Symptoms of a Clutch Going Bad 

The clutch is arguably one of the most hardworking parts of your vehicle when you drive a car with a manual transmission. Unsurprisingly, it has multiple parts that wear with use. Symptoms of a bad clutch come in different forms ranging from odd sounds to mechanical problems and poor performance.  

If you catch these issues on time, you will likely avoid major car repairs. And that’s important since a replacement clutch can cost more than $1,000 with parts and labor included.  

You should not ignore the signs, even if they are just a minor nuisance. Here’s what you need to know. 

How does a Clutch Work? 

Have you ever wondered what a clutch is and how it works? Simply put, the clutch is a mechanical device that transmits the rotating engine power to the wheels of a vehicle. It also allows transmission interruption when changing gears.  

The clutch consists of 3 primary components: the Clutch Disc, the pressure plate, and the flywheel. There are also several secondary components : the Throw-out Bearing, and on most modern cars, the Clutch Master and Slave cylinder. An automatic vehicle also has multiple clutch packs inside the transmission that are known as “wet clutches”. These are different than a clutch used in a manual transmission vehicle and should not be confused.   

In a manual transmission, the clutch engages when your vehicle is moving and your foot is not on the clutch pedal. In this state, a set of springs on the pressure plate keeps it pressed firmly against the flywheel, with the clutch disc sandwiched between them. As a result, engine power is transmitted from rotating flywheel into the transmissions input shaft and on to the wheels.  

When you press down on the pedal, you disengage the clutch. In most modern cars, this activates a hydraulic system, similar to your brakes, which disengages the clutch, releasing the springs on the pressure plate and allowing the clutch disc to free-spin with the help of the throw-out bearing, between the flywheel and the pressure plate. Consequently, the connection between the transmission and the rotating engine is severed. At this point, the wheels do not have the engine’s power and only spin under their own momentum. At the moment this happens, your transmission has what is known as Synchronizers or “Synchros”, which line up the next gear perfectly for you to be able to easily change gears, and then release the clutch.  

Signs your Clutch is Failing 

The clutch is a vital part of a manual transmission and in the hands of an experienced driver, will last well past 120K miles. If it’s damaged or severely worn, you’ll experience difficulties which could ultimately lead to transmission issues or issues where you are not able to accelerate – ultimately known as “clutch slippage”. Fortunately, there are multiple signs to inform you when something is wrong with your clutch. 

1. Grinding Noise

When you hear horrible grinding noise when changing the gears, it usually means one of two issues. First, often a failure in the hydraulic system, either the Clutch Master Cylinder or Slave cylinder will cause the clutch to not fully disengage, causing grinding between gears. Second, this failure, or poor shifting technique can cause the synchronizers to become damaged, which will cause grinding to happen between gears, usually a specific gear. If you hear a grinding or whirring noise when you press the clutch in, even at a stop, this is a sign that the Clutch Throw-out Bearing is failing.

2. Spongy or Soft Clutch

As you continue using your clutch, its feel gradually changes. A replacement is due if you feel that the clutch is disengaging very high in the pedal travel, or suddenly feels very soft or much easier to depress.

3. Stuck Clutch Pedal

If your clutch pedal is stuck to the floor, you need to get your vehicle inspect, repair, or get it to a shop immediately. Many times, the Slave Cylinder or Master Cylinder is damaged, causing leaking hydraulic fluid and the pedal to go to the floor.

4. Burning Smell

The clutch disc is made up of friction material, very similar to brake shoes or pads. The disc is designed to have some amount of slip in it as the driver slowly enters the “mesh point” in the pedal – the exact spot where the clutch is being disengaged and engaged. As the disc becomes worn and cannot hold the engine torque, it will begin to over-heat from the excess friction and slippage, and burn. This causes a horrible smell and usually someone saying “it smells like burnt clutch!”. Often, beginner manual drivers learning the mesh point for the first time will slip the clutch, causing this too. If you begin to smell it all the time, however, it’s an issue.

5. Clutch Slippage

If your clutch disc has completely worn, it will slip whenever you accelerate. You will notice that your engine is revving, but the road speed remains low. This means your clutch is slipping and not properly transmitting the power through to the transmission and the wheels. As it slips, it will often over-heat and smell badly. At this point, you must replace the clutch.

6. Trouble shifting gears

The clutch releases and the Synchros in the transmission line up, you should be able to seamlessly switch. Any resistance in shifting gears could be a problem with the clutch disengaging, but could also be a problem directly in the transmission with the Synchros, or the shift rods / forks.

7. Stiff Clutch Pedal

A stiff pedal is a sign that there is an issue with the clutch pressure plate or the hydraulic system. In this case, you will need to perform an inspection to understand the extent of the damage and identify the best way forward.

Average Cost to Replace a Clutch 

Replacing your clutch can cost anywhere between $500 to $2,500. The actual costs depend on the make and model of your vehicle and whether or not you perform the work yourself or not. 

Most clutch jobs will take between 3-12 hours, depending on the vehicle. All will require the removal of the transmission in order to access the clutch, which is the bulk of the work and labor. Keep in mind, that any time you’re replacing a clutch, you want to do the complete job. This includes replacing not only the Clutch Disc and Pressure Plate, but also the Throw-out Bearing, and have the Flywheel properly resurfaced at a machine shop – or simply replace it. All of these parts are readily available at AutoZone. Also, be sure to inspect the Master and Slave Cylinder as well.  

If you determine that the job is too big, you can always choose one of our Preferred Shops in your area to help you inspect or replace your clutch.  

How to Make a Clutch Last Longer 

Clutch replacement can be costly. However, adopting good driving habits can extend your clutch life expectancy. We have identified several tips to reduce wear and tear and make your clutch last longer. 

  • Avoid riding your clutch. Whenever you are pressing the accelerator, keep your foot off the clutch pedal. 
  • Always put your car in neutral once at a stoplight or stop, and release the clutch. Avoid holding the clutch down in 1st gear anticipating take-off.  
  • When you’re stopped on a hill (a manual driver’s worst nightmare), use your handbrake to hold the vehicle while you easily find the clutch mesh-point. This will avoid you rolling backwards and save wear on your clutch.  
  • Avoid using your clutch as a footrest. 

If the job is too big for you, seek out one of our Preferred Shops to help you do the job.

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