Do You Really Need to Change the Transmission Fluid?

Maintenance-TransmissionFluid

By Rick Popely for Cars.com

Yes, though how often this service should be performed varies by manufacturer and vehicle, and it's open to debate.

The manufacturer's maintenance schedule for many automatic transmissions doesn't call for fresh fluid until 100,000 miles or, with some Ford transmissions, even 150,000 miles. A lot of mechanics say that is too long and it should be done at least every 50,000 miles. Manual transmissions may be on a different schedule, so it's best to consult the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual.

Like other vital automotive fluids, transmission fluid deteriorates over time. Hard use - such as frequent stop-and-go city driving, hauling heavy loads, trailer towing - will accelerate the deterioration. That kind of driving raises the operating temperature of the transmission, and heat puts more strain on the transmission and the fluid, which helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts.

If you do a lot of driving under high-stress conditions, you should check the transmission level more often and have a repair shop check the condition of the fluid. Transmission fluid often is red but can come in other colors, and as it deteriorates it tends to turn darker. It may also acquire a burned odor that could indicate it needs to be changed or that the transmission is developing mechanical problems. Another indication it needs changing is dirt or other debris in the fluid. When you take your vehicle in for an oil change or other routine service, the repair facility may urge you to pay for a transmission-fluid change or flush. Even if they can show you that the fluid is darker than original, that might not mean you need fresh fluid right now. Step back, check the maintenance schedule in your owner's manual and see what the manufacturer recommends before you decide. This also will give you time to price shop.

Many repair shops use flush systems that force out the old fluid and pump in new fluid. Though that sounds good, some manufacturers say you shouldn't do that (Honda is one; there are others), so you need to know this before you agree to a flush. Look in your owner's manual. Some manufacturers, such as Honda, also call for their own type of transmission fluid and warn that using other types could cause damage. Moreover, some automatic transmissions have filters that should be cleaned or replaced when the fluid is changed. Make sure the repair facility is using the correct fluid and procedures for your vehicle.

If you have never changed the transmission fluid in your vehicle and have more than 100,000 miles on the odometer, should you change it now? We have seen mixed opinions on this, with some mechanics suggesting you should just leave well alone if you aren't having shifting problems. Adding fuel to this theory are stories about older transmissions failing shortly after they finally received fresh fluid. We have a hard time accepting that fresh fluid causes transmission failure, so our inclination would be to have it done if you're planning on keeping the vehicle a few years or longer. However, fresh fluid is not a cure for gears slipping, rough shifting or other mechanical problems, so don't expect a fluid change to be a magic elixir.

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By Matt Schmitz | July 2, 2013 | Comments (47)

Comments 

Skankzilla

A quality flush machine (such as BG) does not "force" the ATF, it transfuses the fluid using the pressure created from the transmission. In the rare instance, like on some Toyota and Ford models, is there a need to "force" the fluid through because the pressure is too low.

If a shop uses the wrong transmission fluid the symptoms are almost immediate: shuddering, slipping, banging into gear, etc.

Manufacturers like Honda have had insane transmission problems, so why would anyone trust their advice on how to maintain the fluid? It's not like these manufacturers warrant their vehicles past the recommended interval anyway, so preventive maintenance is key.

WTF

Not sure what it is now but the VW DSG used to be every 40,000 miles.

Make sure the pan gets cleaned out at the same time as it will be full of metal particulate matter.

The flush allows all of the transmission fluid to be changed otherwise a significant portion of the old fluid remains in the torque converter.

Anonymous Coward

VW's DSG still requires a change every 40,000 miles, and many dealers don't include it in their quote for a standard 40,000 mile service.

WTF

That's because VW dealers (at least the ones I've been to) think it's not necessary even though it's right there on the recommended maintenance documents.

Tony

My Highlander has no trans fluid dipstick and no record in service manual to replace the fluid.

But when I had a minivan with AT, I would replace ATF as follows:
Drain ATF. Take a sample into clear container. Refill. Drive on each gear.
Do steps above until fluid looks like the brand new fluid sample. It took 4 rounds for samples to match. And I used a little more fluid. But it cost fraction of $150 ATF replacement costs at the shop at that time.

Goldberg

My family owns 14 transmission shops in CA and NV so I know a lot about transmissions. I can even rebuild a few blindfolded. Honda is correct in that you should never pressure force old fluid out of any transmission (not just theirs) as it often does damage to valves which can be very fragile. I know GM and Toyota hold the same opinion. I've literally seen hundreds of trans damaged because of the pressure evacuation method.

