Have you ever been handed an auto repair bill? I have and it isn’t pretty. One day you innocently notice a slight vibration or hesitation as your car attempts to shift into gear, but you just brush it off as “one-time” thing. Cars make a lot of funny noises, right? I drove a Saturn for a while, and it had so many rattles and shakes that we jokingly called the radio. My husband – who is a mechanic, by the way – would say that the best way to fix a Saturn is to turn the stereo up a little so you can’t hear all the “mysterious” noises.

I know that is a little extreme (and he did make sure my car was safe to drive) but the truth is that cars are often like people – they occasionally make odd noises and do funny things. They shutter, shake, shiver, or hesitate. Who knows? Maybe they don’t like frosty mornings or late night treks any more than we do.

Fact is, if we complained about every little peculiarity we would spend half of our lives in the repair shop and a good chunk of our paycheck on mechanic bills. But, unfortunately, there does come a point when that “one-time” thing becomes a “once in a while” thing and then a “quite regular” thing. So, if that weird noise you heard on Monday morning goes away and never returns, you can likely skip a trip to the garage. However, if it comes back for an encore, you should probably pay attention.

If you are like me, taking your car to a repair shop is kind of like waiting in the doctor’s office for the results of blood work. While your vehicle is being diagnosed, you are running all the “worst case scenarios” through your mind. It’s like you are trying to prepare yourself ahead of time to hear really scary words like “engine” or “transmission.”

What Is Your Transmission?

While an auto transmission failure isn’t a death sentence for your car, it can definitely be a major repair. It usually means a lot of downtime and a huge bill. Your transmission is an amazing work or art. Ok, you might not want to mount it over your fireplace, but you have to admit that it is rather fascinating how all these gears and bearings and interestingly shaped parts are put together to create a system that actually propels your vehicle from Point A to Point B. Some people say that the transmission is the second most important part of the car, next to the engine. But, I respectfully disagree. It’s really a team effort – you can’t have one without the other. While, I guess you can, but they are rather useless independently. They are like the heart and the brain of your car. They work together. So, a problem with your transmission can affect the operation of the engine. And if you don’t fix it, you could have even bigger issues to deal with.

But, contrary to popular belief, an auto transmission failure doesn’t always have to be scary (are you breathing a sigh of relief now?) While it can be a costly adventure, in a lot of cases, the problem is actually quite minor. And, as with anything mechanical, if you catch the problem early enough, you may be able to avoid more serious issues. But, you can’t always count on mechanics to offer you the easy way out. After all, they are in the business to make money. So, when they see a woman walk through their doors, they get dollar signs in their eyes.

Transmissions are complex and complicated systems so fixing them usually requires a professional. But, that doesn’t mean that you have to accept whatever diagnosis you are handed. If in doubt, get a second opinion. Or, better yet, learn how to recognize the most common signs of auto transmission failure and how to rule out simple fixes before you authorize an expensive auto transmission repair. Replacing or rebuilding may be necessary, but it is important to check out other possibilities first. You never know, some basic knowledge could save you thousands of dollars.

Signs Of Auto Transmission Failure

  • Slippage. This is when your motor is revving but your car isn’t responding. It’s similar to the way your vehicle would react if your tires were slipping on ice or stuck in the snow. You are pushing the gas pedal and you can hear the engine roaring, but you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Slippage affects your transmission’s ability to propel the car forward and if it gets really bad, eventually you may not move at all.
  • Leaks. Check under your car on a regular basis to make sure there aren’t any leaks. In most automatic transmissions the fluid is red, so if you notice a colored puddle on the ground, you should probably have your car checked out. In fact, if you notice any puddle at all (except for the ones made from your AC) you should investigate further.
  • Smells. If your fluid level is low, your transmission can overheat. When your transmission or transmission fluid gets too hot, you may notice a burning odor. Check your fluid level and add if necessary. You may also want to find out why the level was low in the first place.
  • Sounds. Knocking, whining, humming, buzzing, clunking, and grating can all be signs of transmission problems. These sounds can be a result of wear and tear, but they also can mean a low fluid level.
  • Delayed Engagement/Lack of Response. Sometimes your transmission doesn’t want to do what you ask when you ask. Just like your kids, right? But, unlike your children, there are times when motherly negotiations (aka bribing) will not convince your vehicle to behave properly. There are varying degrees of delayed engagement, and sometimes we are in danger of letting things for too long.
  • Rough Shifting. Again, your car should transition between gears smoothly. If you notice shaking, jarring, bumping, clunking, or abrupt/hard shifting, this may be a sign of transmission problems.
  • Fluid Color. Transmission fluid is red, clear, and has a slightly sweet odor. Look at a sample of new, clean fluid so you know the correct color and smell. If the fluid in your vehicle is murky, dark, or dirty, this could be an indication of problems. Sometimes changing the oil or doing a transmission flush will fix the issue. In some cases, more serious repairs may be necessary.
  • Check Engine Light. Sensors in your car can pick up small vibrations or other problems even before you notice them. The check engine light could be a warning of transmission problems, especially if you are also experiencing any of the above signs.

