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.

What Transmission Do I Have?

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.


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).


• 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

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

What Transmission Do I Have?

What to Read Next

Over to You

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

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Ronnie Nesmith
2 months ago

2009 e series 4.6 wont go into reverse

Larry Hurst
2 months ago

2014 Dodge Grand Caravan. 70,000 mi. Will not change from low gear.

Edward Richard
3 months ago

2003 G35 Infiniti it whines only in park and neutral not in drive or reverse can you tell me the problem

Ranzo Trout, jr.
4 months ago

95/4d-Mercury(Grand Marquis. During last winter I’m down the road to visit decided to go to the store in doing so turned did st turning then u see this snow bank. Didn’t get over enough got stuck.f>rr got pulled finally so following my tow unhitched to end st. got stuck f>rr<f , so got pulled unhitched,but this time car put in drive but just sat.nothing. towed again to parking space. Auto parts store parking.left, came back w/friend bought fluid still nothing.now put in gear just reverse. Help

John wojton
4 months ago

I got a 96 Saturn wagon tatt tranny automatic jacked up front wheels spin when in gear on the ground car won’t move help

Transmission leak wrong fluid

5 months ago

My 2007 nissa rouge is lazy to move ??

6 months ago

Lately my car has been hesitating to go forward when I put it in drive. It sits still for a few seconds then jolts and kinda pops when it goes, and it does it sometimes when I’m stopped and try to go again.
It’s a 2017 Hyundai Accent.
I think maybe I will check the transmission fluid today if it has a dipstick to see if maybe I’m low and may have a leak; new fluid was just put in it in December though.

Christopher Cook
8 months ago

Just bought a 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan Sport. Got the Van for $200 so I didn’t lose any money. When I put it in drive the gear doesn’t engage. If I press the gas a little it tries to go forward a little but then it does nothing after that. The previous owner said he had a transmission leak and it wouldn’t hold the fluid so he drive it home an larked it. I’m praying that I can replace the tranny pan gasket, fill er up with fluid and she’ll ride out. What’s you guys opinion on this? Being it tries to slip in gear and move a little do you think this will work??? Any info will be appreciated.

7 months ago

I have the same exact car and I am having the same exact problem! I just keep re adding transmission fluid but I know I am going to have to get it fixed

Phil Reynolds
8 months ago

I have a 2002 Cadillac Eldorado I hear a intermittent hissing sound. I get a P0741 code what cost can I expect to fix it

10 months ago

My 1985 chevy truck has 350 turbo trams i just installed and it shift fime for a month and all of a sudden it wont move in foward gears unless you rev it up real high snf them oy eases off until it will go but takes a ehile Whats wrong?

10 months ago

transmission fluid is adequate but its hard shifting but not slipping

11 months ago

Wont go in drive. Goes fine and well in reverse

6 months ago
Reply to  Magdelina

Sounds like mine. Reverse is fine but forward is a problem.

11 months ago

Its not going in reverse

Misty Bigham
11 months ago

My 2003 Cavalier is stuck in Reerse. Could it be due to low transmission fluid?

1 year ago

How do I read transmission stick I bought for 2008 charger lost paper

oscar Osorio
1 year ago

I have a 2005 Ford it won’t reverse

1 year ago

I have a 1981 El Camino Super Sport no tranny fluid in the training I put fluid in there and now it’s gone what does that mean help me please

3 months ago
Reply to  Jinn

It means u didn’t put enough fluid in. Could take 3 gallons or more.

Daonyo Grant
1 year ago

My automatic car was driving great,came to a stop sign.and then tried to pull off and none of my gears worked.i had to put in neutral and someone pushed my car home.what exactly is wrong with my car

1 year ago
Reply to  Daonyo Grant

You need to put transmission fluid in your CAR…..

1 year ago

I have a 2005 ford f 150 and earier coming h9me f94d judt wasnt doing g anything i check3d the 5rqsemission fluild. It was low low and was black.

Sharon Kaye
1 year ago

My Pontiac G6 had no fluid in it but no leaks. Drives in low gears but sticks and wont shift into high gear. Could this be the TCC sensor? Added fluid but have not driven it due to it stalls unless you pounce on throttle to get it to go. Been sitting for 4 days now! Help!!!!!

1 year ago

My trans oil was dry and now it won’t go move in reverse and only drives in first gear

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