In this article you’re going to learn how to save money with proper car transmission maintenance. You’ll be able to spot transmission leaking and slipping and avoid costly transmission repair and replacement with proper car maintenance.
Even first-time drivers and car owners learn quickly to dread the words, “Looks like the problem is with the transmission.” Transmission problems are notorious for coming with a hefty price tag, but they can be mitigated through proper vigilance and maintenance, and sometimes a little luck. Barring factors outside of your control, however, such as accidents, build quality, and system failures, the factors that actively affect the life-expectancy of your transmission are:
- Maintenance (Regular service appointments and spotting issues early.)
- Lubrication (Transmission fluid. Affects the “feel and slip” of the gear shift.)
- Heat (Responsible for fluid breakdown and failing components.)
These you can control, but how? To answer that, we’ll discuss what transmissions do for your vehicle, the difference between manual and automatic, how to spot warning signs, and what you can expect with standard transmission services.
What Does the Transmission Do?
To understand how maintenance, lubrication, and heat play a role in transmission longevity, it’s important to understand what transmissions do and how what you do as the vehicle operator affects its performance and life-expectancy.
Simply put, your vehicle’s transmission has a specific job and that job is to allocate the right amount of power to the wheels to achieve a given speed. This is accomplished with gears in the same way that a multi-speed bike uses gears to assist the cyclist in achieving higher speeds with reduced effort.
We know that problems with the bike chain affects the functionality of the bike in a big way. No chain and the bike won’t work. Period. And if the chain is in too high of a gear starting out, you won’t be able to get the bike moving from a stand-still. The bicycle must be operated (and maintained) in a specific way in order for it to function, function well, and keep functioning for a long period of time.
What’s the Difference between a Manual Transmission and an Automatic Transmission?
In the case of manual transmission vehicles, or stick-shifts, how long the transmission lasts will be unavoidably impacted by how smoothly the driver is able to shift gears using the clutch. When you’re not careful, you can “grind the gears,” which will affect performance over time. As automatic transmissions gain prevalence, however, it’s gotten harder to conceptualize what “shifting gears” actually means in layman’s terms, but how this is done is the fundamental difference between the two types of transmissions.
In essence, a manual transmission is a larger, more powerful version of a multi-speed bike’s gear shifter, but without the chain. The chain connects the engine (you plus the bike pedals) to the transmission (the gears), and in the act of shifting gears up or down as you seek to gain or lose speed, the chain must be briefly disconnected from the gears before it can be dropped or raised to the next gear level. In a manual transmission vehicle, this disconnection is facilitated with the clutch. As you press the clutch with your foot, the engine and transmission are disconnected, allowing you to freely slide into a new gear before releasing the clutch once again, reengaging the engine with the transmission, and going on your way.
Conversely, automatic transmissions use a torque converter, or a complex hydraulic circuit, to automatically apply and release clutches and shift gears as you accelerate and decelerate. The only effort required from the driver is applying pressure to the gas and brake pedals.
While it may be true that manual transmissions require less maintenance in general than automatic, and the vehicles themselves are typically less expensive, it’s hard to beat the convenience of automatic transmissions. They do all the gear-shifting for you and it’s easy to see why today more than 96% of vehicles on American roads have automatic transmissions. Thirty years ago, that number was 71%, and in 2013, it was reported that 67% of cars manufactured for that model year were exclusively available as automatics.
Which Would You Buy?
Among car enthusiasts, manuals are often lauded as offering the better driving experience, with a Popular Mechanics writer describing manual transmission vehicles as “more engaging and fun” than their automatic counterparts, while “requiring more skill and making the driving a better one.”
However, as inroads in vehicle technology are made (pun intended), the makers of luxury vehicles and supercars such as Porsche, Lamborghini, and McLaren, opt for semi-manual, “clutchless” shifting features that compromise the experience of manual driving with the improved performance of computer-controlled transmissions, which eliminate the human lag of shifting gears.
Understanding that most automotive shops that offer transmission repair are equipped to work on both manual and automatic transmissions, including Dickerson, what’s your personal preference?
How are the Two Transmissions Similar?
Despite their differences, both types of transmissions are picky about the fluid that makes them functional. Every vehicle’s transmission requires a very specific type, grade, and quantity of transmission fluid in order to maintain peak performance and longevity. The type of transmission fluid your vehicle requires is determined by the manufacturer, and the owner’s manual should be carefully consulted. Proper maintenance continues to be key for both manual and automatic transmissions.
Spotting the Signs of Automatic Transmission Failure
If you’ve ever had the experience of switching from a manual transmission vehicle to an automatic, it probably felt awkward keeping both hands on the wheel without interruption. Gone was the need to grab the stick-shift or step on the clutch every time you sped up or slowed down. In many ways, the less that is required of the driver to operate the vehicle, the more attention they can pay to the road, and the more vigilant they will need to be to the signs that the transmission is failing.
- Transmission Slipping: When driving a manual, you typically know when you’re having trouble getting into gear because you’re the one failing to do so. In an automatic, it will feel like the transmission is shifting gears for no apparent reason as you’re driving. This is slipping. The vehicle will struggle to accelerate as it should and the engine will whine.
- Rough Shifting: You’ll hardly notice when a healthy automatic transmission changes gears, which is why rough shifting is a clear sign that something is wrong. Instead of a smooth transition, you will hear and feel clunking and thudding when the car shifts and struggles to gain speed.
