ATV Won’t Go Into Gear or Shift – the Most Common Causes

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Troubleshooting an ATV that won’t go into gear or won’t shift gears can be pretty complicated, but not always. Whether you can address the issue on your own depends on the severity of the problem and your mechanical skill level. 

ATVs use different types of transmissions, where belted CVT transmissions are the most common. The possible causes and the steps required to solve the problem depend on the type of transmission your ATV has. 

This post covers some of the most common causes if your ATV doesn’t go into gear. It is meant to guide where to begin your troubleshooting, not as a complete repair guide for all ATV transmissions. 

The service manual for your specific brand and model will provide more detailed troubleshooting procedures for your transmission issues. 

Check out eManual Online to get factory workshop service and repair manuals for your ATV.

Please note that it’s easy to worsen a transmission issue if you don’t know what you are doing.

Some repairs require special tools such as a clutch puller or a clutch disassembly tool. If the repair seems intimidating to you or you do not have the right tools, it is recommended that you take the bike to a dealer technician.

1. Does the ATV Shift Gears With the Engine Off?

We recommend you begin the troubleshooting by testing whether you can shift gears when the engine is not running. This initial test allows you to narrow down the possible culprits of your gear-shifting issue.

If you can shift gears with the engine off, you know that the gear-shifting mechanism and the inside of the gearbox most likely work fine.

Gear shifting problems that are only present when the engine is running are usually clutch- or belt-related (Step 3) or caused by a high idle (Step 2). You may find that the bike wants to creep or move forward when in gear at idle. But even without creep, the problem may be with one of these components. 

If you cannot shift gears with the engine off, we recommend you jump straight down to Step 4.

2. The Clutch Engages too Early from Idle too High

Many ATVs come with an automatic clutch that engages when you apply throttle, and the clutch speeds up. The same principle applies whether you have a wet disc clutch or a dry clutch, as you find on a belted CVT transmission.

If the ATV, for some reason, idles higher than it’s supposed to, it may cause the clutch to engage slightly, putting a small but constant tension to the metal gears inside the gearbox. This pressure on the gears makes the ATV very hard to shift.

Most ATVs should idle around 1100 to 1200 RPM. If your bike’s idle is higher than this, you must address the cause of your high idle.

There will be an adjustment screw to set the idle for carbureted ATVs. Refer to your owner’s manual for the correct setting for your bike. Adjusting the idle on a fuel-injected ATV is usually a job for a mechanic.

Related: How to Idle a Four-Wheeler: Proper ATV Idle Adjustment

3. The CVT Engages Too Soon or Doesn’t Disengage

When idling, the primary clutch on a belted CVT transmission is supposed to spin freely without engaging (not pulling on the belt). This relieves the tension on the gearbox and allows you to shift gears.

When you hit the throttle, the primary clutch closes and pulls the belt. The belt makes the secondary (driven) clutch spin, creating tension between the gearbox’s gears. 

This is how a CVT transmission works:

However, when the transmission is not tuned correctly or has a mechanical issue, it may engage and spin the secondary clutch even at idle.

To troubleshoot an issue like this, you need to remove the belt cover to inspect the clutches and see how they behave when the engine runs, both at idle and when revving in neutral.

Please note that the clutches will be spinning at high speeds. Keep your hands and all loose objects away from the clutches to avoid severe injury.

Cause 1: The Clutches Are Dirty

If the primary clutch is packed with dirt, it may bind or not open enough to release the belt. Now is an excellent time to pull the clutches for proper cleaning and service.

Cause 2: The Clutch Spring is Getting Weak

The springs inside a CVT transmission clutch may weaken over time, preventing it from functioning as it should. Clutch springs are replaceable, but you may need special tools to pull and disassemble the clutch.

Cause 3: Clutches not Aligned – Bad or Loose Engine Mount

If the motor mount is bad or has come loose, the primary clutch may be out of alignment. Use a pry bar to see if you can lift the whole engine. You should barely be able to see the engine move, if at all.