People often think a certain manufacturer (ie Honda) has the worst trans based on word of mouth reputation but the most defective ones based on actual stats are: 1) Chrysler A604, 2) GM 4T60, 3) Jeep 42RE, 4) Ford AOD, 5) Subaru 4EAT (b/c it was used globally). Honorable mention would go to VW '020' which seem to have some internal parts made from fine china.

Best trans in terms of quality and durability: GM 4L80E and Lexus A341.
And finally if you've neglected your trans fluid leave it alone! Majority of cars will easily go 250k without any trans service.

Tony

Goldberg, are you that Goldberg, the Nazi criminal?
Regardless, you must be know that Honda doesn't make transmissions. Anyway. You should know that from 1998 to 2005 Honda/Acura was running into major transmission crisis. And only later we will know if they are over it. And the reason why you didn't see as many because most people replaced them @ Honda and then there was a case settled in court and Honda extended warranties over 100K miles to their transmissions, so many more people got it fixed under warranty.

Skankzilla

"Majority of cars will easily go 250k without any trans service."

I guess there would be no need for your family to own 14 transmission shops, then!

Tony

come one, give'im a break. 14 shops, 100 employees. The guy creating jobs here in America, along with all the unreliable car makers

Highdesertcat

I have not found a satisfactory way to completely drain any automatic transmission to replace the fluid, while it is still on the vehicle.

Unless you can drain and refill the valve body and torque converter easily, you'll always contaminate the new fluid with some of the old fluid, and the old crud in suspension. Not a good thing!

If you plan on keeping a car a very long time, you may want to wait until the transmission needs to be repaired or swapped for a rebuilt one, at which time brand new fluid is used to fill it up.

All transmissions will eventually die, so it becomes a moot point.

Imagine changing out your transmission fluid and a couple of months later find that you need new clutch bands or seals.

That'll get the attention of your wallet.

Jordan

To ask someone named Goldberg if they're a Nazi criminal is despicable. It takes a classless individual to post something like that.

Tony

When my Russian friends friends buy BMW or other German make, I ask them if this not bring the pictures of German army entering their cities and villages on these very makes and killing their relatives.

Robert

I have an 03 Corolla, and the manual says the trans fluid is lifetime, under normal conditions, which we do drive.. I really have to trust Toyota here, but gosh that just goes against every instinct I have on fluids.

meet_the_dean

Changed the trans fluid in my '01 F-150 at about 200k. I don't know if it was the first time because I'm the second owner. It was done as a precaution because I was going to be towing through mountains. I had them use Amsoil and what a difference. Shits are lightning quick, smooth, and it never misses or slips. All this in a truck pushing 250k.

M3

After dropping the pan, draining the old fluid, and changing the filter, refill the trans with clean fluid. Then,to get all the old fluid out of the torque converter, disconnect one of the cooler lines at the radiator. Attach a rubber hose, aim it into a pan, start the engine, run at idle. The trans will pump the fluid out. Stop and add more fluid as needed until the fluid coming out of the hose is clean. Reconnect the cooler line. Fill the trans to the proper level on the dipstick.

JP

Tony = Tool

Ben

VW gives bad advice on their non-DSG automatic transmissions. They claim the fluid is lifetime, which is bollocks.

I have a 2006 Jetta 2.5L with the Aisin 6-speed torque converter box. When I hit 50k miles, I had the fluid analyzed by a lab. They said I should have changed it 10,000 miles ago so I had it done immediately.

Manufacturers are interested in gaming the "true cost to own" that some organizations put out, and it leaves owners who keep their cars for more than 3-5 years in a lurch.

GTA

Ben I couldn't agree more! I find more manufacturers are manipulating their service levels in order to keep the true cost of ownership artificially low. I recently decided not to buy a 3 Series because of this because I tend to keep my cars for 8-9 years. I found many of the maint procedures in the 60-90k range were pushed there from the 40-50k range so they could claim they have really low cost of ownership based on the first five years. Bollocks!

oseph cordero

the answer that goldberg should give is, -can u keep a secret??

TJ

Meet_the_dean, Wow, sounds like your F-150 is regular as ever. If things get running too fast though, you may want to consider dropping a couple Immodium A-Ds in the transmission fluid.

