Why Your Car Won’t Go In Reverse

It goes without saying that reverse is a very important gear in any car. You might spend a very small amount of time driving in reverse, but your vehicle would be nearly undrivable if you didn’t have a reverse gear. You wouldn’t be able to back out of parking spots, parallel park, three-point turn, or do so many other basic driving actions. It wouldn’t be worth driving.

Thankfully, you rarely have to worry about that. All cars come with a reverse gear, and it’s pretty rare for that gear to stop working. However, there are occasional times where a car will refuse to go into reverse. This can happen whether you have an automatic transmission or a manual transmission. Despite it being rare, there are many different things that can cause a car to refuse reverse gear. And when it happens, it could be a minor issue or a complete transmission rebuild or replacement that costs $1,500 or more.

Here are the most common reasons reverse could stop working.

Low Transmission Fluid

hand adding transmission fluid to their car

Just as your engine relies on oil to keep things running smoothly, your transmission relies on fluid. Transmission fluid serves to lubricate the transmission, so that the various parts of the system can move without causing damage. In an automatic transmission, the transmission fluid also serves as a coolant to keep it from overheating.

If your fluid is running low, you’ll experience transmission issues. One such issue can be an inability to shift into reverse, as there may not be enough lubricant to act as hydraulic fluid, necessary to get the gear into place. However, it will likely have that issue with all gears, so if your car goes into other gears fine, this probably isn’t the issue.

Fixing a car with low transmission fluid is easy, as you can simply top off the fluid yourself. However, the transmission is a closed system, so it shouldn’t be leaking fluid. If you’re low on transmission fluid then you should keep your eye out for leaks and larger issues.

Contaminated Transmission Fluid 

Over time, transmission fluid can pick up small contaminants from the system. As the quality of the transmission fluid degrades, damage can be caused to the transmission. If the fluid is badly contaminated, it might stop serving its lubricating purpose, and keep the car from shifting into your reverse gear. Just as with insufficient amounts of transmission fluid, this issue will mostly apply to all gears, not just reverse.

Changing your car’s transmission fluid is the same as changing your oil. Unscrew the transmission fluid drain plug, empty the fluid into a pan, screw the plug back in, and add clean fluid. If you have a mechanic perform this service, it will usually cost between $100 and $200. 

Broken Reverse Gear

It might sound too simple to be true, but it isn’t. Whether you have an automatic or a manual transmission, your reverse gear can simply break. This is pretty rare, and it can happen from simple wear and tear, or from repeated stripping of the gear if you have a stick shift. If the reverse gear is broken or stripped, you may not be able to put your car in reverse, though you’ll still be able to drive forward.

It will usually cost you upwards of $1,000 to have reverse gear replaced by a mechanic. If you choose to do the service by yourself, first drain the transmission fluid, then remove the vehicle’s transmission. Disassemble it, then install a new reverse gear, and replace everything in reverse order. It’s worth your peace of mind to change any other parts that look the least bit worn at the same time.

Malfunctioning Lockout Ring

Automatic transmissions don’t have lockout rings, so this is just for cars that have manual transmissions. The lockout ring is what makes it so you can’t accidentally shift into reverse when the car is moving forward, which would be catastrophic. If your vehicle’s lockout ring is faulty, it might block you from being able to shift into reverse, even when the car isn’t moving.

This is an affordable fix that will usually run you between $100 and $300. To replace it on your own, simply put your car in reverse, take off the shifter head, remove the old lockout ring, replace it with a new one, and put the shifter head back on. 

Faulty Shift Mechanisms 

The shift mechanisms for automatics and manuals are a little bit different, but they can each have the same issue. Damaged or stretched out shift cables, as well as shift linkages that are misadjusted can keep your vehicle from being able to access its reverse gear. 

Adjusting the linkage is as simple as tightening the nuts behind the transmission cable bracket while the car is in neutral, and then having a helper shift into reverse. Repeat the process until the cables are tight enough, but don’t over tighten them. This repair will usually cost between $300 and $500 at a mechanic. 

Malfunctioning Position Sensor

Automatic transmissions rely on the car’s engine control unit (ECU) to shift gears. The ECU is the car’s computer, and when you move the gear shift into reverse, a sensor tells the ECU to engage the reverse gear. This sensor can fail, which will keep the ECU from shifting the car into reverse. With a failed sensor you might not be able to put the shifter into the reverse position, and it certainly won’t actually engage reverse. 

It’s best to let the professionals handle electrical repairs, unless you’re very comfortable with working on electrical components in a car. Most mechanics will charge between $300 and $500 to replace a transmission position sensor. 

Hopefully your car never locks you out of reverse gear, but it’s a fixable problem if it happens. If you decide you want to repair your transmission issue at home, you can purchase all the parts and tools that you need, from all the top brands at AutoZone. If you decide that it’s too big a job to tackle on your own, let AutoZone help you find qualified professional mechanics through our Shop Referral Program

FAQ/People Also Ask

car won’t reverse but will go forward

It could be as simple as a shift cable adjustment, or it could be a problem with hard components inside the transmission that need to be replaced.

how to fix a car that won’t go in reverse

There isn’t a single fix for reverse not working, unfortunately. It could be a small repair like topping up the transmission fluid, or you could need a complete rebuild.

car won’t go into reverse manual

Typically, manual transmissions that won’t engage in reverse have an issue with a damaged gear or the shift lockout ring. 

why won’t my car move when I put it in drive or reverse?

Being unable to engage any drive gear could be due to leaking fluid, broken parts, or a problem with a shift cable. It needs to be diagnosed fully before a repair is determined.

how much to fix a car that doesn’t reverse?

Repairs can range from less than $20 for transmission fluid to more than $2,500 for a new transmission, and labor costs can increase it. A thorough diagnosis is required to determine an accurate cost estimate.

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Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

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