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?

What to Read Next

Over to You

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

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2 years ago

Please what is the cost of volkswagen Jetta FSI automatic transmission?

Jeff Hoye
2 years ago

My car wouldn’t go into gear I still think it’s the cats

c detro
2 years ago

2005 dodge caravan 2,4L No signs just no shift just over 100,000 low mileage fuild was not dark .no leak?

2 years ago

will the torque converter still good..if it ran out of fluid

2 years ago

Hello I’m driving a white Toyota tazz. I’ve been experiencing difficulties when changing gears, there is a grinding sound most special when its cold. Sometimes it doesn’t want to select at all until I switch it off select a gear and start again, but when its warm they will start to engage but in a difficult manner. Is this a sign of low gearbox oil?

Joe joe
2 years ago

I have a high mileage 08 Jeep Compass. Just the past day or so it has randomly shifted into what I believe to be low gear while I’m driving at around 60 kpm. It makes the vehicle come to an almost complete stop. Dummy lights on the dash also light up.

Does this sound like a tranny problem?

2 years ago

I have a 1997 z71 with a 4l60e. I put it in drive and it drives but won’t shift out of first. I can manually shift it ( 1,2,3) and that works, also reverse works fine. It has plenty of wheel power. What is up with that. Also its a newly rebuilt transmission with a new torqe converter. I put 1 quart in the torque converter before I installed it, then 8 after. 9 in all. Am I too low in fluid for it to shift out of first by itself??

2 years ago

I have a 2013 Dodge Ram with the 3.6 liter v6 and an 8 speed transmission. I’m constantly running a 230 degrees. Is this something I should be worried about? I have 122,000 miles on it

2 years ago

I have a 2003 bmwi 525,does a lack of transmissions fluid make the Trans failsafe prog appear??

. Emery
2 years ago

I have a 2000 Chevy Silverado 2500 hd it will move in the forward gears but will not move in reverse it is an automatic transmission will low transmission fluid cause that

2 years ago
Reply to  . Emery


2 years ago

My 2006 honda odyssey i put it in drive and wont move at all. Does this mean the transmission is bad. August of last year a new transmission was put in it.

2 years ago
Reply to  Amy

I have a Honda Odyssey as well…02…this happens to me as well but when I put it into 1st, and slowly bring it up to drive it will usually drive fine after…my transmission seems to also be jumping when I slow down and change gears

2 years ago

Have a Mitsubishi Galant 1992 v6 Auto that is stuck in 2nd gear (limp mode I assume) auto electrician can’t get any trouble codes and doesn’t know how to fix it
Did try another good computer but that didn’t help so not likely that —could this be a damaged or corroded wire ? could it be relay or trans computer if they have separate computers ?
Any help will be appreciated so much

2 years ago

I have a 1996 diamante(Mitsubishi) 2.5 litre has 5 forward 1 reverse
Making scraping noise in 1—-3 when under load when changes to 4 or 5 runs smooth no scraping noise
Fluid level is at top end of marks now — was a bit low
Sound hasn’t gone away yet on short drive
performs fine but has the noise —
could this be a bearing on the 2 planetary shaft (I assume rev 1–2–3 on one shaft and 4—5 on another planetary shaft —- ( is this how it works ?)
Some clues would be great

Liver liver
2 years ago

I have a toyota corolla of 2002 when i im driving at times it appears as if it is in neutral gear or it produces a goo sound as if it disnegage a gear .please help me

2 years ago

I have a 2005 Pontiac Montana which as of yesterday I can’t drive forward but if I drive in 2nd or 1 gear I can drive forward is this my fluid level low in my transmission

2 years ago
Reply to  Janelle

She is cooked

2 years ago

Hi, i drive Dodge journey 2010 model, an the issue here was incorrect ratio gear 2 an gear 3, an after the dignosetic we found that it’s the actuator transmission solenoid, now after we replaced it it doesn’t go wen we engage D, only go reverse, an on the glasder it show electric sign.. Can someone help me out please…

2 years ago

hi my 1999 accord refuse to move when in reverse,even in D3 and D4 only in 2 what will be the cause

2 years ago

My f150 will no go into park which keeps me from starting vehicle

2 years ago
Reply to  Beto

Dig the neutral switch out of the steering column and pull the slider back and forth while turning your key. At a certain point on the slider your truck should start rotating and start.

Erick C Bolcao
2 years ago
Reply to  Beto

Turn the key to the on position, put the truck in neutral and then try starting, a vehicle should always try starting when it is in neutral

Sally Tuffin
2 years ago

Hi I have a 2007 Ford Focus with 200, 000 km on odometer. For the past several days I have noticed that when I first start driving the car in the morning that the first gear shift from first to second during exceleration that there is a resistence and sometimes a bit of a clunk. Then it shifts and there are no other issues. Fluid levels were good when I checked last week, no visible leaks beneath the car.

Craig Steinhoff
2 years ago
Reply to  Sally Tuffin

Hi I have a f250 1986 two wheel drive. When I first start out it delays 1second latter it engages in to first. It will do that up to four times each time it starts say after a stop sign. Then it won’t have a problem the 5th time or for the rest of the drive. I have not checked the level or condition of the fluid.

Skip Patterson
2 years ago

Pulled out of camping and trans would not shift out of 3rd gear. Drove it 125 miles keeping rpm Round 50 got home would not shift in reverse. Next day it would back up drove to cover and haven’t drove it n couple months. Was 2 quarts low on transmission fluid any suggestion?

George gross
2 years ago

I have a 2015 Ford focus it won tgo into reverse but goes into drive and only goes limited speed wats wrong

2 years ago
Reply to  George gross

Hi George, did you get to know what the issue of your focus, I have the same problems.

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