Imagine for a moment where your car that’s been serving you fine for years suddenly feels odd, where your RPMs climb yet produces little forward momentum, and it has become a struggle to even get off the line smoothly and promptly. Could you be seeing signs of a bad transmission?
In serious cases, you might even lose all forward drive, rendering you hopeless while your engine continues to rev with futility. Few issue can unnerve the uninformed drivers as much as a failing transmission, and for those that recognise the symptoms, thoughts of a costly repair bill arises.
A transmission that’s going kaput is definitely a major job for any car, requiring hours upon hours of labour that typically ends up with a costlier rebuild than a complete transmission replacement job. It’s not always the driver’s fault as well, as the internals will wear out eventually even if it’s a heavy duty vehicle component in the overall drivetrain.
However, before it comes down to that, before catastrophic transmission failure occurs, a typically exhibit subliminal or at times overt symptoms that drivers should look out for. It’s also worth noting that with something as convoluted as a vehicle, a problem seemingly stemming from a spoilt transmission may not be associated with it at all.
Signs your transmission is failing
Signs Your Transmission Is Failing
Poor Shift Quality And Feel
One of the most palpable warning signs that your car can give you that’s a forewarning of a transmission issue is the drop in shift quality. It’s overt when it happens, because your car that’s once silky smooth will begin to feel off.
A unanimous feel that everyone with an ageing automatic transmission has no doubt experienced before are clunky shifts. The car genuinely feels unwilling to shift gears, and it happens to both automatic and manual transmissions.
While you’re revving up your car and gaining speed, a typical automatic transmission will shift up promptly and on cue. However, if it begins to feel laboured, and your transmission shifts like it’s strained and struggling to keep up with your engine speed, that is an indication of a transmission going out.
A manual transmission would experience the same kind of issue as well, but the generally poor shifting quality aren’t that common a problem that manuals encounter. If you have the clutch fully depressed, but slotting in gears still grinds harshly, that’s a sign of transmission failure.
Generally, this is also accompanied with a poor shift feel, where it becomes tricky put your car into gear, or it goes into gear but the lever never really feels like it goes in entirely.
While these are issues that most folks generally ignore, as it can be quite subtle at times and your car will most likely still function just fine otherwise. However, it’ll be good to get your transmission checked out, as it can be just an initially minor ailment that will eventually develop into a serious major repair with the chance of leaving you stranded someday.
Slipping Gears And Erratic Shifting
If you’re encountering gears that slip for the first time, it can be quite unsettling. Chances are that if your transmission is slipping gears, you may already have a blown transmission, or one that’s on its last legs.
Again, this is an issue for both automatic and manual transmissions, and when it happens it’s quite pronounced. The car will at times rev up freely without resistance, but without any gain in actual road speed, or it can be constantly juggling between gears without rhyme or reason.
The thing with this is that it can actually be quite hazardous to drive a car that’s slipping gears constantly or unpredictably. You can be pulling away from the traffic light, but end up stationary. You can also be exiting a junction just before an unexpected gear shift that slows you down, meaning the car trailing behind may hit you.
A way that your car warns you subliminally that something might have gone awry is auditory. A transmission that’s on its way out will start to emanate all sorts of noises, all quite disconcerting to hear as a driver.
Typically, an automatic transmission that’s failing will begin to grind, whine, hum and growl, with any one of these being enough of a concern that you should get it checked. It can vary from a fluid flush to a replacement, and it’s better to know sooner rather than later.
A manual transmission can be more perceptible and obvious when it starts to give out. It’ll begin to whine like a noisy differential, and the gears will feel crunchy or uncouth to engage. However, it’s also possible for rough gear engagements to be due to incompatible fluids or overdue fluid change.
Usually, a transmission that’s making odd noises is in its early stage of failure, and it’ll most likely be the first thing you notice. It’s easy to ignore, but it’s a hint that your gearbox is tipping you that you should visit a trusted workshop soon.
What Causes A Blown Transmission?
