Symptoms of a Bad Clutch

Updated on June 17, 2017
Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell writes about do-it-yourself car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in automation and control technology.

A bad clutch disc can cause several symptoms.
A bad clutch disc can cause several symptoms. | Source

Bad clutch symptoms come in different forms, from odd sounds to poor performance to mechanical problems. The source of any of these symptoms can be hard to recognize.

Signs That Your Clutch May Be Going Bad

Problems with the clutch disc itself or its related parts can cause many symptoms.

  • Your car may function poorly: it may start out slowly even though the engine is racing. Or it may be hard to get the car into reverse, or into gear at all.
  • Noises may indicate a problem: your clutch pedal may make noise, or your transmission may make noise when the car is in neutral. You may hear squealing or growling when you push the pedal or grinding sounds when you shift gears.
  • Or the pedal may give you a clue: it may vibrate, chatter, or pulsate, be stiff and hard to push, fall to the floor and stay there, or feel loosely connected or "spongy."

Below, I discuss all these symptoms and tests you can do yourself to diagnose them.

First, a Word About Your Clutch

The clutch assembly contains several components that wear down with use and others that require regular maintenance; so sooner or later can start to give you trouble. Depending on your model, the basic components may include the following:

  • the clutch disc itself
  • release mechanism (mechanical or hydraulic)
  • cable
  • linkage
  • pressure plate
  • flywheel
  • pilot bearing
  • release (throw-out) bearing
  • clutch fork

A clutch can last 50,000 to 100,000 miles (depending on make and model), but clutch service life is greatly affected by stop-and-go city driving, frequent pulling of heavy loads, and "riding the clutch" (resting your foot on the clutch pedal while moving down the road).

And when your clutch fails, it can be difficult to find the cause. But usually, paying attention to tell-tale signs like noises, clutch pedal behavior, and clutch performance will help you locate the likely source.

Using those symptoms, this guide helps you diagnose the most common clutch problems so that you can make an informed decision about your repair. Look for your question below.

I. Diagnosing Clutch Performance Issues

A worn out clutch disc can slow you down in traffic.
A worn out clutch disc can slow you down in traffic. | Source

1. My Car Starts Out Slowly But My Engine Races

This is known as clutch slippage. As you release the clutch pedal and accelerate, the vehicle moves slowly while the engine races, usually in high gear.

Slipping is common when a clutch disc is worn out. With the friction material almost worn away, the clutch disc has less surface with which to grip the flywheel and pressure plate, making it hard for the engine to transfer rotating power to the transmission.

Another symptom you'll notice is the clutch releasing sooner, without much pressure on the clutch pedal.

But there are other common causes for a slipping clutch, besides a worn-out disc:

  • Clutch linkage in need of adjustment
  • Clutch linkage or cable binding (cable housing filled with rust)
  • Clutch linkage bent, misaligned, or damaged
  • Blocked master cylinder compensation port
  • Pressure plate weakened or warped
  • Clutch assembly contaminated with oil (because an engine or transmission oil seal is leaking)
  • Broken motor mount

NOTE: If you just replaced the clutch (assuming that everything was reinstalled correctly), you may need to give the new clutch time to fully seat. Usually, you need to go easy on the clutch for the first 200 miles.

Is Your Clutch Slipping? A Simple Test

To find out if your clutch is slipping, park in an area with enough space in front of you, away from traffic and people.

  • Start the engine and engage the emergency brake.
  • Depress the clutch pedal.
  • Shift into second or third gear and rev the engine to about 2500 rpm.
  • Slowly release the clutch pedal.

As the clutch engages the flywheel and pressure plate, the engine should stall. If the engine doesn't stall, then the clutch is slipping.

Watch the video below.

2. It's Hard to Get Into Reverse

Clutch problems can also prevent you from getting into or out of reverse or third gear.

A stuck gear may indicate problems with the linkage adjustment, a linkage malfunction, or a warped or damaged clutch plate.


