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Transmission Problems and What To Do About Them

Learn some of the more common transmission problems your vehicle may experience.

Modern manual and automatic transmissions are complex machines. With that intricacy comes the possibility for a number of transmission problems to arise over time. When faced with these issues, the average driver doesn’t necessarily know what kind of problem is occurring – they just know something is wrong with their vehicle. Unfortunately, most people tend to wait until the problem turns into something they have to deal with, rather than something they should deal with immediately. By the time they do act, the issue may morph into something more expensive to fix.

transmission problems search queries

Table 1: Search queries for www.mistertransmission.com relating to common transmission problems in the last 90 days.

Looking into the searches we receive for our website, most queries related to common transmission problems primarily pertain to issues such as burning smell and overheating, delayed engagement, fluid leaks, and transmission noises. Recognizing and learning about what these common transmission problems are, why they happen, and what you should do about them is the most proactive way you can identify minor issues before they become major ones, and keep your wheels on the road.

Burning Smell

Is there a burning smell in your car when you drive? That thick, acrid odour may be an indication that you’re riding the clutch; in other words, you’re needlessly keeping the clutch partially engaged which can lead to damaging it. However, in some cases, your transmission is likely overheating because it is low in fluid, or the transmission fluid is oxidizing and needs replacing.

Like any of your vehicle’s fluids, transmission fluid becomes less effective over time when it oxidizes (combines with oxygen), begins to thicken as a result of debris, and breaks down. It may also signal your vehicle is running low on engine oil, has an electrical short, or one of the brake pads are dragging. Regardless, if you smell something burning in your car, act immediately to ensure your car isn’t on fire.

Transmission Fluid Leaks

If you find a puddle of reddish fluid pooling beneath your car where you parked, it’s quite likely one of the gaskets or seals in your transmission has sprung a leak. Rubber seals, gaskets, and o-rings wear out over time and need replacing.

transmission o-rings

 

If you suspect you have a leak in your transmission, don’t wait to do something about it. Continuing to drive while your transmission fluid is leaking may cause irreparable damage to the unit. Keep in mind if there isn’t enough fluid to keep the intricate network of your transmission’s components from fusing together due to extreme heat, you’re courting the possibility of a full mechanical breakdown.

If you do have a leaky transmission, see an experienced specialist. They will likely need to drop the transmission pan, drain the fluid, replace the filter, and then determine the precise location of the leak. In general, anytime a transmission-related problem crops up it’s wise to have the quality and quantity of your transmission fluid inspected. 

A transmission has the possibility of leaking in several areas:

  • Axles seals
  • Front seal of the transmission
  • Vent (if transmission overheats)
  • Pan gaskets
  • Shifter seals or any other misc. seals

Transmission Fluid Levels

When inspecting the transmission fluid, ensure it is at the correct level as described in your vehicle’s owner’s manual – too much or too little fluid can lead to a mechanical failure. Even though most modern transmissions are now manufactured as “sealed” units, the fluid within them should still be recycled or flushed to ensure the best possible performance.

There are different opinions as to how often this should happen, but in general, it depends on how often and how far you drive your vehicle. It’s recommended to make sure the transmission fluid is flushed once every 45,000 km, to keep all the parts moving the way they should. Although transmissions are made to withstand high operating temperatures, regularly scheduled transmission fluid flushes can help to prolong the longevity of them and their myriad of internal parts.

Modern transmissions are built to operate without a lot of maintenance, yet they are still intricate, sensitive systems and they can break down. Our expert recommendation is to make sure you freshen up the fluid consistently. Nothing harms a transmission more than operating without the correct amount of lubricant or its inability to create the right amount of pressure to engage the gears correctly as a result of too little or too much fluid.

Too Much Transmission Fluid

If you own a vehicle that allows you to change the transmission fluid yourself, be careful not to overfill it. Too much transmission fluid can cause gears to slip, or potentially add pressure to seals, causing them to rupture and leak.

Keep in mind that the transmission operates based on the right amount of fluid pressure between the components. Offsetting that balance by having too much fluid in the unit could damage components or cause some components not to function properly.

Delayed Engagement

You hop into your car, turn the ignition key, shift to ‘Drive’ or ‘Reverse’, and there is a seemingly long delay before the transmission engages. Known as delayed engagement, it is one of the most common symptoms of problems with any automatic transmission. A delayed engagement is a type of slip that occurs when the clutches or bands, which allow the vehicle to move, do not operate instantly. Often, this occurs when the internal seals wear or become hard from infrequent fluid replacement.

