What are the first signs of a transmission going bad?
Automotive transmission problems can run the gamut in severity and in repair cost. It can be as easy as replacing fluids or it can be a more than $5000 reconstruction.
Minor transmission repairs involve replacing defective solenoids, re-sealing for leaks, replacing parts, and throttle cable adjustment. Major transmission repair requires disassembling, inspection, cleaning, and rebuilding. It’s labor intensive and cost prohibitive.
Luckily, transmission failure doesn’t usually happen without warning. There are several warning signs that your transmission’s going out.
Here transmission symptoms to keep in the back of your mind.
1. Weird Smells
Road trips are full of weird smells, but if any of them seem to be coming from your engine, pay attention. If you notice a burning smell, it’s a sure sign something’s not working right.
As transmission fluid runs low or degrades, it overheats and starts to burn. This makes your engine run hot, which contributes to early wear, excess debris, and corrosion.
Other causes of burning smells include trapped plastic, dripping antifreeze, or a melting heater core. You should always get a burning smell checked out, no matter the cause.
2. Strange Sounds
Car breakdowns in the movies are always accompanied by clunking sounds, whether it’s a flat tire or a faulty starter. In this case, the movies didn’t lie. Strange sounds can mean transmission trouble.
Don’t pass off abrupt changes in your driving soundtrack with a cursory, “well, that’s new.”
Clunking, humming or whining sounds are signs of automatic transmission problems. Faulty manual transmissions will also give off loud machinelike sounds that seem to come out of nowhere.
A clunking noise when you shift gears is a telltale transmission situation. Have a mechanic look it over.
Excess noisiness may also indicate a problem. A noisy, bumping sound when your car is in neutral requires an engine check.
The solution is usually pretty simple. It might be low fluid. It could also be that the wrong fluid type was used, and it’s not doing the job.
On the other hand, it could be a problem with your bearings or gear teeth, which may need replacements.
4. Check Engine Light
Though many drivers are used to ignoring a chronic check engine light, there are times to take it seriously. A red or blinking light is trying to alert you to an urgent problem.
Sensors all around your vehicle can trip the warning system. Even something as inconsequential as a loose gas cap can set it off.
When the transmission sensors set off the check engine light, it’s a cause for concern. The sensors detect minute jerks and tremors that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. Don’t wait until you do notice them when a simple diagnostic scan could give you peace of mind.
5. No Response
A functioning transmission will slide right into the proper gear. If your car is hesitating or giving you no response, something’s wrong, and it’s often the transmission.
In a manual vehicle, this delayed shifting is accompanied by an RPM surge and engine noise that doesn’t match your speed. It might just be your clutch, but the only way to know for sure is to take it in for service.
Catching Transmission Problems Early
It is important to catch any issues with your transmission early. If you delay maintenance or repairs, you could be facing more costly car repairs in the future. You might be wondering how long transmissions last? This will help give you an indication of when you should start paying more close attention to your transmission to detect issues early. Unfortunately, there is no universal answer. This is because the lifespan of a transmission really depends on how much maintenance you put into it on a regular basis.
Just like any other system, the transmission works hard and will eventually break down from wear and tear over time. If you can catch these issues early, it will help you avoid an entire transmission replacement. The best way to catch these issues early is to be very informed about the signs of a failing transmission. Once your car starts to age, you should be more alert and aware of any issues your car has. Additionally, you should always take your car in to a mechanic as soon as you notice your car driving differently. This could save you a lot of money in car repairs in the future.
The top signs why your transmission may be failing:
You may be experiencing a problem with your transmission if your vehicle is exhibiting any of the following symptoms below:
- Transmission won’t engage or stay in gear
If when you put your vehicle into gear and it won’t move, this may be a problem with low transmission fluid due to a leak, the shifter, shifter cable, or it could even be a problem in the valve body of your automatic transmission. Newer vehicles depend on the computer to tell the transmission when to go into gear based on your selection and you may need to have the computer system checked for trouble codes.
- Shifts are delayed or missing gears
If your transmission takes a while to go into gear, you may have a low transmission fluid condition because of a leak or contamination due to lack of maintenance or even water intrusion during off road or flooding conditions. While this may not sound serious, but this can also create an overheating condition that can damage internal transmission parts. Other possibilities could be an engine related problem that will cause the computer to not allow the transmission to shift into higher gears.
