What Is Neutral in a Car? (Meaning & Guide)
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While most gears in your vehicle are self-explanatory, functions like neutral remains a mystery for some car owners. Manual-transmission users see neutral as redundant (they claim they have the clutch for that). Those who drive cars with automatic transmissions feel the same way and do not see the point of having neutral when they have the “park” setting. So, what is neutral in a car anyway?
Neutral is one of the ‘gears’ or options you see on your shifter box that helps set your vehicle in motion. It allows the driver to control steering without power transfer to the wheels and is extremely handy during on-road emergencies.
In today’s guide, we will not only delve into the purpose of the neutral setting but also touch on how to engage it and when it is appropriate to use the option. If I were you, I would stick around and continue reading. The knowledge you will gain from this article may be trivial for now. But one day, it will help you save a life — either that of your own or others.
What Does Neutral Do in a Car?
Before I explain what this gear does in (and for) your vehicle, let us first talk about what neutral is (and no, we will not be referring to the color scheme often used in Scandinavian interior design).
“So, what is neutral in a car then?” – you might ask.
A neutral gear (often showing as “N”) is one of the many options on your gearshift assembly that helps you maneuver your car on the road. And contrary to what it is often called, it is actually not a gear but a “setting in the gearbox where no gears are meshed.” It may seem useless for daily driving, especially in cars with automatic transmissions. But soon, you will discover its practical uses and understand why OEMs continue to include the said setting in modern vehicles.
In a nutshell, the purpose of the neutral ‘gear’ is to decouple the engine and ensure no power is transmitted to the wheel axles when the accelerator pedal is depressed. This occurrence allows the car wheels to rotate freely or “coast” without engaging the power mill too much. The neutral gear cuts off the connection between the engine and the wheels by a huge margin but still leaves the driver with some control over their vehicle.
Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions
If you were to ask, “What does neutral mean in a car?” for vehicles with manual gearboxes compared to those with automatic transmissions, there is no difference. The disparity does not lie within its meaning or function but rather in where the disconnection or decoupling happens.
In manual transmissions, the gears are disconnected from the output shaft, resulting in zero torque transported from the engine to the wheels. All clutches are open in automatic transmissions (with planetary gear systems). Furthermore, disconnection occurs between the clutch discs.
Park vs. Neutral in Automatic Vehicles
In vehicles with automatic gearboxes, the “park” option or parking pawl locks the output shaft, keeping it from rotating. This action, in turn, prevents the wheels (and ultimately, the car) from rolling. In this scenario, the park option prevents power coming from the engine in reaching the wheels (a.k.a. decoupling) while locking the transmission in place.
The reverse is true for neutral – in the sense that it only decouples the engine from the wheels but allows the latter to coast freely. No transmission lock takes place – hence, the vehicle still runs the risk of rolling. And if left unattended, the repercussions could be costly for the driver and the passengers.
Potential Issues When Engaging Neutral
If done under the right circumstances, shifting into neutral should not be a cause for concern. But if the neutral shift becomes defective (for instance), then expect to encounter the following symptoms:
Can Crank the Engine in Any Gear
You should not be able to crank the engine when your car is in “drive” or “reverse.” If you can, drive to a shoulder (if you are in transit), as continuing to be on the road while having this problem can result in a serious car accident.
No Crank When in Neutral
For vehicles with automatic transmissions, this could potentially mean looseness in the transmission or an electrical issue that hinders the neutral safety switch from receiving power to function.
No Crank When in Park
This problem is not exclusive to a bad neutral safety switch, as it is also associated with a bad battery or defective starter motor.
No Crank When in Park and Neutral
This sign almost always signifies a serious electrical problem since your vehicle’s starter motor relies on the starter relay – which, in turn, depends on the neutral switch for receiving power.
Typically, your vehicle should be able to start in either park or neutral setting. If it cannot do so in either ‘gear,’ chances are you have a faulty neutral safety switch. A sure indication that this is the case is if you can start your vehicle only in neutral.
Although stalling largely results from an imbalance in the air-fuel mixture, it sometimes occurs when the clutch is released in neutral. Naturally, the first set of things you would need to check is your fuel levels, fuel filter, air filter, and fuel pump. But you may also want to examine the integrity of your neutral safety switch or clutch pedal (it may need some adjusting or replacement) while at it.
Transmission Not Shifting
If you have guessed that the neutral switch has nothing to do with this problem, you are right! This issue is from a damaged shift interlock solenoid in automatic vehicles but only becomes apparent when shifting into neutral (or reverse). You can’t move from park mode into the settings mentioned above even when stepping on the brakes. Thankfully, resolving this issue is affordable and quick.
How to Put a Jeep in Neutral
Depending on the situation, you may have to employ different ways of putting your Jeep into neutral. You also need to consider the gear selection or drive mode you last put your car in before needing to take it out of gear. For instance, there have been reported cases where Jeep owners cannot get their 4x4s out of park following a dead battery or electrical system malfunction.
If coming from a disabled state (dead battery or electrical issue), shift into neutral by removing the cap or “little door” in front of the gear shifter and pull on the orange-colored band to get out of “park” without the need to start your vehicle.
If you own a Jeep Liberty and preparing it for towing, below are the appropriate steps (source: C-SUVs.com):
- Stop the vehicle and shift the transmission to park.
- Turn the ignition off.
- Then, turn the ignition switch to “on/run” without starting the engine.
- Depress and hold the brake pedal.
- Shift the transmission into neutral.
- Using a ballpoint pen or something similar, press and hold the recessed neutral button (situated above the selector switch) for four seconds (or until the light behind the neutral symbol starts blinking). The blinking will become a solid light when the shift to neutral is complete.
