The shift cable both pushes and pulls as it operates, so it’s a relatively rigid steel cable in a relatively stiff housing. On an automatic transmission, the shift cable connects from the driver’s shift lever to the shift lever on the transmission.
If the shift lever is on the steering column, then, the cable runs from there, under the dash, and through a grommet on the firewall, then, to the transmission. If the shift lever is on the center console, the cable will be attached there and run directly to the shift lever on the transmission.
Indications that there might be a shift cable problem would be stiffness or looseness in shifts, or in the case of a broken cable end, an inability to shift.
Costs of Shift Cable Replacement
Illustrated below are some estimates on the shifter cable replacement cost on some common automatic transmission vehicles, using $100 an hour as a labor rate:
For a 2005 Silverado 1500 four-wheel-drive with a 5.3-liter engine, the labor time to replace the shift cable around 1.1 hours. A factory shift cable costs about $179, and a Pioneer cable costs about $77. The total cost to complete the job would be about $289 using OE parts, or about $187 using aftermarket parts.
For a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta with a 2-liter engine and automatic transmission, the labor time to replace the shift cable is estimated at 1.4 hours. A factory shift cable costs about $170, and a Dorman cable costs about $89. This job would take about $310 in total costs using OE parts, or about $229 using aftermarket parts.
For a 2001 Toyota Highlander with a 3-liter engine and an automatic transmission, the labor time to replace the shift cable is about 1.4 hours. A factory replacement cable costs about $393, and an RZX part costs about $60. That makes the job about $533 in total costs using OE parts, or about $200 using aftermarket parts.
For a 2000 Honda Civic with a 2-liter engine and an automatic transmission, the labor time to replace the shift cable is estimated at 1.4 hours. A factory cable costs about $115, making the job about $255 in total costs.
Shift Cable Replacement
Replacement involved disconnecting both ends of the shift cable and unbolting or detaching any attaching clips, pulling the firewall grommet if there is one, then, removing the cable.
In most cases, there are panels either on the center console or on the column and under the dash that needs to be removed. Often, things in the engine compartment need to be moved out of the way to access the transmission lever.
One additional thing is that the cable adjustment needs to be set. Some older models use a threaded section on the cable that allows the length to be effectively adjusted.
Most newer vehicles have a plastic locking mechanism with a procedure where the lock is released, the cable is set in a particular gear on both ends, then, the lock is secured down.
Shift Cable Replacement on Manual Transmission Vehicles
There are far fewer manual transmission vehicles produced than automatic transmission vehicles these days. Most manual transmissions are shifted with a lever that acts directly on a shift forks. Some operate the shift forks with levers, and then, some do use cables between the shift knob and the transmission.
For a couple of examples, a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta with a 2.0-liter engine and a manual transmission uses a pair of shift cables between the shift lever and the transmission. A factory cable assembly costs about $123 and the labor time is estimated at 2.7 hours, making the job to replace the shift cables about $393 in total costs.
For a 2002 Saturn SL with a dual overhead cam 2-liter engine and a manual transmission, a cable assembly from the shifter lever is used. The labor time to replace the shift cable is around 2.2 hours. A factory part costs about $185, and an ATP cable costs about $48. The total cost to complete the job would be about $425 using OE parts, or about $268 using aftermarket parts.
The problems that occur with shift cables are about the same whether they are used on automatic or manual transmissions. The metal cables themselves are designed to slide freely inside of low-friction sleeves.
Age and wear can lead to the sleeve binding on the cable or allowing slack in the cable movement and imprecise shifting. The end attachment points can break off.
The complex plastic cable adjustment mechanism is also prone to breakage, especially if an older cable has to be removed and reset. And sometimes, if a rigid cable is bent during other work, it can develop a binding problem.