Shifter in D? Check. Right foot down? Check. But why aren’t I going anywhere?...

Blog/ Shifter in D? Check. Right foot down? Check. But why aren’t I going anywhere?...


Is Your Transmission Slipping

AuthorCategory Car Advice

Most people know their car has this thing called a transmission. And that’s often where it ends. Where is it in the car? What does it look like? WHAT is it transmitting? These are questions that can sound all too familiar and scary when suddenly your daily driver starts making all kinds of sounds, smells, and erratic movements like it’s got a mind of its’ own. Fear not, road warrior, we’re going to shed some light on some common transmission issues and procedures and make sure we can hang with all the car lingo the next time we go in for service.

What is a transmission?

The modern automatic transmission is a highly complex piece of machinery. Manuals? Not so much. They have pretty simple guts and even the newer ones (and that’s IF you can find a new car with a manual) can trace their function to technology developed in the 1960s. Manual transmissions, they don’t make ‘em like they used to…. well, actually, they do.

With manuals becoming a dying breed, the automatic is the transmission you’ll find in the majority of cars on the road today. The automatic transmission has a lot more going on inside than a manual, and with more stuff in there, more issues can arise. We’re talking mechanical parts, hydraulic parts, and even electronic parts with software. All those parts work in concert with each other to take the power made by the engine and ultimately direct it towards the wheels to make the car go.

Sounds like a pretty important component. And it is.

Diamonds are Forever

The unfortunate reality is that every part of the car has to play by those pesky laws of physics; no exceptions. And that means the transmission is subject to twisting, pulling, pushing, heat, vibrations…. the list goes on. Eventually, it’s not unrealistic for some part in the transmission to wear to the point of not being able to do its’ job anymore.

So what do you do if your transmission stops transmitting? Get it repaired, of course! But is not that easy. Remember all those different kinds of parts inside a transmission? Each one causes its own issues and is handled in a different way.

What is my transmission going to do to me?

One of the most common issues a transmission can have is what is called slipping. What is slipping, you ask?

An automatic transmission has a bunch of clutches inside. Wait, automatics have clutches? I thought that was only for cars with a third pedal.

Automatics DO have clutches. In fact, they have many more clutches than a manual. Each clutch pack is relatively small, made up of several flat discs in a row, and is only responsible for one component. There are several clutch packs inside the transmission and allowing each one to turn on or off its own component changes which gear, or speed, the transmission is in. So, your clutches are going to be in a different arrangement pulling out of the driveway than they would be at the highway’s speed limit. (You DO follow the speed limit, right?)

Ok, technical jargon aside, you told me my transmission would slip, what do these clutches have to do with my transmission slipping? Well, slipping is what happens when those clutches don’t work. Think about walking down the sidewalk:

You step on the concrete and your foot plants firmly on the ground, allowing you to push forward and keep walking. Now, stick a banana peel between your shoe and the sidewalk. It gets slippery and your shoe can’t push off the concrete this time to keep you going forward. You tried to take a step, but it didn’t get you anywhere.

Like Driving on Banana Peels

Just like a slippery step on the sidewalk won’t get you moving, neither will a slipping transmission. When the little discs that make up a clutch pack start moving against each other when they shouldn’t, your transmission is slipping. The engine is putting power into the transmission, but it can’t get out to make the wheels turn.

Slipping is a common transmission concern and is normally based on the wear and tear a vehicle receives from everyday driving. Each time your transmission shifts gears, those little discs in the clutch pack wear a little bit. Eventually, they wear out enough to the point of not being able to ‘grab on’ to each other and you get slipping.

Sure as a shift

In addition to being a common transmission issue, it usually pretty easy to diagnose. If your car has a tachometer (that gauge that moves when you rev the engine and has ‘X1000’ on it) you’re in luck. If no tach, you’ll need to rely on your ears a little bit more.

Simple steps to diagnose a slipping transmission:

  1. Drive the car. Yes, it really is this easy. But, you need to pay attention to a few things while you’re driving.

  2. Listen to the engine. You can watch the tachometer while listening to the engine, and if the engine gets quieter when the tach needle drops to a lower number, things are pretty normal. You’ve just shifted gears. (Safety warning: when you shift, the car is now increasing its speed, keep your eyes on the road!)

  3. If your transmission is slipping: The transmission will try to shift, but instead of the tach going down, the needle will climb higher for a brief (or longer) period before settling lower. And, you’ll hear the engine get louder at the same time. Basically, you’re revving the engine between shifts.

Step number 2 is what you want to have happened; things are normal. If your car behaves more like step 3, you’ve likely got a slipping issue.

Now what??

“You said my car is slipping all its little parts inside the transmission, and I don’t even know what it looks like on the outside and I don’t have the money to fix this!!”

Take a deep breath. There are a couple simple things we can do before we throw in the towel. Not every slipping concern automatically (no pun intended) means a bad transmission. Even if you’re not sure where the little lever thingy is to open the hood on your car, there are still some basic checks we can make.

  1. The finicky thing about automatic transmissions is that they have fluid inside. A lot of fluid. Like four gallons a lot. And if the amount inside is too low or too high, it can cause transmission problems. So, let’s check the fluid. a. Every time a car gets built, they write a book about it. It’s called the Owner’s Manual. Look inside the manual to see where under the hood your transmission dipstick is.