3. I Can't Get My Transmission Into Gear

On a hydraulic system, failure to get into gear may indicate problems with the master or slave cylinder or both. Usually, this is accompanied by a change in the way the clutch pedal feels: spongy, loose, or not catching as before.

On a mechanical system, you may be having problems with the clutch disc or pressure plate, release lever, release bearing, shift lever assembly, or control cable.

II. Diagnosing Clutch Noise Issues

A weakened pressure plate can prevent the clutch from engaging.
A weakened pressure plate can prevent the clutch from engaging. | Source

1. My Clutch Pedal Makes Noises

With the engine off, you can hear a noise when you depress the clutch pedal or release it, or both. Usually, the noise comes from the clutch release mechanism.

The release device can be hydraulic (as in many modern vehicles) or mechanical. The device is likely to become noisy as lubricant dries out and the mechanism wears down. A cable, rod or connection may begin to scrape, squeal, or clunk.

First, you need to locate the source of the noise with the help of an assistant.

  • With the engine off, have your assistant work the clutch pedal.
  • Open the hood and use a mechanic's stethoscope or a length of rubber hose (a vacuum hose will do) to listen closely along the release mechanism.

Your vehicle repair manual (Haynes is a good aftermarket manual) can help you locate components.

2. My Transmission Makes Noises in Neutral

If the car is noisy when the transmission is in neutral, but the noise goes away when you depress the clutch pedal, it's possible the noise is coming from a worn-out input shaft bearing.

3. I Hear Squeals or Growls When I Push the Pedal

As you begin to disengage the clutch—that is, as you start pressing the clutch pedal—you may hear a squealing or chirping noise. This usually points to problems with the release (throw-out) bearing. The release bearing can be worn out, the internal lubricant dried out, or the bearing itself damaged.

Another potential source of trouble is a crankshaft pilot bearing. A pilot bearing that is worn out or damaged can squeal or grind when the clutch pedal reaches the floor. This is because the pilot bearing leaves a gap large enough for the transmission input shaft and clutch disc to vibrate.

So you can tell whether the release bearing or the pilot bearing is the source of the noise. A bad release bearing will start squealing or chirping with a slight depression of the clutch pedal, or before it's fully depressed; a bad pilot bearing will start squealing or grinding as the pedal reaches the floor.

So check the pilot bearing carefully if the clutch release bearing seems in good condition.

4. I Hear Grinding When Shifting Gears

This problem is known as a dragging clutch. It happens when the friction or clutch disc remains engaged or stuck, so the transmission input shaft keeps spinning even when you fully depress the clutch pedal. Since the input shaft is still spinning, trying to shift gears, specially into reverse, will cause them to clash or grind.

  • This grinding may point to any number of problems: problems with the pressure plate, throw-out bearing, or release mechanism. On a mechanical release system, the cable may be broken, frozen, overstretched, or in need of adjustment (consult your vehicle repair manual). On a hydraulic-type system, grinding may indicate problems with the clutch master cylinder (low fluid, or air in the system or the internal cylinder mechanism).
  • Another possibility you want to look into is the clutch pedal assembly. The pedal may have too much free travel and will need adjustment (consult your vehicle repair manual).

III. Diagnosing Clutch Pedal Issues

The clutch pedal also has ways of letting you know that your clutch is bad.
The clutch pedal also has ways of letting you know that your clutch is bad. | Source

1. My Clutch Chatters When I Accelerate

This clutch problem makes the pedal vibrate or, if the problem is severe enough, makes the car jerk during acceleration. The vibration comes from the clutch disc intermittently losing its grip on the flywheel.

