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Mechanics examining car engine at the repair shop

Charlotte, Start Your Engines! An In-Depth Guide to Your Car’s Inner Workings

Hello, Charlotte drivers! I’m Dave, steering the ship at Sunny Day Towing & Auto Transportation. From countless conversations and hands-on experiences, I’ve gathered that the more you know your vehicle, the more miles of happiness it gives back.

Whether it’s zipping down Independence Boulevard or cruising through NoDa, your vehicle works hard to take you wherever you need to go in Charlotte NC. But like any hard worker, it needs proper care and maintenance to stay in peak condition. That’s why at Sunny Day Towing & Auto Transportation, we want to empower Charlotte drivers with a deeper knowledge of what makes your vehicle tick.

Although part of our business is towing broken down cars and trucks, we’d prefer if our customers have vehicles that last the test of time. So, let’s pop open that hood together and say hello to the inner workings of auto magic!

First Things First: Car Terms

Young auto mechanics talking while going through reports in repairs
Young auto mechanics talking while going through reports in repairs

When it comes to engines, you’ll hear lots of confusing specifications and terms thrown around.

Here’s a breakdown of some key ones:

Engine Layout

This refers to the positioning and orientation of the cylinders in the engine. Common configurations are inline engines (cylinders in a straight line), V-engines (cylinders in a V shape), flat/boxer engines (cylinders horizontally opposed), and W-engines (cylinders form a W shape).

Number of Cylinders

This indicates how many cylinders are in the engine. 4, 6, and 8 cylinders are most common. More cylinders typically means more power.

For example, the 2022 Toyota Corolla has a 4-cylinder engine, the 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a V6 with 6 cylinders, and the 2022 Chevrolet Silverado has a V8 with 8 cylinders.

In general, the number of cylinders impacts the intended purpose of the vehicle – economy cars tend to have 4, while trucks and performance models opt for 6, 8, or even 10+ cylinders. More cylinders generally equates to more potential power.


Measured in liters or CCs, this specifies the total volume of all the engine’s cylinders combined. Higher displacement means larger, more powerful engines. For example, the 2022 Toyota Camry has a 2.5L 4-cylinder engine with a displacement of 2,487cc. This gives it decent power while maintaining good fuel efficiency.

Meanwhile, the 2022 Ford Mustang has engine options ranging from a 2.3L 4-cylinder to a massive 5.0L V8 with displacements over 5,000cc for much higher horsepower performance.


This describes the components involved in controlling valve operation, including camshafts, lifters, rockers, and timing. Overhead cam (OHC) and dual overhead cam (DOHC) are common configurations.

Firing Order

The sequence in which the cylinders combust, specified in cylinder number order. This contributes to smoothness.


An engine can be naturally aspirated (NA) and rely on atmospheric pressure for air intake or forced induction via a turbocharger (turbo) or supercharger. Forced induction increases power.

To us old gear-heads, the natural aspirated engines sound a lot meaner, but are no longer found on many modern vehicles in the last 10 or so years.

Fuel Delivery

Common types are multiport fuel injection (MPFI), direct injection, and carbureted systems. MPFI is most common today.

Fuel System and Combustion

The fuel system is a marvel of engineering that ensures every drop of fuel in your tank is used efficiently. Fuel is pumped from the tank, traveling through filters to remove any contaminants. It then reaches the fuel injectors that spray a fine mist into the combustion chamber. Here, it meets air drawn in through the air intake, creating an air-fuel mixture.

Spark plugs, at just the right moment, send a spark to ignite this mixture. The resulting explosion pushes the piston down, creating the power that moves your car.

  • Common Failure Points:
    • Clogged fuel injectors
    • Malfunctioning fuel pumps
    • Deteriorating spark plugs
  • Consequences of Failure:
    • Engine misfires or stalling
    • Reduced fuel efficiency
    • Poor acceleration
  • Typical Repair Costs:
    • $150 to $500 for fuel injector replacements
    • $300 to $1,000 for fuel pump replacements
    • $16 to $100 for spark plug replacements
  • Preventative Maintenance:
    • Change fuel filters as recommended.
    • Use fuel additives occasionally to keep injectors clean.
    • Inspect spark plugs during regular service intervals.

Cooling Systems: Keeping the Engine at the Right Temperature

car radiator isolated on white background 3d illustration
Car Cooling System

The cooling system functions as your engine’s personal thermostat, making sure things don’t get too hot under the hood. When your engine runs, it generates heat. The cooling system, featuring components like the radiator, water pump, thermostat, and coolant, circulates a mixture (typically water and antifreeze) to absorb and dissipate that heat. This ensures the engine runs within its optimal temperature range, preventing it from overheating.

