6 Symptoms of Low Transmission Fluid (You Don’t Want to Ignore)

When you’re running low on transmission fluid, your vehicle cannot function the way it’s supposed to. This is because transmission fluid lubricates the surfaces and components of the transmission system to reduce friction and prevent them from wearing out.

Transmission fluid is supposed to remain in your vehicle for its entire lifespan without changing it, although many mechanics will tell you (sometimes untruthfully) that you should change this fluid every 50,000 miles no matter what. Sometimes frequent flushes of the transmission fluid are recommended as well.

Like oil, when your transmission fluid is low or bad, it can cause serious problems to your car’s transmission. Here are some common symptoms of low transmission fluid. If you don’t top off or change your fluid, you may have an expensive repair to deal with in the future.

Common Low Transmission Fluid Symptoms

You’ll find that pretty much all signs of low transmission fluid point to a transmission fluid leak as the cause. If any of the following symptoms show up, the first thing you should do is check the transmission fluid level to confirm.

While you’re at it, check the condition of the fluid. New transmission fluid should appear red and almost transparent. If the color is brown or darker, you may have internal problems. See our transmission fluid color chart to see what the color of your fluid says about its condition.

#1 – Transmission Fluid on Garage Floor or Driveway

cost to fix transmission fluid leak

This sign that you’re running low on transmission fluid is pretty obvious but often overlooked. When you notice a small puddle or spots of a red or brown fluid underneath your vehicle where your engine and transmission sit, you likely have a transmission leak.

This is usually due to a failed seal or gasket, loose drain plug, or even damage to the transmission pan itself. Some leaks are incredibly minor, and while you eventually want to fix them, keeping an eye on your transmission fluid level and topping off when needed will get you by. But for most leaks, you want to take care of the issue right away.

#2 – Slow Gear Engagement

set gear to park

With low transmission fluid in your vehicle, you will have a temporary delay after you move the gear lever into reverse or drive. The reason being is that the gear shift cannot take place immediately if there isn’t enough transmission fluid pressure.

With low fluid, it make take up to 2 or 3 seconds to build enough pressure for the gear change. This same symptom will appear if there’s a problem with your transmission valve body so if you confirm the ATF level is fine, that’s another possible cause.

#3 – Trouble Shifting Gears

manual transmission hard to shift

Manual and automatic transmission vehicles both must have transmission fluid that is clean and able to flow freely inside of your transmission. If your transmission fluid is contaminated by dirt or other material, then its response will be very laggy and sluggish.

Once that starts happening, your gear shifting will cause the gears to change too fast or too slow as you’re driving the vehicle. If you are driving a car with a manual transmission, it could be very difficult for regular gear shifts and you may not even be able to get into certain gears at all.

#4 – Strange Noises While in Gear

A properly operating transmission should be silent to the driver. But if you start hearing rattling noises or a rhythmic pounding while in gear and not when in park or neutral, you may have an issue with your torque converter due to the car being low on transmission fluid.

If you hear grinding or clattering while changing gears, it may be another sign that not enough transmission fluid is in the system.

#5 – Transmission Overheats

Similar to how a motor needs the proper amount of engine oil to lubricate all parts and maintain correct operating temperature, the transmission needs an adequate level of transmission fluid to keep it at the proper operating temperature.

With not enough transmission fluid, your transmission will quickly begin to overheat due to excess friction between moving parts. You may notice a strong smell from the burnt transmission fluid or even smoke coming from the area of the transmission.

If you notice either of these while driving, pull your car off the road immediately and let everything cool down for a while. If the temperatures get too high, then you may have serious internal damage and may need a complete transmission rebuild.

#6 – Transmission Gear Slippage

damaged transmission gears

Low transmission fluid could reduce the hydraulic pressure in the system. If you don’t have enough hydraulic pressure, you won’t be able to remain in the current gear that you have selected. A gear slipping presents itself by the engine jumping to a higher RPM while driving yet the car is not moving any faster.

 

 

Comments

  1. 2013 kia soul 124k mi on it makes a tic tic tic sound while driving it, mostly after it’s heated up,& mistly wen idling at a stop light, or driving thru city limits. On the freeway i dont hear it. Does anyone know wat that could b?

  2. THANK YOU FOR THE INFRO ..MY CAR STOPED GOING INTO OVERDRIVE THOUGHT THAT CHECKING THE DIP STICK WOULD GIVE ME AN ACCTRATE CHECK SO I CHANGED FILTER AN FLIUD IT WAS 3 QTS LOW

    • Transmission fluid or engine oil? Either case is very bad. Glad you found it soon enough before major damage occurred.

    • On some Chargers, the transmission fluid is intended only to be services by dealers as the transmission is real finicky. The tool used for measurement goes from 0-100 centimeters (measured from the bottom of the pan). The amount of transmission fluid that goes in is dependent on the temperature of the fluid.

  3. It’s good to know that red or brown fluid in your garage or driveway can indicate a problem with your transmission. I have noticed some leaking under my car lately, but I can’t tell if it’s brown enough to be transmission fluid. I will have to take my car into a mechanic soon so they can figure out what the issue is.

  4. I lost 3 / 4 gears on my 4l60-e tranny because a hole developed on a high pressure line and lost fluid. I took it to shop and told them that i repaired the bad section of the line with a short piece of rubber hose so i drive it to the shop. The shop repaired the transmission but did not replace the bad high pressure line even after i told them to replace it if necessary? They did not replace the line and it leaked fluid again from the temp repair i made with the hose and some clamps. I drove it for 500 miles and took it back to the shop as required by the shop for a check up and to not void the warranty. All they did was “scan it for any error codes AND added tranny fluid!!? They did even do a visual inspection underneath of the tranny, if they did they would have seen fluid everywhere. When i left the shop after they gave it the” ok”. I drove it all day as it is my work truck and 2 times i smelled a burning tranny smell from mo fluid im sure!!!!when i checked the fluid level at the end of the day it was dry. I had a freind drive me to the autoparts store yo get fluid. It took 3 qts to bring it back to the correct level. I also tightend the clamps on the hose repair i made to stop the leaking. I know this will only leak again surely!! The shop charged me $3000 to overhaul my tranny and is probably ruined now because they didnt even bother to replace that line after i told them about it , when it happened and was the reason myvtranny went out in the 1st place!!!! What should i do at this point!! ?

    • What did the shop say when you told them the tranny fluid was completely dry and you had to add 3 qts? Keep all records. I would insist on them at this point to replace the line (you pay for parts and they take care of labor) or you will be forced to leave negative reviews online, contact the BBB, or even submit a chargeback if you paid via credit card.

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