Why Won’t My Car Go in Reverse? (Solved)

You packed the groceries away in the car, you get in the driver’s seat, and fire up the engine. You put the car in reverse and…nothing happens. What went wrong? Why won’t your car go in reverse? This can be a moment of panic and worry for your vehicle, but don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world or the end of your vehicle’s life. There is plenty that you can do to fix this problem, and even more, you can do to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Quick Answer

The main culprits for a car not going in reverse are the transmission components, faulty sensors, or broken components. The cause of your cars’ reverse issues can depend on if you drive an automatic or manual vehicle. The three main problems (transmission, faulty sensors, or broken components) can be further broken down into specific categories. The main causes for why your car won’t go in reverse are:

  • Low Transmission Fluid
  • Dirty Transmission Filter
  • Faulty Transmission Position Sensor
  • Broken Gear Teeth
  • Worn Out Valve Body
  • Broken Shift Cable

When your car isn’t working at its best, it can be frustrating, not to mention expensive. We’re going to take a closer look at what causes a car not to go in reverse, and what you can do about it.

Why Won’t My Car Go in Reverse? (And What to Do About It)

There are several reasons why a car might refuse to go in reverse. By the end of this article you can narrow down the culprit and even have an idea of what to do to fix the problem.

What Happens When You Put Your Car in Reverse?

For this explanation we will use an automatic transmission from a modern car. When you move your car from park to reverse, it’s a simple enough procedure from the outside: Move the automatic gear selector from ‘P’ to ‘R.’ But what about what happens underneath? Here’s what happens:

Step 1: Press the brake, and push in the shift lock release button – This will give the automatic gear selector the ability to move up and down. Without this step, your gear selector locks in place to prevent unwanted slips while driving.

Step 2: Move the automatic gear selector from park to reverse – Once you let go of the shift lock release button, the car will be ‘locked’ in reverse until you press the release button again.

Step 3: A sliding mechanism moves on the gear control box’s circuit board – this happens automatically without any action taken by the driver. The sliding mechanism connects to a computer system.

Step 4: The electronic transmission position sensor activates – this sensor tells the powertrain control module what gear you have selected (in this case, reverse).

Step 5: Press the gas pedal – this is what begins the process of moving the car backward. Fuel and air are delivered to the engine. It goes as follows: gas pedal pressedàthrottle wire is pulledàthrottle linkageàthrottle linkage controls valve that is opened to regulate air intake and transmission fluid placement.

Step 6: Sun gear mechanism begins rotating in opposite direction This is what gives power to the car, moving it backward and regulating the speed, depending on how much the gas pedal is pressed.

We almost never think about the internal components of our car when we put it in reverse. We just do it. As you can see, there are many internal machinations happening. With this in mind, we can take a closer look at what is causing your car not to go in reverse.

What Stops a Car from Going in Reverse?

There isn’t a single simple answer for why a car might not go in reverse. There are several possible problems, all in different locations in the car. The problem can be a simple solution or may require a more in-depth assessment from a certified mechanic. Here are a few possible causes of a car not going in reverse.

  • Low Transmission Fluid
  • Dirty Transmission Filter
  • Faulty Transmission Position Sensor
  • Broken Gear Teeth
  • Worn Out Valve Body
  • Broken Shift Cable

There are instances where the problem may be a combination, such as you have low transmission fluid AND a dirty transmission filter.

What Can You Do to Fix It?

If you’re not sure how to fix the issue, it’s always a best bet to take your vehicle to a mechanic who knows what they’re doing. But, if you have a general grasp of car mechanics, you can always try a few things before spending the money on a mechanic.

  1. Replace transmission fluid and filter

These two possible solutions are combined for simplicity. To change the transmission filter, you will need to drain and replace the transmission fluid anyway. Transmission fluid is used to lubricate the different components of a car’s transmission. This ensures optimal performance of your vehicle. When the transmission fluid is low, it may not be able to properly lubricate and cool the gears and components.

Similarly, when the transmission filter is dirty or clogged, it can cause issues with lubrication and gear shifts. These two issues are the easiest to fix yourself but are not commonly the root cause of a car not going in reverse. Often, transmission fluid and filter issues will cause any shift in gear to be difficult, not just reverse.

  1. Replace the transmission position sensor

The transmission position sensor is what tells your car what gear you are in. It lets your car know you are in park, reverse, or drive. It has a couple of important functions including requiring the car to be in park or neutral before starting and turning on the backup lights when you shift your car into reverse. This is an important component to all automatic transmission vehicles.

