It’s great when you jump in your car and it goes. You have time to think about your day ahead, think about your plans for the weekend, maybe plan dinner for later that evening.
It’s not so great when you get into your car and notice a problem. It sputters. It jerks. Or maybe it doesn’t start at all.
Performance is a big deal. You’ve purchased your vehicle to provide reliable transportation. Transmission fluid plays a critical role in performance. So, how do you know if transmission fluid is the problem?
Let’s start by understanding what transmission fluid does
When it comes to the smooth operation of your vehicle, your mind might drift to steering or brakes. Transmission fluid may not grab the spotlight, but its role is crucial in ensuring your vehicle functions at its best.
Transmission fluid serves as a lubricant, reducing friction between the moving parts within your vehicle’s transmission system. Think of it as the lifeblood that keeps things running smoothly. Without proper lubrication, the transmission components would grind against each other, leading to wear, heat, and potential damage.
Beyond just lubrication, transmission fluid also acts as a coolant, helping to dissipate the heat generated during the transmission process. As your vehicle moves, the transmission works hard, and this generates heat. Transmission fluid plays a key role in preventing overheating, ensuring that your vehicle operates within the optimal temperature range.
As it continues to move, transmission fluid facilitates smooth gear shifts. It helps in transferring power from the engine to the transmission and ultimately to the wheels, allowing your vehicle to accelerate and decelerate seamlessly.
What transmission fluid is
Transmission fluid is a specialized lubricant designed for the unique requirements of automatic and manual transmissions in vehicles. The composition of transmission fluid can vary depending on the type and brand, but generally, it consists of a combination of base oils and additives.
Base oils consist of:
- Mineral oil – Traditional transmission fluids often use mineral oil derived from crude oil. These fluids provide adequate lubrication but may require more frequent changes compared to synthetic alternatives.
- Synthetic oil – Synthetic transmission fluids are engineered in a laboratory, offering superior performance and stability across a wide range of temperatures. They also tend to have longer lifespans and provide better protection under extreme conditions.
Additives are dependent on the manufacturer, but may contain:
- Friction modifiers – These additives help regulate friction between moving parts, ensuring smooth gear shifts and reducing wear on transmission components.
- Viscosity index improvers – These additives maintain the fluid’s viscosity across different temperature ranges, ensuring consistent performance in both cold and hot conditions.
- Detergents and dispersants – These additives keep the transmission clean by preventing the buildup of sludge, varnish, and other contaminants. They also help to suspend and disperse particles to be filtered out.
- Anti-Wear Agents – These additives provide an additional layer of protection to prevent wear on metal surfaces within the transmission.
- Anti-oxidation and anti-corrosion agents – These additives protect the transmission fluid and the transmission system components from oxidative damage and corrosion.
- Seal conditioners – These additives help maintain the flexibility of seals, preventing leaks and ensuring a proper seal between moving parts.
Always refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual or consult with a professional mechanic to ensure you’re using the correct transmission fluid for your specific vehicle.
Critical signs transmission fluid is running low
As you would expect, if transmission fluid isn’t kept at proper levels, your car’s performance will start to deteriorate. Low transmission fluid levels can lead to various issues that, if left unaddressed, may result in significant damage to the transmission system. You should watch out for:
One of the most common signs of low transmission fluid is difficulty staying in gear or unexpected slipping between gears. If you notice your vehicle hesitating or changing gears unexpectedly, it may be a sign that the transmission fluid is not providing sufficient hydraulic pressure.
Delayed or Rough Shifting
Low transmission fluid can lead to delayed or rough shifts when changing gears. You may experience a noticeable pause or a jolt during acceleration.
Inadequate lubrication due to low transmission fluid levels can result in increased friction and wear on the transmission components. This may lead to unusual noises such as whining, grinding, or clunking during gear changes.
Transmission fluid also serves as a coolant for the transmission system. Insufficient fluid can cause the transmission to overheat, leading to potential damage. If you notice your vehicle’s temperature gauge climbing or receive an overheating warning, it could be related to low transmission fluid.
Keep an eye out for red or brownish puddles under your vehicle, as these could indicate a transmission fluid leak. Leaks may occur due to a damaged seal or gasket, and if left unaddressed, they can lead to low fluid levels.
Dashboard Warning Light
Your vehicle is equipped with various warning lights. It may have a “check transmission” light, or rely on the “check engine” light for anything to do with engine performance. If this light illuminates on your dashboard, it could indicate that the transmission is running too hot, potentially due to low fluid levels.
These lights also store a code in the car’s computer further identifying the problem.
- Code P0218 – transmission is overheating
- Code P0700 – a general code for transmission control system malfunction
- Code P0706 – a transmission range sensor that provides a neutral safety switch that ensures you can start the car in neutral or park
- Code P0729 thru P0736 – a gear ratio problem indicator
- Code P0750 thru P0770 – a transmission solenoid failure
- Code P0868 – for low transmission fluid pressure
No matter how big or small the problem, if a computer sensor is issuing a warning, it’s time to bring your vehicle in for maintenance.
Insufficient transmission fluid can result in increased friction and heat within the transmission system. If you notice a burning smell while driving, especially when the vehicle is in gear, it could be a sign of overheating due to low fluid.
If you experience any of these signs, it’s essential to address the issue promptly. Ignoring low transmission fluid levels can lead to severe damage to the transmission, requiring costly repairs or replacements.
If you suspect a problem with your transmission, consult with a qualified mechanic for a proper diagnosis and necessary repairs.
Regular maintenance, including checking and maintaining proper transmission fluid levels, can help prevent these issues and ensure the continued smooth operation of your vehicle.