What Does the Clutch Do in a Car?

The clutch connects—and disconnects—two rotating shafts so that you can change gears while driving. Here’s how it works.
Written by Bonnie Stinson
Reviewed by Bellina Gaskey
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The clutch in a car connects the driveshaft and the output shaft, which turns the wheels. The clutch can also disconnect the two shafts, which allows the driver to change gears without stopping the car. Both automatic and manual cars use clutches, though they work slightly differently for each powertrain. 
If you’ve ever driven a manual car, then you know all about the clutch pedal. It’s that dreaded third pedal that young drivers sometimes mistake for the gas or brake pedal. Touch the clutch at the wrong time and you could kill the engine!
Automatic transmission cars also use clutches, but in these vehicles the driver is not required to manually engage or disengage the clutch. But what does the clutch actually do? How does the clutch work, and how much does it cost to fix clutch problems? Here’s a quick guide from
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What is a clutch?

The automotive clutch system connects (or disconnects) two rotating shafts: the shaft from the engine and the shaft that turns the wheels. The clutch assembly is composed of the clutch plate and the flywheel, and it is operated with the clutch pedal. 
The friction materials involved may include ceramic, asbestos, resin, Kevlar composite, and metallic powders.
When the clutch pedal is pressed, the two shafts are disconnected momentarily. The clutch makes it possible to change gears while a car is moving. Once the gear change is complete, the clutch pedal is released and the shafts reconnect. 
There are different types of clutches: friction clutch, multiple plate clutch, hydraulic clutch, cone clutch, and centrifugal clutch. Most street cars use a friction clutch. You will typically find multiple plate clutches in race cars and motorcycles, and centrifugal clutches are often found in machines like chainsaws and lawnmowers.
MORE: How to protect, clean, and organize your car’s trunk

How the clutch works

To use clutches, the driver must press down on the clutch pedal (in a manual transmission car) or they can simply allow the automatic transmission to take care of the clutch automatically.
How does it actually work? Clutch control depends on friction between the clutch plate and flywheel. Springs keep the pressure plate against the clutch disc when the pedal is not depressed. In this state, the shafts are locked together so they spin at the same speed.
When the driver’s foot presses down on the clutch pedal, the pressure plate is pulled away from the clutch plate. (This occurs when the hydraulic piston pushes on the release fork, which then triggers the release bearing.) Then, the diaphragm spring is pressed and the pins pull the plate away from the clutch disc. This temporarily breaks the connection between the engine and the wheels. 
With the clutch pedal engaged, the wheels will continue to spin due to their own momentum and not engine power. Now, the engine and wheels are moving at different speeds. It is essential to disengage the wheels and disengage the driveshaft from the transmission in order to change gears.
MORE: How to drive stick or manual cars

Common car clutch problems

While your clutch could function properly for more than 80,000 miles, it is possible that you will have to replace your clutch before then. This is especially true for vehicles that tow heavy loads.
Here are a few common problems related to clutch failure:
  • Leaking from the cylinders
  • Misalignment of the pedal
  • Slippage of the clutch disc
  • Air in the hydraulic system line
  • Incorrectly adjusted linkage
  • Worn throw-out bearing
  • Stiff clutch pedal when gear shifting
  • Soft clutch pedal
If you cannot get the repair done immediately—and car parts can sometimes be hard to find!—then try to focus on slow gear changes. Clutch problems may lead to overheating and additional wear and tear, not to mention the safety concerns associated with a malfunctioning clutch pedal.
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How much does it cost to get a clutch fixed?

The cost of a clutch repair will depend on the specific problem as well as the make and model of your car. Start by getting your clutch inspected.
Overall, a complete clutch replacement may cost approximately $1,100. Parts should cost around $600 and you can expect to pay about $500 for the mechanic’s fee. 
To find the lowest possible price, call multiple repair shops to get quotes. 
MORE: How to know if a mechanic is taking too long with repairs

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Finding an affordable car insurance policy is easier than you think. You may think you have a decent rate or even believe you’re being rewarded for your customer loyalty. But are you sure you aren’t overpaying for your coverage? 
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FAQs

Speed is the major determinant of when you should press the clutch pedal. If you have a manual car, you should press the clutch when changing gears, while pressing the brake pedal in low gears, when shifting to first gear, and whenever you slow down.
No, it is not necessary to press the clutch when going downhill—unless you need to change gears or you have an automatic hydraulic clutch.
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