Delayed engagement is characterized by a long delay (approx. 1.5 to 2 seconds) from the moment you make your gear selection (D or R), to the moment you feel the transmission engage. You’d notice this on your first drive in the morning, if your car were parked overnight. Delayed engagement could be due to a variety of reasons from something as minor as a low level of transmission fluid, infrequent fluid replacement, or a more serious issue like failing transmission solenoids.

Transmission Solenoid Failure

Also called a “shift solenoid”, in automatic transmissions, the solenoid is used to regulate the flow of transmission fluid. If the solenoid is malfunctioning, it can impact how the transmission fluid is distributed while you’re shifting gears causing delayed engagement. Solenoids can fail because of an electrical or mechanical malfunction. Because modern vehicles are heavily dependent on computers to manage the distribution and flow of fluids, these solenoids are integral to a transmission’s operation.

Inability to Shift Gears

In some cases, specific gears may simply refuse to engage. For example, if your vehicle is only able to shift to “Drive” and not “Reverse” successfully, then there could be a problem with the valve body.

The valve body acts as the nerve centre of the automatic transmission. It manages the flow of fluid through to the appropriate valve, which in turn, signals the respective clutch pack to engage.

Preventing Delayed Engagement Problems

If you feel there is a lag between when you shift into gear and when the gear engages, you need to take note and monitor the problem — it could be symptomatic of something more severe. If you suspect your transmission has delayed engagement, we recommend you:

• Avoid revving the engine when delayed engagement occurs. Increased engine speed produces friction and can damage the clutches and bands.

• Allow time for the transmission to engage to prevent needless damage.

• Check the fluid level. Consult your owner’s manual for correct filling and checking procedure as this varies among auto manufacturers.

Transmission Noises

Another problem commonly found in transmissions is the noises they make whether in neutral or when shifting while driving. In most cases, the issue is sourced from a lack of lubricant between the moving parts. While in other cases, the noise is a clear indication it’s time for an inspection or repair.

Noises While in Neutral

Clattering, clunking, clanging, or clinking, these are some sounds you never want to hear when your vehicle is idling while parked or in neutral. More often than not, these disconcerting noises are warning signs that your transmission may be on the cusp of failing. And if you hear a constant whining sound while driving that changes pitch, or a constant tone while in neutral, it’s possible your torque converter needs inspection and repair. Other noises can be silenced by a transmission fluid flush and change.

In any event, unlike other sounds a vehicle can make, transmission noises are usually constant regardless of the type of transmission that is in your car.

Noises When Shifting

Hearing a cacophony of banging, growling, buzzing, and grinding while you’re driving or shifting gears can be an even more disturbing experience. If your transmission makes troubling noises when in neutral, that’s not a good sign. To hear loud whining or other noises while you’re driving is a serious warning sign you will have a transmission failure somewhere down the road. The longer you wait to have it inspected, the greater the risk you run of a roadside breakdown.

The Role of the Computer in Transmission Problems

Modern vehicles are primarily computer-controlled. You’d think that would make transmission problems easier to identify, however, this are not always the case. Because the modern vehicle merges computer, mechanical, and hydraulic systems, we can’t assume that a computer error code is telling us the whole story about what is wrong with a vehicle’s transmission.

Error codes could help to narrow down the problem, but they may indicate trouble elsewhere that can only be identified by taking a closer look. Unfortunately, this sometimes means taking things apart. Taking modern transmissions apart is a laborious and time-intensive process; it’s kind of like surgery for your vehicle.

Preventative Maintenance: Your Best Defence

Failing to address the warning signs such as burning smell, leaking fluids, delayed engagement and noise issues, can lead to your car breaking down. Conducting scheduled and preventative maintenance can help ensure these problems are avoided.

Every motorist should be aware of what the most common transmission faulty signs are. While no automobile or mechanical or electrical device will function flawlessly forever, you can avoid many transmission problems by regularly scheduling preventative maintenance with an experienced, certified professional technician.

Do you have questions about or concerns with your vehicle’s transmission? Get the information, advice, and service you need from Canada’s certified transmission experts. Call or visit the Mister Transmission location nearest you.

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