My Car Won’t Go in Reverse: Possible Causes and Repairs

My Car Won’t Go in Reverse: Possible Causes and Repairs

Being able to back up in your car is one of those things that you likely take for granted, like having headlights or being able to turn left. But what do you do if you put your car in “R,” hit the gas…and nothing happens?

Having a car that won’t go in reverse isn’t common, but it does happen. Once you identify the problem, you’re well on the way to solving it — or you could just never pull into your garage again. It’s up to you.

8 Reasons Why Your Car Won’t Go in Reverse

8 Reasons Why Your Car Won’t Go in Reverse

If your car won’t back up, there are a few likely culprits that you should investigate first — and almost all of them have to do with your transmission in some form.

1. Low Transmission Fluid

This is the simplest (and cheapest) problem to fix, so keep your fingers crossed before you check your fluid levels.

Transmission fluid lubricates the gears inside your transmission, but it also helps provide hydraulic pressure and friction. If there’s not enough fluid inside the transmission, all sorts of problems can happen as a result.

One is that the gears will start slipping. In that case, it may take several attempts before you can get the transmission to “catch,” at which point you will be able to back up successfully.

Transmission fluid also keeps the gears from overheating. If there’s not enough fluid in the transmission, the gears can get hot and warped, making it harder and harder to put the vehicle in reverse over time.

It’s easy to check your fluid levels. There should be a dipstick in your transmission that will show you exactly how much is inside your transmission, so check it first. If the fluid levels are low, you should replace them immediately; you should also check for leaks to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Filling up your transmission fluid is an easy way to solve the problem, but don’t wait to check your levels. Driving your car with low transmission fluid can eventually ruin the transmission — and replacing that can be quite expensive indeed.

2. Dirty Transmission Fluid

Having plenty of fluid in your transmission won’t help you much if what’s in there is dirty and gunky. When the liquid becomes full of contaminants, those contaminants can gum up your gears.

Picture the gears inside your transmission. Now picture those same gears, except they’re caked in thick grime. They probably won’t work as well, right?

That can potentially make it difficult to switch into reverse — it’s hard to push past all that filth, after all. If your car will go in reverse, but it’s difficult to physically put the car in the proper gear, this may be the issue.

If you suspect that dirty transmission fluid is the problem, take your car in and have the filter and fluid replaced and the transmission flushed. This will typically cost around $200, which is much cheaper than some of the more involved solutions we’ll get to shortly.

Alternatively, you can buy your own transmission fluid and do it yourself.

3. Faulty Transmission Position Sensor

In modern vehicles, when you shift your car into gear, there’s an electronic sensor that communicates with the powertrain control module. This sensor essentially tells your transmission what gear to put the car in.

Like any other part, this sensor can go out after a while. When this happens, the car won’t shift into reverse — because the transmission simply never got the message.

If this is the problem, though, you should have difficulty shifting into most gears, not just reverse. Many times when the transmission position sensor goes out, the car will go into “limp mode.” This is your car’s self-preservation feature; it basically means your car recognizes something is wrong, and it’s trying to prevent the issue from becoming a full-blown disaster. If your car’s in limp mode, you likely won’t be able to go above third gear.

Replacing a faulty transmission position sensor will cost somewhere between $200 and $300. That may seem like a lot, but it’s a small price to pay to get your car out of limp mode.

4. Damaged Gear Teeth

If you drive too long with low or dirty transmission fluid, you’ll eventually damage your car — and the gear teeth will be one of the first parts to suffer.

If the teeth that control reverse gear become damaged or broken, your car won’t be able to engage that gear anymore. You’ll have to take your car in and ask them to look at your reverse gear; this can be an expensive repair, often coming in between $500 and $1,000.

This problem is more common with manual transmissions, but it can affect automatics as well. If this is the problem, your car should work perfectly fine in every gear except reverse (unless you have other broken gears, of course).

Besides being unable to back up, having damaged gear teeth will create a click or thunk whenever you try to put your car in reverse.

5. Worn-Out Valve Body

valve body

All automatic transmissions contain something called a “valve body.” This is a labyrinth-like device that ensures hydraulic fluid gets to the valves, enabling your transmission to shift smoothly.

When the valve body starts to go out, you’ll notice a delay when you shift in reverse, as it will take the gears a second to kick in. Once it’s fully shot, nothing will happen when you put your car in reverse and step on the gas.

It’s important to note that a worn-out valve body can potentially cause a whole host of issues, and being unable to back up may or may not be one of them. However, if you’ve noticed a lag between the time you put your car in reverse and the time when it actually engages, this may be a good place to start looking.

6. Faulty Shifter

This is another problem that’s mostly limited to manual transmissions, although it does occasionally affect automatics as well. If it’s extremely difficult to push the gear shift into reverse (or any other gear, for that matter), you may have a broken shifter linkage or damaged bushings.

Your gear shift is connected to the transmission by a cable, or two in the case of a manual transmission. When you move your gear shift, the cable activates the proper gear. As you might expect, if this cable breaks, the gear shift won’t be able to function properly.

