10 Most Common Transmission Problems

Determining what problem(s) your car has may seem like an impossible task, especially to the untrained eyes and ears of the average driver. It may be helpful to think of your car’s inner workings as similar to that of the human body. For instance, if you have chest pain that could point toward any number of health issues, but if the chest pain exists in addition to difficulty breathing, then it is much more likely that asthma (or something very similar) is the cause. Automotive problems are diagnosed in a similar manner. Problems that involve mechanical systems typically exhibit distinct sensations and sounds that act as indicators that a certain process isn’t working the way it is intended to. As soon as you recognize that something seems a bit “off” with your vehicle’s functionality, it is time to assess the issue and look for a way to fix it.

Diagnosing car problems yourself may seem like an impossible task, but try to think of it in terms of your own body. For instance, if your stomach begins to hurt without warning, you’ll probably start thinking of the last thing you ate in order to figure out why you’re having the pain. A similar type of thinking goes into diagnosing car trouble. The moment you start noticing something out of the ordinary, it’s time to start considering the problem and finding a way to fix it.

Automatic Transmission Cut AwayYour car’s transmission is a complex mechanical system that controls the application of power from the engine to the driveshaft. It experiences more wear and tear over time than most other parts of your vehicle due to the heat and friction produced by their many moving and interacting components. Major issues are bound to arise if your transmission is not well maintained and/or symptoms of a problem are not checked by a professional soon after they develop.

Transmission repairs or replacements are inconvenient, stressful and typically quite expensive, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to any activity that seems unusual. Adhering to the recommended maintenance procedures and schedule intended to prevent problems will help your transmission last longer, perform better and require fewer repairs over its lifespan. That said, if you’re having some car trouble, it is important to know what the most common types of transmission problems are so that you can easily diagnose them and get them fixed. Here is a list of 10 symptoms of transmission trouble and what signs you should look for.

Lack of Response

Ever notice that while driving that the car hesitates or refuses to go into gear? If you have, then there is definitely something wrong. The moment a driver shifts from park to drive the car should immediately go into the proper gear. For automatic transmissions, you might notice that when shifting into drive or park that there is a delay before you feel the gear engage. This is usually a transmission-based concern. Manual transmissions can have the same lacking response issue, but after shifting into gear the engine’s RPMs will surge, but the car won’t move as fast as the engine sounds like it’s going. This is usually caused by a clutch that needs to be replaced, but may sometimes point to a more severe problem.

Whining, Clunking and Humming

It’s impossible to say exactly what your car will sound like when there is trouble with your transmission, but one thing is for sure, you’ll get a “I haven’t heard that sound before” feeling when you notice it. The sounds that are produced vary widely between different makes and models, but the best way to describe them is that you’ll probably hear a humming, buzzing or whining noise.

Manual transmissions will emit sounds that can be described as being slightly more mechanical, louder and abrupt sounding. A clunking sounds when you shift gears almost always lies within a transmission, while constant velocity joins or the differential may be the source if the clunking is coming from the underside of your car.

As mentioned already, it is always best to get the problem diagnosed and repaired as soon as possible and not wait until later when you “find the time” or “have the money”. If you wait until later what would have been a relatively inexpensive repair can easily become a much more costly one.

Leaking/Low Fluid

New Automatic Transmission FluidA leak is probably the most recognizable symptom and should be repaired as soon as possible. Letting the fluid leak is one of the most common causes transmission break down. Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is the life-blood of a transmission as it lubricates, cleans and conditions the seals and acts as hydraulic fluid. Without it (or even if it gets too low), the engine will seize up and stop working completely.

ATF is bright red in color, clear and smells somewhat sweet if everything is working correctly. If this is what you find on your driveway, then all that needs to be fixed is the hole. If the fluid is dark and/or has a burnt smell then it’s time to get the fluid changed or flushed and repairs might be required. To check if you’re running low on fluid, take your car for a short drive to warm it up and then lift the hood and read the dipstick (be sure the vehicle is on level ground). Unlike motor oil, transmission fluid is not burned off or consumed by a car so if the level is low then there is a leak somewhere that must be patched. It is recommended to top up the fluid anyway even if the leak still exists to make sure there is enough fluid for the transmission to function properly until you get it fixed.