If transitioning into neutral tow mode on a Jeep Wrangler, here is the procedure (source: eTrailer.com):
- Halt the vehicle while on level ground.
- Press and hold the brake pedal.
- Shift the automatic transmission into neutral. For manual gearboxes, press the clutch pedal.
- Turn off the engine.
- Finally, shift the transfer case lever into neutral.
Though non-exhaustive, these procedures are perfect examples of how shifting into neutral differs for every situation and Jeep model. Ultimately, your owner’s manual is your best guide if you want to learn more about putting your vehicle in neutral the right way.
When to Put Your Car in Neutral
Switching to neutral while driving (in the hopes of saving on fuel) is widely believed by many car owners. But in reality, it is a myth. Doing so reduces vehicle control and increases strain on your brakes — proving to be perilous, especially in precarious situations where responsiveness is needed. Hence, you should put your car in neutral only under the below circumstances:
Shifting Gears in Automobiles With Manual Transmissions
In the case of gated or H-pattern manual gearboxes, passing through the neutral position every time you shift into a drive gear is required. Unlike automatic transmissions, a manual gearbox does not warrant rowing through each gear ratio in between to arrive at a specific gear. Rather, it provides drivers space to choose the gear they want to be in next — regardless if it is 3rd or 5th.
This advanced shifting technique is primarily used for vehicles with an unsynchronized manual transmission, like specialty trucks and commercial vehicles. However, it is not limited to these vehicle types and can also work on cars with synchronized manual gearboxes. This method entails pushing the clutch in, engaging the transmission in neutral, and shifting to the desired gear. When done correctly, the technique helps prevent wear on the synchronizers and aids in smooth upshifting before acceleration.
Moving a Car That Has Broken Down or Malfunctioned
In case of a breakdown, push your car towards safety by shifting into the neutral position. Doing this is easier than trying to move your vehicle while in park (which would be counter-intuitive in the first place). The same principle applies when having your vehicle towed (to be discussed further in a separate item in this section).
Cutting Power to a Speed-Crazed Engine
As opposed to slamming the brakes, a more effective way of getting your rev-crazy vehicle under control is by going into neutral before halting it. Doing so will not stop your car from reaching redline RPMs. But it will dramatically reduce the probability of getting into a high-speed crash.
Halting a Vehicle With a Stuck Throttle or Broken Return Spring
Several things can cause your throttle or accelerator pedal to get stuck — from defective electronic controls to carpets or floor mats riding up to depress the gas pedal. Going into neutral is an integral part of the process that would help stop your vehicle and enable you to park safely. Because in this scenario, flooring the brakes would not suffice.
Safe Parking During a Brake Failure
While some people respond to brake failure by killing the engine, making this choice is more detrimental than advantageous. Killing the engine leaves you with no control over the steering wheel. Or worse, it can lock your vehicle’s wheel mechanism. Conversely, shifting into neutral position helps you safely toggle between lanes and get to a shoulder.
Towing the Car Without a Tow Dolly
For front-wheel-drive automobiles, having a tow dolly when towing is crucial, as the equipment makes for quick loading and unloading of this specific vehicle type. But if you have called for towing assistance, and they arrive without a tow dolly, you will need to put your vehicle in neutral. Under normal circumstances, shifting to neutral is not ideal. However, it is necessary to prevent drivetrain damage and to keep the engine on while the car is being towed.
Riding Through an Automatic or Drive-Thru Car Wash
Most drive-through or automatic car washes have an automotive system that requires vehicles to be put in neutral. The reason behind this precondition is to ensure your car “goes through the cleaning cycles consistently.” If a car is not in neutral position, it is prone to colliding with other vehicles queued in the car wash.
Servicing Your Four-Wheeler
Generally, any interim, full, or major servicing (and even routine maintenance) that has to do with the tire-and-wheel assembly or suspension of your vehicle would warrant the latter to be in neutral while the process is being carried out. Sample scenarios include inspecting your wheel bearings and checking if your suspension is still up to spec. As long as the procedure entails a vehicle being put on a jack and wheel spin being inspected by hand, placing the former in neutral would be handy for your mechanic.
Spinning the Wheels at an Emissions Checkpoint
Somewhat similar to servicing your car, this scenario also requires using neutral. It makes for a seamless exhaust analysis and ensures that your vehicle does not spin out of control during emissions testing. Of course, this is highly unlikely (especially with automated motor vehicle inspection units). But just the same, placing your car in neutral during these tests reduces the possibility of busting your differential.
Any other situation where you want your motor running without your car moving – like warming up the motor for the defrost to work or shoveling out a car buried in snow.
Switching to neutral can put a bit of strain on your brakes but will not necessarily leave any lasting or damaging effects. However, the reverse is true if this practice is done repeatedly and for long periods, as it could damage your car’s torque converter. It’s the same when switching to neutral abruptly or driving at great speeds. Slowing a vehicle down and cutting off its wheel functions drastically could lead to on-road accidents.
Lastly, veer away from switching your vehicle into neutral at red lights. Because cars always roll downhill in neutral, shifting to this state at a traffic stop or intersection decreases your ability to react quickly before depressing the gas pedal or putting your vehicle back on drive mode. At best, you risk coasting backward into another car while waiting for lights to turn green. At worst, you can get into an accident that could have been easily avoided by just using parking brakes.
Conclusion – What Is Neutral in a Car?
The information I have shared with you in this article should enable you to utilize the neutral setting under the right circumstances — and with confidence. Doing so will help you add to your car’s performance and the longevity of its drivetrain components and get yourself out of risky situations when it matters.