Possible causes of vibrating or chattering include:

  • Clutch disc lining (friction material) worn out
  • Clutch disc lining burnt or contaminated with oil
  • Clutch disc glazed
  • Clutch disc hub with worn out splines
  • Warped pressure plate or flywheel
  • Pressure plate diaphragm spring weakened or with broken fingers (bouncing)
  • Pressure plate with hot spots
  • Pilot bearing worn out or damaged
  • Flywheel worn out

Note: Before you go to the trouble of dropping the transmission, make sure to check the engine and transmission motor mounts, because motor mounts can also be the source of chatter. Check the mounts for cracks, damage, or loose bolts.

Also, check that the transmission is correctly aligned with relation to the engine. The transmission clutch housing should be resting fully against the engine; otherwise, this can cause vibration and lead to damage to the clutch disc lining and torsion springs.

A Simple Clutch Chatter Test

  • Park in an area with no traffic and no people around the vehicle.
  • Engage the emergency brake.
  • Start the engine.
  • Fully depress the clutch pedal.
  • Race the engine to about 2000 rpm.
  • Slowly release the clutch pedal.

You should feel the clutch pedal vibrate as the clutch starts to engage the flywheel (engine). If you don't, the clutch disc is not the source of the vibration.

2. My Clutch Pedal Pulsates

A clutch pedal may pulsate because a rotating part is wobbling or vibrating inside the transmission.

The pulsation may be caused by a warped flywheel, or by a release lever that needs adjustment or is damaged.

NOTE: If the pulsation or vibration started after servicing the transmission (the transmission was dropped or just separated from the engine for inspection), it is possible the transmission housing is improperly aligned with the engine.

Clutch release bearing and input shaft.
Clutch release bearing and input shaft. | Source

3. My Clutch Pedal is Hard to Push

A clutch pedal that's hard to push or "stiff" may point to problems with the release mechanism (or the hydraulic system, on modern vehicles). Release mechanism components to check include the cable, linkage, clutch fork, pressure plate, and throw-out bearing.

Check for a part that is in need of lubrication or worn out. Consult your vehicle repair manual for the maintenance service the system needs.

4. My Clutch Pedal Stays on the Floor

Just like a stiff pedal, a clutch pedal that stays on the floor can point to problems with the linkage or release bearing. Either component may bind.

Check that the springs in the linkage are not over-stretched. You may need to adjust the linkage. Also, check that the pedal stop is in place, and, if necessary, inspect the release bearing.

5. My Clutch Pedal Feels Loose

If your clutch pedal feels loose:

  • Check the release bearing or fork for damage.
  • Check for a failure of the pressure-plate diaphragm spring.

If you have a hydraulic release mechanism, check for:

  • Low fluid in the reservoir
  • Leaking hose or pipe
  • Leaking connection
  • Master cylinder, center valve seal fault
  • Master cylinder, piston primary seal leak

Consult your vehicle repair manual.

6. My Clutch Pedal Feels Spongy

A spongy clutch pedal (where the resistance fades as you press down on the pedal) usually shows up in a clutch system with a hydraulic release mechanism. Check the hydraulic system for air.

Many Different Sources of Clutch Problems

To sum up, bad clutch problems can be as varied as the parts in the clutch assembly. Problems may come from small components like bushings, pilot bearings, springs, screws, dowels; large parts like the clutch disc, flywheel, pressure plate, or release bearing; or even problems in the drive train or chassis. The symptoms outlined here just touch on the most common problems and some potential sources. Still, this list represents a good start in your diagnostic procedure when facing problems with your clutch.

Questions & Answers

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    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      3 weeks ago

      Hi RB,

      It's possible the clutch is worn (won't engage), but make sure there's enough fluid in the hydraulic system and no air- check the clutch master cylinder.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Rio Beyond 

      3 weeks ago

      Please, why can I shift gears but can't accelerate. Ford freestyle 2007 acceleration doesn't work even when I shift to drive (D), It only raise like its on neutral even when it on drive or reverse.

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      4 weeks ago

      Hi PH,

      first, Did you check there's enough fluid in the transmission - and make sure the fluid is not contaminated.

