Automatic transmissions play an essential role in cars, enabling drivers to change gears easily. Unfortunately, that convenience comes with a downside – if your transmission fails, you’ll probably find yourself without a working vehicle. Needless to say, understanding automatic transmission maintenance can help keep your car running smoothly. 

How Do I Know if My Automatic Transmission Is Failing?

If your vehicle has trouble accelerating, leaks fluid, shakes while moving, or you start to hear a grinding noise coming from the engine bay while driving, your transmission may be in trouble. You should also keep an eye (and nose, and ear) out for a burning smell, gear slippage, and a dragging clutch. Today, we’ve got ten automatic transmission maintenance tips that will help you head off problems before you find yourself in need of a tow.  

1: Understand Your Transmission Fluid and What It Does

Transmission fluid provides sufficient lubrication, friction, and hydraulic pressure to prevent malfunctions. The fluid also acts as a coolant for the transmission. 

Low transmission fluid is one of the most common causes of automatic transmission failure. Signs of low transmission fluid include a burning odor, fluid leaks, and gear slippage. The latter happens when fluid runs low, making it harder for gears to shift smoothly. If you notice that changing gears becomes more difficult, it may be time to get your transmission looked at by a professional.

Routinely checking your transmission fluid levels (along with your oil, coolant, and other fluids) can help prevent your transmission from going bad or running low.

A detailed side-view of an automatic transmission.
A detailed side-view of an automatic transmission.

2: Know Where to Find Your Transmission Fluid

Quality transmission care involves knowing where to find your vehicle’s transmission fluid. In many makes and models, transmission fluid is located near the oil dipstick in the engine bay, marked with a red, pink, or yellow cap. You can consult your owner’s manual if unsure where your vehicle holds transmission fluid. 

3: How to Check Your Transmission Fluid

To check your transmission fluid, your car may need to be on and in either park or neutral. It works the same way as checking your oil – take the dipstick out, wipe it down, then put it back into the fluid and pull it out again. Check the level against the markings on the dipstick. If the fluid is gritty and/or dark, you may want to change it or schedule a checkup soon. Transmission fluid is generally red or pinkish when new. 

4: When Should You Change Your Transmission Fluid?

As we mentioned earlier, gritty or dark transmission fluid is old and should be changed as soon as possible. Black fluid can indicate overheating inside your transmission. In most cases, all you need is a good transmission flush.

You can step up your automatic transmission maintenance by having a professional mechanic check the sump pump, clean the pan, and replace the pan gasket. Having the filter checked and changed can also prevent dirty transmission fluid and save you a lot of money in the long run.

A mechanic completes automatic transmission maintenance by pouring transmission fluid into a car.
Most transmission fluid is red or pinkish when it’s new.

5: Transmission Fluid Leaks and What to Do About Them

Transmission fluid leaks tend to happen near the middle of most cars. If you notice a puddle underneath your vehicle, you may want to check if it’s reddish and smells a little like gas. If the answer is “yes,” you probably want to schedule a maintenance checkup as soon as possible – leaking transmission could indicate an engine leak. 

6: What Happens if You Drive With Low Transmission Fluid?

Driving with low amounts of transmission fluid can damage your transmission and engine. It may also cause slippage, resulting in costly repairs.

Looking for indicators of low transmission fluid levels? Watch out for a warning light on your dashboard indicating overheating transmission fluid. Often accompanied by a burning smell, you should get your vehicle into the shop as soon as possible if you notice either. Periodically check your transmission fluid levels to make sure you’re not running low.

 7: Know How to Drain Your Transmission Fluid

If your transmission fluid has gone bad or you just want to drain and replace it for preventative maintenance’s sake, taking the proper steps is important. First, you should check your levels and the color of the transmission fluid. Next, take the car for a short drive and check the color again. If the fluid is dark red or black, it’s time to drain it. After that, you just need to get a ramp for your car, a torque wrench, and a drain pan.

Lift your car using a jack and place the drain pan underneath it. Pull the plug on your transmission fluid pan and check for leaks. Afterward, drain the fluid into the pan, check for corrosion or a dark color, and clear out any remaining fluid. Replace the gasket and filter, then fill it with fresh transmission fluid.

A disassembled automatic transmission.
Parts of a disassembled automatic transmission.

8: Using the Right Transmission Fluid

Using the correct transmission fluid is vital if you want your vehicle to have a long life. If you drive an automatic, you’ll need automatic transmission fluid. Anything else can ruin your transmission and possibly your engine. A mechanical brand helps lubricate gears, provides adequate friction for your clutch and brake band, and ensures smooth operation of the valve and torque.

9: What if Water Gets in Your Transmission?

Water in your transmission is dangerous because it causes corrosion in the transmission itself. Consequently, your gears won’t shift, making your car unsafe to drive. Flushing and replacing contaminated transmission fluid is your best bet. 

 10: Can Your Car Run Without Transmission Fluid?

In most cases, no. Without transmission fluid, your car probably can’t shift gears or increase speed. 

Practicing good automatic transmission maintenance can help you avoid expensive problems. Looking for more car care tips and tricks? Good news! October is car care month over on our tik tok, so keep an eye out for helpful (and humorous) car care videos all month long. 

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