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Where to Start When Your Car Won't writes: My '98 Taurus with a 3.0 V-6 engine is not starting. A few weeks ago, it was having a hard time starting, but it has gotten worse until finally it will not start. I'm thinking it's the fuel pump, but want to make sure. It has been on a regular maintenance schedule for the past five years, and has been running fine since I bought it.

For a car to start, it needs fuel, compression, and spark occurring at the right time in the right quantities. If I were diagnosing it in the field (or on the roadside), I would take the following steps: Turn the ignition key on and verify the presence of the check engine light, thus showing an active engine-control computer. If there's no light present, check all fuses (some may be under the hood).

Next, make sure the inertia switch (fuel pump cut-off switch) hasn't been tripped. It's a red button located in a panel in the trunk on sedans, or in the right rear quarter panel on wagons. If you push the button and get a solid "click," it was tripped and may now start.

COMPUTER CHECK-UP. If not, at least make sure there's gas in the car. It never hurts to add a gallon (at least four times a year, cars are towed to my shop out of gas). If you have a second person to help, you can take the gas cap off, put your ear to the filler neck, and have someone switch the key on. You should hear the hum of the fuel pump for three to five seconds.

If none of this helps (and it probably won't), you will have to tow it to a shop unless you're equipped to do heavy-duty diagnosis. The shop should scan the computer and check for spark-fuel pressure and injector-pulse signal.

Fortunately, all of these are fairly easy to check on a Taurus, and one hour should cover the diagnosis -- barring anything unusual. Also, be aware that there are several hard-start/no-start tech bulletins on this car which your shop should be able to access through their Alldata or other information service. If they don't have access to these, find a new shop. Good luck!

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