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

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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Arthur
1 month ago

I have a 2002 Ford explorer has good reverse and sometimes forward gears. But most of the time I have to put it in first gear and rev up the motor for a min or 2 before it engauges. Then it shifts fine and slips into 3rd.

Anonymous
1 month ago

It seems to have no power

Gary Hatmaker
1 month ago

I have a 95 Nissan Pathfinder automatic all gears work but when I put it in first or reverse it feels like brakes are on

Chris Todd
1 month ago

Car shifts fine only thing is when you hit a bump or pothole the rear-end feels like it will shimmy/vibrate from one side or the other

Chris Todd
1 month ago

Riding at normal speed and hit a bump or pothole cars rear-end seems to shimmer sideways just the rear of the car

carla V Peterson
2 months ago

hi my name is Carla i have a lexus ls430 2005 when i slow down to stop it seems to be shifting hard in first gear then when i make a complete stop its a harder bang someone said it was low on transmission fluid is that so it started doing this when i put new tires on it

Mark E Anderson
2 months ago

I’ve rebuilt my 2013 Nissan Sentra transmission I need to know how much fluid to put back in it

Josh Madison
3 months ago

Well trying to change the oil on my own I accidentally drain the transmission fluid from a 2008 Lexus IS 250 did not realize what I had done until I tried to drive the car and it had no power and was not moving forward. After figuring out what I had done and replacing set transmission fluid the car still will not move forward it acts as if the emergency brake is on and will only creep forward it very slow rate although reverse works just fine not sure what to do or how to fix it or what’s even wrong

Curtis Shirley
4 months ago

4R70W..lost a most of atf topped off now I fear it’s to late…no reverse only shifts to 2 no 3 or 4 neutral when vehicle is off

Last edited 4 months ago by Curtis Shirley
Jeff
5 months ago

I have a 4L60E automatic I pulled it out to change the real main seal an it was working perfect I put it back an now it doesn’t go into any gear

Carter
5 months ago

Stopped pulling while driving

Robert Retter
7 months ago

Hi ,I have a Ford Escape 2009 3.0 v6 4×4 with 6F35 gearbox .When take gearbox dipstick out the oil explodes out ,or when check cold feel like air pressure comes out.this is happening after had the gearbox repaired month ago due to gear shift changes etc.It was also happening before .The garage said is was ok ,but it is not normal.Someone mentioned a pressure solenoid fault ?but not sure.Also the oil level was low when check today which i could not believe after been repaired.Any suggestion greatly appreciated.

Adam walters
7 months ago

I put a rebuilt trany in and it will not go in to any gear.befor I changed it I still had 1st and 2nd and reverse just no 3rd or overdrive.i put 11 quarts of fluid and it won’t move a inch

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