The transmission is undoubtedly a major component, it provides the muscles to get your car off the line. Hence, much like every other big, important mechanical component in your car, it’s made to stand the test of time.
And much like all the fundamental, critical components in a car, it can fail due to the ignorance of regular maintenance and overall negligence of the owner, or it can be just due to age. It’s worth noting that manufacturers do build transmission with the uninformed owners in mind, so you’d be surprised at how long a transmission can withstand the lack of attention.
Still, there are ways you can kill a transmission rather quickly if you have the barest of ideas on how a transmission function, and here’s a few of the most common.
Incorrect Fluid Level
Both automatic and manual transmissions require a constant and steady supply of hydraulic fluid to function properly, and that means that they must maintain a certain amount of fluid pressure for the optimum flow and circulation of hydraulic fluid.
This is crucial because there are a lot of moving parts encased within any transmission, and it’s the fluid’s job to keep everything lubricated at all times. In an automatic transmission, it fundamentally transfers engine power to the transmission itself. It also helps to carry and distribute heat more evenly throughout the system.
Therefore, you can imagine how the improper amount of transmission fluid can be detrimental to its operation. It’s a periodic maintenance job to replace transmission fluid, thus it is also one of the most common causes of failure in a transmission.
However, as long as you’re sensible about it, timely changes of transmission fluid can go a long way to preserve and prolong your transmission’s service life. A simple oil change keeps an engine running happily for longer, so does an occasional transmission fluid flush serve to protect you from a costly repair bill.
Unlike engine oil which has to cope with the most extreme conditions, transmission fluid does not, which means that you don’t need to replace it as often. For both automatic and manual transmission, you can change the fluid once every 30,000 miles to be really safe, but good quality transmission fluid will typically last double that figure.
It’s also worth noting at this point that automatic transmission and manual transmission fluids are different, and their fluids have different properties. While they’re technically interchangeable, it’s worth sticking to their respective fluids since they have their individual formulations that’s applicable for their purpose.
Typically, a good indication that you should flush your transmission fluid is when your transmission begins to shift a bit ‘crunchy’. In an automatic transmission, this can mean a lurching shift action, while manual transmission equates to grinding shifts and tricky gear actuation.
You can generally find what transmission fluid is optimum for your transmission within your owner’s manual. If there’s an owner’s forum for your specific vehicle, scouring around there can also help you understand the topic better.
In many cases, an overheating transmission directly correlates to your transmission fluid. Insufficient fluid recirculation, improper fluid level and inadequate transmission fluid cooling with an overworked transmission can cause spectacular transmission failure.
Heat is a transmission’s worst nightmare. Excessive heat will destroy any components of a car, but a transmission can’t really tolerate an overheating working condition for long, and you should immediately get an overheated transmission checked by a workshop.
In some cases, an overheating transmission can be attributed to a mechanical fault, and it’s almost always related to the transmission fluid. It performs its duty as a heat carrier and dispersant, therefore anything wrong with it can translate to a toasted transmission.
It can simply be burnt fluid, where the transmission fluid has broken down and is now inefficacious at carrying heat. This would require a transmission flush. Running low on transmission fluid? This not only causes your transmission operation to go haywire, but also cause transmission overheating.
If there’s a blockage in your transmission fluid passage, in the form of contaminants or just a defective solenoid, it can cause peculiar transmission operation and overheating since fluids aren’t getting to where they’re supposed to go.
However, what’s more, likely to cause an overheating transmission, especially when new, is the driver. If you carry tons of luggage in your car while going uphill, you’re really straining your transmission. Stop and go urban traffic is also particularly egregious towards transmission temperature. Even if you’re running normally, it can simply be due to a hot climate.
There are ways to circumvent this. As four-wheel-drive pickups can be particularly hard on its transmission and differential, they typically come equipped with transmission oil coolers, which can always be fitted to normal cars too for that peace of mind. It’ll won’t cure the problem, but it’ll certainly alleviate it.
Of course, an overheating transmission is mostly an ailment exclusive to an automatic transmission. If it does happen, it’s most likely due to insufficient manual transmission fluid, where you need to top it off with what the manufacturers specified from the factory.
