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Summary
  • There might be times your car will start but won’t stay running if it has issues with its mass airflow (MAF) sensor, battery, fuel injectors, ignition coils, spark plugs, catalytic converter, a large vacuum leak, or a badly clogged air filter from the car having been driven through high water and mud. A fuel pump issue can also lead to this problem.
  • There are a number of other possible causes why your car starts but stalls right away, but these are less common issues that will likely need the help of a trusted mechanic to diagnose.
  • To solve the issue of your car starting but stopping right after, it’s important to identify the problem first. Afterward, you’ll know which parts need to be replaced or repaired. Either proceed with the repairs yourself or get a trusted mechanic to do the job.

Running down to your car on a busy morning and finding that it suddenly stalls right after starting can be a real hassle. A number of possible issues can lead to this situation, most of which need to be addressed right away if you want to get your car back on the road. Today we’ll be looking at the most common causes behind this problem and finding out what you should do in each case.

Reasons Your Car Starts But Stalls Right Away

There might be times your car will start but won’t stay running if it has issues with its mass airflow (MAF) sensor, battery, fuel injectors, ignition coils, spark plugs, catalytic converter, or air filter. A fuel pump issue, either with the pump or its circuit, can also lead to this problem. Here’s a closer look at these common problems:

Dirty or Clogged MAF Sensor

The MAF sensor measures the amount of air that enters the engine and sends this information to the vehicle’s computer so that it can control the air-fuel ratio in the engine’s combustion chambers. If your MAF sensor is dirty, clogged, or otherwise faulty, it can lead to the wrong air-fuel mixture being directed to the engine.

That being said, MAF sensors that are dirty are more likely to cause sluggish acceleration than a start-and-stall issue. A faulty MAF sensor will sometimes cause stalling, depending on the nature of the failure.

Starting your engine requires more fuel than when it’s idling, so the PCM double-pulses the injectors while the engine is spinning and begins to fire them sequentially after it starts. But if they aren’t firing sequentially for some reason (like if the PCM doesn’t receive the start signal), it may start hard when cold.

A Large Manifold Vacuum Leak

With so many later model engines sporting plastic manifolds, all manner of issues can happen that will cause manifold leaks, not to mention the fact that rubber vacuum hoses can swell if they’re saturated with oil and become disconnected. 

Usually you can hear an air leak if it’s bad enough or if you feather the throttle to keep the engine alive after it stalls.

car exhaust manifold image
The manifold in the photo was ruined by the Ford DPFE tubes. The hoses were either left loose or came loose from the DPFE sensor (top of photo), and the exhaust from the EGR pipes that were originally connected to the sensor melted holes in the manifold. This was a start-and-stall concern. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian

Idle Air Control or Throttle Body Issues

An Idle Air Control valve issue or a very dirty throttle body can cause start-and-die issues.

Fuel Contamination

If somebody has accidentally pumped diesel fuel into a gasoline vehicle, the problem can range from a no-start to a start-and-stall issue that only happens cold. Premium fuel can also cause start-and-stall issues if the vehicle is designed to use 87 octane fuel because premium fuel burns slower than lower octane fuel.

Clogged Fuel Injectors

The fuel injectors,are in charge of  delivering the correct amount of fuel to each cylinder when the engine is being started or is running. Clogged fuel injectors or a clogged fuel pressure regulator can lead to the engine running on fewer cylinders and lower fuel pressure, which can cause stalling shortly after starting.

If the vehicle has been fueled from home-made gasoline storage tanks made of steel, rust particles suspended in the gasoline can be small enough that they pass right through the fuel filter and then stop in the screen where the fuel enters the injector. If enough of this rust gets into the fuel system, it can clog the injectors and cause low power, misfires, stalling, and other concerns.

image of a ford expedition fuel pressure regulator
That’s why this Ford Expedition came in for service. It had been fueled from a large gasoline storage tank on a farm that was loaded with rust and would hardly run. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian

Damaged Battery or Alternator

If the battery is dead and you jump start the vehicle, but it dies as soon as the jumper cables are disconnected, you have an alternator problem. That’s a simple indicator. If the alternator is charging, the engine will continue to run even with a dead battery, but there may be oddball electrical issues with some of the electronics.

Bad Spark Plugs or Ignition Coil

A problem in your vehicle’s ignition system can easily lead to your car starting and stopping immediately after. Bad spark plugs with worn electrodes will require more voltage to spark and ignite the fuel in the combustion chambers, but this typically manifests itself as a sputtering or misfire rather than a start-and-stall concern.

