Coaxing the maximum life out of your vehicle's transmission isn't difficult if you follow some simple yet proven advice. True, the transmission is one of the most expensive parts on a vehicle to fix or replace, but knowing how to take care of your transmission and what potential warning signs to watch for can help you realize years of trouble-free performance and big savings.
Maintenance intervals, driving style, vehicle make and manufacturer, and even geography where the vehicle is driven most frequently all can impact a transmission's life expectancy. Do you routinely stomp on the gas or tow heavy loads up and down mountains? If so, you're asking a lot from your transmission. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how many miles a transmission will last—some have gone more than 300,000—there are steps you can take to help prolong its life.
Signs Your Transmission May be Failing
Being a smart DIYer means knowing the warning signs associated with different problems (or knowing how to look it up online!) that often indicate a transmission isn't functioning properly. Taking corrective action now may help prevent a full-blown transmission failure later. Become the "transmission whisperer" and listen for these following signals that something may be wrong:
- Hesitation: A noticeable delay when the transmission shifts from one gear to the next, rough shifts between gears, or continually switches between gears.
- Discolored or burned-smelling fluid: Transmission fluid that's very dark and/or smells burned when you remove the dipstick to check it.
- An illuminated check engine light: Could be accompanied by a delay in shifting—use an on-board diagnostic (OBD) reader to determine what the trouble is.
- Strong odors: A burning odor when towing, carrying heavy cargo, or driving in hilly terrain could be the result of the transmission being overworked and overheating.
But that's not all! The transmission may be your problem when you notice:
- Slow acceleration
- Reduced fuel mileage
- Fluid leaks
- Grinding noises or shaking
- Whirring sounds when in neutral or in gear
- Slipping gears
- A dragging clutch (in manual transmissions)
Getting the Most Out of Your Transmission
Granted, no transmission lasts forever (though some try), but regular maintenance can keep your car on the road for many years and miles without ever experiencing any transmission problems. Ignore the maintenance, however, and an automatic transmission can fail in as few as 75,000 miles, leaving you with costly repairs, and in some cases, a voided warranty. A typical transmission service includes:
- Replacing the automatic transmission fluid (ATF) roughly every 40,000 miles, depending on the OEM's recommended schedule. Learn how to perform this relatively simple, inexpensive procedure yourself.
- Upgrading to a synthetic transmission fluid (if appropriate for the vehicle)
- Adjusting transmission bands every 60,000 miles (such as on an older car or heavy-duty pickup)
- Checking the fluid level often and refilling it to the proper level when it's low.
- Using the ATF specified by the vehicle manufacturer and never mixing different types of transmission fluids.
- Replacing the transmission filter or screen based on the vehicle manufacturer's mileage and/or time intervals.
- Cleaning the transmission pan's magnet(s) to remove metal fragments it has trapped.
- Using a transmission conditioning product to help restore performance and fix small leaks.
Keeping Your Transmission in Top Running Condition
With proper maintenance, most drivers can expect their transmissions to last well over the 150,000-mile mark and beyond. The key to longevity is spending a little money now on preventive maintenance, instead of a lot of money later on rebuilding or replacing the transmission.
What's the most mileage you've ever coaxed out of a transmission? What are your tips and tricks for extending transmission life?