Car Vibrates In Drive But Not In Neutral: Curious Case Your Ride Might Face!

It’s an all-too-familiar story—your car vibrates in drive, but not in neutral. You worry that it’s a sign of a major problem waiting to happen… but what could it be?

In this blog post, I’m here to tell you that there are a few potential causes for car vibration in drive, but not in neutral—and many of them don’t require a huge investment in time or money to fix.

If your car vibrates in drive but not in neutral, possible issues could be in the engine, transmission, or tires. Evaluate the tires for even wear and ensure they’re properly inflated. Also, inspect engine mounts, belts, and timing chains. Transmission issues, like low or contaminated fluid, can impede smooth power transfer, leading to vibrations. Faulty wheel bearings may also cause your car to vibrate in drive.

Bonus Read: Car won’t move in any gear in automatic transmission

Causes Of Car Vibrates In Drive But Not In Neutral

The vibrations in your car can vary depending on the gear you are in. For example, if your car vibrates at idle but smooths out while driving, it could be a sign that the transmission is having trouble shifting into gear

Here are the causes of car vibrating in drive but not in neutral:

1. Bad Motor or Transmission Mounts

bad motor mounts

When you’re driving your car, you may notice that it vibrates more when you’re in drive than when you’re in neutral. If this is the case, it could be caused by bad motor or transmission mounts.

Motor and transmission mounts are rubber or metal components that attach the engine and transmission to the vehicle’s frame. They are designed to keep your engine and transmission from bouncing around and vibrating too much while your car is driving.

When these mounts start to wear out, they lose their ability to absorb and dampen the vibrations from your engine and transmission.

This can cause excessive vibration when your car is in drive. The vibration is caused by the engine and transmission moving around in the engine bay, as the mounts are unable to keep them steady.

How to spot?

To test for bad motor or transmission mounts, you can try a few simple steps. First, try putting the car in drive, but keep your foot hard on the brake. Then gas it so the engine lifts (assuming you have OEM mounts). If the engine looks like it rocks excessively, it could be bad mounts.

Here are some tips for inspecting the motor and transmission mounts:

  1. Check for loose bolts: Inspect the motor and transmission mounts for any loose bolts. If the bolts are loose, it could mean that the mount is worn out and needs to be replaced.
  2. Check the rubber: Inspect the rubber of the motor and transmission mounts for any cracks or tears. If the rubber is cracked or torn, it will need to be replaced.
  3. Check the mounting bracket: Inspect the mounting bracket of the motor and transmission mounts for any signs of wear or damage. If there is wear or damage, it could be a sign that the mount is worn out.

The location of motor mounts depends on the vehicle. You should check the owner’s manual to find the location of the motor and transmission mounts.

Also Read: Car jerks when shifting to reverse

2. Bad CV Joint

bad cv joint

If you have got FWD vehicle and it vibrates while in drive, chances are that your vehicle has bad CV joints.

A CV joint (constant velocity joint) is a component of the drivetrain of a vehicle and is responsible for transferring power from the transmission to the wheels.

The CV joint is connected to the drive shaft, which is what spins the wheels. If the CV joint becomes worn or damaged, it can cause a vibration that will be felt when the car is put in drive, but not in neutral.

When a CV joint becomes bad, torque from the transmission is not smoothly transferred to the wheels via CV joints, due to which your vehicle may vibrate when accelerating or even shifting from drive to reverse.

How to spot? 

CV joints are filled with grease to keep them lubricated and help them to move smoothly.

If the CV joint is leaking grease, then this could be a sign that it is damaged and needs to be replaced. You should check if the rubber boot of the CV joint is cracked or not.

Another way to detect a bad CV joint is to check for play in the joint. This can be done by pushing and pulling on the CV joint and feeling for any movement. If there is any play in the joint, it is likely that it needs to be replaced. 

3. Damaged Drivetrain

A car’s drive train connects the engine to the wheels and transfers power from the engine to the drive wheels. 

The transmission works with a series of interlocking gears that must have a certain amount of contact with each other in order to work properly.

If there is a backlash (space) in the gears, it can cause a vibration that is felt in the car because the power from the engine is not being transferred correctly.

Another common cause of drivetrain vibrations is a damaged transaxle shaft bearing in your FWD vehicle. This bearing is responsible for connecting the transmission to the differential, which then transmits power to the wheels.

If the bearing is damaged, it can cause a vibration that is felt when the car is in gear, but not in neutral. The vibration can be a result of the bearing not being able to handle the power of the engine. 

You can watch the below video to understand transaxle in FWD:

4. Uneven Tire Wear

Uneven tire wear can cause a car to vibrate, shimmy, and shake when in drive, but not when in neutral.

