What do I need to know about my car’s automatic transmission fluid?

Let’s quickly run through the basics
by Leandre Grecia | Sep 18, 2020
PHOTO: Mark Jesalva

The manual transmission is sadly but surely dying. We’ve known that for quite some time now. Who would want to operate a clutch through heavy traffic in the city day in and day out, right? These days, comfort is king, and thats where automatic transmissions excel.

That’s why manufacturers have slowly been phasing out stick shifts from their lineups. In case you hadn’t noticed, fewer and fewer manual cars have been rolled out over the years due to market demand. 

However, this convenience comes at a price, as automatics are generally more costly to maintain and repair than manuals. Automatic gearboxes are also more complex in structure, meaning they require a bit more TLC than you might think.

In order to keep them in tip-top shape, there are a lot of elements you should pay close attention to. Here, we’re going to focus on one of the basics: the transmission fluid.

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What is automatic transmission fluid?

Automatic transmission fluid keeps all the moving parts inside the AT well-lubricated. This way, the ’box can shift gears smoothly, reducing wear and tear and preventing any major damage.

As many of you here probably know, there are different types of automatic transmissions (conventional, dual-clutch, continuously variable, and so on). By extension, the type of transmission fluid needed for each varies. These include brand-specific fluids such as Dexron VI, Mercon V, and ATF+4, as well as other types like multi-vehicle synthetic transmission and CVT fluids. The best way to determine what your car needs is to check the manual.

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How can I check if my car’s transmission fluid needs changing?

That’s also something you’ll find in the owner’s manual. Some cars require transmission fluid checks or replacement every 30,000 kilometers or so. Every car is different, so consulting with the literature is the best way to find out.

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Another way to know if your transmission fluid needs changing is to inspect the fluid itself. Even if you haven’t driven the car for the requisite number of kilometers as indicated by the manufacturer, performing routine checks won’t hurt.

To do this, all you need to do is look for the dedicated dipstick for the transmission fluid and check it like you would the engine oil. Some dipsticks even have indicators for what the fluid level should be when the engine is cold or when it’s running.

If the fluid is in good condition, it will have a bright pinkish color. Darker fluids with only a bit of the pinkish tint, on the other hand, need replacing. But if the transmission fluid looks blackish and has a burnt smell upon closer inspection, then the gearbox may have already suffered some damage. In this case, it may be better not to ‘flush’ the fluids completely without having a mechanic take a closer look at the entire assembly—more on this one later.

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In some cases, however, cars don’t come with transmission fluid dipsticks and are instead equipped with sealed transmissions that are filled with lifetime fluids. These aren’t always problem-proof setups, so regular inspections can still prove beneficial in the long run. Thankfully, some of these sealed transmissions can still be opened underneath, so fluid levels and conditions can still be checked.

What’s the difference between ‘flushing’ and ‘changing’ the transmission fluid?

Okay, let’s circle back to the term ‘flushing’ we mentioned earlier. Car owners must note that a ‘flush’ is different from a ‘change.’

A flush is when you replace every drop of the transmission fluid in your car. An example is when you pour in two liters of new and clean fluid to flush all two liters of the old one out. A change is when you replace only half of the existing fluid.

Will changing the transmission fluid be bad for my car?

Like many things, it depends. Assuming you’ve done a good enough job of keeping your car’s gearbox in excellent shape over the years andyou’ve followed all of the manufacturer’s maintenance suggestions, then a regular flush shouldn’t bring up any problems.

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But if you’ve overlooked things a bit and you’ve found out that the transmission fluid has turned into the blackish, burnt-smelling liquid we previously talked about, then that’s when only a change may be necessary.

The damage to the gearbox may have been done already anyway, and putting in new fluids likely won’t solve the problem. As a matter of fact, it could actually make things worse. As we suggested before, if you find yourself in this situation, you should have your car’s transmission checked out by your trusted mechanic as soon as possible.

That’s about it for the basics. If you think you’re having problems with your car’s automatic transmission, then maybe this tip sheet can help you out. Meanwhile, if you want a brief guide on the different types of fluids for cars, you can click here.

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PHOTO: Mark Jesalva
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