Signs That Your Transmission Is Bad

Woman On Side of RoadA person should never ignore or treat lightly the slightest sign that there could be a problem with their car’s transmission. Such signs are clear indications there your vehicle’s transmission needs immediate attention.

For many car owners, however, the transmission is one of the most intimidating parts of the car. It is naturally scary to people who lack automotive experience because they know if the transmission in their car goes out that first, their car won’t move, and, second, repairing or replacing it will probably bust their budget. Instead, they choose to ignore the warning signs.

Of course, to people who are automotive experts or are exceptionally adept with cars, transmissions seem to be an area that is only slightly problematic. For amateurs, however, anything concerning their car’s transmission can be absolutely bewildering to them.

Understandably, any common transmission problem can be quite frightening. Fortunately, many of the problems can be fixed if caught in time. A person just has to know the various transmission problems possible, how to identify the symptoms, and then what to do when they realize the problem has occurred. For most people, though, a bad transmission will mean the expense of taking their car to a shop.

An automatic transmission that is going bad normally shows several signs that are easily recognized in advance of any looming calamity. Listed below are some of the most common symptoms indicating there is a bad automatic transmission:

  • transmission slippage
  • transmission spinning
  • transmission lag
  • burned transmission fluid
  • severe transmission fluid leaks

Transmission Slippage

A typical sign that your automatic transmission is bad is when it slips in and out of gear while you are driving. An automatic transmission generally has a series of between four and five gears, which are designed for various engine speeds.

If you have an automatic transmission that is slipping, it can affect your car’s performance and is a good sign that there is transmission failure in your car’s future.

When slippage occurs, the functions that the transmission is responsible for start to become sluggish. As your vehicle switches from one gear to the next you may notice a slight hesitation. It will make putting the car into drive or reverse difficult, and, worse yet, the car will have trouble changing gears as you drive along.

In the worst case, your car may chug into the next gear, or it may not be able to access the gears at all, leaving you stranded at the side of the road. For this reason, even if you are able to operate your car, slips in the transmission can become extremely dangerous over time.

Following are some easily identifiable transmission slipping symptoms.

  • odd gear shifting patterns
  • excessive noise when the car shifts gears
  • extremely high RPMs
  • diminished engine power
  • extreme delay in acceleration

If your car is showing any of these warning signs, it is imperative that you get them checked out. Many of these symptoms can also be explained away as one-time occurrences related to other problems. However, if these are recurring symptoms, you can be confident that transmission slippage is your real problem.

There could also be a problem with the clutch bands that could be out of adjustment or extremely worn and are therefore unable to properly engage the gear. Debris might also be in the valve body. This situation would then prevent the valve from sending the fluid to the appropriate places.

The problem may be as simple as a clogged transmission filter or a lack of transmission fluid. Or the problem may be more severe due to worn or broken transmission gears and bands.

Unfortunately, automatic transmission slippage is one of the more involved vehicle problems, and an amateur should not attempt to fix it. Transmission repair prices range from $800 to fix slippage caught early, to $2,000 to replace the transmission because the slippage problem was not taken care of early on.

Transmission Spinning

Another common sign that you are having a transmission problem is when the transmission fails to engage when you shift from park or reverse into drive. Transmission spinning is also referred to as transmission non-engagement. A faulty or bad automatic transmission will spin instead of move the car forward.

Normally, the reason for this failure is because the clutch does not properly engage the transmission gears with the engine crankshaft. The result is a spinning — or freewheeling — condition. In some instances, the transmission will engage after just a few seconds, but in other cases, the transmission will not engage whatsoever, preventing your car from moving anywhere.

Listed below are the usual causes of transmission spinning.

  • air in line
  • low fluid
  • improperly adjusted clutch linkage
  • too light transmission lubricant or low lubricant level
  • bad cylinder

You can check the transmission fluid level if you wish, but even at that, if you are experiencing problems with your transmission not shifting, you should take it to a professional. A transmission that is acting up could mean a more serious problem.

Transmission Lag

Transmission lag normally occurs whenever your car is accelerating.
If you have ever taken off from a complete stop and for just a few seconds the transmission fails to engage before it kicks the car into gear, then you have experienced what is referred to as transmission lag. Worse yet, you may have experienced this lag while in the middle of making a left turn, and have almost been hit by oncoming traffic.

Some possible causes for transmission lag are listed below. An amateur could easily attempt fixing the first two problems. However, the last one would require getting a new transmission or having the old one rebuilt.

  • low transmission fluid
  • clogged transmission filter
  • low fluid pressure from transmission wear

Burned Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid that is in good shape is normally a translucent pinkish red. However, when it’s old or there is a problem with your transmission, it will be a dark red to brown color. A bad automatic transmission can even turn the fluid to an almost black color.