Cause 4: Clutches Not Aligned – The Drive Belt Is Offset

The drive belt should ride in the clutch assembly center, not touching the primary’s two clutch sheaves. If it does rub against one of the sheaves, it will cause unwanted tension on the belt. This is a relatively common problem.

The alignment between the two clutches can be adjusted by adding or removing metal shims/spacers between the sheaves, usually on the driven (secondary) clutch.

Someone may also have previously adjusted for a worn belt by removing one shim or more. When installing a new belt, you may need to add those spacers back to prevent binding, leading to gear-shifting issues.

Cause 5: Worn Drive Belt

If the drive belt is worn too much, it will ride low on the sheaves, causing a slight creep.

Cause 6: Using an Aftermarket Drive Belt

We recommend that you only use OEM belts. There are aftermarket belts available that offer better performance and longevity at a smaller price. However, slight variations in production tolerances can cause issues such as the clutch engaging too soon.

Aftermarket belts also use a firmer compound to make them last longer, which may wear your clutch sheaves over time.

Cause 7: Shredded Drive Belt

atv wont move in gear

Remove the belt cover. If the belt is shredded, it may have wrapped around the driven shaft, causing it to bind up.

Cause 8: Worn EBS Washers

Polaris ATVs with EBS (engine brake system) have components that may wear out in time. Inspect the EBS fiber washers (one on each side of the EBS bushing) on the primary clutch to see if they are worn out.

If the washers are worn, the belt may not ride in the grooves as it should and instead ride one of the sheaves. This is yet another relatively common problem.

Cause 9: Bad One-Way Bearing

Some ATVs with engine brake systems have a primary clutch with a one-way sprag bearing, a so-called one-way clutch. It is supposed to spin freely in one direction and be locked in the other direction.

This bearing may go bad over time, preventing the clutch from turning freely. It may be hard to tell if the bearing is ok – the slightest drag may cause shifting issues.

4. The ATV Won’t Shift Gears With the Engine Off

In this case, the problem is likely with the gear-changing mechanism or the transmission’s internals. Begin by troubleshooting the externals as they are the most accessible. 

Cause 1: Gear Linkage Is Worn or Out of Adjustment

Some ATVs have adjustable gear linkage. If not adjusted correctly, the bike will not shift as it should.

Thow to Inspect and Adjust the ATV Gear Linkage:

  • Make sure the ATV is in neutral (N).
  • Remove the linkage from the shift box.
  • Inspect the bell cranks to make sure they are not stripped or have split.
  • Inspect the ball ends for wear.
  • Replace any damaged components.
  • Set the gear shifter to neutral.
  • Adjust the ball ends until they drop straight onto the shifter.

Cause 2: Manual Clutch Transmission Issues

On ATVs that have manual clutch transmissions, you should make sure that:

  • The handlebar-mounted lever is not damaged.
  • The cable is not broken.
  • The cable does not need adjusting.

Cause 3: Internal Gearbox Issues

To test your gearbox for internal damage without splitting the case, you can try this method:

  • The engine should be off.
  • Remove the belt cover.
  • Remove the drive belt.
  • Shift the bike into gear.
  • Try manually rotating the primary clutch; the bike should move.
  • You likely have an issue inside the gearbox if the bike does not move.

Cause 4: Worn or Bent Shift Fork

One of the most common issues one could be facing with a gearbox’s internals is having a worn or bent shift fork.

The shift fork is what shifts the gears in place. It can’t push the gears entirely in place if bent or worn.

5. Wet Clutch or Hydrostatic Transmission Issues

Some ATVs use an oil-sump wet clutch combined with the dry clutches on the CVT belt transmission. You also have some Honda ATVs with hydrostatic transmissions that use oil to drive the ATV forward.

Here are a few things to check out whenever these types of ATVs won’t go into or shift gears.

Cause 1: The Oil Level is Low

Ensure the oil level is correct, or the bike may not shift as it should. 