To check the fluid level for a manual transmission, you must check at the transmission case (usually through the fill plug) – not with a dipstick under the hood.

Grinding or Shaking

A car is supposed to run smoothly and without any shaking, or jerking, and there is not supposed to be any grinding sounds. These all suggest that there is a problem with the gears. Manual transmissions commonly indicate problems by making a grinding noise or feeling when you shift into a gear. If the grinding occurs after engaging the clutch and shifting, this can be sign that the clutch may need to be replaced or adjusted. That said, it can also point towards several other issues including damaged or worn out gear synchronizes.

Automatic transmissions act a little differently. Instead of making a grinding noise, you will likely feel it take some time to wiggle into gear at first instead of the typical smooth transitions. As the problem gets worse, the transitions into the next gear become more jarring and involve more shaking. There are a few other reasons for grinding or shaking, but the appropriate course of action is still to have it inspected and serviced.

Burning Smell

Sign of Transmission ProblemsAny burning smell coming from your car is a cause for concern. Overheating transmission fluid is one of the causes of a burning smell. Transmission fluid helps keep the parts lubricated and cooled so that they don’t get worn out and damaged. If the fluid breaks down, the system runs too hot which it results in increased friction and corrosive activity as well as the build up of additional sludge and debris. If this is not taken care of, the transmission will eventually damage itself enough to break down completely. The end result is an expensive replacement. Common causes include low fluid level or using the incorrect brand/type of fluid. To check for these, see the instructions in the section on Low/Leaking Fluid above.

Refuses to Go Into Gear

If the car will not shift after engaging the clutch and trying to move the stick, take a look at the fluid to make sure that it is at the right level. Other causes include using the incorrect thickness (type) of fluid and the clutch linkage or shift cables needing adjustment. The source of the problem could also be the vehicle’s computer system. If you’ve already inspected the fluid, you can try resetting it. To do this, detach the battery and let it stand for thirty minutes. Then, reattach and allow the system to reset itself. This usually takes around thirty minutes. If this doesn’t work either, then it’s time to take it to a mechanic.

Check Engine Light

Check Engine LightThe check engine light located on your car’s dashboard is a great early indicator that something is about to go wrong (or already has) with your car, and in particular with your transmission. While the light turns on for a number of reasons other than transmission issues, it very important not to ignore this helpful warning sign. There are sensors placed in many areas of a car’s engine that alert the computer if it senses unusual activity coming from a particular process. The sensors on a transmission can pick up on the slightest jerks and vibrations than you are not able to see or feel.

Take the vehicle in and have it inspected. They can take look and immediately tell what is happening through the use of similar diagnostic tools and the car’s computer. If you’d like to diagnose the problem yourself (and possibly save yourself a trip to the mechanic’s) you can buy a diagnostic scan tool that is plugged into the instrument panel on the driver’s side and return a code that corresponds to the part that needs attention. Whatever you do, do not assume that the check engine light can wait because it might be warning you of a serious problem in the near future.

Transmission Noisy in Neutral

Luckily, a transmission that is noisy (goes “bump”) when it is in neutral could have an inexpensive, simple solution such as adding some fluid or changing it. This could do the trick, as it does for several other issues on this list. If that doesn’t work, the transmission may require professional attention to replace worn out parts, most commonly the bearings, worn gear teeth or the reverse idler gear.

Gears Slipping

A transmission stays in a designated gear until a shift is performed by the driver (manual) or the computer (automatic). If the transmission is spontaneously slipping in an out of gear (or simply popping into neutral) while driving, I don’t need to tell you that this is a serious safety risk. When you need to step on the gas to avoid a dangerous situation, you need power delivered to the wheels, end of story. The cause can be the link that holds the gears is worn or broken. Get your car inspected and repaired as soon as possible.

