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The engine coolant temperature sensor is a relatively simple sensor that monitors the internal temperature of car's engine. Coolant inside the engine block and cylinder head(s) absorbs heat from the cylinders when the engine is running. The coolant sensor detects the change in temperature and signals the on-board computer so it can tell if the engine is cold, warming up, at normal operating temperature or overheating.
The coolant sensor is extremely important because the sensor's input to the computer affects the operating strategy of the entire engine management system. That's why the coolant sensor is often called the "master" sensor.
Many of the fuel, ignition, emissions and drivetrain functions handled by the computer are affected by the engine's operating temperature. A different operating strategy is used when the engine is cold than when it is warm. This is done to improve cold driveability, idle quality and emissions. Consequently, if the coolant sensor fails or is giving the computer a false reading, it can upset a lot of things.