How To Tell If Timing Is Off On An Engine: Answered!

You can tell the timing is off when the check engine light is on, there is low fuel economy, and rough idling. Moreover, cars struggling to start, overheating, misfiring and abnormal noises from engines, and excessive emissions are all symptoms of the engine off-timing. 

Ignoring timing issues can lead to further damage to the engine and reduced engine performance. Read this article to know more about how to tell if timing is off on an engine and what causes this problem.

How To Tell If Timing Is Off On An Engine?

Before you know how to tell if engine timing is off, you need to have a clear idea about the timing. 

There are two types of timing in your engine. Cam timing and ignition timing. Both of the timing will show almost similar symptoms when they are off. However, the reasons behind those symptoms can vary depending on the timing. 

Ignition timing is the moment when a spark plug is fired in relation to the position of the piston in the cylinder. 

Keeping the ignition timing a little slow or advanced has its own benefits. However, if the spark plug fires too soon or too late, that means the ignition timing is off. 

On the other hand, Cam timing is the process of synchronizing the rotation of the camshaft with the crankshaft. 

It ensures that the inlet and outlet valves open and close at the proper time in relation to the position of the pistons in the cylinders. When the cam timing is off, it can’t open or close the valves at the correct time. 

When these two timings are off, you will notice almost similar symptoms in your car. Let’s discuss how to know if your timing is off. 

Check Engine Light Sign

The primary hint you will get when the ignition or cam timing is off is getting a check engine sign on. However, only this sign shouldn’t be enough to be sure about the problem. This sign can indicate other engine problems as well. 

Rough Idling

The RPM meter can also indicate faulty ignition timing along with the check engine light. If the ignition timing is off, there will be rough idling since the ignition is not synchronized. As a result, the RPM will fluctuate at an abnormal rate. 

Lower Fuel Economy

One of the common engine timing off symptoms is when the cam timing is off. Whenever it happens, the timing belt can’t rotate the camshaft timely. Moreover, the air-fuel mixture ignites too soon or too late when the ignition timing is off. As a result, in both cases, excessive fuel gets wasted in the delayed process, causing lower fuel economy.

You Will Hear Abnormal Noises

Another answer to the question ‘how to tell if car timing is off?’ is that you will hear an unusual sound from the engine. 

When the ignition timing is off, the premature air-fuel mixture pushes the piston that is still in the process of compressing the mixture. As a result, you will hear a knocking sound from the engine. 

On the other hand, when the cam timing is off, you will hear loud tapping or ticking noises from the engine. 

Engine Will Overheat

Your car engine’s temperature should range between 195 – 220 degrees Fahrenheit while driving(1). If your engine is getting hotter than that, it could be a sign that the engine timing is off. 

When the spark plug ignites the air-fuel mixture earlier than the piston hits the TDC (Top Dead Center), heat production will be increased. That is how bad ignition timing will cause the engine to overheat. 

Difficulty In Starting The Car

If your car’s ignition timing is off, the car can get low power due to improper ignition timing. As a result, starting the car will be a little difficult. However, the car will start although late. 

On the other hand, if the cam timing is off, it can cause the car not to start. There are two types of engines in modern cars, which are interference and non-interference. 

A slight “off camshaft timing” won’t cause the non-interference engine not to start. However, if the camshaft timing is way too off, for example, the timing belt is completely broken, it can cause a no-start problem in these engines. 

However, if you have an interference engine and the cam timing is off, it’s a great risk for the engine. In these types of engines, there is no gap between the valve and the piston. A slight off-camshaft timing can result in a huge collision between the valve and piston. As a result, these elements will break, damaging the engine as well. 

Excessive Emission

Another way how to tell if your timing is off is by inspecting excessive emissions. Due to off timing, the camshaft and crankshaft can’t rotate simultaneously. As a result, the camshaft closes the valve later than it should, leading to excess gas being trapped in the engine. 

That puts a lot of pressure on the engine as it has to overwork to expel that gas. As a result, a lot of smoke comes from the exhaust pipe. 

If the valve closes earlier than it should, you won’t notice excessive emissions. However, other symptoms, including low engine power, will be there. 

Engine Misfiring

If your car engine’s timing is off, there is a chance that the timing belt has slipped off the crankshaft or camshaft pulley. As a result, it will cause one of the cylinders or valves to open and close sooner than it should, and the engine will misfire. 

If you’re experiencing any of the issues listed above, it’s worth checking the timing on your engine.


The car doesn’t start, low fuel economy, excess emissions, and engine misfiring are the symptoms of off-engine timing. This is what happens if timing is off on car.
How To Tell If Timing Is Off On An Engine Infographic

What Causes Engine Timing To Be Off?

By now, you know the symptoms of timing being off. But what causes timing to be off?

Well, your engine’s timing could be off for various reasons, including a defective timing belt or misadjusted belt tension. Some reasons are similar for both cam and ignition timing to be off. You need to troubleshoot by checking the problems one by one. 

Defective Timing Belt

Timing belts are made of rubber and are prone to damage frequently, including tearing or missing teeth. Moreover, due to manufacturing defects, a new timing belt can also be defective. 

The defective timing belt is the main reason behind the engine timing being off. 