If your transmission fluid is burned, ignoring it could make the situation even more serious. You may hear excessive gear or grinding noises coming from the transmission, which likely means the fluid is low or possibly contaminated, in which case you will need to check it as soon as possible.

On the other hand, if while driving you smell a burnt odor coming from your car, stop the car at the nearest exit and check the transmission fluid. This type fluid is not a lubricant like oil, but a coolant intended to keep the various parts of your transmission from burning up.

If you are local, you can drive the car home and then change the fluid or filter yourself. If you are out of town, a quick lube shop can suck the old fluid out but will not change the filter.

If the transmission fluid is in fact the reason for the burned smell, you will be able to tell right away when you pull the dipstick up. In addition to the noticeable dark color, you will smell a distinct burned odor, much like the smell of burnt toast.

The odor and color indicate that there is too much friction going on within the transmission, which could be the result of one of two things. The transmission is either being used in a harder way than originally intended, or some of its components need to be serviced.

For instance, you may be using a vehicle to tow something or possibly you are driving a racecar. In either instance, you will want to make sure that the transmission is designed to handle each particular circumstance and has adequate cooling so the transmission fluid will remain at its most efficient operating temperature.

Severe Transmission Fluid Leaks

Even for someone who is totally unfamiliar with transmissions, this symptom is easy to discern as a sign that something is wrong with your transmission. Unless you are somehow oblivious to your surroundings or are so hurried you never look at your parking space or driveway, you cannot miss this sign.

For example, maybe when you pulled your car out of the garage or backed it out of your parking space, you happened to notice a pool of fluid where you normally park the car. No matter how large or how small the spot, if there was a puddle of some kind of liquid, you could have a transmission leak.

Regardless of whether the leak occurs when your car is parked or while you are driving down the road, an automatic transmission that leaks large amounts of transmission fluid is a transmission that needs immediate attention before it ends up needing a complete overhaul.

Your best option is to take the car to a transmission shop and have the leak diagnosed and the transmission repaired by professionals. Transmission leaks are serious matters.

Your car contains various kinds of fluids, so you first must make sure the fluid is coming from your transmission. If it is a transmission leak, the fluid will most likely be red, unless it’s about time for a fluid change, in which case it may be a brownish color. There are other car fluids, such as windshield wiper fluid and anti-freeze, that are red as well.

However, you will be able to definitely identify it as transmission fluid by its consistency and smell. The consistency of transmission fluid has a slick quality to it that feels oily, similar to engine oil or brake fluid. It has an odor similar to petroleum, except when it needs to be changed. Then it smells burned, usually like burnt toast.

Where the leak is dripping from will also help you identify the type of fluid. Transmission fluid will leak near the front part and middle of the car. So, if there are any little puddles of a slick red liquid where the front end and middle of your car sit on the pavement, you more than likely have a transmission fluid leak.

Of course, you may have already realized there is some kind of problem with your transmission but don’t know what the exact problem is with it. If your transmission has a leak, it will start slow, which means the transmission fluid levels are low thus indicating a possible leak. On the other hand, if the transmission doesn’t start, you probably don’t have any transmission fluid whatsoever.

You can avoid transmission leaks by being sure to have regular maintenance done on all parts of your car, which includes having your transmission fluid checked. Depending on the number of miles you drive, you may need to have the transmission fluid changed every two years or 30,000 miles.

Sometimes transmission leaks occur due to no fault of the car owner. Nonetheless, if not addressed, a leak can significantly damage a car’s transmission. Following are the main causes for leaks.

  • Transmission pan seals can crack or fray, allowing transmission fluid to leak out.
  • Rear main seals cement the car’s transmission and engine together. This seal can become worn and frayed or cracked, allowing transmission fluid to leak. These leaks are exceptionally troublesome and difficult to repair.
  • Transmission fluid lines, which are made of steel and/or aluminum, while extremely solid, can become damaged, cracked, or broken, causing transmission fluid to leak.
  • Torque converters are basically hydraulic pumps that can sustain leaks or cracks within the body of the converter and cause serious leaks.
  • Transmission pan bolts that are either loose or damaged cause most of the transmission leaks.

The modern automatic transmission is the most complex mechanical component in the car today. It contains a number of systems all working together in relatively perfect unison: mechanical, hydraulic, electrical, and computer controls. For this reason, repairs should be left to trained transmission specialists. Your job is to not ignore any signs of a bad transmission.

Automatic transmissions are technological marvels that are low maintenance compared to other parts of the car. Checking the level of transmission fluid a couple times a year and changing the fluid every two years is the only maintenance required to keep the transmission in good working condition.