8 Tips to Care For Your Car's Automatic Transmission
Updated on September 29 2023
The automatic transmission is a God-send in these modern times. Not only is an automatic-equipped vehicle easier to drive in heavy traffic, but new technology has enabled A/T cars to accelerate faster, brake sooner, and save gas in the process.
But like the engine in your car, the transmission deserves special care to avoid costly repairs. In some cases, automatic transmissions are more expensive to fix than gasoline or diesel-fed engines.
However, there are particular things you can do to ensure your car's automatic transmission is running in tip-top shape. Here are our top 8 transmission maintenance tips.
1. Avoid jack-rabbit starts when the engine and transmission are cold.
Our previous article about the top 10 money-saving car maintenance tips stated that prolonged warm-up periods could damage the engine and burn more gas unnecessarily. However, driving off like you're in a drag race when the engine is cold could have the same effect, particularly the automatic transmission.
After starting your car in the morning, take it easy on the gas pedal and drive slowly until all the vital fluids are sufficiently warm. Your automatic transmission will thank you for it! When the engine is cold, the ECU prevents the automatic gearbox from shifting by keeping the revs higher and longer before engaging gears to warm up the A/T fluid quickly.
2. Avoid shifting gears when the vehicle is still moving.
The easiest way to avoiding premature transmission breakdown is NOT to shift gears while the vehicle is moving. Wait for the car to come to a complete stop before selecting Park or shifting from Drive to Reverse and vice-versa.
3. Avoid towing other vehicles or heavy loads.
Tow trucks are here for a reason. Unless your vehicle is rated to tow heavy loads, unnecessary towing can lead to early transmission failure and severe engine stress. Remember, the transmission sends the engine power to the driving wheels, and towing or carrying heavy cargo may cause it to overheat faster than the engine – especially when pulling over inclined roads.
4. Avoid driving long distances using a compact spare tire.
There's a good reason why old-school drivers prefer a full-size spare tire over the compact variety. True, those compact spare tires are great for fixing flats in a jiffy, but they are not ideal for driving over long distances. Driving with mismatched tire sizes (or driving with a smaller spare tire) will overwork the automatic transmission and could ruin your vehicle's wheel alignment.
5. Maintain a reliable cooling system.
The cooling system in your vehicle benefits the coolant in your engine and helps cool down the automatic transmission fluid. Remember that excess heat is the primary killer of modern engines and transmissions. Check the coolant level regularly to avoid overheating the engine and tranny. If you notice a significant loss of coolant, you may be dealing with a leaking head gasket.
6. Check the transmission fluid regularly.
Your car's automatic transmission has a dipstick to check the ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid) level like the engine. And like the engine oil dipstick, the ATF dipstick has a white, orange, or yellow circular handle. It also has markings on end to indicate the proper fluid level when the transmission is hot or cold. If the fluid level is low, replenish as necessary.
Also, the ATF dipstick will reveal clues on the general condition of your automatic transmission. Fresh ATF is usually bright red or pink and has a rather sweet smell. If you see dark or black fluid that smells like burning coal, it could be time for a transmission flush.
7. Use the correct type of transmission fluid.
Similar to engine oil, there are many types of ATF. When it's time to replenish or drain the ATF in your vehicle, make sure you are using the correct type of fluid to prevent damaging the unit. Check the owner's manual to determine what type of ATF is right for your vehicle.
8. Never skip on periodic maintenance.
In most vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions, manufacturers recommend draining and changing the ATF every 48,000 or 50,000 kilometers (or every 30,000 miles). Even if the ATF is still in good condition, periodically changing the ATF ensures a smoother and more reliable drive as the mileage piles up.
When in doubt, consult the owner's manual. If many consider oil to be the lifeblood of an engine, the ATF serves the same purpose for your automatic transmission.
The automatic transmission in your vehicle is not "bullet-proof" or "immortal," for lack of better words. However, it only takes a modicum of care to prevent expensive transmission repair jobs.
If you notice anything wrong with your car’s automatic gearbox (like jerky shifts, unusual grinding sounds, or the presence of a check engine light), bring it to your trusted mechanic immediately.