Car Dies When Put in Gear – Causes & Solutions

Cars are essential for our daily activities, especially as they help carry us from point Y to Z. However, they come with their ups and downs. One of the common issues you may encounter is your car dies when put in gear. This can be quite frustrating and unnerving.

Fortunately, this article will outline the possible causes and best solutions to this problem. This problem is common in manual transmissions. But when it happens in an automatic car, it’s a different case. By the end of this article, you’ll learn how to fix this problem in either case.

automatic car dies when put in gear

Possible Causes Why Car Dies When Put in Gear

As a certified automotive mechanic and car writer with over a decade of experience, I can say with certainty that the common reasons your car dies when put in gear are engine misfiring and vacuum leaks. However, other potential causes include a bad torque converter or low transmission fluid.

Before explaining these potential causes, it’s important to note that the ‘car dies while put in gear’ could be that the car shuts off completely or the ‘car stalls in first gear or any gear at all.’

Leaking/Low transmission fluid

The transmission fluid plays a crucial role in lubricating and cooling the different gear sets in the transmission. If the fluid is low, it’ll cause accelerated friction between the moving parts, which will eventually lead to overheating and invariably cause the car to die when put in gears. If your car stalls when put in drive or reverse, first check the transmission fluid.

Lousy torque converter

In automatic transmissions, the torque converter pressurizes the fluid to give it the force to change gears easily. Like every other component in your car, the torque converter is subject to failure. If it fails, your vehicle will likely stall when put in gear or when running at low speed.

The most common reason the torque converter fails is contaminated fluid. The torque converter relies on the transmission fluid to work, and anything that depends on the fluid to function will damage if the fluid becomes low or contaminated.

Weak battery/alternator

If the battery or alternator is weak, it won’t supply the required power to run all system components. A weak battery or alternator is one of the common reasons for a stalling engine. The car won’t start if the battery is too weak.

Clogged fuel filter

The fuel filter is responsible for filtering contaminants, dirt, and other impurities from entering the engine. Over time, these filter impurities will restrict the fuel that travels into the engine. When that happens, the car will stall when you put it in gear or when taking off from a standing point.

Vacuum leak

Internal combustion engines work with a predefined air-fuel ratio for optimal engine performance. A vacuum leak introduces unmeasured air into the combustion chamber, thereby throwing the air-fuel mixture off balance.

Whenever there’s a vacuum leak, the vehicle will not idle smoothly and may shut off when you put it in gear, depending on the level of the leak. So, if you are wondering, my car starts, but when I put it in gear it dies; check if there’s a vacuum leak somewhere in the engine. You can tell if you have a vacuum leak by listening for a hissing sound. A hissing sound is a sign of vacuum leaks in the engine.

Misfiring engine

A misfiring engine is the most common reason your car dies when you put it in gear. A misfire can affect your engine in diverse ways. It can cause it to run rough on idle, stall, vibrate, shake, or even die as you put it in gear.

Several factors like a faulty mass airflow sensor, clogged air filter, clogged fuel filter, carbon-fouled spark plugs, faulty ignition coils, lousy injectors, carburetor, bad spark plug wires, and bad distributor are the primary causes of engine misfiring.

If a carbureted car dies when put in gear, check the plugs, distributor, and carburetor. The root cause of the problem lies in these areas.

car dies when put in drive

What to do and how to fix it if the car dies when put in gear?

Since there are several possible reasons your automatic or manual car dies when put in gear, there are also several ways to fix it. But first, you have to diagnose the vehicle starting from the most common and easy-to-fix problem. Here is the best approach to follow when dealing with a car idles fine but dies when put in gear.

Check for a vacuum leak.

If your car keeps dying when put in gear, the first thing you should do is to check for a hissing sound. If you hear a hissing sound, you have a vacuum leak. Check where the sound is coming from and fix it. If there’s a vacuum leak, the car won’t run smoothly, and there will be increased emissions at the tailpipe.

Check the battery and alternator.

The alternator and battery work in unison to provide the required power to handle all system components. So, if the battery is weak and the battery won’t charge, your alternator can’t do the work alone. Similarly, recharging the battery won’t do the trick if the alternator is faulty because the battery will still run low and cause power issues.

