The shift cable in your car is responsible for getting your transmission into the proper gear. As the name suggests it is a cable that is made of a stiff metal and it connects your shift lever with the shift lever inside the transmission itself. When there's a problem with the shift cable in your vehicle you won't be able to shift gears the way that you're used to and could potentially end up with an undrivable vehicle depending on the nature of the problem itself. That means that you're going to need to have the shift cable replaced. Obviously the cost of a job like this is going to depend on the make and model of your vehicle as well as the mechanic that you take it to get repaired, but in general you can expect to spend about $250 to $400 for both the parts and labour to get this job done in a vehicle with automatic transmission.
If you have a manual transmission vehicle there's a chance that you also have a shift cable that operates your transmission. Although a number of manual transmission vehicles rely on something called shift forks, the ones that do use cables will also potentially require a shift cable replacement if something goes wrong. The cost for replacing shift cables in a manual transmission are not all that different from the automatic transmission. You could expect to pay somewhere between about $200 and $450 to get the shift cables replaced in a manual transmission vehicle. Like we said, this depends on the make and model of your vehicle and also whether or not you are using aftermarket parts or OEM parts.
What is a Shift Cable?
Shift cables are known by several names. It may be referred to as an automatic trans shift cable or a shift selector cable. Sometimes people will just refer to it as a shifter cable. Regardless of the term used they all refer to the same components and they perform the same function.
In an automatic transmission vehicle, there will be typically one shift cable that connects the shifter handle that you use in the cabin of your vehicle to the actual transmission. Manual transmissions often have two of these cables. In your automatic transmission when you move the shifter handle in your vehicle a lever is pushed or pulled into a number of different positions by the shifter cable. Manual transmissions have two of these one for vertical movement and one for horizontal movement in the shifter assembly.
In a 6-speed manual transmission there may even be a third cable that moves a lockout lever. This one is used when you press the button or push down on the shift lever to put your car in reverse. Regardless of how many you have in your vehicle and whether or not it's an automatic or manual transmission they all do the same function which is to translate the movements of the shifter in your cabin to the actual transmission in order to make it perform the function you've asked of it. Whether that's putting it into your first or second year, shifting to neutral, or going into reverse or park.
What Causes a Shift Cable to Fail?
In basic terms a shift cable is just a long length of metal cable. Like any kind of cable is vulnerable to things like stretching out over time. This will happen more frequently if you have a manual transmission because you're good at removing the shifter more frequently in a manual transmission vehicle which will put more strain on the cable overtime. It's also possible that the cable can be worn out in such a way that it breaks completely or develops a kink or bend which will greatly affect your ability to shift gears.
General wear and tear will cause a shift cable to wear down over time, but this process can be accelerated if you have a tendency to speed shift gears or if you slam your gears roughly when you're in a manual transmission vehicle. Your shift cable should be able to last quite a while but obviously and things do wear out over time, so it said that you need to be on the lookout for.
How Do You Know If Your Shift Cable is Bad?
There are some signs and symptoms you can be on the lookout for to let you know that you have a problem with your shifter cable. If you are experiencing any of these, you should take your vehicle into a licensed mechanic to get it looked at to help fix the problem as soon as possible. These kinds of problems can go from bad to worse fairly quickly and you could have done with a bigger repair bill down the road.
Your shift selector should have a line or needle of some kind on it that shows you what gear you're shifting into. That's how you know you're picking neutral or park or reverse for instance. If there's a problem developing with your shift cable, when you shift gears it's going to click into gear but the line on your indicator won't match the gear that you're in. This is a result of the cable stretching so badly that it's able to move the transmission into the right gear without the indicator moving with it the right way. In time this will make it impossible for you to switch into the correct gear, and certainly we will make it impossible for you to identify which gear you are in as well. This could lead to serious damage to your transmission as well as accidents.
Starting in the Wrong Gear
If you are able to start your vehicle in a gear other than park or neutral, then you likely have a problem with your shifter cable. This can be a serious issue because if you start your vehicle and you're immediately in drive or reverse you're going to need to hit the brakes very quickly to stop yourself in the potential for an accident that involves hitting another car, a wall, or another person is quite high.
