How to Tell if You Need a New Clutch for Your Car

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 4 months ago

5 min read

  • Advice
  • buyingguide

WhoCanFixMyCar discusses the key warning signs to look out for that you may need a new clutch on your car

With the prospect of a repair bill hanging over your shoulders, it’s easy to ignore the signals that something is going wrong with your car. Whether it’s turning the stereo up a little louder to drown out an unusual noise or changing how you drive to compensate for something that isn’t working as it should, we’ve all done it.  

That said, there are some signs you shouldn’t ignore. Since you’re reading this, you probably already know how crucial it is to catch the symptoms of clutch failure early so you can prevent further damage.

This guide will help you feel confident investigating clutch-related issues with your car. And to put your mind at ease, we’ve also included answers to some common questions. 

How do you know if your clutch is going?

There are, of course, red flags to keep an eye out for, some of which will worsen as the clutch deteriorates.

Clutch Slipping 

Clutch slipping happens when the disc connected to the flywheel doesn’t catch as effectively as it should, so the clutch fails to engage or disengage the transmission properly. 

I know what you’re thinking - that’s a lot of jargon, but it doesn’t tell you what clutch slipping feels and looks like from a driver’s perspective. So, what should you look out for?

  • Higher than usual RPMs when you accelerate

  • Unpredictable handling

Usually, these symptoms happen after you change gear as you release the clutch pedal.

Squeaking or grumbling

The language of cars is simple: unusual squeaking and grumbling noises are almost always bad news. 

However, these sounds could be caused by various things, some of which may be easy and affordable to fix. Suppose your car’s clutch is the cause. In that case, these noises will usually happen when you push the clutch pedal and will likely be accompanied by other symptoms in this list.

Poor acceleration

Have you noticed your car is sluggish when you try to accelerate? Combined with high engine revs, this is a common symptom that your clutch is struggling to perform as it should. 

Burning smell

The friction when your clutch starts failing causes a distinct burning smell

Spongy, vibrating or sticking clutch pedal

The chances are you drive your car every day. You know all its quirks, so you can also tell when something isn’t right, even if the signs are subtle. Any changes in how your clutch pedal feels could indicate that the clutch will soon need replacing.

So, what exactly does a “spongy” pedal feel like? When you push your pedal down, you’ll generally feel some resistance - this is normal. But if it starts to feel softer and offers less resistance, it usually means there’s a problem.

First thing's first, check your clutch fluid level. Low fluid should be topped up immediately; this may solve the spongy feeling of the pedal. However, if the liquid isn’t low or the symptoms persist, your car’s clutch is probably worn. 

Looking at the clutch pedal and whether it’s working as normal can help answer the common question, “How do I know if my clutch cable has gone?” If the pedal sinks straight to the floor with no resistance, the cable has probably snapped.

Difficulty changing gear

Difficulty changing gear often indicates gearbox, rather than clutch, problems. Still, it can become difficult to shift gears when your clutch is going, and you’ll often notice that the vehicle doesn’t engage smoothly either. 

Top Tip - One of the most effective ways to work out whether your clutch or gearbox is to blame is to switch the engine off and attempt to change gears. If you can do this successfully, it indicates a clutch problem. 

If you notice one or more of these symptoms, you should book your car in at a local garage.

What happens when your clutch goes out while driving?

There are many stages leading up to a clutch's total failure. When symptoms start (such as the ones listed above), they are often subtle and will worsen over time. Most people stop driving and seek a replacement long before the clutch completely goes, which is the right thing to do. But what happens when it finally gives up the ghost? 

Your clutch connects the transmission and the engine. When it breaks, so does this connection, which leaves you unable to control your vehicle correctly. Not only is this dangerous, but if you continue driving, it could also cause further damage to components such as the starter motor and gearbox.

As such, if your clutch fails while you’re driving, you should follow these steps:

  • Stop as soon as you can, ideally in a safe place. 

  • Switch on your hazard lights and turn off the engine.

  • Call for help. Unless you are in a safe place off the road, you should try to exit your vehicle because it poses a collision risk. If you can’t get out safely, stay inside with your seatbelt on and call 999. 

Check out this guide for more advice about what to do if you break down.

Why could it be dangerous to keep the clutch down?

It can be tempting to keep your foot down on the clutch pedal as you cruise up to a junction or a set of traffic lights that are on red. It’s certainly easier than shifting down through the gears until you come to a complete stop, but there’s a good reason to avoid keeping the clutch down.

Driving can be dangerous - we all know that. You’re in control of a fast-moving, solid, heavy vehicle that could do real damage in a collision. Keeping the clutch down - known as coasting - takes away some of that control. 