Test the alternator and battery, and fix or replace faulty or weak parts. If you can’t do this yourself, drive to any nearby shop and have them test these components. 

Check the transmission fluid.

Remove the transmission dipstick and check the fluid level. If the fluid is low, top it as needed. However, that’s not all. Most times, a low transmission fluid level shows there’s a leak somewhere in the system. This means you have to check if you have a leak.

Start the vehicle and engage the gears, let the car idle for a while, and check if you’ll see any red puddles underneath the vehicle. If you see any red puddles, the tranny fluid is leaking. Trace where it is leaking from and fix it as soon as possible. If not, the fluid level will drop before you know it, and the issue will start again. Keep in mind low fluid can cause severe damage to the internal unit components.

Fix engine misfire issues.

When treating misfiring in this case, start with the spark plugs and narrow down to other issues that could lead to engine misfiring.

If the spark plugs are carbon fouled, there won’t be enough spark to burn the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber; when you put the vehicle in gear, it’ll stall or misfire. Fortunately, all you need to fix the problem is to clean or replace the spark plugs.

After that, check the distributor and ensure it is sending the required amount of spark to the plugs. Examine the plug wires as well; check if there is arcing on the lead wires or any form of damage. Fix the problems accordingly.

Check the fuel delivery system. Check the fuel filter and clean or replace it if it is clogged. Inspect the fuel injectors and the fuel pressure. A lousy fuel injector, regulator, or filter could be the root cause of the problem. Check if the fuel pressure is up to the required PSI. If it is not, track the exact cause of the problem and fix or replace it.

Contact your mechanic

The thing is, several factors can cause an engine to misfire. What you least expect at a given time could be the root cause of an engine misfire. So, if you have tried everything listed above and the problem is still there, contact your mechanic. A certified mechanic has the necessary tools, equipment, and experience to diagnose and resolve the issue.

The mechanic will also look into other possible causes, like the torque converter, and proffer solutions to the problem.

Related FAQs

Why does my car stall when I put it in drive or reverse?

As you have seen, several factors can cause a car to stall when put in drive or reverse. The common reasons your car dies or stalls, when put to drive or reverse are:

  • A bad torque converter.
  • Vacuum leaks.
  • Clogged fuel filter.
  • Lousy fuel pump.
  • Clogged fuel injectors.
  • Faulty idle air control valve.
  • Bad O2 sensors.
  • Low transmission fluid.
  • Clogged transmission fluid lines.

Why does my car turn off when I put it in the drive?

Low transmission fluid is the most common reason your car turns off when put in drive. Once you confirm the transmission fluid is okay, the problem likely comes from a faulty torque converter, vacuum leaks, clogged transmission lines, idle air control valve, or issues with the wiring harness. However, I recommend you contact a certified mechanic to diagnose and rectify the problem.

Why is my car jerking when put in the drive?

The common likely reason for a jerking car when put in the drive is transmission issues. However, you don’t have to panic; it could be as simple as a contaminated or low transmission fluid. It can also be a significant transmission issue, like a bad torque converter, pump failure, or worn-out gears and bearings.

Why does my car keep going out of gear?

Worn-out gears are likely the reasons your transmission keeps going out of gear. Transmission gears can wear out over time, especially if you have low or contaminated fluid. If gears wear out, they may engage fine but slip in and off sync.

Final Words

You have seen the possible reasons your car dies when put in gear and how to fix them. But a vacuum leak and engine misfiring are the two most common causes. Thankfully, most of these possible causes have simple fixes, including the vacuum leak and engine misfiring.

You can fix most of these issues yourself by following the above guide. However, contact your mechanic if you don’t trust your gut. The mechanic will do a thorough diagnosis and fix the underlying problem and save you time.

Osuagwu Solomon

Osuagwu Solomon is a certified mechanic with over a decade of experience in the mechanic garage, and he has over five years of experience in the writing industry. He started writing automotive articles to share his garage experience with car enthusiasts and armature mechanics. If he is not in the garage fixing challenging mechanical problems, he is writing automotive repair guides, buyer’s guides, and car and tools comparisons.

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