Considering the thousands of dollars that can come along with it, car trouble is a daunting feeling. Many things can go sideways when it comes to a faulty vehicle, but among the worst is when you begin to recognize signs of a bad transmission.
If your vehicle isn’t shifting correctly, your transmission might be the first component that pops in your mind. Of course, there could be a number of culprits to a faulty transmission. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of a bad transmission, how to prevent future damage, and what to do if it goes kaput.
Unless you’ve just pulled it out of the lot, you know your vehicle. How it drives. How it sounds. The relationship with your vehicle is deeper than you may think. This is evident in the fact that you know when something doesn’t feel right.
Maybe it’s an unfamiliar smell. Maybe there’s a slightly different feel to how it’s driving. Maybe the engine is revving louder than normal. Or there is a delay when your gears shift. These could be signs of a bad transmission and it’s time to investigate a potentially expensive problem.
How to Evaluate the Signs of a Bad Transmission
Evaluating car trouble is surprisingly not too far different from evaluating your own health. When something feels off, you self-diagnose. Of course, it’s not always easy to identify your illness. And just like your health symptoms indicate where you are hurting, your vehicle has its own signs to diagnose where it is hurting.
When it comes to your vehicle’s transmission, it’s important to properly diagnose the root cause. Below you will learn about the top signs of a bad transmission and what is the best course of action to take if the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.
- There’s a burning scent
If you smell a burning scent while driving your vehicle, it could mean several different things. In fact, it could merely be the car driving in front of you. A burning smell can be a sign of transmission damage, so it’s not something to ignore. Typically, the scent will stem from a fluid leak, or in some cases, an issue of low fluid.
If you have a fluid leak, it’s essential to catch it quickly, otherwise you can cause serious damage to your transmission or other critical parts of your vehicle. Other causes of a burning smell could be an oil leak, coolant leak, gasket failure, a problem with your clutch, or drive belt melting.
- Your transmission is leaking fluid
Transmission fluid can easily be distinguished from other fluids present in your vehicle. Like other car fluids, the color will change based on condition changes. New transmission fluid will have a red, transparent color, and as it becomes more and more used it will transform to a light brown semi-transparent color to a dark brown opaque color to a very dark brown or black. If it gets to that black or dark brown color, it’s time for a fluid flush or filter change.
Moreover, if the fluid turns a light pinkish fluid, you could have water or coolant contamination, which if severe enough could require a rebuild or replacement of your transmission. The easiest way to identify a leak (for any car fluid, really) is to lay down cardboard under your vehicle. Let it sit for a little while and then pull the cardboard out to see the color of the fluid.
- You feel issues when shifting
You hop into your car, start the engine, and try to put it in drive, only to find out that you’re unable to shift into gear. Or, equally daunting, you get stuck in first gear. This is one of the more troubling car problem scenarios. If your transmission struggles to kick into gear, you could be low in transmission fluid due to a contamination or leak. This can be the result of poor maintenance or potentially some kind of water intrusion.
While it may not sound too serious, it certainly can be. Continuing to drive with low fluid can create an overheating problem that can damage internal parts of the transmission. Other causes could include failing gear synchronizers, a worn-out clutch, or your engine control unit requires an update.
- There’s a buzzing or clicking sound
A humming, clicking, or similar noise coming from your transmission can present a number of symptoms, including a bad bearing or planetary gears damage. If you hear a buzzing sound, this could be the result of a bad seal, poor internal sealing surface, or a leak that has prompted low transmission fluid. When it comes to a noisy transmission, there are several factors to evaluate. It’s not an easy diagnosis, because there are a lot of possibilities.
Say that when you shift into reverse, you hear an especially loud clunking sound. Your torque converter could be the culprit, more specifically, it could have damaged needle bearings. Here are several other symptoms a noisy transmission could result from: Fluid clutches are damaged, transmission range switch has failed, transmission pump needs repair, or misalignment between your flywheel and torque converter.
- Your “check engine” light is on
This is always a disconcerting feeling. That is, when you’re driving on the road and your “check engine” light flashes on. Now, this warning can certainly be unrelated to your transmission. There are many different reasons why your check engine light starts flashing. So what might be the cause? In short, there are sensors throughout your vehicle that identify irregularities in the engine, which then signal to the computer that something is wrong in a particular area.
Your check engine light can be an early indicator that something in your transmission is going sideways. To evaluate the cause, a diagnostic scan tool can be plugged into the bottom of the driver’s side instrument panel. The tool will provide a code that corresponds to the part of the vehicle that is experiencing problems. If the code indicates an issue with your transmission, then you have your answer.