If it’s difficult to put the shifter in reverse, or if it feels like something’s actively blocking it, a broken linkage is a possibility. This is a fairly inexpensive repair, as it shouldn’t cost more than $250.

7. Worn-Out Transmission

This is your worst-case scenario right here. Sometimes, there’s not one single thing that’s wrong with your transmission — it’s the whole thing that’s gone bad. If that’s the case, you’ll need to rebuild or replace it — and it’s going to cost you.

It’s unlikely that only your reverse gear will be affected if your entire transmission is bad; rather, every single gear should be difficult to use. You may also notice the following:

  • A burning smell
  • Slipping gears
  • Strange noises
  • Grinding or shaking
  • Leaking fluid
  • Dragging clutch
  • Check engine light (this one should be easy to spot)

Replacing your transmission will likely cost at least $2,000, but it could be considerably more than that, depending on the make and model of your car. It will also take at least a couple of days, so you’ll be without a ride for a little while.

You may be able to save money by rebuilding the transmission instead of replacing it. This involves only replacing the various parts that are damaged, like the seals, gaskets, and clutch. This will still be expensive, as it’s a very labor-intensive process, but you should save a few hundred bucks. Don’t expect it to last as long as a new transmission, though.

If you’re especially handy, you may be able to do the repairs yourself, saving yourself a bundle in the process. You’ll still spend hundreds on the parts, though, not to mention sacrifice a ton of free time.

If you have an older car, this is one of those issues that can force you to evaluate whether it’s worth repairing your vehicle or if you should just replace it with a newer model.

8. Blown Head Gasket

This is one of the few possibilities that doesn’t involve an issue with your transmission — and as a result, it’s a long-shot that it will be the culprit.

Your engine gaskets seal off your cylinders, keeping combustion gases in and coolant or oil out. If you have a blown head gasket, it can cause a variety of problems, including gear failure.

If a blown head gasket is to blame, you’ll notice issues like overheating, coolant levels dropping without noticeable leaks, and white smoke from the exhaust. Replacing it can be pricey, and you should expect to fork over somewhere in the vicinity of $1,500 to get the job done.

Can You Keep Driving Your Car if It Won’t Go in Reverse?

If you’re an intrepid type who thinks they can just avoid putting themselves in a situation where backing up is required, you might be tempted to keep driving your car even after the reverse has gone out. Besides being unsafe, this is bad for your car.

Some problems — like low transmission fluid — are quick and easy to fix, so there’s no need to delay. Others are costlier and more involved, but regardless of the issue, it shouldn’t be ignored. Even small problems can quickly blossom into big ones — and you don’t want your entire transmission to get damaged because you neglected a simple repair.

How to Keep Your Transmission Healthy

car transmission

The transmission is one of the most expensive parts of your car to fix, so it’s in your best interests to keep it in prime working condition. Below you’ll find a few tips for keeping your transmission healthy, so you’ll be able to back up (and even drive forward!) with impunity.

Stay on Top of Regular Maintenance

You should have your transmission fluid changed every 15,000 miles. This is also a good chance for your mechanic to give your transmission a once-over, helping you to discover any small issues before they become big ones.

Get Your Transmission Flushed Regularly

A transmission flush is a good way to keep your transmission working. This will make sure that the fluids are both clean and plentiful, and it’s also a good way to spot leaks before they can cause problems.

Change the Transmission Filter Regularly, Too

Most newer cars don’t have a transmission filter, but an older vehicle might. This needs to be changed regularly as well to keep the fluid clean; how often it needs to be changed will depend on your car. Ask your mechanic how often they think it should be swapped out.

Lay off the Brakes

If you ride the brake when you drive, this forces your transmission to work overtime — and the harder your transmission works, the faster it will get burned out (you can try this line on your boss, too). Also, if you park on an incline, take advantage of your emergency brake; this takes strain off the parking linkage.

Come to a Complete Stop Before Shifting From Reverse to Drive

This only applies once you get your car to start backing up again, of course. Whether they’re in a hurry or just lazy, many people shift from reverse to drive without fully stopping first; this puts a tremendous strain on the transmission.

If you come to a complete stop, though, you can shift gears smoothly without hurting anything in the process.

Don’t Tow Anything

Pulling anything behind your car puts a ton of stress on your transmission. It can create intense heat, especially during the summer, and your gears might overheat.

If you can help it, never tow anything heavy; if your friend’s car breaks down, you can just explain that you’re even better friends with your transmission.

Final Thoughts

car reversing

Having a car that won’t go in reverse might be the type of problem you never thought you’d encounter, but it happens more often than you might think. It’s never good news, but if you’re proactive about investigating the cause, you might be able to get away with minor repairs rather than a complete transmission replacement.

Once you address the underlying issue, you can start backing up as much as you like. Heck, you can even put it in reverse on the freeway if you like, just to show off (this will be much more expensive than replacing a transmission, both in terms of repairs and lawsuits).

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