When the transmission position sensor is going bad or has failed completely, the most common sign is your car engine will not start up in the first place. However, not all faulty sensors will cause this. Sometimes the issue is that you will shift into reverse but the sensor will not relay this information to the computer, causing your car to not go in reverse. Replacing the sensor can fix the issue of your car not going in reverse.

  1. Replace the valve body

Remember talking about transmission fluid? The valve body is what helps divert this fluid to where it’s needed. It’s similar to a maze, and changes based on how fast a vehicle is going in order to divert the transmission fluid to the correct gears.

Replacing the valve body is no easy task, and in most cases the entire body will need replaced. Most of the time if your valve body has gone bad, you will notice your car shifting into incorrect gears causing a revving while driving. It can also cause delayed shifting while trying to go in reverse, or an absence of any shifting at all.

  1. Replace the reverse gear

The gears in your transmission consist of circular, planet-like gears with teeth. There is a central ‘sun gear’ that rotates. Based on what gear your car is in, the smaller ‘planetary’ gears attached to the sun gear will also turn. When you place your car in reverse, these sun gears will rotate in the opposite direction of when you put your car in drive.

Usually, broken teeth on the reverse gear happen with manual transmission vehicles. Those that are just learning how to drive a stick shift will often abuse the gears until they get the hang of the clutch and when to shift. If your car isn’t going in reverse, it’s possibly caused by broken teeth on the gear, preventing them from catching and properly rotating. If this is the case, it will require a gear replacement.

  1. Adjust or replace the shifter cable

When you move your gear shifter from park to reverse, the cable that is attached to the shifter moves back and forth. Over time, this cable can come out of alignment, stretch, or break. Besides your car not going in reverse, some of the signs of a bad shifter cable would be the needle not lining up properly with the gear you’ve just shifted to.

In an automatic transmission, there is usually only one cable. For manual transmissions, there can be two or three cables. This problem is more prevalent in manual transmission vehicles simply because of the increased number of cables.

These are the five most likely ways to fix a vehicle that will not go in reverse. Some of them require a mechanic to fix them while others may be able to be done at home. Use caution when performing any type of mechanical work on your vehicle, especially if you have to lift the vehicle up on jacks.

Tips to Prevent Car Trouble

There are a number of things you can do to prevent car troubles from happening in the first place. Keeping up with the maintenance of your car is a great way to save stress and money from car trouble.

  1. Change the oil on time

We’ve all been there…the check oil light has been on for days (dare I say weeks) but you just haven’t had time to stop and get it changed. Oil keeps the engine cooled and lubricated. Check your owner’s manual for how often to change the oil.

  1. Keep your fuel tank above a quarter tank

Again, we’ve all been there. The gas tank is down to a quarter but you know you can make it to work without running out. You pull into work and the low fuel light pops on. When your car is running on fumes, the electric fuel-pump motor will start to intake air, causing it to wear out prematurely. It’s best to keep your fuel tank above a quarter tank to avoid damaging the fuel pump.

  1. Get a transmission checkup

The transmission is one of the most expensive parts of your car. It’s also one of the most expensive parts of your car to fix. Getting a regular checkup can help prevent any major problems from happening.

  1. Get the brakes and tires inspected regularly

It’s always a good idea to get your brakes and tires inspected regularly. Excessive wear on tires can cause blowouts. You can always check your owner’s manual to see the lifespan of your tires and brakes and to see how often you should get them checked.

Manual Vs. Automatic: Does One Have Less Maintenance?

Manual cars are slowly being edged out by automatic vehicles. The ease of driving automatic transmissions appeals to many drivers who would like to worry about less things while driving like shifting and using a clutch. In terms of maintenance, is there a better option between the two?

Manual Vehicle

  • Transmission is easier and less costly to repair
  • Mostly mechanical parts
  • Amount of wear and tear depends on the driver
    • Clutch replacements
    • Gear grinding/replacement
  • Fuel economy is lower than automatic vehicles with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs)

Automatic Vehicle

    • Transmissions are more complex to repair
    • Hydraulic and electronic parts
    • Wear and tear depend less on the driver
      • Transmission is less susceptible to wear due to enthusiastic driving
      • Computer controlled gear shifts means no grinding
  • Better fuel economy

Wrap Up

Whether you drive an automatic or manual, there is always going to be the need for maintenance on your vehicle. Preventative maintenance can help smooth the road for less problems in the future. Take care of your car, and it will take care of you. When problems do arise, such as your car not going in reverse, you’ll have a better idea of what the problem is and how to fix it.

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