Dear Car Talk:
I've got a black 2004 Toyota Corolla. The last time I took it to the shop, my mechanic said my clutch was "a little sloppy." He's not one for long explanations, but I got the impression that meant I was getting close to needing a new one. What things can I do to keep a sloppy clutch "tidy" (i.e. last through grad school)? And how will I know when it needs replacing? Will there be a big bang or something? -- Scott
What your mechanic probably noticed, Scott, is that the clutch pedal is engaging near the top of its range. When the car was new, the clutch probably engaged when the pedal was about in the middle of its travel (halfway between the floor, and when it's all the way up). Like the frog in the pot of water that's slowly heating up (please don't send hate mail, PETA friends, no frogs were harmed in the use of this metaphor), you haven't noticed the change, because it changes by a microscopic amount every day.
Your Corolla has a self-adjusting clutch. And as the clutch disc wears out, what you'll notice is that the engagement point of the pedal moves further and further from the floor. What your mechanic is telling you is that there's not much adjustment room left and, at some point, you'll need to replace the clutch. He's probably licking his chops right now, poring over the Evinrude catalogue.
How will you know when your time is up? Well, eventually the friction material on the clutch disc will be completely gone, and when you let out the clutch, the car won't move. Before that, you probably will notice some slipping. When you step on the gas, you may notice that the engine speed goes up, but the car doesn't seem to be going any faster. This would be particularly noticeable when going up hills in high gear, on hard acceleration, or when carrying two or more mothers-in-law in the back seat. That's your sign to start taking night classes and move up your graduation date.
And short of parking the car and not driving it, there's not much you can do to extend the life of the clutch. If you drive well, and don't "ride" the clutch (use a lot of gas and take a long time to engage each gear), you're already doing what you can. Other than that, avoid stop-and-go traffic -- and driving in San Francisco -- and hope you make it to graduation. Good luck, Scott.