Car transmission problems & symptoms

Updated March 23, 2017

The transmission is the part of an automobile that sends power from the engine through the gears and driveshaft to turn the wheels. Manual transmissions require the driver to move the gear manually with a stick shifter, while automatic transmissions utilise computers to move from gear to gear when the wheels reach certain speeds. Annual diagnostic tune-ups will involve checking the transmission. Additionally, there are signs that drivers can watch for to determine transmission problems and symptoms.


Leaking transmission fluid is one of the most common symptoms seen when there are transmission problems. Fluid levels must be maintained or the transmission will seize up and discontinue operating. Transmission fluid is a light reddish colour and will show up on the pavement under the car when there is a leak. When drops of fluid are noticed, the transmission fluid should be topped off every day until the leak is repaired.


Clean transmission fluid is a clear reddish colour. When the fluid is checked and appears dark and muddy on the dipstick, it could be a symptom of a serious problem. Transmission fluid is checked while the vehicle is running and on a flat surface. The dipstick should be pulled, wiped and checked three times to get an accurate reading. Dark transmission fluid usually emits a bad odour that smells like burning oil in addition to the darkened colour.


A transmission that is beginning to show signs of wear or damage will make noises when the car shifts between gears. Noise indicating a problem on an automatic transmission will happen as the car speeds up or slows down. Unusual grinding on a manual transmission could indicate symptoms of wear. Shaking and rattling also may accompany the grinding noises.


Cars with automatic transmissions should shift gears immediately when engaged. After moving the shift into drive or reverse, the transmission should engage quietly with no delay. After a few seconds, if the driver has to wait for the car to move, the delay could indicate a problem with the transmission. There should be no clunking sounds or jerky movements of the vehicle when it's shifted from park.


A common indication of transmission problems happens when the transmission jumps out of gear while moving. Most noticeably, the linkage jumping problems will occur from the reverse position. Jumping out of gear indicates that the linkage holding the gears can be worn or broken. Often the gears will return to normal when the car is put back into first gear, but the transmission should be checked, because the slippage could be the beginning of serious problems that won't allow the gears to shift at all.


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About the Author

Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."