Cause 2: The Oil Needs Replacing

If the oil is old or contaminated, it needs replacing:

  • Drain the old oil into a drain pan.
  • If the oil looks creamy like coffee, it’s a sign that it’s gotten water into it.
  • If the oil is black and smelly, it’s old and long overdue for replacement. 
  • Also, look for debris, such as old seals drained with oil.
  • Add new oil to the correct level. Make sure it is according to spec. 
  • Let the bike run for 10 minutes.
  • Change the oil once more.
  • This final time, also change the oil filter. 

Cause 3: Poor Engine Oil Flow

Using an oil pressure gauge, it is possible to measure if the oil moves well through the engine. If the pressure is weak, you may have bad seals and need to open the engine.

6. Honda ES Electric Shift Transmission Issues

ATVs with an electric shifter, like the Honda AS models, use an electric motor to shift through the gears. If the motor does not work, the bike will not shift gears.

The only way to make it shift is by using the emergency shifter (a short-shifting shaft sticking out the left lower side of the engine, use the supplied gear change tool). If the bike shifts when using the emergency shifter, you need to address the shifter motor.

Cause 1: The Motor Is Wet

If the ATV has been submerged, you must ensure all the water is drained from the shifter motor. 

  • Remove the motor and give it a proper cleanse with an electronics cleaner. 
  • Let it dry, and re-grease it with dielectric grease. 
  • Hook up the motor to a 12V battery to test it before reinstalling.
  • Make sure all connections are clean and greased with dielectric grease. 

Cause 2: The Motor Is Burnt Out

Remove the motor. If the motor does not turn even when hooking it up directly to a battery, it may be burnt out and need replacing.

Cause 3: The Battery Is Not Adequately Charged

It is easy to forget that an electric-shift ATV needs electricity to shift. Make sure the battery is adequately charged and in good condition.

Related: How to charge an ATV battery and How to troubleshoot an ATV battery that is not charging.

Cause 4: Too Heavy or Gummed-up Grease in the Shift Motor Gears

If you try to shift on an electric shift ATV, you may hear the shift motor moving, but it does not shift completely.

You may find that the problem is worse at colder temperatures. Fixing this issue is relatively easy. All you need to do is replace the old gummed-up grease with all-temperature, white lithium grease.

For the complete procedure, go to

Cause 5: Bad Angle Sensor

Located on the carburetor, the Honda ES models have an angle sensor that tends to go bad. After replacing the sensor, make sure it is clocked correctly.

7. The ATV Shifts Only When Rocking It Back and Forth

When this happens, there is usually no need to worry. In fact, most ATVs are affected by this issue, some more than others.

What happens is that the wheels must be rotated slightly for the gears inside the gearbox to sync (line up).

You may have noticed that this phenomenon worsens when trying to shift in and out of “park” when standing on a hill.

The best way to avoid this is by applying the parking brake before putting the transmission in “park.” This way, the gears won’t bind up, and you can shift in and out of gear effortlessly.

Related Questions

Why won’t my ATV shift gears when the engine is off?

If your ATV won’t shift gears with the engine off, the issue is likely with the gear-changing mechanism or the transmission’s internal components.

What causes an ATV to not go into gear?

Causes range from high idle speed, improper clutch engagement, dirty clutches, and worn-out components to internal gearbox issues.

Can I fix an ATV that won’t go into gear by myself?

Depending on the problem’s severity and your mechanical skill level, you may be able to fix it. However, some issues require professional attention.

Wrapping Up

In summary, addressing an ATV that won’t go into gear or shift gears requires a nuanced understanding of the specific ATV model and the type of transmission it employs.

Whether the problem lies with your CVT transmission, electric shifter, or internal gearbox issues, this guide has offered preliminary steps to identifying and possibly rectifying the issue.

However, it’s important to remember that any substantial repair work may require professional intervention, and using the wrong tools or methods can worsen the problem. Always consult your service manual or seek help from a trained technician when in doubt.

Haavard Krislok
Haavard Krislok
Haavard Krislok is an ATV and off-road enthusiast with a rich background spanning two decades in owning, maintaining, repairing, and utilizing ATVs for farming, logging, and hunting. Outside his professional life as an engineer and project manager, he cherishes recreational trail riding and is the creative force behind, serving as its owner, editor, and content creator.

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