How to Care for an Automatic Transmission
Believe it or not, automatic vehicles are quickly becoming the new norm in the UK. No, we aren’t just talking about electric vehicles here with their unique sort of transmission, but automatics in general have already become the most popular choice for new car purchases and registrations. Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show that from the year 2021, the percentage of new automatic vehicles being registered far exceeded those of manuals. Things have absolutely changed.
This being the case, we have a lot of people on the road with limited to no meaningful experience of driving automatic cars, let alone caring for these intricate (and expensive) transmissions in the long term. Technology has improved, of course, and automatic gearboxes are hardier and more durable than ever, but that doesn’t mean a good knowledge of what keeps them ticking over isn’t still helpful. That’s what today’s blog is all about.
Here are some important steps to take to properly care for your automatic transmission:
1. Check the Transmission Fluid Regularly
Transmission fluid is the lifeblood of your automatic transmission. That might sound obvious to some readers, but some people seem to think that apart from engine oil, no other fluid is truly so essential. The transmission fluid actually does exactly the same job as engine oil in your main engine. It firstly lubricates and cools the main components, ensuring that the friction resulting from their work doesn’t create either too much heat or too much wear and tear.
At the same time, the transmission fluid is also important for removing contaminants that build up during the lubricating and cooling processes. These are picked up by the viscous fluid like oil does in the engine, and carried off to the main reservoir. Over time, this fluid gets increasingly contaminated, changing from a rich, glossy pink/red colour when new to a darker orange/brown colour when it’s getting close to the need for a flush.
Your transmission fluid should last for about 30,000 miles, or 3 years. You can keep an eye on the condition of the fluid yourself in most cars by pulling up the transmission fluid dipstick in the engine and checking it in the same way you do your oil. If you notice that the fluid is looking prematurely in poor condition, you might want to ask your mechanic why that might be. Extreme weather and the use of cheap or inferior fluid could create these results. So, use the proper recommended fluid, and stick to the recommended schedule for flushing and replacing the fluid.
2. Follow the OEM Maintenance Schedule
Continuing from the previous point, you should follow all your manufacturer recommendations when it comes to servicing and maintaining your automatic transmission. If you’re unsure as to what we are referring to, check your owner’s manual. Most either keep it in the glove box, or sometimes in the house or flat because some manuals have become too big for their cars! Inside the manual should be a maintenance schedule, which includes all intervals for inspections and services of the transmission. Treat this schedule as gospel.
The only reason to deviate from the schedule is after an unusual or accidental event. If you’ve been in a collision, for example — however small — and you now hear grinding or knocking sounds when you’re driving. You might also notice that the transmission is overheating after a period of extreme weather, which can impact the transmission fluid. Your OEM schedule doesn’t take account of these factors, so you should. Outside of any unusual circumstances, treat the maintenance schedule as sacrosanct.
3. Don’t Make Big Shifts While the Car is Moving
Besides overly aggressive driving habits, another bad thing to do is to shift the car between Drive and Reverse while the car is still moving. You have to bring the car to a complete stop before you start moving the shifter between these two opposite modes. Some people do it perhaps for convenience or just because they don’t know what it’s doing to the transmission. The truth is that this will cause undue strain, and therefore wear and tear, to your automatic transmission. Considering how costly automatic transmission repairs can become, it’s advisable to minimise any and all unnecessary wear and tear.
4. Keep Spare Tyre Journeys as Short as Possible
If you have a flat tyre or a blowout and have to change to your spare, then make sure the only journey you undertake after that is straight to the garage for new tyres. Automatic cars don’t do well being driven on their spare tyre, so this is not a time to procrastinate on getting the new wheels in place. Minimise spare tyre journeys and your automatic transmission will thank you!
5. Go Easy on the Brake
Believe it or not, going to town on your brake pedal can actually have a bad knock-on effect for both your car’s engine and the automatic transmission. Try not to drive too aggressively with harsh acceleration and braking manoeuvres if at all possible. These cars are built for steadier increases and decreases in speed.
If you want a transmission built for that kind of aggressive and dynamic performance, then consider a DCT with paddle shifters like the Volkswagen DSG, for instance. These are sportier transmissions built for that kind of driving. For other automatics, however, take it easy.
6. Give It Time to Warm Up Properly in Winter
The latest automatic transmissions are a little more hardy when it comes to needing time to warm up, but in very cold weather, it’s always a good idea to let the car warm up at least for a few minutes before setting off. If you have a car that’s 5 to 9 years old, then give it at least 5 minutes, and if it’s 10 or more years old, give it 10 minutes.
Warming up the engine and transmission will allow your oil and transmission fluid to get to the proper viscosity and temperature to work the most efficiently. This is the best way to avoid any kind of premature wear and tear.
7. Avoid Heavy Towing in Hot Weather
We’ve had record-breaking heat in the UK during 2022; the kind of weather that makes people start to notice new kinds of problems in their car that they hadn’t noticed before. This is especially true for those who are towing trailers or other heavy loads in their automatic car. The fact is that automatics are not natural towers, but in the right conditions they work fine. The UK is pretty cool and mild most of the time, so we tend not to worry, but in this year’s summer, towing too much in your automatic car is a very fast way to add premature wear and tear to the vehicle. It’s therefore best avoided altogether if you want to avoid unnecessary damage to your transmission.
8. Annual Inspections
Finally, although we have already mentioned following the proper OEM-recommended maintenance schedule, we still want to reiterate the importance of inspections of your transmissions done annually as part of your regular servicing. Even if your transmission isn’t due a fluid change or any other major servicing, an inspection will help to make sure that any potential problems are caught early, and that everything else is running properly. Catching those faults early on can mean the difference between a simple (and cheap) half-day repair job to a complex multi-day (and expensive) major overhaul.
If you spot any signs of problems — strange noises, overheating, fluid leaks, grinding, gear or clutch slippage, etc. — then book it in for a checkup as soon as humanly possible.