Dragging Clutch

A dragging clutch describes the symptom experienced by manual transmissions that involves the clutch disk failing to disengage the flywheel when the clutch pedal is pressed. The clutch is still spinning with the engine which makes it anywhere from difficult to impossible to change gears. This difficulty is accompanied by a grinding noise each time you try to change gears. Fortunately, this problem is considerably less expensive to repair than many other issues. More often than not, the cause of this is too much slack in the clutch pedal. With too much slack available, the linkage between the clutch disk and pedal can’t pull the clutch disk away from the flywheel.

Conclusion

It is important to keep up a regular maintenance schedule for your car. Many times major expensive repairs can be avoided if the vehicle is properly maintained. This is especially true if you notice something unusual. The car should be taken in immediately for service. Brushing up on your knowledge of transmissions (at least the basics) is highly recommended as it can help you save money by avoiding costly inspections and doing simple procedures such as changing transmission fluid yourself as well as making you knowledgeable enough to avoid being over-repaired, over charged or simply ripped off.

Over to You

Which of these problems are you experiencing with your vehicle?

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  1. paul says:

    Neutral and park gears no problem, but drive, 1st, 2nd and reverse engages when in gear off and on as each one is tested. This truck is a Dodge B250 318 5.2l 2 barrel carb. 90,000 miles. I bought this unit 3 yrs. ago and have driven 1000 miles or so with no problems. It’s a high top van being converted to a camper. The transmission fluid and filter etc. were done and run fine until now. Will reset the computer and change the fluid’s again. What do you guys think? Thanks.

  2. cowin hall says:

    I have a 2001 Chevy Impala with a 3.8L engine with an automatic transmission. Reverse gear works when cold and neutral works fine, but it doesn’t engage in drive and slips in first.

  3. Jason says:

    No noise no movement any gear automatic transmission 08 f250 column shifts p r n d 123 what likely the problem happened after parked after race. And my fluid is full still bright red. No codes on truck.

    • Benny Gaston says:

      I have a 06 F 250 tran just quit fluid level ok. I have 290,000 miles on it. It has been pulling good and shifting great. At about 50-60 it tries to downshift. I stop put it in neutral then in drive, it tried to pull at about 5 or 6 then I got po741 p0751 po766 p1744 p2700 p2703.

  4. Reggie7217 says:

    I have a leak from my transmission the leak is light pink on the ground and does not have any smell. I have a 1997 Lexus es 300 with approximately 105000 miles. What do you think the problem could be

    • Ashok says:

      To Reggie7217, transmission leak is the vaguest way of saying it. There are many different places that a transmission can leak from, starting with the cooler lines which are the easiest fix. The first step to identifying a leak is to start by watching the car when it’s on, first be sure the fluid level is where it should be though to avoid any damage from fluid already lost. Try to identify the source of the leak, start from looking exactly where it’s falling on the ground, this can be easier said than done on a slow leak. Then go up and see where the real origination is, leaks can be difficult to find especially for someone who known little about cars.

      Things to check are if it’s coming from the bottom of the transmission, which could either be loose bolts or a transmission pan gasket, most likely is that or your cooler lines, trust me I know how it is, don’t want to go to some crap place that screws you but don’t know a whole lot. Good luck.

  5. raul214 says:

    I got a 2000 silverado 4×4. It drives fine and reverses fine when it’s cool. When it starts warming up, it seems to just not go anywhere even when I put it in reverse. Can you explain to me what is the issue

  6. Marissa says:

    I have a 99 Saturn that drives fine but will not reverse.

  7. awhiteguy says:

    We have a 2002 chrysler t/c with almost 200,000 miles on it and when i would first start it up, it would start out in first gear then jerk into second and it would stay in 2nd gear even after stopping at a stop sign, and shifting into drive without turning engine off and starting back up after having been driven, the tranny would jerk into 2nd. the speedometer also stopped working. we replaced the speed sensors then it worked fine for about a week until it started acting up again. when it was raining, it would stop acting up, so we took a spray bottle and sprayed the wires where the sensors are plugged in. we had to solder one of the wires where it plugs in and it’s fine now. I guess when chryslers jerk into 2nd gear, the computer would make the tranny stay in 2nd as a safety feature to prevent further damage. But I think it does more damage than good cause i have to replace my tranny mounts from it jerking into 2nd so abruptly and it slips a little in 1st now, but it has almost 200,000 miles and still has no problem pulling my boat. it still has some life left in it.