, Common Reasons Why Your Car Starts But Won’t Stay Running

Pro Tips are nuggets of information direct from ASE-certified automobile technicians working with CarParts.com, which may include unique, personal insights based on their years of experience working in the automotive industry. These can help you make more informed decisions about your car.

Pro Tip: Ford coil-on-plug (COP) coils and short out internally can cause all kinds of spurious electrical issues with the way the engine runs, the radio, the wipers, etc. Even though there are other coils working right, this can happen because of just one bad coil. Typically, on older vehicles with a weak coil, the engine will either not start at all or will be hard to start rather than starting and stalling. This varies from one platform to the other though.

Clogged Catalytic Converter

Your engine’s exhaust gases pass through the catalytic converter right after they leave the engine, which is a “honeycomb brick” in a muffler-type exhaust part. And this ceramic honeycomb brick can break apart and/or clog. But typically this issue will show up as a reduction in power. As it gets worse, the power loss will be worse, so you’ll be looking for a fix before it progresses to the start-and-stall or no-start phase.

Dirty Air Filter

A dirty air filter will limit the airflow in your vehicle’s engine, causing it to stall. This won’t typically happen without causing other issues before it gets dirty enough to cause a start-and-stall issue. One exception would be when a vehicle has ingested water and mud. This can clog even a brand new air filter immediately.

Vehicle Anti-Theft Issues

There are a number of other possible causes why your car starts but stalls right away, but these are less common issues. For instance, your anti-theft alarm system might be causing the issue (only on some platforms), so pay attention to the anti-theft warning lights if you experience this.

What To Do If Your Car Starts But Won’t Stay Running

If your car starts but stops immediately, it’s likely due to a faulty part that needs to be repaired or replaced, such as a bad battery or alternator or a faulty fuel injector or spark plug.

If the car starts and then stalls, see if you can keep it running by applying a bit of throttle when you first start it. You might be able to drive the vehicle if that’s the case. Also, try turning off the A/C and see if this makes a difference. Sometimes the A/C compressor can cause start-and-stall issues if there’s a problem with the compressor.

If the car starts and then stalls, see if you can keep it running by applying a bit of throttle when you first start it. You might be able to drive the vehicle if that’s the case. Also, try turning off the A/C and see if this makes a difference. Sometimes the A/C compressor can cause start-and-stall issues if there’s a problem with the compressor.

Richard McCuistian, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Stiff or locked up pulleys or a bad water pump might be an issue as well, particularly if you hear belt squealing right before the engine stalls.

In the case of a dirty MAF sensor or air filter, the offending part might just need a good clean. Identifying the source of this issue is the first step. Afterward, you’ll be able to plan for any repairs that need to be done.

If you’ve got the DIY know-how to do these repairs yourself, you can order many of these parts online at CarParts.com. You can also hire a good mechanic to install these parts if you’re more hesitant to get under the hood. Either way, you’ve now got a good idea of where to start.

How to Get Your Hands on Replacement Parts for Your Vehicle

If your vehicle starts but struggles to run, there are many potential culprits. There might be something wrong with the mass airflow sensor, car battery, fuel injector, ignition coils, and much more. Because of this, it’s important to inspect these parts and confirm whether or not they’re working as intended. 

If there is, indeed, something wrong with them, it’s a good idea to replace the faulty components as soon as possible. You won’t be able to drive your vehicle properly until this problem is addressed. Fortunately, finding high-quality yet affordable replacement parts designed to work with your vehicle is easy with the help of CarParts.com.

The best part? You won’t even have to step outside your door to shop for auto parts. Simply visit our website, search for the part you need, fill out the vehicle selector, and use the search filters. These steps will help you narrow down our extensive catalog to compatible parts that match your preferred brand, price, and specs.

We make it a point to source our replacement parts from some of the most trusted manufacturers in the industry. Because our warehouses are strategically located all over the US, you can expect to receive your order in as fast as two business days.

Don’t put yourself at risk by driving with worn or faulty auto parts. Browse our collection of high-quality replacement parts today!

About The Authors
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Reviewed By Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Richard McCuistian has worked for nearly 50 years in the automotive field as a professional technician, an instructor, and a freelance automotive writer for Motor Age, ACtion magazine, Power Stroke Registry, and others. Richard is ASE certified for more than 30 years in 10 categories, including L1 Advanced Engine Performance and Light Vehicle Diesel.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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