6 Low Transmission Fluid Symptoms to Watch For

Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) has two main purposes:

Need a replacement transmission? Get an estimate for replacement transmissions and local installation. Look up your transmission model by vehicle make and model.

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First, it is the lifeblood that enables a transmission to transfer power from the engine to the pavement. The torque converter uses ATF to form a hydraulic circuit in order to transfer rotational force from the engine to the transmission.

Its second purpose is to cool the transmission by absorbing the heat created by all its moving parts and expelling the heat through the radiator.

If a leak develops or a faulty component causes the transmission to lose fluid and you continue drive with a low fluid level, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

In This Guide

1) Transmission Slipping

transmission-slippingYou’ll know that your transmission is slipping when it makes a gear change, but then seems to falls back out of that gear. Other symptoms include abrupt up/down shifts, unusually high RPMs before a shift, erratic shifting, and a groaning or grinding noise coming from the transmission.

These problems may indicate that your vehicle is low on fluid, (which can cause it to overheat) and the friction material on the clutches and transmission bands are no longer able to securely engage a gear. This is a bad sign because it’s very likely that excessive wear/damage has already occurred.

2) Delayed Gear Engagement

Being low on fluid can cause a noticeably longer delay when you select Drive or Reverse, because there isn’t enough fluid pressure to immediately actuate the gear change. It may take 2-3 seconds before the selected gear actually engages, leaving you with plenty of time to ponder the fact that you haven’t checked your transmission fluid lately.

3) Hard or Erratic Shifts

Another sign is when your vehicle starts shifting erratically (shifts come later or sooner than normal), or it sort of bangs/slams into gear. An automatic transmission relies on hydraulic pressure to change gears, and a lack of ATF can have a negative impact on both shift timing and smoothness.

4) Car Won’t Shift

If there’s absolutely no ATF left in a transmission, it simply won’t work. No Drive, no reverse, nothing. Refilling the transmission with the correct type of ATF may bring it back to life in some cases, but you’ll still need to figure out how it got that low in the first place.

5) Overheated Transmission

Since ATF is responsible for cooling the transmission, not having enough of it can cause it to overheat – very quickly.

Signs of an overheated transmission include delayed or erratic shifts, slipping between gears, loss of power, smoke and/or a burning smell. If this happens, pull over immediately and let the transmission cool down. Temperatures in excess of 240 degrees can cause serious internal damage, so you really don’t want to keep driving.

GM-transmission_failure_chart

Transmission Heat Damage

  • 220 degrees – varnish starts to form on metal parts
  • 240 degrees – seals begin to harden
  • 260 degrees – clutches & transmission bands slip
  • 295 degrees – call a tow truck

6) Transmission Failure / Replacement Needed

If any of the above symptoms persist after you’ve topped off the ATF, then it’s very likely that your transmission will need to be rebuilt or replaced. In this case, here are 8 options to choose from.

Checking your Transmission Fluid

The problems listed above can lead to some very costly repairs if they are not taken care of.

To avoid this, start checking your fluid on a regular basis. If you put a lot of miles on your vehicle or tow heavy loads, then you should check your ATF at least every 2 weeks. Otherwise, most drivers can check it once a month (unless there’s a leak).

Pathfinder_Transmission_Fluid_Change_01

• Always leave the motor running when checking the fluid
• Consult your owner’s manual to determine the correct type of fluid for your vehicle and the proper way to add ATF

Fair Replacement Transmission Cost by Vehicle

  1. Find your transmission model in the table below for fair prices from reputable suppliers. Also fair labor cost for local installation at a local auto repair shop.

  2. Not Sure Which Transmission You Have?
    Click Here To Look It Up By Your Year, Make, Model
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Fair Remanufactured Transmission Price Ranges by Transmission Model Updated for 2019

transmission repair cost
Download Replacement Transmission Cost Guide PDF

What to Read Next

Over to You

We’re interested to know – which of these symptoms are you experiencing?

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Leave a Comment

Amy

My 2006 honda odyssey i put it in drive and wont move at all. Does this mean the transmission is bad. August of last year a new transmission was put in it.

GMJ

Have a Mitsubishi Galant 1992 v6 Auto that is stuck in 2nd gear (limp mode I assume) auto electrician can’t get any trouble codes and doesn’t know how to fix it
Did try another good computer but that didn’t help so not likely that —could this be a damaged or corroded wire ? could it be relay or trans computer if they have separate computers ?
Any help will be appreciated so much
Thanks

GMJ

I have a 1996 diamante(Mitsubishi) 2.5 litre has 5 forward 1 reverse
Making scraping noise in 1—-3 when under load when changes to 4 or 5 runs smooth no scraping noise
Fluid level is at top end of marks now — was a bit low
Sound hasn’t gone away yet on short drive
performs fine but has the noise —
could this be a bearing on the 2 planetary shaft (I assume rev 1–2–3 on one shaft and 4—5 on another planetary shaft —- ( is this how it works ?)
Some clues would be great
Thanks

Liver liver

I have a toyota corolla of 2002 when i im driving at times it appears as if it is in neutral gear or it produces a goo sound as if it disnegage a gear .please help me

Janelle

I have a 2005 Pontiac Montana which as of yesterday I can’t drive forward but if I drive in 2nd or 1 gear I can drive forward is this my fluid level low in my transmission

Raymond

Hi, i drive Dodge journey 2010 model, an the issue here was incorrect ratio gear 2 an gear 3, an after the dignosetic we found that it’s the actuator transmission solenoid, now after we replaced it it doesn’t go wen we engage D, only go reverse, an on the glasder it show electric sign.. Can someone help me out please…

ibrahim

hi my 1999 accord refuse to move when in reverse,even in D3 and D4 only in 2 what will be the cause

Beto

My f150 will no go into park which keeps me from starting vehicle

Yance

Dig the neutral switch out of the steering column and pull the slider back and forth while turning your key. At a certain point on the slider your truck should start rotating and start.

Sally Tuffin

Hi I have a 2007 Ford Focus with 200, 000 km on odometer. For the past several days I have noticed that when I first start driving the car in the morning that the first gear shift from first to second during exceleration that there is a resistence and sometimes a bit of a clunk. Then it shifts and there are no other issues. Fluid levels were good when I checked last week, no visible leaks beneath the car.

Skip Patterson

Pulled out of camping and trans would not shift out of 3rd gear. Drove it 125 miles keeping rpm Round 50 got home would not shift in reverse. Next day it would back up drove to cover and haven’t drove it n couple months. Was 2 quarts low on transmission fluid any suggestion?

George gross

I have a 2015 Ford focus it won tgo into reverse but goes into drive and only goes limited speed wats wrong

Joshua

Hi George, did you get to know what the issue of your focus, I have the same problems.