Robert Grant

I own a 1998 Class C motorhome based on the Ford Econoline Chassis with a 7.3 Powerstroke diesel and E4OD tranny. The Ford service guide says "E4OD transmissions have no normally scheduled fluid change requirements". I had the fluid changed at around 20k miles and it now has 130k on it. Should I get it changed again or leave it alone?

Highdesertcat

Robert Grant, I have the transmission fluid on my 1973 Southwind Motorhome changed about every 50K miles.

There's an RV shop in my area that is very reasonable and they actually drain the Torque Converter too and then replace the fluid with fresh.

They also allow me to bring my own ATF, bought cheap at Wal-Mart. If I buy the fluid from them it costs two or three times as much per quart.

They had a flat-rate labor charge of $150 to do the ATF change, the last time I had it done and that includes the new pan-seal since mine doesn't have a drain plug.

Robert Grant

Highdesertcat,

Thanks for the response.

Do you have the Ford E4OD in your Southwind?

What does your Ford Service Guide say about changing trans fluid?

Highdesertcat

No, my dad originally bought the Southwind and he was a MOPAR man so it has a Dodge 440 V8 and Dodge Truck transmission.

My response was based on your statement "I had the fluid changed at around 20k miles and it now has 130k on it."

Since you had reason to change it at 20K, it would be advisable to do so again.

The reason I have the ATF changed on the Southwind around every 50K is because it sees a lot of hard use while being used independently by me, my four brothers and two sisters, pretty much all year long, as each family uses it for trips.

It won't hurt to change the ATF. It may cost a few bucks but nothing makes up for worn clutch bands or clogged valve-body passages.

Worn clutch bands will cause slippage and overheating and burn the fluid (turn it very dark).

Crud in the ATF will clog the valve-body passages and cause shift problems and/or slippage.

It's best to keep the ATF clean and fresh if for nothing else but to keep the seals soft and pliable.

Chris

YOU may have a hard time accepting it, but it's true! Mine was changed at 110k, GM 4L60E. Just paid 2100 for a rebuild 7k miles later. Started acting funny right after the change. New fluid cleaned the old varnish and gunk, and rendered the tranny helpless.

Booootch

The best way is the slow and old-fashioned way. Buy a lot of atf fluid (its cheap, 30 gallons is like 120 bucks) and perform several drain and fills. Drive the car hard a few miles around the block between each drain/fill to spin the fluid and kick up any debris. Did this to my 98 Altima with 220k miles on it (with 100k old trans fluid). It has 240k miles and the rough shifting out of first gear is gone.

Mike

What's wrong with everyone why is changing ATF every 6 months so taboo and does anybody even use trans coolers ? and where is this "super ATF " that does not break down and what do you do with the buildup of crap in the transmission if you don't change the ATF don't you all realize how much money is gained by failed transmissions the recalls are cause they failed too soon

Mommi Poppins

In general change your transmission once every 100,000 miles.

Kris

M3 Had the answer. I used that technique when I changed out the ATF in my car. Heres a video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsdPAadc9fY

Hitler

Look like better follow manufacturer manual to change ATF fluid.

Money Baggs

I change my entire transmission every 100k, and so should you!

aaron

My 95 Honda shifts hard into gear I just changed the fluid and it still feels the same do I need a flush

sinful

My question is this. I have a toyota Matrix with 125K, runs great but the trans fluid is dark. The dealership is saying it should simply be changed. and that it should of been done at 96K. Another dealership is saying I should do the complete cleanse of the tranny. Including removal of the pan, cleaning it out and replacing the gasket etc. Now who the heck do I believe? is it necessary to do the complete job or just replace fluid.???

Skankzilla

A full system service is ideal and some transfusion machines will clean out the transmission filter without having to remove it. Look into the BG Transmission Service and consider using their own BG Synthetic ATF.

Bob

The only thing dumber than the article is all the idiotic comments by dumb asses who have never worked on transmission or have any clue on how hydraulic theory with electronic application is applied. You are all dumb asses.

Bob

Skankzilla being the biggest dumb ass of all. Head and shoulders above the rest.

Skankzilla

Thanks Bob!

You really showed me, I'm so ashamed! I'll take your entire lack of supporting information into consideration next time another transmission failure comes through my shop.

Simone

Well I have a 2006 honda accord with 200,000 miles on it and I never changed the transmission fluid!! I hate American cars!! I've had nothing but problems with them.. I've had 3 transmission problems with 3 different cars with low miles and I did routine service on my transmissions... Honda's been good to me :p

Doug

Had the transmission fluid changed on my Suburban, first time. Did it at a chevy garage, also had four wheel drive, differential front and back, and transfer case serviced. Paid extra for flush. Seems to run well, and I do pull a trailer and a boat. Do you think I was had?

