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.


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?

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Over to You

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

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Katherine Thomas
1 month ago

I have to get my speed up to 4 R P M ‘s before my 2005 mazda tribute will change gears. Is that normal?

1 month ago

1996 Ford explorer 4.0 put it into gear 80 gear it immediately shuts off transmission fluid was low and black topped it off it worked for about 3 days I was doing the same thing again when you put it into gear it immediately shuts off

1 month ago

Delayed shift of gears,01860 and 0741,but I have a CV axle seal leak.once 8 repair and drain and fill and replace filter and fluid and gasket will keep these codes from coming back.Have owned 03 Cadillac Seville STS for 6 months?

3 months ago

I changed my radiator and leaked transmission fluid left it sit for days (probably still leaking) replaced radiator (small crack in bottom) patched for few days still overheating not leaking water though now I put it in park neutral or reverse it’s perfect but as soon as I put it in drive it dies instantly replaced ground wire can’t figure out what the problem is

3 months ago

My dad was driving when his 2009 Infiniti fx35 started jerking and revving with hardly any power when he tried speeding up. He had the car towed back home. I went to look at it and this time, when put in Reverse, Neutral, and Drive, The car would just go into reverse. I tried it multiple times and it just kept going into reverse. He decided to take it to a mechanic before I could check the transmission fluid level. I asked him today and he says the mechanic condemned the transmission. The only issue I have with that call is that the car never had the ENGINE LIGHT come on.

I am hoping he didn’t give up the car so I can diagnose it myself. I am not better than the mechanic but I have been working on my M45 engine problems for years now. I have seen and fixed almost every engine problem on that car until this one.

3 months ago

96 silverado 3rd and 4th went out today fluids good didn’t see any damaged wiring small slow drip from tranny cooler lines nothing major, it’s going have a leak or to for its age. But nothing major enough to just go out all of a sudden. There was no noise, squeaks, metal to metal, or howling from the transmission. It always shifted smooth with no lag between gears. Strong pulling truck and wasn’t driven hard. What are some things I could do to test and see what else i could look for. Cause no service or check engine lights as well.

Keith Reddic
4 months ago

the tool display warning comes on when i reach around 50 miles per hour

James Sewell
7 months ago

High winding noise from the front end like it is in four wheel drive.

7 months ago

2008 keep compass transmission code for high temp gos in limp mode what can be problem

7 months ago

when I put it in drive 1st 2and or 3rd nothing will not move at all but when I put it in reverse I can move tales a lil bit of me given it gas but she moves is reverse i have a 2000 ford mustang

Rickey Prentiss
8 months ago

Keep running low on transmission fluid no leak

Rickey Prentiss
8 months ago

Keep running low on flui

9 months ago

My 2007 Camry has 171k and when I shift into drive I hit the gas for acceleration an it does not move.?

10 months ago

Shift Lever is able to move thru all gears, but vehicle just refuses to move. Issue rises with no warning no noises or anything. Just lost all gears while driving.

9 months ago
Reply to  Kris

I can put mine in gears. But will not move an inch

11 months ago

’98 Ford Ranger extended cab with a 4.0 engine. We have developed a “shimmy” when accelerating. Checked the transmission fluid had to add fluid. Seems we are driving through mud now. Seems to accelerate sluggishly.

Carlsudor Booker
11 months ago

Tran wont move in drive or drive 2. And 3

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