Majority of wear that happens in a vehicle can be attributed to the driver’s behaviour and attitude, and this also applies to the transmission. If you are a particularly belligerent driver that races from one stoplight to the next, it’s likely that your transmission will wear out quicker.
If you frequently stop and go traffic, your transmission has to work extra hard daily since it has to do the most torque reduction to pull you off the line. However, transmissions are made to shrug off these kinds of normal daily punishment inflicted upon them without breaking a sweat.
What will easily result in a ruined, blown transmission though is if you attempt to do something it’s not made to do. Repeated launches off the line are something that especially entices young drivers. It puts a lot of shock into the entire drivetrain, which can result in an inevitable tow ride home.
Now, it’s worth noting that when done properly in a drag racing scenario, your transmission can last the day, especially if its strengthened and purpose-built for it. However, it’s never a good thing to do longevity wise, and it strains out a 4-wheel drive vehicle the most.
If you often take it to the redline prowling from corner to corner, it’ll also break your transmission quicker. The problem comes when you have to downshift for the corners and match gears revolving at a vastly different speed. While rev-matching helps, it’s still the mechanical components within that makes up for the minor differences. In a manual, it can be quite detrimental to your synchro rings.
Put simply, keep it gentle and sensible. Occasional spirited driving is fine, but if you’re an aggressive driver, opt for a transmission made to handle the strain if you want it to last. Typically, a manual driven properly shouldn’t have much issue shrugging off regular thrashing.
Misinterpreting a Transmission Issue
While a jarring transmission shift can be rather disconcerting for the uninitiated, it can also be often mistaken for a broken transmission. It’s often a lot less of a serious issue than it might seem, even if your transmission just suddenly refuses to work at all.
Awful Shifting From An Automatic Transmission
Principally, one thing keeps any automatic transmission functioning normally, and that’s the hydraulic fluid within. Therefore, if something has gone awry, it means that something about the fluid or its flow around the transmission isn’t quite right.
It can be as simple as needing a fluid level correction, since too much fluid or too little fluid are ill-advised for optimum transmission operation. It can also be dirtied transmission fluid which has picked up debris and fine particles from normal service.
Worn transmission fluid should be replaced as soon as possible, and with typical service interval at around 50,000 miles it’s something you shouldn’t skimp on. Contaminated transmission fluid is less efficacious at carrying heat and maintaining ideal lubricity, which expedite transmission wear.
That said, it might not be the fluid, it can also hint at potential trouble within the valve body or even the transmission fluid pump. Some cars, in particular, have problems with their valve body failing preemptively.
Manual Transmission Refuses To Engage Gear Properly
Can’t quite negotiate the gear lever into its slot smoothly? Certainly, the potential of it being a synchromesh issue rises dramatically with an extremely high mileage unit. It’s more likely that there’s just a problem with your shifter assembly or clutch.
If your transmission straight-up refuses to shift smoothly, and it’s almost impossible to shift with the engine idling, there’s likely something faulty with the clutch cable or bad clutch fluid depending on what your car is running.
Clutch cable and clutch fluid failure can be quite spontaneous where your car can literally refuse to shift the next startup. A proper clutch travel should feel empty for the first few inches, to proportionally stiffer, very stiff then light again.
An improperly adjusted clutch cable can cause accelerated wear on your clutch, transmission slip and difficulty disengaging the clutch. If your clutch fluid is contaminated, the pedal can feel especially spongy and gear engagement can be rough. Just give the clutch fluid a look, if its dirty, flush the system out, or change it once every 30,000 miles to be strict.
Proper Care For Your Transmission
Transmissions are tough, but taking care of your transmission starts with being well-read on some good driving attitudes that’ll help prolong your transmission’s lifetime. Automatic and manual transmissions have different specific directions, but the general notion applies here.
Pay Attention To Your Transmission Fluid
It’s purely reiteration at this point, but with your transmission fluid being the core of the entire transmission system, it’s truly imperative that you must sort it out properly.
