10 Most Common Transmission Problems

  1. Lack of Response
  2. Whining, Clunking and Humming
  3. Leaking/Low Fluid
  4. Grinding or Shaking
  5. Burning Smell
  6. Refuses to Go Into Gear
  7. Check Engine Light
  8. Transmission Noisy in Neutral
  9. Gears Slipping
  10. Dragging Clutch
  11. Problems by Make & Model
  12. Get the Problem Diagnosed

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 are in 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.

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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.

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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.

Complete Guide: Transmission Fluid Leak Causes & Repair Cost.

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.

Need Your Transmission Repaired? A good repair shop can be hard to find – especially on short notice. We’ll have the Cost Guide Certified shop in your area give you a call with a free estimate.

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.

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O/D Off Light Flashing On and Off

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.

Has your transmission completely failed? Here are your 8 options to repair, replace, junk it, etc.

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.

Problems by Make & Model

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67 thoughts on “10 Most Common Transmission Problems

  1. I trying to get an idea of what is wrong with my transmission before I take it to a shop. I do not want to pay more than I have to. During slow acceleration my 2003 Honda Pilot changes gears fine. If I try to accelerate to quickly it revs up like it is in neutral. When it is in park on a hill and a shift into reverse it shifts loudly and sounds like a really hard shift. I have priced a few different things. The dealer says it is a pressure converter failure (I think). I was told I need a new transmission. They quoted me $5900. I found someone that will put in a re-manned with a 3 year warranty for $2100. I just want to be sure that it is not a solenoid ($250). I cannot find what a solenoid problem does to a vehicle. Does anyone know?

  2. Burning smell never noticed any leaks or puddles under my truck. Today I was on the highway and could not get th truck over 60 without reving up the engine. All gears acted the same from first to fifth. Low fluids? No check engine light or noises. 2002 Ford Explorer XLS Manual Transmission.

  3. I have a 2009 Infiniti g37x. Started lurches when accelerating from stop. Also started clunking when going from drive to reverse to park etc. Dealer told me radiator fluid was leaking into the transmission. Said it would be $15,500 to replace! I almost keeled over. Should I get a second opinion? I’m not having dealer do this work, obviously. Got other estimates of $8000 and $4500. A mechanic on Just ask.com said I should be able to replace the radiator and transmission for under $3000. I can’t find anyone in my area to do it this cheaply. I should mention that I live in the Baltimore/Dc area. My car has 49,000 miles on it.

  4. 05 Ford explorer 4.0 6 cylinder. 96000 miles. 2nd gear barely works (better after car warmed-up), and no o/d. O/d light goes on and disappears occasionally. Check transmission light comes on as well. Mechanic checked and advised need new tranny.($3,000.plus). Any similar problems ? Solutions ?

    • what codes did you get from the trans mechanic?? let me guess.. didnt explain. Get the codes from the transmission scanner .. not an obdii

  5. I have trouble shifting into any gear if my 2011 ford focus is cold. I have to let it run 20 min. or so in the morning before I can move the stick shift normally. Once it has warmed up (or if the temp. outside is above 70 degrees), everything runs great for the rest of the day & shifts smoothly. I’ve had fluid checked and was told it was at right level and doesn’t smell burnt. My clutch is working properly so far as I can tell. But morning lows are starting to go below 60 and I’m starting to worry…why is my stick shift so stiff when it’s cool?

  6. Hi Cindy. You may have noticed that on Oil Containers, the letters. SAE, followed by a number, like 15W-40. This indicated the fluidcy of an oil and at cold temps , it is at 15W which is runny and like Shampoo, whereas, at the 50 end, it thickens to a density like fluid that won’t boil under the higher working temps. What is happening with your ATM Fluid of a morning, it the out side air temp is too cold for the fluid to function until you warm the engine and other mental working parts so that the fluid is within it’s design tempraturs. Somewhere on the ATF container it may be stated the temp working ranges. Also in the Can Owners Handbook, in the section of the transmission and oil types, the range of best working temps.

  7. Hello, I have a Gmc Sierra 1500 year 2000, I had my transmission replaced with a new transmission for 1500 dollars minus labor cost. I believe I was screwed, because while parking the truck the gear will go to park but the gear light shows that the gear is in R. So when I start the truck it has to be started in neutral. Also while I am reversing the transmission is now humming, not good. My transmission guarantee and labor is supposedly guaranteed for three years but, I am doubting that because the mechanic told me that he will keep the transmissions receipt and paperwork, in case he has to return the transmission, all I got was a hand written receipt with his signature. I don’t drive far distances maybe 5 miles maximum daily, and I don’t drive rough or wreckless. I don’t want to return to this mechanic because I had to 2 days after the new transmission was put in, due to transmission problems. If i find that the transmission is not a new one, the only time I will see that mechanic will be in Court! Thanks for any input.

  8. Hey how’s it going everyone. I have a question for you guys. I bought a 2004 volkswagen Jetta 1.8T Gli 6 speed transmission a couple months ago. I was driving it about 3 weeks ago and my transmission mount broke so my transmission dropped out of place. My car started to shake violently. I had a mechanic friend look at it and told me I might be an easy fix if the transmission didn’t get damaged. The car was still turning on but I had trouble moving due to the transmission that was hanging out of place. I bought a new mount and put the transmission back. But now my gear box won’t work. It doesn’t go into any gear. Does anyone have any idea what might be wrong? Pls help.

  9. My 97 Dodge Ram 1500 was fine and then threw code po740 {or po743} can’t remember.
    Adjusted rear bands and Changed fluid – Truck drove fine for 3 hours and then “slightly” acted up and code came back, along with p1736.
    Replaced governors – Truck started having difficulties up shifting.
    Replaced wiring harness to governors and found accumulator spring was broken. – Truck Shifting became worse. – No overdrive.
    Replaced spring, adjusted front bands – filled trans with atf+4 {new filter, of course.}
    Truck seems to be stuck in 2nd gear, now. Each fix and the truck gets worse – not better. Have dropped pan 4 times and each time, fresh oil was used. The oil did not smell burnt and there were no metal shavings. I have found a few different things for p1736. {Manufacturer specific.} They are “Gear Ratio Error in 2nd Prime”‘ and “Second Gear Switch circuit Malfunction”. Any suggestions? I’m tired of getting ripped off by mechanics and I have already sunk a lot of money into this truck…. what’s a few more bucks? Ready to try anything.

  10. I have just bought a 2010 Holden Captiva, having issues with it, the engine light remains on & both of the ESP lights remain on, sluggish to accelerate. Any ideas?

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