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1996 Honda Civic standard shifting problems. Help?

Hi folks,
My wife drives a 96 Civic DX Hatchback, 5 Speed. It has about 160,000 miles on it, and she only drives it to work and back (a 15 minute drive via the interstate).

Just yesterday, she told me that the clutch feels ‘looser’ than normal, for lack of a better term. When it’s first started, it’s hard for her to get it into first and/or reverse, but once driving, she says the shifting is fine. When she’s driving at highway speeds in 5th for a while, then has to get off at her exit, she said it’s hard for her to get it back into 1st gear. She says she feels like she has to push the clutch harder than normal to get it back into 1st gear.

I don’t know much about manual transmissions, and am hoping the braintrust here at the Car Talk Forums can provide some insight into what the problem(s) may be?

I appreciate your help!


You might be looking at a clutch master cylinder that’s starting to leak internally.

When this happens, the cup seals in the master cylinder allows the hydraulic fluid to by-pass them. This then results in not enough hydraulic pressure developed to fully disengage the clutch. So it seems like you’re trying shift gears without stepping on the clutch pedal…


If it is the original clutch, you have done well and might be time for a new one.

Make sure the clutch master cylinder fluid level is at the “full” mark on the plastic bottle. If the problem persists, see if pumping the clutch pedal will temporarily improve the situation. If so, that’s an indication you need a new clutch master cylinder – a not uncommon problem. If that doesn’t fix it, next thing I’d do is check all the linkages and do the measurements to see if the clutch pedal was properly adjusted. Still a no go? Replace the clutch slave cylinder. Still a no go? Save up for a new clutch job.

BTW, don’t put this off. It’s important to address this promptly, otherwise transmission damage may ensue.

Thanks everyone. Question: would checking and adding transmission fluid help this issue, at least in the short term?


The vehicle has a clutch operation problem. Not a transmission problem.


Unlikely. But if the transmission fluid level is low, it should be filled to the proper level. Check your owner’s manual, Honda’s maintenance schedule may require the transmission fluid be replaced at some point.

Classic symptoms of a failing master cylinder.
In the future get the clutch (and brake) fluid flushed every 3 years or so; hydraulic parts will last longer.

Thanks everyone. The car is driven so lightly (150 miles a week max), that routine maintenance hasn’t really been done like it should.

That kind of short distance driving usually requires more maintenance, not less. If the engine never gets up to full operating temperature, the oil gets more contaminated than if it reaches full temperature on a routine basis.

This Civic uses 10W-30 transmission oil, and I seriously doubt it is leaking or that low oil is an issue, but draining and refilling the transmission oil couldn’t hurt, and it could give you some peace of mind that you’ve ruled it out.

Just so you know, you have three options for changing the transmission oil on this car. You can use Honda Manual Transmission Fluid (which is probably - based on the price - synthetic 10W-30 oil with some additional additives), you can use synthetic 10W-30 oil (which is what I do), or you can use regular 10W-30 oil, but you should change this oil more often than you would otherwise, at least every 30,000 miles. I believe the manual transmission on your car holds 1.8 or 1.9 quarts of oil, so you only have to buy two quarts, which will give you enough to fill it up all the way until some pours out of the fill hole.

As long as you get more than 1.5 quarts of oil when you drain the transmission, you can rule out transmission oil as the issue, but you might as well go ahead and drain and refill it. Once you remove the fill plug to check the level, you’ve done almost half the work of changing the oil. There is no filter to change.

Like others have said, it’s probably the clutch, not the transmission. The clutch is a wearable part, so if this one lasted 18 years, the car is due for a new one. I suggest you pay a little extra to get this clutch job done at a Honda dealership. You don’t want an independent mechanic or a chain operation to put in some aftermarket clutch that doesn’t perform as well as the one a Honda dealership will install. Don’t skimp on this job. Get the entire clutch replaced, including the flywheel. You might even consider letting them replace both the master cylinder and the slave cylinder to ensure everything will behave as it should when the job is done.

Well, we were slated to take this thing in tomorrow to be looked at, when it broke down on the interstate because it wouldn’t shift at all. We had to call numerous places before finding one that could look at it today. They said it was the clutch master cylinder, and they replaced that. We will see how the car works after this, but as you’ve kind of implied, I would really like to take it somewhere to be once-overed to check everything.

Complicating this problem is the fact that there are several modifications on the car (done by her previous beau). An example is the air filter. It needs a new air filter, but this shop said the standard filter for the car won’t fit, so we’ll have to find one that does elsewhere.

This is a word to the wise for the younger folks who have their cars modded - when you pass 30 and crap begins to break down, and the person who modded it is long gone - you’re gonna be wicked pissed.

Thanks for all the help, guys. As usual, you were on point with the diagnosis.

Just a suggestion;

I write with a magic market the replacement part numbers for my filters, spark plugs, etc. the first time I replace them. I write it right on the filter box, plastic engine cover or somewhere convenient. That save having to look it up again the next time around… or having to “find that damned note”… I KNOW I left it SOMEWHERE…