  8. jesusin25 says:

    Can anyone please explain why my car cant go in reverse but can drive forward
    FYI: Makes noise when I put gear in reverse
    Nissan pathfinder 2003

  9. Kayla says:

    1995 Saturn jerks when put on reverse what do you guys think could possible be wrong .

  10. Monica says:

    I have a 1996 GMC Jimmy, 2WD, automatic transmission. I’m the original owner and my Jimmy has approx. 350,000 miles. Original engine and transmission. My ‘check engine light’ has been on since I had about 40,000 miles on it. We turn it off for the semi-annual smog checks, then it comes back on about 30 miles father I drive it. Everything was checked and changed when it was originally under warranty. The problem was never found, so I can not rely on it for a true ‘warning’.

    So, here’s my issue. I was driving yesterday and my engine began shaking violently. The check engine light began to flash, it as never done that before. I took my car to my mechanic (who I’ve trusted for years) and he sad that it threw several codes stating that my transmission was slipping. Well, of course driving to his shop it drove fine so he wasn’t able to see the engine shake. By the way, it shook when I was at stop signs and with the trans in park – not just driving in gear. He informed me that trans work could cause me to need major engine work in the near future. I just don’t get it. How can the trans cause the nine to violently shake? Can the codes be incorrect sense the check engine light has never worked correctly and int reliable? Is my mechanic wrong about needing major engine work if the trans is, as he says, replaced?

    I’m frustrated as the engine has been amazing and reliable for 350,000. Oh, one note – not too long ago he replaced the fuel pump and has worked on my fuel injectors before. It felt as if my car wasn’t getting enough gas. It didn’t feel, to me, as if it ad anything to do with the transmission. I recently had the trans fluid flashed and filled. If anyone has any suggestions, or comments, they would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading this and your opinions ~

    • Katelyn says:

      Should not flush a tranny on an older car. The transmission fluid might have been holding parts together in side so basically when you take that fluid away, metal pieces come with it.

    • NickMun21 says:

      The engine light flashing is a good indication of an engine miss fire in most all my experiences. And like mentioned before, never flush an old vehicles transmission. I have changed fluid by letting the trans draw in fresh on its own and catching the old till it comes clean, but never flush……

  11. Kyerah says:

    99′ Toyota corolla.. Automatic 4 cylinder. Car moves into all gears fine when you step on the gas car won’t move just revs up as if there is a big log in front of the car preventing it from moving. I’ve been told that this is a differential problem in the tranny. Should I have the tranny rebuilt, get a used one or is it possible to just replace the differential ?

  12. Wale Balogun says:

    I have camry 2007, I think the gear is faulty in d sense that whenever it want to change from gear 2 to 3 it will jack. I’ve replace the whole gear but the problem still persist. It happens whenever am driving slowly. Pls whatt is d cause and the solution

  13. Justin says:

    I have a 97 dodge ram 2500 with the 12v Cummings
    My transmission has seemed to start acting up when you put it in gear it takes a bit to ingauge and when you make a left handed turn it seems to drop out like it was taken out of gear I have checked the fluid and it is full so I am wondering if it might be a dirty filter or if something else is going wrong. also I am not sure if there is a difference in transmission for gas or deasle. does not seems to be leaking and the oil looks and smells fine no burning or anything like that I am fairly good with these things but I am drawing a blank Any suggestions would be helpful

  14. Olivier Jean-Gilles says:

    I have an 02 Accord Lx coupe. It’s slow to shift gears and accelerate in Reverse, D4,D3,2 and 1. I just had a transmission flush & change. Even put in lubegard and Lucas transmission fix but it only works for about 2 days and goes right back to jerking into acceleration. Even had new shifting solenoids put in but still jerking. Any suggestions would be fine!

  15. Michael says:

    I have a Nissan car that has a gear problem, each time I change the gear the car will jack on speed and it will not enter reverse again. Please what should I do?. I have scanned and fixed the bad sensor but still giving the same problem when I replace the gear.