If the belt itself is defective, you must change the defective timing belt before it’s too late. If you don’t have prior experience changing the timing belt, have a professional help you. 

Misadjusted Belt Tension

If the belt tension is not set correctly, it will lead to the engine timing being off.

For example, if the belt is too loose or too tight, it may slip or break. 

If it is too tight, it may cause excessive stretch to the belt and lead to tensile failure. Moreover, it will put extra stress on the bearings and cause them to malfunction.


Adjust the proper belt tension according to your car’s manual. You need to adjust the camshaft, crankshaft, and sprocket timing correctly. It is a tricky process. If you are not experienced with this process, it is recommended to hand it over to a professional. 

Damaged Pulley Bearing

When the pulley bearing of the timing belt is broken, it causes abnormal noise. Moreover, the broken or stuck bearing causes irregular rotation of the pulley that leads to the engine timing being off. 


The damaged bearing or the pulley needs to be replaced. 

If you are uncomfortable repairing the belt timing issues yourself, take your car to a professional mechanic for diagnosis and repair (2). 

Wrong Ignition Timing Setting

This is the reason for the ignition timing being off. The crankshaft and the distributor must be appropriately adjusted to achieve the optimum ignition timing. Otherwise, two situations can occur and lead to the timing being off. 

Situation 1: If the timing is set too far advanced, the spark will occur too early in the engine’s cycle. This can cause the engine to produce a knocking sound. It can also cause premature wear on the engine’s internal components due to increased combustion pressure and temperature. 

Situation 2: If the timing is set too far retarded, the spark will occur too late in the engine’s cycle, resulting in a loss of power and poor engine performance.


The ignition timing needs to be set in the right position. It is recommended to consult an automotive technician for this. 


Your engine timing is off due to a defective timing belt, misadjusted belt tension, wrong ignition timing setting, and damaged pulley bearings. 

Will Car Start If Timing Is Off?

Yes, your car will start even if the timing is off on car. But you still will experience the consequences of bad timing such as rough idling, strange noises, lower fuel economy, overheating, and more.

Simply put, your car may run with bad timing but it will not be running well. So, it’s best not to waste time and get your car checked right after noticing any of the cam timing off symptoms.

Cost of Timing Belt Replacement

Replacing a timing belt that’s not worn out is an inexpensive option. Expect to spend around $500-$1,000. But replacing a damaged or worn-out timing belt can be unnecessarily costly which you never want. You may need to spend around $2,000 in that case.

Therefore, it’s best to prevent a timing to be off and below is how you can do so.

How To Prevent Timing to be off?

To prevent the engine timing from being off, you first need to take proper care of the timing belt. Following some simple rules can prevent timing from being off and severe damage from happening to your car engine. 

  1. You should replace the timing belt at every interval suggested by the manufacturer. The interval is typically 60,000 to 100,000 miles or 4-5 years (Whichever comes first). 
  2. Check the timing belt for wear or tear at least twice a year. If you notice any of these issues, have the timing belt replaced
  3. Make sure to clean the timing belt twice a year, at least. Debris and dirt can accumulate on the timing belt and cause wear and tear. 
  4. Check the tension of the timing belt. The timing belt should be properly tensioned to ensure it is functioning correctly.
  5. Use the correct type of timing belt when replacing it. Using the wrong belt type may cause it to wear out prematurely or break. If you drive a Toyota, know whether your car has a timing belt or chain first.
  6. While setting the ignition timing, ensure the crankshaft is set at the correct degrees before the top dead center mentioned in the owner’s manual. Moreover, the distributor needs to be appropriately adjusted as well. 

By following these maintenance steps, you can ensure that the timing belt on your engine is functioning correctly. As a result, you will enjoy the smooth operation of your car engine, and the lifespan of your car engine will be expanded.  


How Often Should The Timing Belt Be Replaced?

The timing belt should be replaced every 60,000 and 100,000 miles of use or every 4-5 years. The instruction manual of your car should have the suitable interval mentioned. Follow the manual, as the interval can vary depending on the car. 

Can I Drive My Car If The Timing Belt Is Broken?

No, you can not drive the car if the timing belt is broken. the engine will not even start if the belt is completely broken. The engine will start if the belt is stretched or torn. However, you still shouldn’t drive the car for safety purposes. It can cause further damage to the engine. 

Can A Timing Belt Break Without Warning?

A timing belt can break without warning. However, it usually shows signs before breaking. As the timing belt ages and wears, it may show signs of wear, such as cracks or fraying. Therefore, you need to check the timing belt from time to time. Moreover, after the manufacturer’s given interval, replace the timing belt. 


Now you know how to tell if timing is off on an engine. If you suspect the timing is off on your engine, diagnosing and addressing the issue as soon as possible is essential.

Moreover,  follow the manufacturer’s recommended intervals for replacing the timing belt to avoid engine problems.

That’s all for now. Enjoy your day!

Written By

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Aaron Byrne

Hi, Aaron Byrne here. I'm an expert automotive mechanic with 10 years of experience. I work on engine parts especially timing belts for their repair, maintenance, and replacement.

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Talha Atta

Talha Atta, a Mechanical Engineer and experienced technical content writer and editor at with a passion for the automotive industry.