9 Signs of a Bad Transmission

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transmission operation

Transmission failure is a nightmare for any vehicle owner.

Having a bad transmission can be dangerous and lead to expensive repairs. It’s also not uncommon for signs of problems to appear before the actual failure.

But do you know what signs to look for when your transmission is going bad?

The signs can vary depending on the severity of the problem, but there are some basic signs that should be a warning for potential transmission issues.

The most common signs of a bad transmission are:

  • Grinding/clunking/whining sounds
  • A burning smell
  • Transmission fluid leak
  • A delay in shifting
  • Check engine light

In this article, we’ll discuss the 10 most common signs of a bad transmission. If you experience any of the following symptoms you should take your vehicle to a mechanic to get it inspected.

Symptoms of a bad transmission

automatic transmission

Check engine light

The check engine light is designed to act as an early indicator of problems within your vehicle.

Your check engine light coming on could mean a variety of different things but it’s important to not ignore the warning light. The various sensors are able to recognize issues some drivers may not notice.

If the computer detects any transmission problems, it may trigger the check engine light – simply ignoring this warning could be costly! With advanced diagnostic equipment and sensor reading analysis, mechanics are quickly able to identify the trouble code.

Leaking transmission fluid

Transmission fluid helps lubricate and cool your transmission. It also acts as a hydraulic fluid for gear engagement.

Your transmission relies on this fluid to help it run efficiently. If there is a fluid leak you run the risk of overheating which can lead to your transmission failing.

Luckily, a transmission fluid leak is easy to identify and diagnose. An automatic transmission fluid leak can be identified by its bright red color and sweet scent. If it’s past its prime, the smell will become a darker colour.

If you notice a pool of liquid on your driveway, you can check for a leak yourself.

You can check for a leak yourself if you notice suspicious fluids on your driveway. You can usually detect a problem by checking the transmission dipstick. The stick is indented to mark the proper transmission fluid level. Leaks are typically found in the transmission pan gasket.

A burning smell

If you notice a burning smell coming from your vehicle, this could be an indication that there’s something wrong with the transmission. Transmission failure is nasty, but you can take preventative measures to make sure you’ll stay safe.

A burning smell is never a good sign – it usually means the protective additives have deteriorated and the internal parts of your transmission could be damaged. There may also be a serious buildup of sludge inside of the gearbox.

Until these issues are addressed, do not drive your vehicle.

Lack of response

Unexpected hesitations or outright refusal to shift is a sign of a transmission problem. It could be electrical, hydraulic, or mechanical.

In automatic transmissions, you may feel a delay when shifting from drive to park before the gear engages.

In manual transmissions, the lack of response manifests as a disconnect between engine RPM and vehicle speed. In this case, acceleration is much lower than it should be for a given sound from the engine. This is also known as transmission slipping.

Jerking, shaking, or grinding

Jerking, shaking, and grinding are telltale signs of a bad transmission. Gear grinding is a common issue in manual transmission cars. In automatic transmissions, a failing transmission usually begins with some sort of hesitation when shifting gears. Some may describe this as ‘transmission slipping’.

Sooner than later, your car will begin shaking or trembling when you change gears. However, there are alternative reasons for these common symptoms. Engine and transmission mounts are known for making clunking noises when changing gears.

The best way to diagnose the issue is by taking your car to a repair expert immediately to determine the root problem.

Weird sounds

From clogged transmission filters to a failing transmission pump, there are plenty of different noises that might occur. A functioning and well-running vehicle will hum or whine very quietly. If your car starts making strange noises, don’t hesitate to bring it in for transmission service as soon as possible.

Slipping gears

If the gears are slipping when you shift, it could be a sign that you have an already-blown transmission.

Slipping gears is an issue for both automatic and manual transmission vehicles. Your vehicle relies on external input for gear changes. In a manual transmission, the driver decides the gear shift using the clutch pedal. In an automatic transmission, the driver chooses between neutral, reverse, and drive.

When you notice your vehicle suddenly doesn’t respond or slips between gears or into neutral, it is time to take the car to a professional transmission repair shop as it poses serious safety concerns for both you and the surrounding drivers.

Modern transmissions will often prevent a driver from recklessly driving with a damaged transmission by going into limp mode. When in this state, the computer system will detect a problem with the transmission and default to one gear. The vehicle will not shift between gears and will only operate in one gear, usually 3rd gear, so you can make your way to an autobody shop.

Dragging clutch

A dragging clutch is only a problem for manual transmissions. It’s extremely difficult – sometimes impossible – to change gears with a manual transmission when you experience dragging clutch.

A dragging clutch happens when the flywheel and clutch disc doesn’t disengage when the pedal is pushed. In some cases, a manual transmission might also “pop-out” of gear.

If your clutch pedal has too much slack, the disc is unable to disengage and cannot transfer engine power to the drivetrain. This will cause a grinding sound with clutch drag.

Can you drive with a bad transmission?

No, you should not drive with a bad transmission. A damaged transmission will make your car difficult to drive and could potentially break down in the middle of nowhere- so avoid this at all costs. Driving with a bad transmission is something you always have to weigh beforehand. What are the odds of your transmission failing and costing thousands in repairs? It’s not worth it! If possible, stop driving before there’s a problem, but make sure you keep an eye on your fluids first. Topping up your transmission fluid could be an easy solve.

How to prevent a bad transmission

If you have a transmission problem, you should take precautionary measures to prevent an expensive transmission replacement. Although the damage is typically irreversible once it sets in, there are checks that people can make before disaster strikes. Monitoring fluid levels as they deteriorate and monitoring for any unusual noises are two of the best ways to know when action needs to be taken.

Here are some tips to help prevent future transmission trouble:

Monitor transmission fluid level

You should check your transmission fluid every month to improve transmission efficiency. As we mentioned earlier, newer fluids will be transparent with a red color, which will darken over time. If the fluid gets black or really dark, you know it’s time for a change.

Warm your car up on cold mornings

If you live in a colder climate it’s important to warm up your engine before driving.

It’s a best practice to warm the car’s engine and transmission for at least thirty seconds before driving. Take it easy for about five minutes following this start-up routine until your car heats up.


How do you know if your transmission is going out?

There are many signs of transmission trouble. Common signs of a bad transmission include slipping gears, dragging clutch, and a lack of response when you shift gears. It’s important to be aware of the signs and how they affect your vehicle before it becomes a serious issue.

What happens when a car transmission goes bad?

When your transmission goes out, you may experience adverse effects on the way your car handles. You might find vibrations or different shift patterns happening in a manner that was not previously possible before experiencing this issue. If these symptoms are present and confirmed by an inspection of the vehicle’s engine compartment, then it is likely that there has been some sort of breakdown with regards to one or more gears within the automatic transmission system (which could be related to fluid pump issues).

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