  16. john says:

    98 explorer 4.0 awd had another motor put in and now no reverse and wont move in drive unless already moving 1 and 2 work good drive and over drive revs high and wont hardly move. the guy told me, nothing i did would have messed with the tranny. but i had no problems till he messed with it. what do i do

  17. victor says:

    i have a 2004 ford expedition. when im accelerating the car seems to not want to change to the next gear and then feels like its heavy and slows down. it usually happens when im going uphill but have nothing in the truck could this be a problem with the transmission or something else?

  18. 2006 kia sorento v6 four wheel drive, the vehical seemed too stay in first gear and shifted and went bye itself into four wheel drive what would cause that

  19. Jen says:

    2007 Ford Explorer, 6 cyl, automatic…it has a sealed system, and I am unable to check/refill the fluid myself, but I just took it in and had that done. As it turned out, the fluid level wasn’t very low and was told that leak is probably up in the bell housing. I had hoped irefilling the fluid would fix the reverse issue, but it only lessened it just a slight bit…when I put it in reverse, the transmission hesitates before slamming very hard and loud into gear.
    This comes after having loaned my car to a friend (lesson learned!), and I’m wondering what can happen to turn a perfectly fine vehicle into one that all of a sudden has a leak and transmission problem…is it a naturally occurring car thing, or is it caused by stress on the vehicle?

  20. Mark L Newman says:

    I have a 2001 Saturn SL2, driving home Sunday had on cruise control going down I65, all of a sudden RPMS went all the way up to the red, and slowed down from 70 mph to 30 mph. I got off at the next exit went to gas station and bought trans fluid. Added some but it didn’t seem that low? I got the car back to my parents and we left it over night at the garage. Monday went to the garage to tell them what was happening. Later in the afternoon they called and said “we took the top off the trans, everything is in tact and looks fine. Cannot figure out what is wrong?” Oh yea I found out that the gas station that the car will not go into reverse? Any ideas anyone?

    • Katelyn says:

      Try putting transmission Lucas in it if you have any more problems as for reverse its a common issue with saturns

  21. catherine says:

    have 2000 Honda Accord V6. Sometimes when I a backing up my car it does a jerk or popping sound. Can you tell what is problem?.

  22. Carnewb says:

    I have a 2002 Chevy Impala, automatic trans. I smell a burning smell when I drive it that I’m not sure what it’s from. Also I notice it gives off a lot of heat even after being driven just a short time. After it’s been driven for a long time when it shifts, especially into 2nd gear it jerks or shifts hard. It drives smoothly, but you can tell something isn’t right. I have also noticed a substantial loss in power in that when I accelerate (especially uphill) it just won’t speed up very well, even when the pedal is against the floor.

  23. Sharon says:

    My daughters car just broke down on side of road a long way from home and she said her car won’t go into drive or reverse but her fluid level is fine and she has never noticed any problems before now, could it possibly be her computer she has a 2002 Kia Spectra

    • Admin says:

      Hi Sharon, I’m sorry to hear about your car trouble. If it isn’t any of the problems listed in this article and she hasn’t had any trouble until now, then the computer could be at fault.

      Do you mean nothing happens when you shift into reverse/drive or that you cant move the shifter at all?
      If you can move the shifter but nothing happens when you do, the transmission shift linkage could be broken/disconnected.

  24. dave says:

    have a 2006 ford e350 van diesel/ while driving when on a hill shifts down and acts like loses power and is slipping/ also some times not on hills when it goes to shift if dies like out of fuel /any ideas?

  25. Ekrika Kemes says:

    A Honda Accord 2001, had a transmission problem and we have replaced the transmission three time. still the drive is not engaging except with 2 and 3 and the movement is not smooth. What must I do again? Thanks

  26. cheyenne says:

    I have a 98 ford escort and no gear works except park. (car is auto). transmission shop said its no good because they seen pieces of metal. is there anyway possible those pieces of metal is from my cv axles braking? transmission fluid looked like motor oil also! there was no slipping or grinding before hand either. at a stand still any tips would be extremely helpful!! thanks!