  2. Related to the fluid level issue, get down on your hands and knees, and look under your car. You’re looking for any signs of fluid leaking. The handy thing about ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid) is that it is bright red. It’s almost always the only bright red fluid in the car. (Take note: Sometimes power steering fluid can be red.) a. Some cars won’t have a transmission dipstick to check with, but you can inspect for fluid leaks on every automatic transmission.

That’s it? Just check the fluid and hope for the best?

You actually can do a little more diagnosis. This won’t fix your problem, but it will make the technician’s job easier when they fix the car. The more information you can give the technician, the better. They’ll be able to more accurately and quickly diagnose and repair your car.

Remember step 3 from earlier? Make sure you know WHEN it’s happening. Transmission operations are classified by shifts. By knowing during which shift event your problem happens, you can have a better idea of what may be going on, and/or be better prepared to discuss the repair with your local mechanic shop.

Here’s the breakdown of shifts:

Are you accelerating? You’re UPshifting. Slowing down to a stop? That’s DOWNshifting. Let’s say your car has four speeds/gears:

  1. Start from a stop, increase speed, you see the tach needle rising and the car keeps getting faster; you get to a point where the needle drops to a lower number and the engine gets quieter. You know you just shifted, so you can identify that as the ‘1-2 upshift.’

  2. Keep traveling and you see the tach needle rising, then drop again, you hear the engine noise change just as before, and you can identify that as the ‘2-3 upshift.’ Your car shifted from second to third gear.

  3. Going faster still, you hear the engine get louder and the needle on the tachometer rise, but this time hover at that higher number for a few seconds, before falling down again. That hovering is of the needle is what the driver sees when a transmission slips. You’ve identified the slipping in the transmission as the ‘3-4 upshift.’

  4. Now you know WHEN the transmission has its issue and you can relay this information to the technician.

Continue driving and see if it happens when you’re slowing down, on the 4-3 downshift. The technician will appreciate ALL the information you can give them.

Be in the know.

Before you hand in your car keys and lace up the old running shoes, remember that there is a whole industry of people that fix these things. All is not lost.

The key is being an educated consumer. Know what your transmission is doing and be able to explain it. The commercials of people squawking and howling at the counter of the transmission shop may be funny, but when you don’t know if your problem is a $25 gasket or a $4000 transmission replacement, all of a sudden it’s not quite as humorous.

By doing the test drive and inspections we highlighted, you can make yourself as informed as possible and better able to have a technical discussion with your repair shop. It may not make the repair cheaper, but you’ll understand what you’re paying for. And that can make the bill easier to swallow.

Let the shop do their job.

Hypochondriacs of the world, listen to me: DO NOT consult Automotive Dr. Google to diagnose your car and calculate to the penny what your repair should cost. No one knows what is wrong with your car until you get it officially diagnosed by someone with the proper training and tools; that is your technician, and they will only be able to do it once they spend some quality time with the vehicle. When they figure it out, you’ll be the first to know.

Facts and Figures.

Let’s take a quick look at what some slip-causing repairs may cost. We’ll use 2019’s best-selling vehicle, the Ford F-150, as an example.

The F-150 comes equipped with either a 6-speed or a 10-speed transmission, both automatics. The 10-speed was actually a joint venture between Ford and GM, so this particular transmission can find it’s way into LOTS of different vehicles.

Transmission Filter and Fluid Kit: $175.00

Valve Body: $654.97

Replacement Transmission: $6064.61

These are all parts prices only, keep in mind that most shops and dealerships are easily at $100/hr. of labor charges and often times quite higher. But, let’s look at a silver lining here, shall we?

Yes, the transmission replacement is expensive. But, what if you had a leaking gasket and your transmission was performing poorly due to low fluid, and your repair may only be $175 worth of parts? Unless you are the technician with the right training and tools you won’t know, but it would give me a little peace of mind and a little hope to think that my problem is just a fluid leak.

The valve body is a mid-level repair. Not a small amount of money for a replacement, but well under a new transmission.

I’ve highlighted these three repairs to show a hierarchy of potential transmission issues you may face, and to point out that the answer to a transmission problem is not always straightforward to a brand new transmission.

Don’t let your gear changes be shiftless.

As you can see, there is a lot to talk about when it comes to automatic transmissions. They are highly technical and require specialized diagnosis and repair, by a qualified, trained professional. However, there are a few things even the least mechanically-minded among us can do to get a better idea about what our car is doing, beef up our shop-talk when we go in for repairs, or even go nuts and try our hand at automotive repair, at-home style.

Make yourself an informed customer at the shop, be willing to do your own test drive to give the technician the right information, and do some intelligent research to know what your problem may cost. Transmission issues are never fun, but there are definitely steps you can take to set yourself up for success. Not all repairs are worth doing and in some cases, it makes more sense to sell the car to a junkyard or to sell the car for parts.

The road ahead

Now, if all that diagnosis and repair shop tech-talk is something you’d rather leave to the professionals, no sweat. You can even sell us a car with a bad transmission! Feel free to fill out our online contact form, or, do it the old-fashioned way and give us a call at (800) 225-7500 for an instant quote on what your car is worth.

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