- The gears have started grinding
Grinding gears is a symptom that can manifest itself differently for manual versus automatic transmissions. Either way, it this occurs you’ll want to get your transmission checked as soon as possible. For a manual transmission, when you switch gears and feel or hear grinding, the culprit could be a worn-out clutch.
For an automatic transmission, a faulty shift could be a variety of things. Take the following under consideration: Ensure that you have the right levels of transmission fluid; verify that the fluid is not contaminated; and make sure you don’t have a chip or crack in your gear. Any of these symptoms can cause grinding gears.
- Your vehicle dies when idling
When a car dies when idling, it can be both embarrassing and frustrating. The challenge here is that vehicle stalling isn’t accompanied with any particular warning signs. Your instrument panel isn’t going to alert you with that oh-so-familiar “check engine” light. Instead, one second you’re waiting at a stop light and then the next second you’re stuck at a stop light.
Similar to the buzzing or clicking sound you may hear, a stalled vehicle could be the sign of a malfunctioning torque converter – which is equivalent to the clutch in a vehicle that has a manual transmission. Its main function is to pass power to the drivetrain, and its power-transmitting capabilities will be impaired if it’s not functioning properly.
How to Prevent a Transmission Breakdown
If your transmission is already wearing thin, there’s only so much you can do. In the future, however, there are precautions you can take to safeguard your transmission from impending disaster. While it’s important to take action as soon as something seems out of the ordinary, there are things you can do to prevent the problem in the first place.
There are some factors that are out of your control. Of course, poor design or manufacturing can certainly doom a transmission. The only thing you can do about that, of course, is to thoroughly research the vehicle before making your purchase. However, things like poor maintenance are completely under your control.
Below are some tips that could help protect against a transmission breakdown.
- Monitor your transmission fluid level
As the lubricant for all the moving parts within this essential vehicle part, it’s critical to have the right levels and quality of transmission fluid. Note that there are several differences between how you maintain an automatic versus manual transmission (for example, how often you must change the fluid).
Ideally, you would check your transmission fluid once per month, but most people will have it checked when they get their regular oil change. As noted earlier in this article, new transmission fluid will have a red, transparent color that will gradually darken over time. If the fluid gets to be very dark or black, it’s time to get it changed.
- Consider driving conditions
How you treat your vehicle has a big impact on how it maintains itself. Both the driving conditions you put your car through – and how you navigate those conditions – will determine the overall health and lifespan of your transmission.
Heavy stop-and-go city traffic takes a heavy toll on nearly every part of your vehicle, including your transmission. Driving on the highway allows you to drive a steadier speed, which is much easier on all of your vehicle’s parts. While some of these conditions are unavoidable, a highway commute could extend the life of your transmission.
- Keep your eye on the weather
If you’re late for work, it might be tempting to start your car and immediately kick it into reverse. If it’s cold outside, avoid this at all costs. Cold weather can wreak havoc on a car’s transmission system, causing something called transmission slipping. In these conditions, the system can freeze and contract and the line fluid can leak out from the seals.
To avoid damage to your transmission in cold weather, there are several things you can do. The ideal solution is to store your car in a climate-controlled garage. Another option would be to invest in an engine heater. If these aren’t viable options for you, let your car idle before kicking it into gear. Then drive slowly for the first couple miles to give the parts and fluid time to warm up to normal temperatures.
- Watch your driving habits
Sure, sometimes you might have that temptation to rev up the engine. Or maybe you’re late for work and you drive a little more aggressively than usual. But performing “high performance” starts, or spinning your tires for your own amusement, is hard on your transmission (and your vehicle as a whole).
Of course, there are a number of other driving habits to consider. If you can, here are a few additional habits to avoid: Taking frequent short trips, towing or carrying heavy loads, driving in extreme cold or heat, and driving on rough, dusty, or dirty terrain.
What To Do About a Damaged Transmission
If the worst happens, and your transmission is in fact damaged, you now have a decision to make. Should you go ahead and have it repaired or should you consider moving on? In other words, fix it or sell it.
If your vehicle is still drivable with a reasonable repair cost, or if it is an expensive vehicle that has a high overall value, a repair is probably worth it. If the cost to repair your transmission exceeds the overall value of your vehicle (or gets anywhere close to it), repair is probably not worth the time and money.
The unfortunate reality is that fixing a damaged transmission can be expensive, and if it’s an older vehicle that is already vulnerable to more repair costs, you could be throwing money into a bottomless pit.
In that case, you might consider selling your car to a company like Cash Cars Buyer. This is a hassle-free alternative to selling your car privately. Here’s how it works.