One of the most overlooked fluids inside a vehicle is transmission fluid. Like any other critical automotive fluid, transmission fluid wears down over time. Operating your vehicle with dirty or contaminated transmission fluid can cause excessive wear and tear on your vehicle’s most vital components, potentially leading to breakdowns and costly repairs.
Keeping your transmission fluid in optimal condition is vital for your vehicle’s performance. Periodically checking the fluid level and color indicates your fluid’s quality. Depending on your vehicle’s make and model, checking the level is as easy as taking a quick dipstick reading.
A professional mechanic at a local service station or dealership can evaluate the fluid levels of newer transmissions without a dipstick and ensure no leaks exist.
What Does Transmission Fluid Do?
The primary roles of transmission fluid are lubricating the metal parts and bearings inside your vehicle’s gearbox and preventing wear and grinding. Because gear shifting is such a strenuous task, high-performance transmission fluid is critical for facilitating smooth shifting and reducing breakdown.
Other critical functions of transmission fluid include:
- Cooling the transmission system
- Maintaining fluid pressure
- Protecting against oxidation
- Preventing system rust
- Conditioning the gasket
Transmission Fluid Types
Knowing the correct type of transmission fluid for your vehicle is essential for keeping it in good operating condition. In general, there are three types of transmission fluids:
- Automatic transmission fluid: Vehicles with automatic transmissions require automatic transmission fluid. Some newer car models with more modern manual transmissions also use automatic fluid. Some of the core functions of this fluid include gear lubrication, brake band friction, valve body operation and torque converter functionality.
- Manual transmission fluid: Manual transmission fluid is standard for most vehicles with older manual transmissions. Manual fluid is often heavier than most transmission fluid types. Owners should not use manual fluid in any vehicle model with an automatic transmission.
- Synthetic and specialty transmission fluid: These fluid types use synthetic ingredients to create a formula less likely to break down, oxidize or deteriorate in high temperatures. Vehicles with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) or dual-clutch systems often require specialty fluids specifically designed for their unique components.
Checking your vehicle’s operation manual or consulting with a transmission specialist is the best way to ensure you use the proper fluid.
How Often Should You Change Transmission Fluid?
Although many vehicle owners understand the requirements for changing engine oil, they often need more education about transmission fluid. Manual and automatic transmission fluids will break down in time and require changing. While transmission fluid doesn’t require changing as often as engine oil, it’s still essential to regularly monitor its level and condition.
If your fluid has begun to break down or show a low level, you’ll often notice a decrease in performance when engaging or shifting into gear. Operating your transmission with deteriorated fluid or low levels also increases the risk of damaging your internal gears because the lack of lubrication causes severe grinding.
Many manufacturers — depending on the vehicle’s make and model — recommend changing your fluid every 30,000 to 60,000 miles. Some automakers offer vehicles that never require a change. However, if you experience issues or detect fluid deterioration, you may need to change it sooner than the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Stop-and-go driving in the city, towing heavy loads and harsh weather can cause increased strain on your transmission and make your transmission fluid more vulnerable. If you commonly operate your vehicle in these conditions, consider checking your fluid’s condition and levels more frequently.
Some potential signs that you may have low or contaminated transmission fluid include:
- Leakage: Puddles, droplets or fluid trails are often sure signs of a potential problem.
- Color: If your fluid changes from bright or transparent to dark or grimy, it’s probably contaminated.
- Difficulty shifting: Low levels or deteriorated fluid can cause significant problems when putting your vehicle into gear or shifting from one gear to another.
- Chattering: Rumbling or chattering during startup is sometimes an indicator of transmission issues.
- Warning lights: Many newer-model vehicles feature warning lights on the dash to alert you of possible transmission problems.
- Odd smell: If you detect an unusual odor — especially if it’s noticeably tart — your transmission may be overheating due to low fluid levels.
How Much Transmission Fluid Do You Need?
The right amount of transmission fluid you add to your system will depend on whether you top it off or replace all the fluid entirely. If topping your fluid level off, add as much fluid as needed until the dipstick reads full. Some vehicles show the fluid’s actual level through an indicator in the engine compartment.
It’s vital to remember that some vehicles do not have dipsticks or sensors and require servicing by an experienced professional.
If you replace all the fluid, amounts can vary from 8 to 9 quarts for small vehicles to more than 20 quarts for trucks. Your owner’s manual will specify your vehicle’s exact transmission fluid capacity.
How Do I Know That My Transmission Fluid Is Low?
There are a few ways to tell if your transmission fluid is low. You can manually check the supply or look for your car’s warning signs to spot low transmission fluid.
Transmission Fluid Auditing
To manually check your transmission fluid, park your car on a flat surface and open the hood. Reference your owner’s manual to see if you should complete the following steps with the engine running.
In either case, look for the transmission dipstick — it should be brightly colored. Then, remove and wipe off the dipstick before putting it back into the transmission.
After replacing the dipstick, pull it out once more to see how high the fluid reaches. It should stop between the low and full marks. If the fluid stops before the low mark, then your fluid is low.
Low Transmission Fluid Warning Signs
The following signs indicate that your transmission fluid is low or in need of replacement:
- Leakage: Transmission fluid may run low due to a leak, so look for visible signs of leakage around your parking spot.
- Overheating: Your transmission will overheat if it’s low on fluid. You can tell your transmission is overheating when your engine revs aggressively at high RPMs, even to reach low speeds.
- Slipping: A transmission slip is when it fails to shift smoothly or stays in the gear you selected. Slipping occurs when there is insufficient synchronization between the vehicle and engine.
- Warning lights: The check engine light may illuminate when your transmission fluid is low. If the light’s engagement seems out of the ordinary, take your car to a shop for a diagnostic reading or check your transmission fluid level.
- Odors: Insufficient lubrication oxidizes and contaminates the remaining transmission fluid. This fluid will darken and produce an unpleasant odor.
Changing Transmission Fluid on Your Own
Some do-it-yourselfers can efficiently complete many basic vehicle maintenance tasks, like changing a wiper blade or replacing the motor oil. However, transmission service is often much more challenging, as it comes with the increased possibility of making a mistake or an error in judgment. While some older-model cars require removing a few bolts on the transmission pan and draining the fluid, other vehicles may require special tools and draining procedures.
If you’re changing the fluid yourself, manufacturers recommend removing all the old fluid and replacing your transmission filter with each change.
Even though you can save money by performing a change yourself, a service professional can properly flush, fill and inspect your entire system for issues. Many qualified mechanics can also complete all your other transmission service-related needs, like case cleaning, grime removal, filter replacement and more.
Choose Hot Shot’s Secret Transmission Fluids and Additives for Your Vehicle
At Hot Shot’s Secret, we understand how critical transmission fluid is to your vehicle’s life and performance. For these reasons, we offer an extensive selection of some of the industry’s top transmission fluids and additives. All our formulas are scientifically proven to increase the lubrication of your transmission’s core components while preventing excessive friction buildup.
Explore our full line of transmission fluids today to determine the best fit for your vehicle’s needs. Feel free to contact us at 800-341-6516 with questions or to request additional information.