- Transmission slipping or engine is revving high
This condition can also be caused by low transmission fluid, contamination due to lack of maintenance or water intrusion, or internal wear and tear on the transmission parts inside the transmission. A high revving engine is a typical sign that you have worn clutches or other parts inside the transmission going bad.
- Transmission fluid is leaking
A red fluid under the vehicle is a sign that you probably have a transmission fluid leak from one of the cooler lines, a gasket or a seal. This is not only bad for the transmission but is also dangerous if the fluid leaks on a hot pipe or other surface. Check your dipstick for proper fluid level and condition. Note: not all transmission fluid is red and not all levels can be verified with a dipstick method, but require specials tools.
- If there’s a burning smell
A burning smell is typically caused by a fluid leak or in some cases by low fluid causing a burning clutch smell. If you catch the fluid leak quickly you might be able to save the transmission from damage. Check your transmission dipstick as per the manufacturer’s direction for level and condition.
How to Prevent a Transmission Breakdown
If your transmission is already wearing thin, there’s only so much you can do. In the future, however, there are precautions you can take to safeguard your transmission from impending disaster. While it’s important to take action as soon as something seems out of the ordinary, there are things you can do to prevent the problem in the first place.
There are some factors that are out of your control. Of course, poor design or manufacturing can certainly doom a transmission. The only thing you can do about that, of course, is to thoroughly research the vehicle before making your purchase. However, things like poor maintenance are completely under your control.
Below are some tips that could help protect against a transmission breakdown.
Monitor your transmission fluid level
As the lubricant for all the moving parts within this essential vehicle part, it’s critical to have the right levels and quality of transmission fluid. Note that there are several differences between how you maintain an automatic versus manual transmission (for example, how often you must change the fluid).
Ideally, you would check your transmission fluid once per month, but most people will have it checked when they get their regular oil change. As noted earlier in this article, new transmission fluid will have a red, transparent color that will gradually darken over time. If the fluid gets to be very dark or black, it’s time to get it changed.
Consider driving conditions
How you treat your vehicle has a big impact on how it maintains itself. Both the driving conditions you put your car through – and how you navigate those conditions – will determine the overall health and lifespan of your transmission.
Heavy stop-and-go city traffic takes a heavy toll on nearly every part of your vehicle, including your transmission. Driving on the highway allows you to drive a steadier speed, which is much easier on all of your vehicle’s parts. While some of these conditions are unavoidable, a highway commute could extend the life of your transmission.
Keep your eye on the weather
If you’re late for work, it might be tempting to start your car and immediately kick it into reverse. If it’s cold outside, avoid this at all costs. Cold weather can wreak havoc on a car’s transmission system, causing something called transmission slipping. In these conditions, the system can freeze and contract and the line fluid can leak out from the seals.
To avoid damage to your transmission in cold weather, there are several things you can do. The ideal solution is to store your car in a climate-controlled garage. Another option would be to invest in an engine heater. If these aren’t viable options for you, let your car idle before kicking it into gear. Then drive slowly for the first couple miles to give the parts and fluid time to warm up to normal temperatures.
Watch your driving habits
Sure, sometimes you might have that temptation to rev up the engine. Or maybe you’re late for work and you drive a little more aggressively than usual. But performing “high performance” starts, or spinning your tires for your own amusement, is hard on your transmission (and your vehicle as a whole).
Of course, there are a number of other driving habits to consider. If you can, here are a few additional habits to avoid: Taking frequent short trips, towing or carrying heavy loads, driving in extreme cold or heat, and driving on rough, dusty, or dirty terrain.
What To Do About a Damaged Transmission
If the worst happens, and your transmission is in fact damaged, you now have a decision to make. Should you go ahead and have it repaired or should you consider moving on? In other words, fix it or sell it. If your vehicle is still drivable with a reasonable repair cost, or if it is an expensive vehicle that has a high overall value, a repair is probably worth it. If the cost to repair your transmission exceeds the overall value of your vehicle (or gets anywhere close to it), repair is probably not worth the time and money. The unfortunate reality is that fixing a damaged transmission can be expensive, and if it’s an older vehicle that is already vulnerable to more repair costs, you could be throwing money into a bottomless pit.