6 Low Transmission Fluid Symptoms to Watch For

Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) has two main purposes:

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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.

Fair Remanufactured Transmission Cost by Vehicle

  1. Use the Year / Make / Model lookup tool to determine what transmission your vehicle has.
  2. Find your transmission model in the table below for fair prices from reputable suppliers and fair labor for local installation at an auto repair shop.
  3. Get a quote on a remanufactured transmission by email.

Fair Remanufactured Transmission Price Ranges by Transmission Model
Updated May 1, 2018

Download Printable Full Pricing Table PDF

 

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

What to Read Next

Over to You

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

Fair Replacement Transmission Cost by Vehicle

  1. Use the Year / Make / Model lookup tool to determine what transmission your vehicle has.

  2. 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.

  3. Get a free estimate on a remanufactured transmission by email.

Fair Remanufactured Transmission Price Ranges by Transmission Model Updated May 1, 2018

transmission repair cost
Download Replacement Transmission Cost Guide PDF

14 thoughts on “6 Low Transmission Fluid Symptoms to Watch For

  1. I have a 2011 Honda Accord that seems to shift okay but the rpm needle at times goes up then down and i hear a noise almost like when you need break shoes has i pick up speed and at times it feels like the needle stays at 2 and becomes heavy

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