  27. mike molson says:

    I have a 2000 mustang gt 4.6… it’s a manual transmission… i hear a chirping or beeping whatever u want to call it coming from my clutch… If I just touch the clutch with my foot the sound stops.. but once I let go it happens again… is this something I should be concerned about? The sound isn’t very loud at all but I still don’t like that it’s there.

  28. morgan says:

    Hi my automatic transmission drives horrible when “cold” after its been sitting for about 4 hours it will climb in rpms getting all the way to 6. At that point I have to drop it into drive 3 just to get the rpms to drop down to at least 4 and stop acting as if its in neutral. It will finally change about 10 miles up the road and drive like its a branf new car at that point. I’ve changed the fluid and filter about 5 months ago and I regularly check it and it does not smell Burnt. Every time I try to explain it to a mechanic they act as if I don’t know what I’m talking about and say “I’ve never heard of a car doing that”. But as a daily driver of this car I should know that there is a problem here. Can someone please help me and tell me if its something as simple as the computer failing or is it a serious problem that needs a rebuild?

  29. Gene says:

    I have a 2000 Mazda Protégé ES 1.8L automatic. I have had the car for about 6 months, and it has not slipped gears or anything.. Today I went to drive it, and it wouldn’t go into drive, like it didn’t catch on. Well I put it in Park, and revved it up, and put it in drive.. It felt like the handle and everything was hitting something smoothly, like a piece of cloth, and just wasn’t letting it go all the way in drive. Well I drove it and it drove fine, nothing seemed out of place. I went to put it in park. And it would not go all the way in park. It would be half way in park, and half way in reverse, but would want to slide into reverse when I gave it gas. Now the red thing that tells me it’s in park is red. So it’s in park, (Where it should be at least) but not all the way in park. I have never had this problem before.. I have to put it in Neutral to start it. Yesterday it started making a loud noise in reverse. But I still have reverse. Everything is fine. All gears work as fast and everything. Just don’t know what’s wrong with it.

  30. jerry says:

    I have 06 Nissan xterra. I have no reverse but drive gears work fine . pressure tested and reverse is pressure high at idle and low at stall speed. drive pressure high at idle and ok range at stall. and I did have a ruptured trans cooler in radiator couple of years ago and flushed oil twice and ok. I use synthetic fluid. any ideas

  31. Tara Tompson says:

    I’ve been having problems with my transmission. It had a leak last year but I got that fixed. I’m hoping it’s nothing big this time. http://www.denvilletransmissionservice.com

  32. Felix says:

    My 2003 automatic Toyota rav4 has its revs going higher than normal and the engine check light is on. i bought brand new computer but now when put in reverse”R”, the car doesnt move at all. Please advise on the next action course. In addition, the car doesnt go above 120 km/hr

  33. Maleeshya says:

    I have a 2012 Chevy Captiva, auto transmission. it recently started making the “clinking” noise, about 3 weeks ago. A few days back when I tried accelerating on the highway the engine made the noise but the car did not budge any faster than the regular pace. Last night it started jerking and continued to jerk as I accelerated. When I tried to reverse it refused, now it’s in service waiting on the new spare parts for the gearbox.

    Best thing to do in order to avoid what had happened to me is to take it for service, just get it checked out because it can be really expensive eventually…

  34. NickMun21 says:

    2006 Nissan Sentra 1.8s 5 Speed
    Had the stock clutch replaced after diagnosed weak pressure plate I was told. Axle seal blew a day after getting it back and being told it was a quart or so low. Then started hearing a light thud with clutch engaging from a stand still to a CLUNK/THUD when I would shift. Found the transmission caulked slightly sideways with a smell of heat and the bell housing bolts to be backing out finger loose. Am I looking at a new transmission and clutch ( again ) being that everything is tight once again and I now have a whine with the clutch in neutral, still a slight thud and the jerky feeling of slipping in first if I accelerate to 3500 rpm ?

  35. Tiffany says:

    Hi I have a Subaru Legacy 2006 station wagon. A mechanical check has reported vibration through gearbox /driveline on steering lock. How serious is this issue? The mechanic said my gearbox may go anytime, could be tomorrow or ages down the line. Sounds a bit strange to me. The car has 98,000kms (60,000 miles) so it seems odd to have this kind of issue with these low kms

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