While the engine gets most of the attention in your vehicle, the transmission is just as important. It’s the component that takes the engine’s power and transfers it to the wheels to move your vehicle.
That’s no small job, and without a functioning transmission, your vehicle won’t go anywhere. But while many people know how to identify problems with the engine, drivers often don’t have that same knowledge base for transmissions.
That’s why we came up with this guide to highlight 12 different signs that you might need to give your transmission a little attention. If you catch the problems early, you can keep the problems small and save yourself a ton of money in the long run!
12 Signs of Transmission Problems
You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there in the first place. But the sooner you figure out something is going on, the less time it has to wreak havoc and cause even more damage. That’s why it’s important to be able to recognize different signs of transmission problems.
We’ve addressed 12 common signs of a transmission problem that you should be aware of before you get behind the wheel.
1. Burning Smell
When everything is working the way it should in your transmission, it shouldn’t give off any smell. But when problems start to come up, there are a few different things that could lead to a burning smell from your transmission.
Old transmission fluid, shorting out electrical components, or grinding components can all create a burning smell coming from your transmission.
Sometimes all you need to do to fix the problem is a fluid flush, and other times it’s a sign that something more serious is going on. But either way, you don’t want to ignore a burning smell coming from the transmission because, eventually, it will turn into something serious.
2. Trouble Shifting Gears
When you’re trying to shift to a different gear, it should be a relatively seamless process unless you’re just learning how to drive a manual vehicle. But once you know how to drive a manual vehicle, you know how it’s supposed to feel when you shift gears.
It’s the same case for an automatic vehicle, but you likely don’t notice the gear changes as much as you would with a manual transmission. If the vehicle struggles to get into a new gear, that’s a problem.
This problem is more common with manual transmissions, but it can still happen to an automatic transmission.
3. Slipping Out of Gear
Once you get your vehicle in gear, it should stay in gear. This is true for both manual and automatic transmissions, but it’s more common for a manual transmission to slip out of gear.
Either way, you end up with a vehicle that’s essentially in neutral while you’re driving, and this keeps you from being able to deliver power to the wheels. In certain driving situations, this can be an extremely dangerous condition.
4. Clunking Noises
If you hear a loud clunk when your transmission finds a new gear, that’s a problem. It should be a smooth transition, and this clunk puts a lot of extra stress on various components inside the transmission.
It might just be a little loud and uncomfortable while you’re driving now, but eventually, it will lead to more damage. See if you can’t address the problem while it’s still small.
5. Grinding Gears
Unless you miss a gear, you shouldn’t hear any grinding noises when your vehicle shifts gears. If you do hear a grinding noise it means everything isn’t lining up the way it should when you’re traveling down the road.
While it might just be a grinding noise now, if you don’t fix it, eventually something will break inside the transmission. It’s a small problem now, but if you don’t address it then it’ll grow into a big one.
6. Slow Shifts
This is really a symptom that almost exclusively affects automatic transmissions. With a manual transmission, you put it into gear yourself, so if there’s a slow shift, that’s really on you.
But an automatic transmission uses sensors to determine when it should shift, and then it shifts for you. But if you’re noticing that the vehicle is staying at unusually high or low RPMs for too long, or if you’re out of gear for longer than you should be when it’s shifting, that’s a problem.
7. Leaking Fluids
The transmission fluid is supposed to stay inside the transmission. It’s a sealed system, so you shouldn’t need to keep topping off the fluid. If it’s leaking outside the transmission, it’s a clear sign that a gasket is failing.
If you find transmission fluid anywhere else on or in your vehicle, that’s a problem too. In short, transmission fluid should be in the transmission and nowhere else.
8. Transmission Light
The transmission light is there to tell you when there’s a problem with your transmission, so of course it’s a sign that there’s something wrong with your transmission!
The transmission light can tell you about a wide array of transmission problems, so go ahead and use an automotive scan tool to read the code and try and get a better idea of what’s going on.
9. You Can’t Get It Into Gear
The transmission helps you get the vehicle into different gears, and if it stops working properly, then you might end up stuck between gears. When this happens the gas pedal will rev up the engine, but you won’t go anywhere.
This can happen when you’re standing still or when you’re driving down the road. Anytime your transmission struggles to find a gear, that’s a problem you need to address.
10. Car Shaking
If the transmission is shifting properly it should be a seamless transition between gears. But if the transmission is struggling to get into different gears, then it’s likely that you’ll feel the entire transmission shake a bit when it shifts.
The transmission might create small drawn-out shakes, or it could be a large jolt as the transmission finally catches the right gear.
11. Noisy Neutral
If the transmission is working properly it shouldn’t make any noise when you have the vehicle in neutral. So, if you shift into neutral or park and hear grinding, whirring, or just about any other noise, that’s a clear-cut sign of a problem you need to investigate.
12. Dragging Clutch
This is a problem that only affects vehicles with a manual transmission since automatic transmissions don’t have a clutch. When you press down the clutch pedal it should fully disengage the clutch and allow you to seamlessly shift gears.
A dragging clutch means when you fully depress the clutch pedal, it doesn’t fully disengage the clutch. When this happens, you’re more likely to grind gears and have problems shifting into different gears.
What To Do if You Notice Transmission Problems
If you notice a problem with your transmission, don’t ignore it. When you catch a problem early, there’s a much better chance you can keep the problem from growing into something far more severe.
Check out the fluid levels and see if it’s time for a transmission oil change. Sometimes these preventative steps are all you need to get the transmission back in working order.
From there, take your vehicle to a mechanic to see if they can’t figure out what’s going on. You’ll still have the decision to repair the transmission if you want, but at the very least you’ll know what’s happening.
But if you ignore the problem completely you might go from needing a fluid flush to needing a whole new transmission!
A Note on Transmission Additives
Some people swear by transmission additives, while others swear they’ll only destroy your transmission. We fall somewhere in the middle. Transmission additives won’t destroy your transmission if you use them properly, but it’s important to note that they’re not really fixing the problem.
If your transmission was shifting rough because of damaged gears, those gears are still damaged. However, the transmission additive might keep the transmission from slipping again, and it’ll slow down further damage.
It’s better to fix the problem, but if it’s not in the budget or you’re just trying to get the vehicle to last a little bit longer without dumping a ton of money into it, there’s nothing wrong with using an additive to help the vehicle along.
But if you’re looking at keeping the vehicle for a while and can afford the right repair, that’s the better way to go.
When you own your vehicle, you don’t want to let little things turn into big things. That’s why it’s important to know the early warning signs of problems. You also don’t want to end up stranded somewhere when you thought your vehicle was in good working order.
If you start to notice any of the signs of transmission problems on our list and don’t know what to do, take your vehicle to a professional mechanic for a proper diagnosis so you can make an informed decision.