To begin with, regularly checking your transmission fluid level can indicate to the driver immediately if there’s anything wrong with the transmission itself. If there’s a worrying lack of transmission fluid, the driver would also know it before any serious transmission damage is incurred.
However, with the transmission fluid system being a closed circuit, an unusual lack of transmission fluid can quickly identify itself as a serious transmission fluid leak that must be looked at immediately.
It’s also a good habit to check the fluid level yourself after getting your fluid changed at a workshop, just in case it wasn’t done properly. Also make sure that you choose the appropriate transmission fluid for your application, which should be indicated overtly in the owner’s manual.
Since the ideal fluid level is essential to proper automatic transmission operation, it’s also important to note that fluid in good condition should be a clear, typically red, hue. If it’s cloudy, dirty, absolutely opaque or smells like rotten seafood, you should bring your car to a reputable workshop as soon as possible.
While not exactly pertaining to transmission fluid, it’s also important to ensure your cooling system is in good nick. Many cars nowadays have integrated transmission fluid coolers that relies on the engine’s cooling system itself. Any mechanical component that’s operating with less excess heat will last longer.
While it might be plain to see, shifting properly does wonder to transmission longevity. It’s not quite as critical for automatic transmissions when compared to manual, as most of the shifting is computerized and calculated properly, but some point still stands.
One eminent practice to keep a habit of never shifts into reverse while moving. Thankfully, modern automatics have reverse inhibits that ignores reverse request until the proper conditions are met. Manual transmissions also have lockouts so driver can’t just accidentally shift into reverse while barreling down the road.
However, older automatics may not have reverse inhibit, and while shifting into reverse then might just cause a stall, it may also incur catastrophic damage. For manuals, drivers can still enter reverse if they slam it into the gear, and that’ll most definitely lead to a spectacular transmission failure.
Also, try to keep the engine RPMs down low if possible. It’s an argument whether if it uses up more fuel at high RPMs, but it’ll certainly expedite bearing wear simply because components are revolving at higher speeds.
For manual transmissions, learning to use the clutch properly can make a big difference to smoothness and transmission longevity. Put simply, clutch in fully whenever you’re shifting, try to match revs on downshifts, try not slipping the clutch more than you need to, and don’t ride the clutch.
Apply Common Sense
You’re no doubt taught to let your engine warm up before driving it to give the engine oil time to warm up so it’ll begin working and lubricating properly. The same applies to transmission fluid.
While transmission fluid doesn’t just warm up by itself, since not much heat is generated without load and gear engagement. Therefore, try to keep it civil the first few miles to give your transmission fluid time to heat up to avoid putting unnecessary strain on your transmission
Moving on, you really shouldn’t drive on mismatched wheels and tyres, as it means your differential has to work extra hard to keep the vehicle in check. This also applies to those who drive on space savers for an extended period.
If your car isn’t made for it, try not to tow anything too heavy. Towing means your transmission has to work extra hard to lug all that weight it’s not made to handle, thus putting stress on your transmission.
Don’t wade through water if you don’t have the ground clearance for it. Water can enter the transmission via a vent used to relieve pressure released from the dynamic hydraulic processes involved in shifting gears, and water in transmission fluid isn’t a good idea.
Signs Of A Bad Transmission – Verdict
A transmission failure, especially with modern, remarkably complicated automatic transmissions, can result in a very hefty repair bill. Thus, it should be in your best interest to keep your transmission in good shape.
If your transmission ever exhibits signs of a bad transmission, then you should get it checked out by a reputable workshop as soon as possible. A mild jerk on shifts can just point to worn transmission fluid, but knowingly ignore it and it can develop into serious complications, leaving you stranded on the side of the road.
Of course, a transmission in peak condition also means that you’ll enjoy a smoother, more enjoyable driving experience overall. In fact, for any old car out there, I reckon that a good transmission makes all the difference in the world.
Video Resources – Signs Of A Bad Transmission
Scotty Kilmer puts it succinctly.