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How To Detect a Car's Transmission Problems BEFORE You Buy It

Automatic transmissions are expensive to replace, so they should always be inspected while shopping for a new ride. There are some early warning signs that might indicate if a car’s automatic transmission is beginning to fail; further, it is always wise to take your potential purchase out for a test drive to make sure everything is running smoothly. Also have a trusted mechanic check the transmission to identify any problems before buying a used car.

Some warning signs of a malfunctioning automatic transmission are listed below, which are typically fairly obvious while on your test drive.

  • Burning smell: This can be caused by burning transmission fluid, which likely indicates the transmission is overheating. If transmission fluid is low, dirty, or of poor quality, it will not circulate well and will fail to cool and lubricate your transmission. Normally, replacing the fluid will solve this issue, but if left unaddressed for too long, irreparable damage could occur.
  • Slipping gears: While this is a more common problem in cars with manual transmissions, failing automatic transmissions can also cause slipped gears. Fortunately, identifying this issue is not too difficult: if the engine is making noise and the RPM’s are increasing but the car is not accelerating, your transmission is probably slipping.
  • Leaking fluid: Because transmission fluid is not consumed by the transmission, the level should stay relatively constant. The only maintenance required should be occasional replacement of the fluid if it gets dirty or old. If the fluid levels are going down drastically, then you most likely have a leak which can lead to far worse problems for your transmission in the near future.
  • Jarring or unresponsive gear shifts: In cars with automatic transmissions, shifting from gear to gear should be a smooth and unremarkable process. If you are noticing a shaking or jarring transition between gears, it is likely your transmission is failing. Similarly, if the car hesitates to respond to a gear shift, such as going into park or reverse, have your transmission checked by a mechanic.
  • Check engine light is on: The check engine light is something that jolts us when it first comes on, but after a week or two of no apparent problems, we tend to ignore that little light and pretend it’s not there. This could be bad as the check engine light usually indicates that the car’s computer has picked up on an issue you may not be able to identify through normal driving.

Have you had any transmission horror stories?

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Gravatar Delores Lyon

Thanks for sharing this advice on troubleshooting your transmission! I agree that it is important to know the signs since they can be expensive to replace. However, I didn’t know that a burning smell could be a warning sign for a faulty transmission. You would think that symptom would be the sign of an overheating engine!

Gravatar Luke Smith

If I bought a used car, and I saw anything of these like a burning smell, or leaking fluid I would go and get my transmission looked at. I’m glad I saw this page so I know what to look for. This article gives me a good idea of what to look for.