  • Common Failure Points:
    • Leaking or clogged radiators
    • Malfunctioning water pumps
    • Stuck thermostats
  • Consequences of Failure:
    • Overheating
    • Engine damage due to excessive heat
    • Reduced engine performance
  • Typical Repair Costs:
    • $100 to $500 for radiator repairs or replacements
    • $300 to $1,000 for water pump replacements
    • $150 to $350 for thermostat replacements
  • Preventative Maintenance:
    • Monitor coolant levels and top up with the correct mixture.
    • Inspect for leaks, especially around hoses and the radiator.
    • Ensure fans operate correctly, especially during idle or slow traffic.

Lubrication System: The Lifeline of Smooth Operation

Engine piston cross section
Engine piston cross section

The lubrication system is all about reducing friction. As your engine operates, metal parts move against each other, and without lubrication, these parts would wear out quickly. Engine oil travels from the oil pan, pumped through filters to trap contaminants, and then circulated throughout the engine. This ensures a frictionless environment, prolongs the life of engine components, and helps in heat dissipation.

Learn moreWhat Are The Different Types Of Motor Oil?

  • Common Failure Points:
    • Blocked or leaking oil filters
    • Failing oil pumps
    • Deteriorating engine seals leading to leaks
  • Consequences of Failure:
    • Excessive engine wear
    • Overheating due to friction
    • Engine seizure in extreme cases
  • Typical Repair Costs:
    • $50 to $200 for oil filter changes
    • $500 to $1,000 for oil pump replacements
    • $200 to $1,000 for repairing engine seals or gaskets
  • Preventative Maintenance:
    • Regular oil changes as per manufacturer’s recommendation.
    • Use the correct grade of engine oil.
    • Periodically check for oil leaks, especially underneath the car.

Ignition System: The Spark that Brings Life to the Engine

The ignition system is responsible for providing that critical spark to ignite the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber. Key components include the spark plugs, ignition coil, distributor, and various sensors.

When you turn your key or press the ignition button, an electrical current flows, culminating in the spark plug producing a spark – leading to combustion.

  • Common Failure Points:
    • Worn-out spark plugs
    • Failing ignition coils
    • Malfunctioning distributors
  • Consequences of Failure:
    • Engine misfires or no start
    • Reduced fuel efficiency
    • Decreased engine performance
  • Typical Repair Costs:
    • $100 to $300 for spark plug replacements
    • $100 to $1,000 for ignition coil replacements
    • $150 to $400 for distributor replacements
  • Preventative Maintenance:
    • Change spark plugs at the interval recommended by the manufacturer.
    • Inspect ignition wires and coils for wear.
    • Listen for unusual sounds or rough idles indicating ignition issues.

Exhaust System: Breathing Out After Hard Work

Exhaust Manifold on Engine
Exhaust Manifold on Engine

The exhaust system is essentially your vehicle’s way of exhaling. After the combustion process in the engine, there are leftover gases that need to be safely expelled.

The exhaust manifold collects these gases, and they’re directed through a series of pipes and components, including the catalytic converter (which reduces harmful emissions), the muffler (which minimizes noise), and finally, the tailpipe.

  • Common Failure Points:
    • Rusting or holes in the exhaust pipes
    • Failing catalytic converter
    • Muffler corrosion or damage
  • Consequences of Failure:
    • Increased vehicle emissions, potentially failing emission tests
    • Noisier engine operation
    • Reduced engine performance and fuel efficiency
  • Typical Repair Costs:
    • $100 to $400 for exhaust pipe repairs
    • $500 to $2,000 for catalytic converter replacements
    • $75 to $300 for muffler replacements
  • Preventative Maintenance:
    • Regularly inspect the undercarriage for rust or damage to exhaust components.
    • Listen for unusual sounds, such as loud rumbling, indicating possible exhaust issues.
    • Ensure seals and joints are intact to prevent exhaust leaks.


The intricate dance of systems and components under your hood, from the combustion in the cylinders to the final exhale of the exhaust, is what powers your journeys, be it those daily commutes in Charlotte NC or long weekend drives. Understanding these systems isn’t about becoming a car guru, but about becoming an informed vehicle owner. An owner who can preempt issues, ensuring that every drive is both safe and enjoyable.

When you keep your vehicle in its prime, it rewards you with reliability. And remember, whenever the journey seems a bit rocky or you need expert eyes on your beloved ride, Sunny Day Towing & Auto Transportation has got your back. Safe travels, Charlotte!

Call today at 1 (704) 504-7449 for a free towing service or roadside assistance estimate.

Sunny Day Towing Company

Searching for a fast, dependable roadside assistance service to move your stalled car in Charlotte? Or perhaps you need an auto transport team to move your classic car cross country for a job relocation. Big or small, if the job requires moving vehicles or equipment, or helping you out of a roadside jam, the experts at Charlotte's Sunny Day Towing & Auto Transportation have what it takes to get the job done right. Not only do we offer a wide selection of trucks, attachments, and service options to fit all size vehicles, but each of our experienced team of towing professionals has over 10 years of experience - right here in the Carolinas! Call us at (704) 504-7449 and let us show you why we're the top choice for Charlotte's towing, transport, or roadside assistance needs.