Running into transmission problems with your car is never fun. Whether your vehicle struggles to switch gears, makes noises when in neutral, or is dragging the clutch pedal, most signs of transmission problems will require your attention sooner or later.
And unfortunately, dealing with some of the more common transmission problems can be one of the most expensive car problems to repair.
Because of that, you need to be aware of any warning signs that something could be wrong and know the common problems with automatic and manual transmissions. When you notice a problem early, you can get by with less expensive repairs and maintain your manual or automatic transmission in good condition for much longer.
To help you extend your car's life and prevent expensive transmission repairs, let's explore the most common issues you might face, how to fix them, and how to avoid them in the first place.
How to Know if Something is Wrong With Your Transmission
To accurately diagnose your gear shift system, you will first need to understand what it is and what it does in your car.
The transmission in a car is tasked with transferring (or transmitting) the power the engine generates to the wheels, allowing the vehicle to accelerate and maintain a certain speed. Today, both automatic and manual transmission vehicles are still relatively common globally, although, in the United States, 96% of cars are automatic.
Whether your car is automatic or manual, the transmission still needs to switch between gears smoothly and quickly. The only difference is that in a manual car, you are in control of when that happens, while an automatic car does everything for you once you put the car in drive.
Modern transmission systems are incredibly complex and have hundreds of different parts, such as the clutch disc, the clutch master cylinder, or the pressure plate. Because of this complexity and the wear that the system suffers on a daily basis, transmission troubles and eventual transmission failure can be difficult to avoid if you don't know what to look for.
But what types of issues can you spot early? Here are a few signs you should be on the lookout for:
- Leaks. Fluid leaks are probably the easiest problem to diagnose in your transmission. When you find a puddle under your car after parking it, the fluid might be coming from the transmission. If you also notice the car is having trouble reversing, that, combined with the puddle, will be almost a sure sign that you need to look for a transmission leak and plug it in as soon as possible.
- Slipping gear. If you notice that your car keeps slipping in and out of the proper gear as you're driving, that's another sign that something is probably not functioning as it should in the transmission. When that happens consistently, it can not only be frustrating but even dangerous, especially when driving at high speeds. Whether you drive an automatic or manual, this is one of the more serious signs of transmission trouble you shouldn't avoid.
- Slower acceleration. There are many reasons that a car may be slow to accelerate. And many of them are related to the engine. But in some cases, a car being slow to speed up could also be related to issues with the clutch. It could even be a few issues together that have arisen because of poor transmission maintenance, causing your car throttle to engage much slower than it should.
- Weird clunking noise. When you hear a clunking or humming noise, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's coming from the transmission, as it could also be coming from the engine and somewhere else, and the source might not be entirely clear. However, if the sounds correspond with changing gears, that signals an issue that could eventually render your transmission unusable.
- Grinding noise. Another common sign that something's wrong you may notice is a grinding sound during shifting in manual transmissions. There are a few reasons that could be causing this, but an expert will need to see whether it's related to the clutch or the synchronizers, which align the speed of the gears as you shift. For automated transmissions, you may hear more of a shuddering sound, which could even be followed by the car vibrating or shaking.
- Burning smell. Smelling something burning is never a good sign and usually signals serious trouble. The most common reason for a burning smell in a car is an engine coolant leak, which causes the engine to overheat and burns the coolant as it leaks. But the issue might also be related to your transmission and is most often caused by the transmission fluid starting to degrade because it has not been replaced for too long. If you sense a burning smell, you should immediately go to your repair shop because using old fluid can quickly damage your transmission system.
Most Common Transmission Problems
Understanding the common symptoms to look for will be immensely helpful when diagnosing transmission problems. But it's also a good idea to understand the underlying issues behind the common symptoms a transmission system might experience so that you can better evaluate whether your car is worth repairing.
After all, at some point, you shouldn't be driving your junk car any longer, as it might be unsafe, unpractical, or put you at risk of getting stranded in a remote location.
Below, let's look at the main transmission problems you will eventually face.
- Worn out clutch. The clutch plays a vital role in a manual transmission system. And because it's engaged countless times every time you're driving, it's only natural that the part will eventually break down and require replacement. Unfortunately, replacing a clutch disc on a manual vehicle can be one of the more expensive repairs you'll have to deal with, but it's necessary to ensure that you don't get stranded once it fails. But if you're driving an old car, you will need to consider whether it's time to sell your car to a junk car buyer instead of spending a lot on repairs.
- Broken transmission bands. If you notice your car's gears don't function as they should, you may be dealing with bad transmission bands that are failing to hold different gears together. When that happens, your gears won't produce the output they should, and your car will not accelerate correctly as you drive. Since this is a problem that only automatic cars face, you will need to take it to an automatic transmission specialist for it to be diagnosed, as every transmission model may require a different approach.
- Worn torque converter. For automatic transmission vehicles, you won't have to worry about the clutch disc. But you will have to eventually replace a worn torque converter, as it will start to lose acceleration and might eventually not shift at all. Even though it's not the most expensive transmission repair, it can cost upwards of $1,000, so you will need to evaluate if it's worth it.
- Leaking seals. The transmission system needs oil to operate, and that oil will eventually break through old seals and start leaking. When that happens, those seals will need to be replaced, or you'll risk losing transmission oil quickly, leading to performance issues. This can be a relatively affordable repair, costing just a couple hundred dollars if no additional transmission repairs are necessary.
- Overheating. Most people aren't aware that the transmission can overheat, just like an engine. When that happens, it means the automatic transmission fluid isn't doing its job anymore, or that some parts, like the torque converter, are damaged. Even though it's not one of the most common transmission symptoms, you should not ignore it because an overheating transmission will fail if it's not promptly addressed by a qualified transmission shop.
How to Prevent Transmission Issues
Because the transmission is such a complex system, manual transmission repair is not feasible for most people. And with manual or automatic transmission requiring such costly repairs, you need to maintain the transmission's major components and look out for weird noises.
But what can you do to prevent transmission issues? Here are a few practical steps:
- Check your transmission fluid. Checking the transmission fluid is something anyone can do to significantly prolong the car's life. To begin, start your engine and let it idle, which will warm up the fluid and allow you to measure it. Then, pull out the transmission dipstick and wipe it clean. Finally, reinsert the dipstick and take it out again, looking at the fluid level measurement. You should also ensure that the color is not brownish or dirty, which would signal it needs to be replaced.
- Use your parking brake. Many people like to use the transmission's pawl to prevent the car from rolling, but you shouldn't rely on it alone, as it can wear down and break eventually. The parking brake is designed to keep the vehicle in place, so use it alone or in combination with the transmission brake to prolong your car's life.
- Be mindful of how much you load your car. The transmission powertrain is responsible for driving the car forward, but it has limits on how much it can pull for extended periods. Therefore, you should be mindful of not overloading your vehicle beyond its capacity, as that will eventually cause a malfunction in the transmission system, causing transmission problems and requiring expensive repairs.
A smooth transition system in your car is something you barely think about when everything's working as it should. But at the first sign of trouble with the transmission, ignoring the problem will become very difficult because the car can become much harder to drive or even flat-out stop.
Luckily, by understanding how to recognize some of the common symptoms, knowing about the biggest problems, and learning to prevent some of the most expensive repairs from becoming necessary, you can significantly prolong your transmission's life and enjoy your car for longer.
And if you are already dealing with big transmission problems, you will at least know whether it's time to consider selling a car to a reputable junk buyer who can offer you instant cash for your junk car.