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  • Writer's pictureJonnie Hendrickson

The Top 3 Signs Your Transmission is in Trouble

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Vehicle with the hood open, getting transmission checked at Super Lube

It’s Monday morning. But unlike other Mondays, it’s been a great start to your day and week. You woke up on your own, turning off your alarm moments before it could scream you into consciousness. Fully alert and feeling alive, you luxuriated in a few quiet moments to peacefully reflect on your weekend. As you popped off your bed, you felt rested and totally ready to take on the day - and you’re not even a morning person! Your first sip of coffee was wonderfully fresh and more flavorful than you anticipated, and you didn’t burn your eggs. Your kids got ready for school in record time, and as you ventured out to your garage you noticed, with great pleasure, that the temperature was unusually mild for this time of year. What a morning!

But then you started your car.

And it made a sound you know it shouldn’t be making. Or perhaps it emitted a strange smell as the engine began to purr. Or maybe you noticed a giant stain on your garage floor as you backed out. Whatever the case, you’ve plummeted back to reality. The temptation to simply ignore the sound, smell or stain is overwhelming – I mean, it could literally be the perfect Monday otherwise.

Don’t do it.

Like anything in life, if you ignore a problem it tends to get worse over time. Deep down we know this, and yet we often struggle to act. The definition of procrastination is to voluntarily postpone something despite knowing there will be a negative consequence for doing so.

Stains, smells and sounds could mean something is up with your vehicle’s transmission.

When it comes to transmissions, procrastinating on getting it checked out can quickly lead to much bigger problems, which in turn leads to much bigger price tags.

While a transmission repair isn’t cheap, costing you anywhere from $1200-$4000 on average, addressing issues early could be what saves you from the $4000 to $8000 price tag of a total transmission overhaul. We all hate bad news and unexpected costs, but an inconvenient $200 seal replacement could be quite the gift if it keeps that bill from hitting four digits.

What is your transmission?

Simply put, while a car’s engine converts chemical energy (fuel) into mechanical energy or power in the form of crankshaft rotation, the transmission utilizes gears to distribute and apply the power generated by your engine. In other words, the transmission converts rotating power into the torque and speed combination needed to move your vehicle. Your transmission, or gear box if that helps, is constantly balancing and converting high engine speeds to match lower wheel speeds.

Such a crucial system is monitored by several sensors that will relay any problems back to your vehicle’s CPU. This is the reason you should have your car checked immediately if your check engine light comes on.

check engine light logo

The check engine light should be your first and foremost signal to get your vehicle looked at. Newer vehicles have such effective sensors that they can pick up on an unusual vibration in the engine before you can even feel it. Thank goodness for that ever-vigilant CPU and sensor system. But what if there are no sensor warnings or alarms tripped? Well, you are going to have to use your senses – and some common sense to boot.

Here are the top 3 sensory signs your transmission might be in trouble.

ONE: THE STAIN - Leaking Transmission Fluid

Seeing a stain is the most obvious way to identify a transmission problem. The sneaky thing about leaks or stains on your garage floor is that they are often quite small at first, making them all too easy to dismiss.

Transmission fluid is crucial to your car’s ability to shift gears efficiently and safely. Unlike other fluids, your vehicle doesn’t consume, burn or expel transmission fluid during normal operation, so any evidence of low levels or leaks isn’t good.

So how do you know one leak or fluid from another? Transmission fluid is clear, usually a bright red and if you put your nose to the pavement, it typically smells sweet – weird right!? If you can check your transmission fluid on your own, at its source, be on the lookout for a darker red shade on the dipstick.

TWO: THE SMELL – Fluid deficiency, clogged filter.

Burning is never good. For you Simpsons fans, Ralph Wiggum taught us this when he ate those purple mystery berries in the park and cried out “It tastes like burning”.

The lesson? Don’t eat the purple mystery berries!! And NEVER ignore even a faint burning odor. Any sign or signal of burning is telling you that something is overheating. Transmission fluid keeps all the moving parts of your transmission lubricated. If there is a fluid leak causing a deficiency or dirty fluid that needs replacing or a clogged filter preventing intact fluid from doing its job, the result is heat, friction and wearing down of these essential parts.

This fluid is also providing essential cooling as it runs through your system. In some vehicles the transmission has its very own mini-radiator unit to cool the oil and whisk excess heat away from that part of the vehicle. Responding immediately to a ‘burning odor’ will usually save the transmission from any permanent damage.

THREE: THE SOUND – Internal problems; Broken and worn-out parts, gear damage, busted seals, low fluid.

Each vehicle sounds a little bit differently. That is why you are the expert when it comes to sounds. You know your car better than anyone and have become used to the specific noises your car makes when everything is balanced and running smoothly.

So, if your ear is telling you something sounds different or off, it likely is. For automatic transmissions, which make up 97% of the vehicles on the road in North America, universally acknowledged ‘bad sounds’ generally include a new humming, whining, grinding, clunking or subtle buzzing sound.

For instance, clunking when you are changing speeds, or when your car is shifting gears could mean that your transmission mounts are loose or broken. The whirring or grinding sounds on the other hand, could indicate a lack of fluid that prevents metal on metal contact between parts. If lack of fluid is the source of this sound, one of the next progressions will be your vehicle potentially overheating from the unwanted friction. See ‘burning’ above. In an automatic transmission that is functioning properly, gear shifts and the accompanying sensations and noises they make should be almost imperceptible.

Experts recommend getting your transmission checked over at least once every year. Google trends reveal that the key word Transmission is searched in google browsers at the highest rate in the fall months, likely as people begin to worry what that new sound, smell or stain could become in the dead cold of our demanding winter.

Now is the time to get your transmission inspected. We’re ready – let's make sure you are too!

Follow the link below to find the Super Lube closest to you and give us a call today.

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