      I would think there're some binding problems with the shift forks or selector plates, or even a bad pilot bearing as you mentioned. But you seem to have the problem only moving from a dead stop. So there could be drag from pilot bearing.

      Sorry, can't help you much here.

    • profile image

      PH 

      4 weeks ago

      Hello,

      I often have a very hard time putting it into gear from a dead stop (any gear R through 6) right from clutch in.

      --If i clutch in and quickly try to engage a gear, the car will roll a little as transmission inertia is taken away by the synchro locking up. However, it won't enter the gate.

      --With the clutch in, if I hold the shifter at the gate lightly for several moments, the gear will eventually engage as everything stops spinning. Racing the engine to 3k RPM appears to help somewhat, but results are inconsistent.

      --Alternatively, if leave the clutch in until everything stops spinning (5-10 sec), the gear will engage. However, at stop lights and traffic, this can be problematic.

      --Also after coming to a stop with the clutch in and a gear still in gate, it can be hard to shift out of the gear into neutral.

      I don't have apparent grinding or shifting issues while the car is in motion or when the wheels are free to spin.

      I have ruled out clutch drag due to pressure plate. I put the car in both first and reverse with the clutch fully depressed. I revved the engine out to near redline on a level surface (my garage), and the car did not budge.

      I put the car on jack stands for a more sensitive clutch drag test:

      --With the parking brake on and clutch in, the gear was hard to gate (as before). I also noticed that the engine speed was responding and dropping slightly despite the clutch being in

      --With the parking brake off and clutch in, the gear engaged smoothly. At first the wheels only spun a few revolutions, but quickly came to a stop.

      ----However, I also began to notice intermittently that the wheel would continue spinning while in gear with the clutch in at idle engine speed. This did not occur on every engagement, but occurred often enough not to be a coincidence.Also, wheel spin would occur at the same rate/sensitivity regardless of how far past the friction point the clutch was pushed in. In other words, the drag appeared to be consistent across the dead throw depth.

      ----Nuance with this incidence: when racing the engine, wheel speed did not increase appreciably or would decrease momentarily until RPMs returned to idle. Sometimes, the wheels eventually come to a stop spinning after racing the engine. This might explain why primary clutch drag tests turned out negative.

      Based on these conclusions, I might be observing some drag due to the release and/or pilot bearing?

      Thanks!

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      4 weeks ago

      Hi Danny,

      Hopefully you just did some wear-and-tear on the clutch. Those gear are not exactly built for this kind of job. And, it was only for 5 seconds. So probably there was no further damage.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Danny 

      4 weeks ago

      Hi,

      I tried to tow from a ditch a heavier car for about 5 seconds with my 1996 Volkswagen Transporter and I noticed a burnt smell from the clutch. Did I broke my clutch, or made some wear-and-tear on it or what happened? Is it something I should be concerned now? Thank you in advance for the answer.

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      5 weeks ago

      Hi Elias,

      There could be several possibilities here, and perhaps more than one issue.

      The following suggestions assume the transmission hasn't been abused:

      I would start checking the simple things first. You'll need the repair manual for your particular model, if you want to do some of these checks yourself:

      Make sure you have the correct pedal travel, if out of adjustment, this can make it hard to shift (disengage). And just to make sure, check that the shift cover is not loose.

      Make sure the transmission has enough lubrication and not contaminated -- check for possible leaks, if necessary.

      Check the shift linkage (adjustment, lubrication, damage?).

      If there's a particular problem (grinding noise) working the reverse, I'd suspect a sticking input shaft clutch pilot bearing.

      Hope this helps, good luck

    • profile image

      Elias 

      5 weeks ago

      Hi

      The clutch pedal has been hard since i bought the car 6 months ago. Recently I noticed the clutch pedal began to make noises (pretty sure it is from the pedal) and it became harder to shift into gears when the gearbox/engine heated up (assuming it's when they heated up, because it was after driving for a while).

