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Do You Need to Change Your Automatic Transmission Fluid?

 

Transmission fluid is a vital component of any vehicle’s transmission system, serving multiple functions essential for the proper operation and longevity of the transmission. But how often do you need to change it, and what are the signs that it needs attention? In this article, we will explore why transmission fluid is important, how to check its condition and level, and when to change it according to different manufacturers and driving conditions.

What Is Transmission Fluid?

Transmission fluid is a lubricant that keeps automatic transmission components running smoothly. This fluid is usually made of mineral oil or a synthetic blend with additives to prevent corrosion and oxidation. It’s crucial for the performance of the entire system, which sends power from the engine to the wheels.

Automatic transmissions instinctively shift gears as you speed up and slow down, and the fluid helps make that shifting smooth. If your vehicle is equipped with automatic transmission (as most vehicles nowadays do), transmission fluid also helps provide hydraulic pressure, which helps the transmission change gears.

How To Check Your Transmission Fluid

Many vehicle owners will be familiar with automatic transmission dipsticks, commonly located near the back of the engine under the hood. New automatic transmission fluid is generally pink or red. If your transmission has a dipstick, take a sample and wipe it on a white paper towel to see if it looks fresh (pinkish or redish) or is something less favorable.

Dark red, rusty, or black means your transmission needs attention. You should immediately go in for service if the fluid has flecks of metal in it because an internal transmission component is likely failing. A foamy, bubbly-looking fluid means that the transmission could have been overfilled — or something worse.

Some newer vehicles, especially those fitted with automatic gearboxes, have transmissions that are almost sealed shut, with fluid that’s meant to last the lifetime of the car. Most CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) need inspections and/or fluid changes. In these cases, you may not be able to check the fluid yourself, and you will need to rely on the manufacturer’s recommendations or a professional mechanic.

When To Change Transmission Fluid

The frequency of transmission fluid changes varies by model and how the car has been driven. While it was once common to change the transmission fluid at least every 50,000 miles, many modern vehicles no longer require such frequent service. Some automakers suggest doing so only once every 150,000 miles or never. However one should bear in mind that modern vehicles are tougher on transmission fluid and gear lube than ever. The endless arms race to produce more power than the competition adds to increased heat. Heat is one of the transmission fluid’s biggest enemies; it speeds the oxidation process and causes the fluid to chemically break down.

Broken down transmission fluid will cause sludge and varnish to form, which might clog narrow oil passages and lead to stuck valves. This can lead to vehicle beginning to shift hard, hesitate or quit shifting altogether.

Manufacturer’s maintenance schedule should therefore always be followed to comply with the warranty and maximize the life of the vehicle. This information can be found owner’s manual or at your authorized dealership. Here are some examples of different manufacturers’ recommendations:

  • ZF (Zahnradfabrik) automatic transmissions used in BMW vehicles are filled with so called “lifetime oil”. This means that the fluid should theoretically not be changed, however 100,000 miles is BMW's definition of what a "lifetime fill" and that's passed the extended warranty and "good-will" repair limit, meaning a failure after that is no longer BMW's responsibility. ZF has a published service interval for those transmissions which completely contradicts BMW's service information with an interval of 8 years/80,000 km.
  • Mercedes Benz vehicles have a wide range of recommended transmission services. Many of the earlier models advertised “life time” transmission fluid as with BMW and as such did not specify a service interval. However, new vehicles are recommended to have their automatic transmission fluid including filters changed every 60,000 to 80,000 miles.
  • Ford’s recommended interval for “normal” driving is 150,000 miles.
  • GM often recommends changing the fluid every 45,000 miles under “severe” conditions. For “normal” driving, though, there is no mention of changing the fluid.
  • Toyota recommends changing the fluid every 60,000 miles for severe use; otherwise 100,000 miles.
  • Honda recommends that its continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVT) follow the Maintenance Minder on its vehicles, which monitors time and mileage and alerts the driver when service is needed. But if you do a lot of mountain driving or towing, Honda recommends changing the fluid as often as every 25,000 miles.

As you can see, recommended transmission fluid change intervals are all over the board. That’s why it’s important to check your owner’s manual and consult a trusted mechanic if you have any doubts.

You should also change the transmission fluid more often if you do a lot of stop-and-go driving, frequently haul heavy loads, or tow a trailer – all of which generate more heat and stress on the transmission.

Conclusion

Transmission fluid is essential for keeping your vehicle’s transmission running smoothly and efficiently. By checking its condition regularly and changing it when needed according to your manufacturer’s guidelines and driving habits, you can prevent costly repairs and extend the life of your transmission and the vehicle.

Sources:

1: When Do I Need to Change my Transmission Fluid? - Kelley Blue Book

2: Should I Change Fluid in a Filled-for-Life Transmission? - Amsoil

3: Why Is Transmission Fluid Important and When Should I Change It? - CARFAX 

4: Top 9 Signs That Your Mercedes, BMW or Audi Transmission Needs Repairs – Griffins Auto Repair

5: How to Change Transmission Fluid: 10 Steps – wiki How

6: The Truth About BMW Transmission Repair & Maintenance – Babbit Motor Werks

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