It's possible that if you are able to start your vehicle in another gear that there is an issue with your shift interlock solenoid as well but you will likely need a mechanic to take a look and figure out which of these issues is the one you are experiencing.
Inability to Switch Gears
When you start your vehicle if you find that you're not able to shift into a gear because the gear selector won't move then that's almost definitely a problem with your shift cable. It's possible the cable is broken, or it's so badly stretched that when you move the shifter in your vehicle it has no effect on how the cable works. In this case there is no leverage to actually move your transmission from one year to another rendering it essentially useless at that moment. If this is occurring, you will likely need to tow your vehicle into a shop to get it repaired as it's probably undrivable at this point.
Inability to Turn Off Your Car
If your shift cable has stretched badly enough it's possible that the key will not come out of the ignition of your vehicle or your car will not be able to turn off because of a standard safety feature that most of us take for granted. You're typically not able to turn off your car while it's still running. You should be in park before you shut down a vehicle. However, if your shift cable is stretched badly enough you won't be able to engage park and your car will not recognize that you've actually stopped and want to turn the vehicle off at all. This could clearly be a safety hazard for you and others.
When your shift cable starts to go bad you may notice noises coming from you or transmission. A humming or buzzing sound is often indicative of an issue with your shift cable being worn out and in need of replacement.
You may notice a burning smell when your transmission fluid starts to get too old or contaminated when your transmission overheats as a result. Your shift cable can also start burning when there's a lack of lubrication or there's a worn-out bushing that needs to get fixed. Any time you smell a burning smell coming from your engine however it's a good sign that you need to have somebody look at it immediately before the situation goes from bad to worse.
Can You Drive a Car with a Broken Shift Cable?
As we've seen there are a number of problems that can crop up in your vehicle when your shift cable is beginning to wear out. Technically speaking you can in fact drive with a stretched-out shift cable although it will be very dangerous for the reasons we've outlined in the various signs and symptoms of a bad shift cable. The longer you drive with a stretched-out cable the more difficult it will be to not only shift gears but to even figure out what gear you're in. This can cause you to have issues stopping the vehicle, starting the vehicle, and more. The potential for accidents is quite high. For that reason, though it is possible to drive with a bad shift cable you really shouldn't do so.
That covers driving with a bad shift cable. When it comes to a broken shift cable then you really can't drive your vehicle at all. There will not be anything connecting the shifting mechanism inside the cabin of your vehicle to the actual transmission itself. When that's the case, it is literally impossible for you to change gears at all so there is no way to actually drive at that point. If the shift cable or to break while you are driving it could cause a serious accident as she will no longer have the ability to change gears at all which means you won't be able to downshift to a lower gear or even put your vehicle in park at that point.
How Long Does a Shift Cable Last?
Now that you know what can go wrong with your shift cable you may be wondering exactly how long you can expect to use yours before something goes wrong with it. As we said, the way you drive can potentially have an effect on the lifespan of a shift cable. Manual shift cables will wear out sooner because of the heavy or stress that they are under. Regardless of whether or not you have an automatic transmission to a manual transmission though you should be able to expect that you're going to get a good 8 years of life or so out of your shift cable before it's going to need to be replaced. the more stress you put your transmission under while you're driving, the less likely it is to last quite that long. Some cases a shift cable may only last for about 5 years and of course if there was some kind of unexpected problem or issue that you may end up having to change it even sooner than that.
The Bottom Line
Your shift cable is one of those pieces of technology that most of us don't think of all that often, and many people are probably not even aware of in their vehicle. Your entire ability to drive is very much based on the shift cables ability to do its job, however. If it becomes stretched out or broken that your transmission will not engage and your ability to stop, start, Park, reverse and everything else in your vehicle will be compromised. For that reason, if you notice any of the symptoms, we mentioned you should get your vehicle checked out as soon as you can to see what the problem is. Because of the high risk of accidents involved in the issues with a worn-out or damaged shift cable you don't want to leave this one for too long.