Watch out for "pink stink," the burned odor that indicates trouble inside an automatic transmission.
The next time you check the fluid level in an automatic, sniff the fluid on the end of the dip stick. If it smells like burned toast and/or has a discolored brown appearance, the fluid has cooked itself and is no longer capable of providing proper lubrication to the transmission. If you're lucky, you may have caught the problem before serious damage has been done -- but more often than not by the time the fried fluid is discovered, the transmission is also toast.
Compared to motor oil, ATF has live pretty easy. There's no soot, gasoline or condensation from combustion blowby to contaminate the fluid. The only physical contaminants the fluid must deal with are particles that wear off the friction plates, gears and bearings inside the transmission. Most transmissions have some type of internal filter to keep the fluid clean. Some do a pretty good job, but others don't. Most Asian transmissions only have a plastic or metal strainer that can only trap the larger pieces of debris. The rest circulates with the fluid and accelerates wear. Changing the fluid is the only way to get rid of these contaminants.
Heat is the main concern for ATF. Automatic transmissions create a lot of friction, and friction produces heat. The fluid is constantly churning inside the torque converter and being pumped through metering orifices and hydraulic circuits. Every time the transmission shifts gears, the clutch packs generate even more heat that must be carried away by the fluid. The greater the load on the transmission, the more heat it generates and the hotter the fluid gets.
Most ATF can withstand normal operating temperatures of around 200 degrees F for tens of thousands of miles. But if the temperature of the fluid rises above 220 degrees F the fluid starts to break down quickly. Above 300 degrees, fluid life is measured in hundreds, not thousands of miles. And above 400 degrees, the fluid can self-destruct in 20 to 30 minutes!
ATF contains ingredients to improve its oxidation stability as well as other additives to reduce foaming and inhibit corrosion. Over time, the protective additives can also break down causing the fluid's lubrication properties and viscosity to change for the worse. That's why fluid breakdown is the leading cause of transmission operating problems and failure. Most experts still recommend changing the fluid and filter every 2 to 3 years or 24,000 to 36,000 miles -- or once a year or every 15,000 miles if a vehicle is used for towing or other severe service use.
The first thing to check is the fluid level. For an automatic transmission to function normally, the fluid level must be between the "full" and "add" marks on the dipstick. If the fluid level is low, the transmission may slip or engage slowly. If the level is too high, the fluid can become mixed with air (aerated) causing shifting problems, slippage and noise.
Check the level when the transmission is hot. On most vehicles this is done with the engine idling and the transmission in Park. Moving the gear selector thorough each gear position prior to checking the level will help assure an accurate reading.
Under normal driving conditions, a transmission should not use any fluid. A low level, therefore, usually indicates a leak. A visual inspection of the pan gasket and driveshaft seals will tell you where the fluid is going.
Next, check for fluid oxidation. The sniff test is a good one, but a "blotter test' is even better. Put a few drops of ATF on a clean paper towel. Wait 30 seconds, then examine the spot. If the fluid has spread out and is pink, red or even light brown in color, the fluid is in satisfactory condition. But if the spot hasn't spread out and is dark brown in color, the ATF is oxidized and should be changed.
If the fluid has a milky brown appearance, it indicates coolant contamination. There is probably a leak in the ATF oil cooler inside the radiator that is allowing coolant to mix with the ATF. This is bad news and needs to be repaired immediately.
If the fluid is full of bubbles or is foamy, the transmission is probably overfilled with ATF. Other causes include using the wrong type of ATF or a plugged transmission vent.
The "old fashioned" way to change ATF is to drop the pan, drain the transmission, replace the filter, reinstall the pan and refill with fresh ATF. Though better than nothing, this approach can leave up to two-thirds of the ATF trapped inside the torque converter (unless the converter has a drain plug, which few do).
A better approach is to use equipment that either attaches to the ATF oil cooler lines or the filler tube to exchange new fluid for old. This approach will replace all of the old fluid. The filter should also be changed to get rid of trapped contaminants, too, because a plugged filter can cause the same kind of problems as a low fluid level or low line pressure.
Always use the type of ATF specified by the vehicle manufacturer. If you don't know, refer to the owners manual or a reference chart. The type of ATF may also be specified on the transmission dipstick.
Over the years, there have been a confusing array of different ATF types and specifications. Make sure the replacement fluid meets or exceeds all OEM requirements. Using the wrong type of fluid may cause transmission problems and damage.
AW1 -- Special ATF for 2011-12 Buick Regal, 2010-12 Cadillac SRX with AF40 6-speed automatic, also certain 2006 and up Saab and Volvo models with Aisin Warner TF-80SC 6-speed transmission, and Ford models with AW F21 6-speed transmission. The GM part number for this fluid is 19256039.
Type F -- Introduced by Ford in 1967 for their automatics. Also used by Toyota.
