Owners Tips

Lesson Learned: Too Fast, Too Furious for Clutch

Welcome to Lesson Learned (formerly Mechanically Declined), our monthly dip into the world of automotive cluelessness, fearing for the worst, and stories about the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.

This story comes from a warranty expert who works for a major automaker. This expert is responsible, among other things, for supervising and monitoring warranty claims made by owners of the brand’s cars and crossovers across several Canadian provinces.

Recently, he flipped over some interesting photos of a clutch that had just been removed from an owner’s nearly new sports car, when said sports car visited a dealership to have some unwanted sensations and sounds from the clutch inspected.

“In proper hands, a clutch should last the life of the vehicle. There are a few exceptions, and over the years, we’ve seen warranty-approved replacement of clutches as the result of a manufacturing defect,” he says. “It’s rare, but it does happen.”

Clutches in vehicles with a manual transmission are typically not covered by warranty in the long term, as a clutch is a wearable item, sort of like a pencil eraser. Just like brake pads and tires, a clutch wears out a little bit every time it’s used.

“On wearable components like this, the expectation is that the driver will be reasonable. Of course, [warranty] coverage is absolutely in effect if the failure of the component was the result of a defect in the way it was manufactured or installed.”

There was, however, no manufacturing defect present with the clutch on the vehicle in question today: a turbocharged AWD sports sedan that had only seen its first oil change a few weeks before visiting the dealership with a clutch that was slipping, harsh, and noisy.

The customer dropped her car off and advised the dealer that she expected to pick it up later with a new clutch installed. Shortly after, a technician road-tested the vehicle.

“The technician’s records referred to excessive noise from the clutch as a primary concern, and also documented some shuddering through the driveline, and a poor clutch pedal feel as other factors. Something was definitely wrong with this clutch.

The technician proceeded to investigate. “In all warranty claims, a cause of component failure must first be determined.”

However, it was quickly determined that the defect was not with the clutch itself, but rather, with the way it was used. After removing the clutch from the vehicle for a closer look, the cause of the concerns was immediately apparent: this clutch had been destroyed by abuse.

“The condition of the clutch and pressure plate upon removal eliminated any possibility of a manufacturing defect. Despite relatively low mileage on the odometer, this clutch was absolutely destroyed. We observed numerous signs of abusive driving, and associated damage to the friction material caused by excessive heat and wear,” says our expert.

The photos say it all: despite less than a year in service, the clutch and associated components show extensive damage. Look closely, and you can see that much of the clutch friction material (its “wearable” surface) has been ground away, some accumulating as a fine powder in other parts of the clutch and pressure-plate assemblies.

“This is highly indicative of consistent, repeated, and ongoing abuse,” our expert says, concluding: “This clutch had seen a lifetime of wear, in just a few months.”

The cause? In any likelihood, repeated “launches” from high revs.

“In a two-wheel drive car, the tires tend to take the abuse when the vehicle is operated in this way. But with AWD, there’s much more traction, so the tires don’t slip, but the clutch does. When repeatedly slamming the clutch into action from high revs, the clutch, not the tires, tends to take the most abuse in a vehicle like this.”

Our warranty expert sees this situation on a somewhat regular basis, and customer backlash is anticipated – nobody wants to have a warranty claim rejected. So, to help support the dealer staff in handling any potential customer complaint, the attending technician was advised to check the vehicle over for other common clues that may coincide with this sort of premature clutch death.

“These include power-programmer modules (aka, engine ‘chips’) and specific signs of damage to some other components associated with the rear subframe and differential.”

The technician quickly determined that the vehicle in question had a non-factory computer module installed – “in fact, the retail packaging for this power programmer was inside of the vehicle,” our expert adds. The module modifies the programming of the vehicle’s engine, creating more power, but voids the vehicle’s powertrain warranty permanently.

The outcome? The owner was on the hook for a new clutch and pressure plate, and was also advised that her vehicle’s powertrain warranty had been voided. This was documented against the VIN (vehicle identification number) in the dealer database.

“Our powertrain warranty is voided the instant an owner modifies the factory electronic system or programming. A designation is applied to the vehicle in our computer system, advising all other dealers to deny warranty coverage on the associated components.

“At least this owner now had the opportunity to replace the factory clutch with an upgraded unit to better handle her driving style – and with the warranty no longer in play, she’d be safe to do as many hard launches as she liked.”