The vibration is caused by the tires spinning at different speeds, as the unevenly worn tires are not able to rotate at the same speed. This causes an imbalance in the wheels, which results in vibration.

At its most basic, an engine’s crankshaft and transmission turn the car’s wheels, which in turn move the car forward.

When the tires are worn unevenly, they don’t make contact with the road in the same way, leading to a vibration when the car is in motion. When in neutral, the tires aren’t spinning and therefore won’t cause the vibration.

Uneven tire wear can occur for a few different reasons, including:

  • Driving habits: The way you drive can also contribute to uneven tire wear. If you’re in the habit of making sharp turns or frequent stops and starts, it can cause the tire to wear down faster on one side than the other.
  • Tire alignment: Having your car’s suspension and steering systems properly aligned is important for even tire wear. If your car’s alignment is off, it can cause your tires to wear unevenly.
  • Incorrect Tire Pressure: If your tires are not inflated to the correct pressure, it can cause them to wear unevenly. Low tire pressure can cause the tire to bulge out on one side, resulting in faster wear.
  • Tire alignment: Having your car’s suspension and steering systems properly aligned is important for even tire wear. If your car’s alignment is off, it can cause your tires to wear unevenly.

How to spot?

Here’s how uneven tires with underinflation and overinflation:

signs of uneven tire wear

5. Low or Bad Transmission Fluid

The transmission fluid is constantly forced through the transmission to lubricate the torque converter, absorb the heat and maintain an optimum pressure inside the valve body to engage clutches and shift gears.

When the transmission fluid is low or bad, it can cause a whole host of problems, one of which is a vibration in the car when it is in drive but not in neutral.

This is because the lack of lubrication and protection from the transmission fluid affects the transmission’s ability to operate efficiently. The result is a vibration that can be felt in the car while driving but not in neutral.

Furthermore, when you put your car in drive mode, the engine is connected to the transmission via torque converter. 

If transmission fluid is low, the torque converter will not be able to smoothly transfer engine power to the transmission. As a result, the car vibrates in drive mode but not in neutral.

The fluid in automatic transmissions oxidizes and breaks down over time just like any other lubricant when working in extreme temperatures.

In addition, the constant contact between the gears in the drivetrain produces small metal shavings that can cause a lot of damage to the rest of the transmission.

This affects the quality of the transmission fluid. As a result, delayed gear shifts are experienced and transmission shudders.

How to spot?

You should first check the color of the transmission fluid. If it is brownish or black, the transmission needs to be flushed.

If the transmission fluid has a reddish tint, it is fine. But, make sure that the level of transmission fluid must be between high and low marks on the dipstick.

6. Damaged Wheel Bearings

If you feel vibrations under steering wheel, the chances are that wheel bearings are damaged.

At the center of a vehicle’s wheels, there are hollow pieces of metal called “hubs”. Wheel bearings fit tightly within those hubs and run on the shaft of the axle.

When a wheel bearing is damaged, it can cause uneven wear on the tire and suspension components. This can cause the car to vibrate, especially at higher speeds. It can also cause the steering wheel to become difficult to turn. The vibrations can be felt in the steering wheel, the accelerator pedal, or even the seat of the vehicle.

How to spot?

To verify whether a wheel bearing is damaged or not, swerve slightly from left to right and see if the sound of humming changes its pitch. If it does, the bearings of the wheel are damaged.

Another way to test damaged wheel bearings is to raise the car off the ground and spin the wheel. If there is a noticeable wobble, that can be a sign of a damaged wheel bearing.

7. Bad Tie Rod

Tie rods are one of the most important components of the steering mechanism. They are connected to the steering knuckle and act as the link between the wheels and the chassis. They are responsible for transferring the power from the engine to the wheels and ensuring that the car moves in the desired direction.

If there is something wrong with the tie rods, the car will not be able to steer properly and may experience excessive vibration when driving.

When a tie rod is worn out or damaged, it can cause a car to vibrate. This is because the rod is no longer able to securely connect the steering knuckle to the steering rack.

As a result, the steering knuckle is free to move independently of the steering rack, resulting in vibration. This is particularly noticeable when the car is in the drive but not in neutral.

How to spot?

Tie rods have rubber boots and ball joints. You should visually inspect them and see if they are damaged.

Final Thoughts About Car Vibrating In Drive But Not In Neutral

In summary, car vibrations when driving but not in neutral can stem from multiple culprits like worn engine/transmission mounts, CV joint issues, drivetrain damage, uneven tire wear, low transmission fluid, bad wheel bearings or tie rods.

Thorough inspections of mounts, boots, tires, fluid levels and steering components can identify the root cause. Replacing damaged parts, realigning wheels, adding fluid and balancing tires resolves vibrations.

Regular maintenance helps reduce wear on these components. Addressing vibrations quickly prevents further drivetrain damage.

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