How To Prevent Auto Transmission Problems

One of the best ways to avoid being overcharged or “ripped off” is to show the mechanic that you have some understanding of how your vehicle works. By doing some simple inspections on your transmission, you will be able to explain to the mechanic exactly what your car is doing and what conclusions you have made. By ruling out or confirming possible causes, you can have an intelligent and informed conversation with the technician before paying for a costly auto transmission repair.

1. Check Transmission Fluid Levels. The fluid is like the lifeline of the system. It lubricates, cools, and powers the transmission. When there is not enough of it, problems can arise, such as:

  • the car won’t shift properly
  • the fluid can overheat/burn
  • the vehicle may not move – there needs to be enough fluid in the system to power or propel the car. This may be especially noticeable when going up a hill or making a sharp turn.
  • increased friction can cause damage to transmission parts like bearings or gear teeth.

Low transmission fluid can eventually lead to damage and a costly auto transmission failure, so be sure to check the levels regularly.

Not sure how to check transmission fluid?

  • Always check fluid when it is hot. It is best to do it after you have been driving for a while.
  • The car must be running.
  • Put the car in park.
  • Make sure the car is on a level surface.
  • Open transmission fluid cap, pull the dipstick out and wipe it with a cloth or towel.
  • Reinsert the dipstick and pull it out again, reading the level on the stick.
  • Add fluid if necessary.

2. Check the color and smell of the transmission fluid. When you are checking the level, also examine the color and smell of the fluid. If it looks dirty or smells burnt, have the system flushed and inspected by a professional.

3. Check the filter. A plugged or clogged filter can be the cause of many common transmission problems. Try replacing it first before agreeing to any major auto transmission repair.

4. Check for leaks. Look under the car to see if you notice any puddles of red fluid. Keep in mind that if the level is low, the fluid could become burnt. In this case, the puddles may also be darker, even black in color. Transmission doesn’t really “use oil” like your engine might, so a low level almost always means you have a leak somewhere, even if you don’t notice anything on the ground. Try adding fluid and see if the level goes down again. If so, you will need to have a technician determine the source of the leak.

5. Buy a diagnostic tool. Also called “code readers,” these tools usually plugin under the instrument panel on the driver’s side of the vehicle. The machine will display a code that will tell you if you’re at risk of auto transmission failure. Even if there isn’t an issue with the transmission, the diagnostic tool may be able to help you pinpoint the cause of the problem.

6. Get an extended warranty or vehicle protection plan. When it comes to the value of a VPP, I can speak from personal experience. I resisted buying a minivan for several years. In my mind, they were for soccer moms and seniors. But, when I was expecting my fourth child, I knew it was inevitable. There weren’t very many options that would comfortably fit 2 car seats and 2 booster seats, while also keeping every child beyond arm’s reach of each other (every mother knows what I’m talking about).

So, I finally gave in (kicking and screaming, mind you) and bought my first minivan. The dealership offered a 30-day warranty and we declined to pay the extra for extended coverage. On day 36, the transmission died. There I was, on the side of the road, with four kids and a vehicle that wouldn’t move. Needless to say, this really didn’t do much to improve my feelings about minivans.

Anyway, after paying the towing bill, the transmission specialist told me that the problem was an inexpensive seal. A $10 part in fact. Unfortunately, the entire transmission had to be disassembled to get to the little culprit. $1,600 dollars (plus the $200 for towing) and 10 days later, I was back on the road. Believe me, I really regretted not buying that extended warranty. It definitely would have paid for itself with that one auto transmission repair!

An auto transmission failure can be expensive. It is a major system in your car, and it often involves a lot of time and skill to return it to working order. But, many problems can be a result of simple things like dirty, low, or burnt fluid or a plugged filter. So, before trading away your eagerly anticipated girl’s weekend for a costly auto transmission repair, try ruling out these less costly possibilities first. You just might be pleasantly surprised.