Stuck Shifter

Cables snake from the shifter to the transmission in most front-drive cars, as mechanical links would be too complex.
Illustration by Martin Laksman
Date:18 February 2013 Tags:, , ,

Q I have a 1997 VW Passat with a 1,8-litre four-cylinder engine and a fivespeed manual gearbox. It works just fine most of the year, but as the temperatures drop in winter, it gets really hard to shift into first and second. When the car warms up, it gets better. I love my car and am hoping this doesn’t mean bad news is on the horizon.

A Let me quell your fears: this problem is not the end of the world… probably. Your Passat could have a couple of things going on, though. The gearshift in your car is not rigidly connected to the transmission. Like most front-wheel-drive cars, it uses push-pull cables to snake around to the front of the car and control the transverse-mounted transmission. A tube around the two cables protects them from binding and allows each to be cleanly clamped to the body of the car.

At the factory, the cables and shift mechanism are lubricated, but over time that lubricant breaks down or can become contaminated and will actually make shifting a bit more diffi cult. This effect is amplifi ed in cold weather, when the viscosity of the lubricant goes way up, making things stickier.

The cheap but labour-intensive fix is to take apart the centre console and extract the cables, hang them up on a wall and spray some penetrating fluid down the insides, followed by a shot of brake cleaner and then white lithium grease. Clean and lubricate the shift mechanism in a similar manner. The easier but more expensive alternative would be to buy and install shift cables and clean just the shifter.

There are two other possible root causes of sticky shifting, and I’ll list them in order of escalating expense. On one hand, the transmission fluid could be breaking down, especially if you’re driving the car hard and have never changed the fluid. Alternatively, your synchronisers may be getting worn.
These are responsible for aligning the gears to the shafts and making the shifting process smoother.

Worn synchros in cold weather make shifting trickier. If this is the case, you’ll find shifting gets more and more difficult over time, even in warm months. You could live with it, spend a lot of cash on a transmission rebuild, or put money towards a new car.

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