July 29, 2021

How to Know When to Change Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid helps your car shift gears quickly and effectively. Given its key role in the operation of your vehicle, it's helpful to know some basic facts about this vital fluid. And it's essential to know when and how often transmission fluid should be changed.

What Is Transmission Fluid?

Transmission fluid is a liquid that works as both an oil and a hydraulic fluid. It prevents your car's transmission from getting too hot. Additionally, it keeps all your transmission's moving parts properly lubricated, and it provides power to the transmission by generating pressure and torque.

So, what is transmission fluid made of? Regular transmission fluid is made of crude oil that has been refined to suit the vehicle's needs. There's also a synthetic version of this fluid available. Synthetic transmission fluid is made with a base liquid that's been put through various chemical reactions.

What Transmission Fluid Do I Need?

The type of transmission fluid you need will depend mainly on the type of transmission your car uses. Your car's age also plays a role.

There are three main types of transmission fluid: automatic transmission fluid, continuously variable transmission fluid (CVT fluid) and manual transmission fluid.

  • Automatic transmission fluid is designed for cars that have an automatic transmission. It's also used by most late-model vehicles with a manual transmission.
  • CVT fluid is used by vehicles that have a continuously variable transmission. If you use anything other than CVT fluid in a vehicle with a CVT, it may eventually cause problems.
  • Manual transmission fluid is used mainly by older stick-shift cars. It's a lot heavier than automatic transmission fluid, and it's never used by cars that have an automatic transmission.

In addition to choosing from the types of transmission fluid discussed above, you'll also need to choose between regular and synthetic.

Regular transmission fluid costs less than the synthetic version. Even though it's more expensive than the regular version, synthetic transmission fluid offers advantages that may make it an ideal choice for some drivers. For example, relative to regular transmission fluid, the synthetic version offers better viscosity and lubrication at frigid temperatures. And synthetic fluid can help your transmission deliver smoother gear shifts and optimal fuel economy.

How Often Should I Change My Car's Transmission Fluid?

Wondering how often to change the transmission fluid and filter in your vehicle? Follow the manufacturer recommendations listed in your car's owner's manual. Typically, automakers recommend that transmission fluid be changed every 30,000 to 60,000 miles. Intervals will vary based on the vehicle model. Vehicle usage and the environment you're driving in will also play a role.

How to Know When to Change Transmission Fluid

You'll need to change your car's transmission fluid if it runs low. Here are some signs that indicate your vehicle's transmission fluid may be running low and in need of a change:

  • Vehicle chatters when it moves from a standstill
  • Puddles of transmission fluid form under the car when it's parked
  • The engine makes a roaring sound when accelerating or tackling corners
  • Warning light indicating high transmission temperature illuminates
  • Check engine light illuminates
  • Transmission slips when the vehicle is going around corners
  • A burning smell emanates from under the hood

Changing a Car's Transmission Fluid: FAQs

Here are answers to questions commonly asked about changing a car's transmission fluid:

How long does it take to change transmission fluid?
Typically, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour or more to change a car's transmission fluid.

How much transmission fluid do I need for a change?
Most passenger vehicles take between 12 and 16 quarts of transmission fluid. Those numbers represent the upper limits typically required when changing the fluid needed by your car's transmission.

Don't overfill; overfilling your car's transmission fluid can create stress on the seals. And be mindful not to underfill. Not adding enough fluid can prevent the car's gears from getting the lubrication they need to work properly.

How much does it cost to change a car's transmission fluid?
Whether you're talking about CVT transmission fluid change cost, manual transmission fluid change cost or automatic transmission fluid change cost, the amount you spend will vary based on whether you tackle the task yourself or have it handled by a professional.

  • If you're changing the fluid yourself, the only thing you'll have to pay for is the cost of the oil. This cost varies by type and by brand. Typically, the total cost runs between $40 and $90.
  • If you're getting the transmission fluid changed at an auto repair shop by a mechanic, the cost can run between $80 and $150.
  • What if you're getting the transmission fluid changed at a dealership? In this case, it's typical to pay between $150 to $250.

Final Thoughts

Most of us know that it's important to keep a car's engine properly maintained. The same care should extend to a car's transmission.

Your car's transmission is an expensive part to replace. By regularly changing your transmission fluid, you can give your transmission the support it needs to lead a long and healthy life.

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