      When shifting into reverse the gearbox did a cringy grinding noise and that has become worse. Sometimes driving normally makes the gears grind a bit aswell (not as bad as the reverse gear).

      Something that can work sometimes (after driving for a while) is, when i come to a dead stop, I put the car in neutral and pump the clutch pedal a few times. Afterwards I can easily slide it in first and then as easily slide it into reverse.

      I'm pretty sure the clutch does not disengage when pushing the clutch pedal. Even when starting the engine with the pedal depressed, the car starts moving forwards/backwards depending on which gear I start it in (meaning the engine is connected to the wheels).

      The clutch itself does not slip whatsoever. I've done the test where you put the car into 2nd and lift the clutch with the handbrake on. The RPMs drop, or the car moves forward a few inches. In gear the car is revvy and happy, without any slips, even at 7000 rpm in 5th/6th gear.

      What may be the cause of my problems? I've taken it to a mechanic (which I previously know is not the best mechanic), who said I should just change the whole clutch. I told him I thought the issues lied in the hydraulics, either air, fluids or hardware being the issues. He neglected the fact that air could enter a hydraulic system so I just left.

      The car is a FWD, 2005 Honda Accord (euro-spec) with about 87k miles on it.

      Sorry for the long text, but I wanted to make sure I get all the information needed in the question.

      Thank you!

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      2 months ago

      Hi Carl

      This usually points to a throw-out bearing that's starting to wear down. A worn pilot bearing can also make this noise as the pedal is being depressed, but is not as usual. This is most noticeable in 4WDs.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Carl 

      2 months ago

      When I put my foot slightly on the clutch I makes a little noise but goes when I put it fully down. I can drive car normal and don't loose power what sort of issue is this.

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      2 months ago

      Hi RW

      It seems the clutch is slipping - a common test:

      - set the parking brakes, step on the clutch

      - increase engine speed to 2000,

      - slowly let go of the clutch until it engages,

      The engine should stall - if it doesn't, make sure there's no oil leaking into the clutch assembly -

      Or there could be problems with the clutch linkage binding, borken parts) or clutch assembly components.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      RaY Williams 

      2 months ago

      My 95 Accord Lx, Manual trans.,goes n any gear, with or without clutch, but won't go, nor does it cut off when I release clutch

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      3 months ago

      Hi Geoff

      Another common test: while driving in third, shift into second. You should notice the engine speed going up; otherwise is a sign of a worn clutch -

      A variation of this is to drive in fourth, and without letting your foot off the accelerator, depress the clutch pedal all the way in and then release the pedal. You should notice a change in engine speed (decrease); otherwise, the clutch is worn and not engaging correctly.

      Hope this helps.

    • profile image

      Geoff 

      3 months ago

      My 2012 Chevy Cruze 1.4t in 3rd and 4th under hard acceleration up a slight hill seems to start to loose power as the rpm goes higher rather then pull like I’m used to. I tried driving at 40 in 6th, seeing if it stalled in the drive way and also hard acceleration everywhere else. None of those tests show signs of a bad clutch. I can’t seem to mimic the issue that happened twice to me. I don’t really smell anything besides the brakes when stopped and I open the hood. No noises or anything. 74k miles and almost double the stock power on original clutch, I know it’s going to go bad just don’t know when. Any other tests I can try?

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      4 months ago

      Hi Divine

      Check the clutch linkage adjustment and also make sure you are using the correct oil for your application.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Divine 

      4 months ago

      Hi there

      I just changed my Peugeot 207 clutch since it was burnt. Now the one I just installed has problems with getting into gears, especially gear 1. It's very hard I need to force it. What might be the problem

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      5 months ago

      Hi BMC,

      It certainly was a factor. Improper hydraulic pressure is like not putting enough lubricant. One think lead to another.

      Good luck.