Joshua

I have been searching for a wide array of opinions on transmission fluid changes, and I came across this article. I guess all I can take away from it is that there is entirely too many variables to determine if any one person in particular should or should not have their transmission fluid changed. I was given the advice by my mechanic uncle (30 years experience) that I should not bother with it when I purchased my 2000 Dodge neon new. Now I am looking into it, because I was doing routine maintenance on my vehicles, and came across many who were changing the transmission fluid at varying intervals. I have no issues with the 2000 Neon with 146,000 miles on it. I have only added a bit of slick 50 a few years back. No other problems either other than a slight lifter noise until it warms up. The 1997 Toyota Avalon has 204,000 miles and also has not had the fluid changed for sure in 160,000 miles. Hell, I just replaced the original wires and spark plugs. I got the car from my mother in law. My 07 Jeep Commander has 105,000 miles with no transmission fluid change either. I've done all the oil and differentials, but the dealership never even tried to sell me a transmission flush or change, and they tried to sell some stuff...like a power steering fluid flush, brake fluid flush, and yes they would even flush out the windshield wiper fluid. That cleans out the reservoir tank too! Ha. To sum up what I think now...I will be checking my transmission fluid, and not for color...that is stupid if you have ever put a bit slick 50 in, but the blotter test to see if it is need of the additive that is in the ATF. If so I will probably add some...leary of opening up what seems to be a pandora's box.

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ed

Steps to Fully Change the Transmission fluid in entire system:

1)find the from tran to oil cooler line at the radiator. Mark it.

2)drop pan and capture fluid if you can (to know how much was in pan). clean pan, replaced filter reinstall pan.

3)put in the number of qts you dropped out when panned ropped (or if you didn't measure put fluid unti it registers in cold area of stick

4)disconnect the cooler line marked in #1 above. Now start engine and let fuild flow from line 1 qt at a time. Each lost qt, add a qt. Do this repeatedly until you have exchanged all qts that your trans hold (14 in my ford).

Do a final check on the fluid level

Dacre

Sinful

I have an 04 Matrix with 120km. How's you transmission, have you done anything.???

Meg

I have a honda crv, 2010. It only has 28,000 miles. I took it in a few days ago for an oil change and they said I needed a transmission flush. A couple months ago I smelt an awful smell in my car but it went away a day later. Could that have to do with the transmission? I shouldn't have to have a flush yet should I?

Nicholas G Petersen

I have a '98 Volvo S70 Grand Luxe Turbo (GLT) with 210,000 miles. Have never changed the trans fluid and have had zero trans hiccups to date. Have been told not to change it at this point. At 300k+ or whenever the trans goes out I'll just replace the whole thing and have it rebuilt. Silly to change that fluid when there's nothing wrong with it at such an advanced age. Love this car

Kyle

If your transmission is too old, excessively dark, and gritty, it is NOT a good idea to change the fluid. I've seen multiple transmission fail this way first person. Sometimes people leave transmission fluid in the vehicle for 200,000+ miles. At this point the transmission might instantly fail uppon changing the fluid. There is a way to tell ahead of changing the fluid too.
If your fluid is excessively dark and feels gritty, your transmission is almost guaranteed to fail upon changing the fluid. It may not shift out of park at all. If you take out the new fluid and replace it again with the old fluid, it can actually start working again.
Why is this? Basically what has happened is that the transmission fluid got too old or saw too much heavy use and lost most of its lubricating properties. The grit in the fluid may be just dirt and debrit, but at this point probably most of it is actually ground up shavings of the gears from your transmission from the lack of lubrication.
When it gets bad enough, the only thing allowing the gears to grip each other at all is the grit in this old dirty fluid. Replacing it with clean fluid can cause the gears no longer to grip at all, and can often push what was already a time-bomb of a transmission over the edge.

Stewie

I have an '05 Volvo S40 2.4i. It has 157,000 miles on it and I have never changed the ATF. In fact my maintenance schedule handbook states "Check automatic transmission fluid level only if an external leak is identified. Volvo recommends changing the automatic transmission fluid every 52,500 miles/84,000 kilometers, only on vehicles used for towing." Sooooo, unless you use your vehicle for towing, you probably don't have to worry about changing the fluid.

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