6 Low Transmission Fluid Symptoms to Watch For

Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) has two main purposes:

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.

Need Your Transmission Repaired? A good repair shop can be hard to find – especially on short notice. We’ll have the Cost Guide Certified shop in your area give you a call with a free estimate.

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

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

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Over to You

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

  1. I had transmission rebuilt on my 1997 Dodge Stratus about 5 months ago..I drove it around town no more than 40 miles today I checked transmission fluid it is empty..do u think I damaged my car..what advice can u give me
    .the car is running good just a little high idle that’s is all..thank you

  2. I just changed the trans fluid, a few weeks later it would not shift to third randomly get stuck in neutral and it threw a code for p0700 and p0776. Would low fluid cause tt he shift solenoid to through a code?

  3. My car was running fine no slipping no jamming then all of sudden I’m driving and it begins jerk and finally it just wouldn’t go. When I was towed there was a puddle of transmission fluid on the ground, any thoughts on why that would happen?

  4. Yes the tranny filler neck has popped out. Simple fix.. just find the filler to the tranny. Not the resiviuor. It’ll be the actual hook shaped, metal,( hard )tubing going to the tranny… A certified mechanic can tell you the name of this

  5. My 2006 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor has been having troubles. A LOT of symptoms she’s having are listed here. One symptom she has I am VERY concerned about. She won’t go into 3rd gear. I just checked the fluid, almost none. The person who sold the car to me told me she had fresh fluid so I didn’t think anything of it…

  6. I Have a 2006 Mustang GT with 110,000 miles on it and the transmission does not shift as quickly as it should , and when it finally does it grabs very quickly and clunks and sometimes does not down shift properly and it downshifted coming to a red light the other day and made a clunking noise and stalled the motor so I started it back up and put it in drive and it took a few seconds to engage so I took it to a Ford dealer today and they did some tests on it and checked the fluid and the fluid was full but burnt so they are recommending installing a remanufactured transmission.

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