    • profile image

      Bri Mi Coyle 

      5 months ago

      9 months ago replaced engine on Scion Xb. Transmission components also replaced. When reinstalled, hydraulic line bushing was not screwed properly - only 1 of 3 screws used. After 6 months, had trouble shifting in low gears. Discovered bushing problem. Part of unit that holds bushing was broken, so I could put in only 1 more screw. I assume vibration from improper install of bushing caused break. After clutch worked for 3 more months. 2 weeks ago I had trouble w/2nd gear slipping. Then 2 days ago hydraulic line failed and clutch PP overheated, dead.

      My question: did improper line install lead to failure?

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      5 months ago

      Hi JT,

      Getting rid of air bubbles in the system can take some effort; make sure there's enough fluid in the system. You may need to bleed it a couple more times.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Jeremy Twofeather 

      5 months ago

      I just changed the clutch master cylinder a few days ago and my clutch worked fine now it feels spongy and I'm having a hard time shifting. I bleed the clutch it didn't help and when I drive a little while it feels fine any idea what it could be

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      6 months ago

      Hi DO,

      Hopefully it's just a fluid level issue. Otherwise, it seems there could be a problem with a solenoid or a similar electronic device. Old electronic components tent to becomes more sensitive to heat and begin to fail. Once they cool they begin working again. You may need to have a shop do a diagnostic before start replacing components.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Daniel O 

      6 months ago

      My car works just fine when the engine is still cold but after around 15 minutes my car won't go into gear. What might be the problem?

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      6 months ago

      Hi Thando,

      make sure there's enough oil - do you need to change the oil? - check the service schedule. Usually, hard shfiting problems point to internal components, hub sleeve, gears, synchronizer.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Thando 

      6 months ago

      Hi....I''m driving Golf 4 Gti, my car is struggling to select gears and the pedal is flat down and there's no smell of failing clutch or slipping.......what might be the problem.

      Thanks

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      6 months ago

      Hi Paula,

      Have you checked the clutch pedal. Check the hydraulic system as well.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Paula 

      6 months ago

      Hi have got a focus st on a 56 plate clutch pedal started feeling funny then couldnt go down the gears when engine was turned of went through gears fine mananged to get home next morning went out to car in the drivers foot well found a yellow looking plastic casing and spring any body ideas

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      7 months ago

      Hi Gary,

      Hard to tell without some diagnostic but one possibility is the shift mechanism.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Gary 

      7 months ago

      Have a Honda Element with 127,000 miles. Not sure of previous maintenance but hearing a click when driving and pushing in the clutch, both accelerating and braking. Seems to be getting more prevalent. Any ideas?

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      8 months ago

      HI Faried

      Probably the clutch isn't engaging or disengaging properly. Maybe the fork came out of its seating position against the throwout bearing. Make sure the master cylinder is working fine first, though.

    • profile image

      Faried 

      8 months ago

      I've replaced my clutch about two weeks ago,yesterday I was still driving,the car just didn't have any gears,its a Toyota conquest 1993,clutch and all feels fine,any help please guys

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      8 months ago

      Hi Lebo,

      There could be several reasons for the noise, assuming it is rattling there could be a loose part, usually a pulley in an accessory or belt, or a cover like a heat sheild. But you may be dealing with a broken motor mount.

      Hard to tell if this is linked to the reverse problem, but this would have to be diagnosed in a shop, you may have a problem with a band, or solenoid actuator in the transmission.

      Good luck.

    • profile image

      Lebogang 

      8 months ago

      good day i am driving a 1 series BMW 2008 model.

      my car has a noise when is in neutral and when reversing it struggles to go back.

      what could be my problem

    • Dan Ferrell profile imageAUTHOR

      Dan Ferrell 

      10 months ago

      Hi SN,

      If your car has an hydraulic system, you may need to replace the fluid or bleed it. Othewise, the pedal mechanism for wear. You may need to separate the transmission from the engine for inspection.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Steven Ntibane 

      10 months ago

      Good day ,Clutch sleeps on the floor now and then and as well the car rev counts when i engage the clutch.

      What could be the problem?

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