How To Keep Your Car's Transmission In Good Order

Transmission Maintenance Tips

When you think about the big-ticket items that make your car go, what comes to mind first? Probably the engine. But a close runner-up has to be the transmission. After all, if either your engine or your transmission conks out, your car won’t move and you will be out quite a chunk of change. 

How To Keep Your Car's Transmission In Good Order

Aside from your engine, the next most important and costly system in your car is the transmission. Take care of yours with these tips and save money in the long run.

Thankfully, there are several things that you can do to improve the performance and prolong the life of your transmission. Here we provide a list of the best maintenance tips. Some of them may take a little getting used to, but once you are regularly following these suggestions, they’ll become second nature.

Caring for Your Automatic Transmission

Check Your Transmission Fluid Regularly

To keep your transmission in top shape, regularly check the fluid level and the condition of the fluid. In the case of most vehicles, this is as easy as checking the oil. Most modern vehicles have a second dipstick that goes into the transmission. Just make sure you know which dipstick is for the engine oil and which is for the transmission.

Make sure that the transmission fluid is at the correct level, i.e., not too high and not too low. While you’re checking the level, also observe whether the fluid looks contaminated, has metal shavings, or smells burnt. If any of these things is the case, it is probably being caused by some sort of underlying problem. The problem will be cheaper to fix at this stage than after it gets much worse.

If you are performing other regular car maintenance, you may already be checking your oil level and tire pressure at least once a month. So it’s simple enough check the level and condition of the transmission fluid at the same time.

Come to a Full Stop Before Shifting Between Reverse and Drive or Vice Versa

If you pay attention to the moment when you’re shifting from reverse to drive or from drive to reverse, you may realize that you’re shifting gears before your car has come to a full stop. The practice may seem harmless enough, since it seems to work well and is a little faster than first coming to a full stop. But it can lead to premature transmission problems.

Like the engine, the transmission is full of moving parts that are spinning at incredibly high speeds. When you think about the different gears you can put your car in, you may not visualize them as actual gears inside the transmission. But that’s what they are: metal gears that spin and transmit their rotational energy through the driveshaft or axles to make your wheels spin.

When you are more conscious of the gears as actual gears, you can see why it’s so important to come to a full stop before shifting from reverse to drive or vice versa. If the car is moving, you run the risk that some of the gear teeth will break off or that the transmission will be damaged in other ways.

Use the Emergency Brake

The emergency brake is either a lever arm on the right side of your driver’s seat next to the center console or an extra pedal to the left of the other pedals. But “parking brake” may be a more apt name for it.

If you’ve ever driven a manual car, you know the importance of the parking brake; if you leave the car in neutral without applying the parking brake, the car will start to roll away as soon as you take your foot off the regular brake. But drivers of cars that have automatic transmissions too often ignore the parking brake. You can simply shift to park in this case, right? Well, yes, you can. But doing so puts an unnecessary strain on the transmission.

If you instead apply the emergency brake, a.k.a. parking brake, before shifting into park, you take the load off the transmission, thereby prolonging its life. This is especially useful if you’re parking on a hill or other incline, since doing so puts even more strain on the transmission.

Keep the Vehicle Weight Balanced

Especially in modern vehicles, automatic transmissions take many factors into account every second before shifting between gears. One factor that helps determine the timing of a shift is weight. The heavier the vehicle is, the more stress is placed on the transmission. 

How any extra weight is balanced also affects the level of stress—whether the extra weight is inside the vehicle or being hauled by it. If the weight is heavily skewed in one direction, a gear shift will impose much more stress on the transmission. One side or end of the vehicle is being weighed down to a much greater extent than the transmission is designed to accommodate.

The greater the amount of atypical stress on a transmission, the faster it will wear out and the more likely it suffer one or more other problems. We recommend that you use your vehicle to haul something only when necessary. And whatever you’re hauling, make sure the load is balanced to keep the extra strain on your transmission as low as possible.

Avoid Stop-and-Go Traffic

One of the worst things for an automatic transmission is stop-and-go traffic. Excessive heat is the number one cause of failure of automatic transmissions. Every time your vehicle needs to shift between gears, extra heat is generated. While you’re stuck in stop-and-go traffic, your vehicle is constantly shifting between different gears, and heat is likely to build up.

Another problem pertains to the cooling system. While your vehicle is stuttering along in such traffic, much less air flows into the engine bay than does so under normal driving conditions. This means the radiator is unable to cool as much air as it usually does, preventing the engine and the transmission from keeping their internal temperatures as low as they should be.

Whenever possible, then, avoid stop-and-go traffic. Of course, sometimes you can’t. But often there’s an alternate route you can take, a smoother route that extends the life of your transmission.

Schedule Routine Maintenance

Although all the above maintenance tips are important, arranging for periodic maintenance of your transmission by a professional is by far the most important advice to follow. The manufacturer of your car will recommend a service schedule for that car, so check your owner’s manual to see when you should be taking your car to the shop for transmission maintenance.

The most common service that you will need is changing the transmission fluid. Although you could do this yourself by simply draining the old fluid and pouring in new fluid, a service shop will do a more thorough job. Their mechanics will flush the entire system.

A flush is different from a simple drain-and-fill of the fluid. The mechanics will use a pump to really force out every trace of the old stuff, including any dirt and other contaminants, before pouring in new fluid. Getting the transmission flushed greatly extends the life of the transmission and keeps it shifting gears as smoothly as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need to change the transmission fluid?

In most cases, yes, you do need to have the transmission fluid changed sooner or later. But given how long some transmissions can go between recommended fluid changes these days—as many as 100,000 miles or more—you may never personally have to arrange for a change of transmission fluid yourself. It depends on how long you own the car.

How often do you need to change the transmission fluid?

Check your owner’s manual to find out when to get your transmission fluid changed. Manufacturers often recommend that it be done every 30,000 miles. But some vehicles can go 100,000 miles between changes. And some modern cars have completely sealed transmissions the fluid of which is never or almost never supposed to be changed. The manual will tell you.

Does a manual transmission also need fluid?

Since they have many of the same moving parts as automatic transmissions, manual transmissions need fluid as well. What kind of fluid they require depends on the make and model of the car. Some manual transmissions use engine oil, some use various kinds of gear oil, and some do use automatic transmission fluid.

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