- Delayed Engagement: This sign of trouble will happen when you’re shifting out of Park and into Drive. You’ll find yourself waiting for the car to move forward even after you’ve applied the gas. The engine will rev without effect for a moment before the transmission finally engages into Drive.
- Transmission Fluid Leaking: If you find leak spots under your parked car at all, it’s a sign that your car needs some TLC, and the color of the fluid will give you a clue about what the source of the issue could be. Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is generally a bright red to give it some distinction from motor oil and other fluids contained within the vehicle. But that fluid can also turn into a dark red or brown, which can be an indication of greater issues.*
*Never attempt to refill ATF on your own. You risk either overfilling, using the wrong type of fluid, or both, and each can result in much larger problems, such as transmission malfunction and other forms of severe (and expensive) damage.
All About Automatic Transmission Fluid
Remember the three factors that affect the health of your transmission—maintenance, lubrication, and heat? Well, automatic transmission fluid plays a pivotal role in all three. This means that the best thing you can do to prolong the life expectancy of your transmission is to make sure that the ATF that keeps it functional is in good condition.
The ATF moderates heat and pressure within the transmission as well as the feel and slip of the gear changes, or shifts. The hotter the transmission runs over the time, the greater the wear and tear on parts as well as the fluid itself. This is why heavy to severe use that generates a great deal of prolonged heat will affect a transmission’s lifespan, such as with plow trucks and towing vehicles.
There are more than 50 types of ATF on the market, and the formulas are in no way one-size-fits-all for any given transmission. The amount of slip varies with each type and modern transmissions are built to very close tolerances that are intended to function with a specific type of fluid “slipperiness.” When any one of the following happens, the interplay between the fluid and the transmission components is compromised, leading to component degradation and eventual transmission failure:
- The ATF is too old or breaking down.
- The wrong type of fluid is used.
- The right type of fluid is used but in the wrong quantities.
Checking Fluid Level and Condition
Many automatic transmission vehicles allow for the operator to check the condition of the ATF via dipstick, while manual transmissions have a filler plug that can be opened and a cotton ball dipped inside to check the fluid’s color and smell. Unlike the process for checking engine oil, the car should be running as the fluid should be warm before checking it. Here’s what you’re looking for:
- Smell: A burned smell is an indication of overheating while the smell of gas, coolant, or oil may be a sign of leakage elsewhere and contamination.
- Color: As stated before, ATF is generally bright red, but with a clean white rag, you can clean off the dipstick and compare the color to a fresh fluid sample for a more precise measure of variation. Old fluid will darken as it degrades.
Only a qualified service technician should be trusted with replacing your ATF, but the most reliable measure of how often you should replace it depends on manufacturer and service technician recommendation.
What to Expect with Transmission Services
When transmission trouble rears its ugly head, you have three options, each with varying degrees of time and cost:
As maintenance item that should be seen to regularly, transmission flushes may also fix minor slipping and shifting issues when they arise. It’s generally the first step of repair, costs range $80.00 for a drain and refill and as much as $300.00 for a complete exchange. Discuss with your Service Center how often a flush should be done as a preventative measure, but recommendations include every 15,000 miles if operating in extreme conditions. But in most cases they are often recommend every 30,000 to 50,000 miles.
When a leak happens, it’s commonly caused by a crack in the pan gasket, a breached axle seal, or fluid seepage. It’s a risky venture to keep driving a car with a transmission leak, especially if you haven’t noticed other signs of trouble yet. All of the problems listed above—slipping, rough shifting, and delayed engagement—will either appear or get worse over time, leading to hazardous driving conditions and an even larger price tag when parts start taking damage.
Contact Dickerson Auto the moment you suspect a leak. Early detection and repair are critical in keeping the transmission healthy. Leaks repairs are typically much less than repairing the damage that can result from the leak.
Signs of issues with the pressure control solenoids are trouble shifting and overshifting, because the solenoids control the flow of ATF within the transmission, using fluid pressure to shift gears. It’s often recommended to replace all solenoids at once because of the amount of work and cost it takes to replace even one. It’s not something you’d want to do on separate occasions.
Replacing solenoids is considered a “middle-of-the-road” repair, because the cost can vary dramatically but are far below the costs of an intensive rebuild or replacement: between $400 and $1200, typically, depending on how many solenoids are replaced.
In a transmission rebuild, only the parts that have failed are replaced. Often these parts are the seals, gaskets, clutch, bands, solenoids, torque converter, etc. The shop will disassemble the transmission entirely, clean each part individually, replace the failed parts, and then reassemble the transmission. Costs for a rebuild range between $3,800 and $5,800. Many times this will end up costing you as much as a replacement depending on the amount of damaged parts that need replacing.
This may seem like the most expensive option in the lineup of transmission services; however this is often times the best option. This type of repair can be estimated with little to no variables as the price is not determined by the how many parts are bad. This option in most cases will provide a very good long term nationwide warranty. In most cases this warranty will be 3 years or 100,000 miles.
It is often referred to as “re-manufacturing,” as the manufacturer will replace the transmission entirely with modified parts that have been updated to pre-built factory specifications. This is generally the best option as the transmissions are remanufactured in a very controlled process; this typically results in much higher quality. Typically costs range from $3,800 to $6,000.
At the first sign of transmission trouble, contact Dickerson Automotive so we can diagnose and repair the issue as soon as possible. Our goal is to save you money and keep you on the road with a safe and reliable vehicle.