Coasting means no engine braking can occur, and if you’re going downhill, the car will pick up speed. Since your braking and steering control is reduced, this poses a risk to you and other drivers because you cannot respond quickly to oncoming hazards.

Although coasting doesn’t affect the internal mechanics of your car, it does place a significant amount of stress on the throw-out bearing, which is responsible for disengaging the engine when the clutch pedal is pressed. 

If you coast regularly, your throw-out bearing will wear down faster, and replacing it requires the whole clutch to be dismantled, which is a time-consuming and costly job. The symptoms of a bad throw-out bearing are very similar to those of a worn clutch.

Can you drive with a burnt clutch, and how long does a burnt clutch smell last?

We first need to establish what exactly it means to have a “burnt clutch”. Usually, this phrase refers to a clutch worn out due to the clutch disc experiencing excessive friction, often resulting in high temperatures and a distinct burning smell

As long as you can change gears, technically, it’s still possible to drive with a burnt clutch. However, whether you should is a completely different matter. The safest option is to take your car to a garage to be repaired immediately; driving with a faulty clutch will only cause more damage in the long run.

How long a burnt clutch smell lasts depends on a few factors. In the event of a one-off occurrence - during a poorly executed hill start, for example - the smell should go away within minutes. 

On the other hand, if the odour is caused by a faulty clutch, you may notice it every time you drive until you get it replaced. The more worn your clutch is, the more persistent the smell will be.

Why won’t my clutch pedal come back up?

A few things could be causing this, so let’s review them individually.

1. Failed clutch master cylinder

The clutch pedal is connected to the master cylinder, a hydraulic pump that transfers the movement of the pedal to the slave cylinder. When it breaks, the first symptom you’ll notice is that the pedal goes down but doesn’t return to its original position, and you can’t change gear.

Compare quotes for a clutch master cylinder replacement.

2. Failed clutch slave cylinder

The slave cylinder works with the master cylinder to move pressure plates, disengaging the clutch from the engine. When it breaks, the pedal may get stuck or feel soft. 

Compare quotes for a clutch slave cylinder replacement.

3. Fluid leak

There are a lot of clutch components that work hydraulically and therefore require fluid. The hoses that supply this fluid become worn over time, as do the seals, and may eventually start to leak. Low fluid could prevent the clutch pedal from working as it should.

Top tip: refill your clutch fluid if it is low and see whether you can spot any leaks. This guide offers advice about the process of clutch bleeding and refilling. Another sign of a leak could be that the fluid goes down quickly after it has been topped up. 

4. Failed clutch

The final possibility is that your clutch has gone completely. In this case, you’ll need to book a clutch replacement.

How to fix a worn clutch yourself

This section covers how you could potentially  fix various clutch-related issues yourself.

How to fix a clicking clutch pedal

An unusual clicking or squeaking sound when you press the clutch pedal is often caused by a lack of lubrication in the master cylinder or the rod connecting it to the pedal. In this case, your clutch fluid needs topping up. 

If you feel confident, you could do this yourself. Low fluid may be caused by a leak or a problem with the slave cylinder, in which case a repair is required to prevent the same thing from happening again. 

How to fix clutch shudder

Sometimes, your clutch may shudder when you first start the engine and pull away in cold weather due to the temperature or moisture on the friction surface of the disc; this is nothing to worry about.

However, if your clutch often shudders when pulling away and changing gears, it’s certainly not something you should ignore. The most common cause is worn-out components - especially if your vehicle has loads of miles on the clock. 

The clutch discs and pressure plate may be worn, or the flywheel bolt could be loose. 

These steps may help to fix the problem:

  • Check the clutch fluid level, topping up as needed.

  • Bleed the system to eliminate any air bubbles.

  • Inspect the clutch components for wear.

If you don’t feel confident doing these things yourself, it’s always best to consult a mechanic who can diagnose and repair the problem safely and efficiently.

How to fix a soft clutch pedal

First thing's first, check your clutch fluid level. When it’s low, one of the most common symptoms is a spongy clutch pedal. Top up as necessary if you have the skills to do so; otherwise, this is a job a mechanic should be able to do pretty quickly. Either way, you should check for any leaks or signs of wear. 

A soft clutch pedal could also indicate that your clutch is worn and needs replacing. However, it is almost always accompanied by other symptoms. Consult a mechanic for advice.

Replacing your clutch

After reading this guide, you should have a better idea of whether your clutch needs replacing. If you think it does, you’re in the ideal place to find an affordable, trustworthy mechanic. WhoCanFixMyCar knows thousands of them!

Replacing your clutch doesn’t have to cost the earth. Our garage network is here to help you find the repairs you need at a price you can afford.

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