Type CJ -- Special fluid for Ford C6 transmissions. Similar to Dexron II. Must not be used in automatics that require Type F. Can be replaced with Mercon or Mercon V.
Type H -- Another limited Ford spec that differs from both Dexron and Type F. Can be replaced with Mercon or Mercon V.
Mercon -- Ford fluid introduced in 1987, very similar to Dexron II. Okay for all earlier Fords except those that require Type F. As of July 1, 2007, the production and licensing of Mercon ATF by Ford ends. Ford says applications that require Mercon ATF can now be serviced with Mercon V. See Ford TSB 06144 for more information.
Mercon V -- Replaced Mercon. Introduced in 1997 for Ranger, Explorer V6 and Aerostar, and 1998 & up Windstar, Taurus/Sable and Continental. This is the current ATF for most late model Ford products. See Ford TSB 06144 for more information.
Mercon SP -- Friction-modified ATF for Ford TorqShift Transmissions only (6HP26, 6R60 &6R75). Do NOT use in transmissions that require Mercon or Mercon V. See Ford TSB 06144 for more information.
Mercon LV -- For 2003 & up TorqShift 5R110 transmissions, 2009 and up 4R75WE and 6R80 TorqShift transmissions, and 2011 and up 6R140 TorqShift transmissions. Also 2000 and up 4F27E automatic transaxles, 2009 and up 6F35N and AWECVT transaxles, 2010 and newer 6F50N and 6F55N transaxles, and 2013 and up HF35 hybrid transaxles.
Dual Clutch Transmission Fluid (Ford) -- Special fluid for 2011 and newer DPS6 Dual Clutch transaxle.
Dexron -- General Motors original ATF for automatics.
Dexron II -- Improved GM formula with better viscosity control and additional oxidation inhibitors. Can be used in place of Dexron.
Dexron IIE -- GM fluid for electronic transmissions.
Dexron III -- Replaced Dexron IIE and adds improved oxidation and corrosion control in GM electronic automatics.
Dexron III (H) -- Improved version of Dexron III released in 2003.
Dexron III/Saturn -- A special fluid spec for Saturns.
Dexron-VI -- Introduced in 2006 for GM Hydra-Matic 6L80 6-speed rear-wheel-drive transmissions. Dexron VI now replaces Dexron III and II, and can be used in GM or import transmissions that formerly specified Dexron III or II.
Chrysler 7176 -- For Chrysler FWD transaxles.
Chrysler 7176D (ATF+2) -- Adds improved cold temperature flow and oxidation resistance. Introduced 1997.
Chrysler 7176E (ATF+3) -- Adds improved shear stability and uses a higher quality base oil. Required for four-speed automatics (do NOT use Dexron or Mercon as a substitute).
Chrysler ATF+4 (ATE) -- Introduced in 1998, ATF+4 is synthetic and replaces the previous ATF+3 fluid. Used primarily for 2000 and 2001 vehicles, it can also be used in earlier Chrysler transmissions (except 1999 and older minivans with 41TE/AE transmission). ATF+3 should continue to be used for 1999 and earlier minivans because of the potential for torque converter shudder during break in.
NOTE: Chrysler ATF+4 Must always be used in vehicles that were originally filled with ATF+4. The red dye used in ATF+4 is not permanent. As the fluid ages it may become darker or appear brown in color. ATF+4 also has a unique odor that may change with age. Therefore, do not relay on the color and odor of ATF+4 to determine if the fluid needs to be changed. Follow the OEM recommended service interval.
Chrysler ATF+5 for 2002 and newer models.
BMW LT7114l or LA2634 -- Special formula for BMW transmissions.
Genuine Honda ZL ATF -- Special ATF for Honda automatics (except CVT applications).
Mitsubishi Diamond SP-II & SP-Ill -- Special formula ATFs for Mitsubishi transmissions, also Hyundai and Kia.
Nissan HP/J-Matic -- Special formula for Nissan, Infiniti and some Subaru transmissions.
Nissan CVT fluid -- Special fluid for CVT transmissions.
Toyota Type T, T-III & T-IV -- Special formula ATFs for Toyota, Lexus and Scion transmissions.
NOTE: There are a number of aftermarket synthetic ATF fluids that claim to meet numerous OEM requirements. Although not exactly "universal" ATFs, they can be safely used in a variety of different applications. Such products are available from Castrol, Valvoline and others. Refer to the product label for approved applications. Make sure the product meets the specific requirements for your vehicle application before using it as transmission shift problems and possible damage may result from using the wrong type of ATF!
