, overheating, etc.) but lack of oil is usually the culprit. I’m sorry this happened to you.

  9. I have a 2006 Prius with a little over 56K miles. I am past the guarantee on the battery pack. Should a be worried about needing a new battery pack soon.

    • It seems like most Prius are averaging at least 12-15 years on their original battery but you definitely have low miles on yours. I wouldn’t be too worried anytime soon. Worst case, there are plenty of wrecked Prius from over the years and you should be able to get a newer “used” battery for a fraction of what the dealer would charge.

  10. My corsa keeps cutting out when I slow down. No weird noises or shuddering it just loses power. It starts up OK but still very worrying. My oil light is on, but it’s always on as its broken! Does this sound like a lie oil symptom?

    • Shift into neutral at a stop light to see if the engine behaves normally. If so, it could be a number of things: weak battery, worn belt, ailing alternator, a vacuum leak, or dirty MAF sensor. Check those and you may get lucky. Otherwise, it’s up to a mechanic to troubleshoot.

  11. My 1999, Toyota Camry 2.2 with about 69,000 millage, all of a sudden keeps emitting black smoke from the tail pipe. The oil is black but I only just changed it. Pls what could be the issue here? Thanks

      • Thanks. In answer to your question, the car is not running okay! Had it checked out and was told the Injector nozzles were bad. Had it changed and car seem to be fine for a few days but quickly started emitting black smoke from exhaust pipe again, though not as much as the first time, otherwise, it is drivable for now

        • Try pulling the spark plugs. Do they look oily? Do you see any leaks from around the valve cover? I suspect your valve cover gasket may be leaking into the combustion chamber and causing the black smoke.

  12. I had a service on Citreon C3 hdi 1.4 VTR recently. A day after I was surprised to see the oil on the dip stick was black. The car is diesel and oil 5 30 w. Is this normal. The garage receipt says oil change and filter an engine flush. Air filter etc (£170)

    • Oil usually gets dark pretty quickly, even after an oil change. Without knowing exactly how dark it is, I can’t say if this is normal. If it’s thick and black, that may be cause for concern. You could try changing the oil at a different shop if you are concerned they didn’t do the work they said they did.

  13. I have a 2000 Toyota Fun cargo when I accelerate there is unknown sounds on the engine, it’s like chirping sounds. . Was it okay or not?

  14. Please my engine oil light indicator always delay for like 30 seconds before it off after I start my engine. Please what courses it

  15. Hi, my Toyota Sequoia 2005 model recently had it’s battery disconnected while on the move as a result of an incident where I mistakenly go into a pothole (covered with water) at top speed. I didn’t realize that one of the battery terminals was out until I got to my destination, parked, and rounded off with my activities about 4-5 hours later before realizing the terminal was out. I put the terminal head back and the car started but ever since then the RPM has been so low seconds after starting the car and the car stalls a lot.

    The idle seems miserable and more recently, it seems my battery isn’t being properly charged when the car is on as a result of the very low idle which sually results in the car going off if left for up to 10 – 20 minutes.

    Please what can I do about this.

      • No, it did not idle poorly before I noticed the terminal was disconnected. I noticed the terminal was disconnected when I got back to the vehicle (after the incident) and tried to start it and it won’t. So, I popped the hood and saw that the terminal was out and connected it back and the car started.

        Also, days before the disconnection of the terminal, it jerked a little bit when I shift the gear into Drive and then either step on the brakes to bring the car to a halt or maybe stop at a traffic light.

        • Is your check engine light on after reconnecting the terminal?

          Whether your check engine light is on or not: when you disconnect the battery, sometimes the ECU has to relearn some of its parameters. If it had a strong adjustment for fuel trims or something, perhaps that is why your vehicle is suddenly running rough. You can check this yourself using an automotive scan tool.

          Here are some scan tool ideas if you’re interested in picking one up for yourself: https://cartreatments.com/best-automotive-scan-tool/

  16. Thank you Sean for your responses so far.
    Yes, the check engine light is on.
    Your response provides some bit of insight. I’ll have my vehicle scanned over this weekend and I hope to resolve all of this.

    Thank you

      • Hi All,

        Apologies for my late response.
        I eventually had my car undergo the following services and that solved the issue I earlier raised:

        1. Clean up of al Injector Nozzles
        2. Replacement of all eight plugs
        3. Oil and Filter change.
        4. Battery charge (as got drained earlier on)

        It now idles steadily and as should.

        Thank you Sean for your time and assistance.


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