MJ-325: -- MITASU low viscosity synthetic ATF for multiple late model vehicle applications that have sequential electronically controlled automatic transmissions. The maker of this ATF says their product meets the following performance requirements for the following:
AISIN WARNER AW-1 / JWS-3324
AISIN WARNER NWS-9638 (T5)
AUDI / VW / SEAT / SKODA G 055 005
AUDI / VW / SEAT / SKODA G 055 540
FORD / LINCOLN MERCON LV / SP
HONDA / ACURA ATF DW-1
HYUNDAI / KIA ATF SP-IV / SPH-IV
JAGUAR C2C 8432 / Fluid 8342
LAND ROVER TYK500050
MAZDA ATF FZ (00FZ01ATF)
MERCEDES-BENZ 236.12 / 14 /41
MMC DIA QUEEN ATF J3
MMC DIA QUEEN ATF-PA
NISSAN / INFINITI MATIC FLUID S
TOYOTA / LEXUS / SCION ATF WS
ZF Lifeguard 6 / 6 Plus / 8
To Flush or Not to Flush?
Flushing out the old ATF and replacing it with new fluid can prolong the life of a transmission, provided the fluid is changed fairly regularly, say every 30,000 to 50,000 miles. But if the transmission on a high milege vehicle (say over 100,000 miles) has neer been flushed, it's probably best to NOT flush the fluid. Here's why: The detergents in new ATF may loosen up accumulated crud inside the transmission, which could cause some problems within a few thousand miles or so after the flush. So if your fluid has never been changed and your vehicle has a lot of miles on it, it is probably best to just leave the fluid alone and top off the fluid level as needed if it is low.
Automatics with No Dipsticks
According to automobile manufacturer research, a certain percentage of automatic transmission failures are caused by over-filling and/or using the incorrect transmission fluid. It is important to remember to NEVER over-fill the transmission assembly and to ALWAYS use the recommended transmission fluid. To discourage over-filling, some vehicle manufacturers have eliminated the dipstick on the transmission. Unfortunately, this also makes it hard to tell if the fluid level is low. On automatic transmissions that do not have a dipstick to check the fluid level or add fluid, a fill plug is usually located on the left side or right side of the transmission. On some, there may also be a drain plug on the bottom of the transmission. To check the fluid level, the transmission must be warm and the vehicle must be parked on a level surface or raised on a lift. Jacking up the front wheels will tilt the vehicle and give an inaccurate indication of the fluid level. Therefore, all FOUR wheels must be raised off the ground and the vehicle must be properly supported by four jack stands. NEVER crawl under a vehicle unless it is safely supported by jack stands. When the fill plug is removed, some fluid should dribble out of the hole if the fluid is at the proper level (flush with the bottom of the fill plug hole). If no fluid comes out, add fluid to bring it up to the level of the hole. Below are some of the automatic transmissions that do not have a dipstick:
5-SPEED 2004-UP ACURA TL, RL, RSX
5L40/5L50E 2004-05 CADILLAC CATERA
AISIN 81-40LE 2004-05 CHEVROLET AVEO
4T40/45E 1997-UP CHEVROLET CAVALIER, COBALT
42RLE 2005-UP CHRYSLER 300 3.5L 2WD
NAG-1 2005-UP CHRYSLER 300 3.5L AWD
AF33 2005-UP CHEVROLET EQUINOX
5R55N/S/W 2005-UP FORD CARS
AISIN RNJ 1998-05 ISUZU NPR DIESEL
ZF-6SHP-26 2005-UP LINCOLN NAVIGATOR 5.4L
5F31J 2004 MAZDA MPV W/5SPD
N4AEL 2004 MAZDA MIATA
AF23 2004-05 SATURN ION
4/5-Speed 2004-05 SATURN VUE
Engineers at Ford Motor Company have released a statement that says there is no one-size-fits-all-solution for automatic transmission fluids. The company says Ford transmissions are designed for use in many different service environments and operating conditions, and each transmission has its own set of fluid requirements. All Motorcraft Automatic Transmission Fluids (ATF) have specially formulated properties to meet unique requirements that result in optimal vehicle performance – something that cannot be achieved with just a single product on the shelf.
Motorcraft has boiled down their ATF offerings to eight fluids that service technicians and motorists can use to service all Ford and Lincoln vehicles. While the aftermarket may say there is a one-size-fits-all solution ("universal" ATF), each transmission needs the correct fluid to function properly.
Current Motorcrafts Automatic Transmission Fluids include:
Continuously Variable Chain Type Transmission Fluid
Premium Automatic Transmission Fluid
FNR5 Automatic Transmission Fluid
Dual Clutch Transmission Fluid
Ford engineers do NOT recommend adding cleaners, conditioners or other performance enhancing products to these ATFs. Specially designed performance additives are already included in Motorcraft ATF formulations, making additional additives unnecessary. Aftermarket additives do not prolong the life of the fluid or the transmission, and can mask transmission symptoms without providing a cure, says Ford.
For further information about Ford transmission fluid applications, see fcsdchemicalsandlubricants.com.