Top 5 Automatic Transmission Blunders That Could Cost You: If You Want It to Last

The sound of grinding gears and slamming shifts is never a good sign, especially when it comes from your expensive automatic transmission. These complex mechanical wonders rely on precision engineering and quality fluid to operate smoothly for hundreds of thousands of miles.

But abuse or neglect can quickly transform your buttery automatic into a gear-jamming nightmare.

Save yourself the heartache and huge repair bills by avoiding these crucial mistakes. If you want to keep your automatic transmission purring along happily ever after, read on to discover the top 5 things you should never, ever do.

1. Don’t Drive Through Deep Water

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Automatic transmissions have a vent located on the exterior housing. This vent serves an important purpose – it allows pressurized transmission fluid to escape and relieve pressure as the fluid expands from heat during normal operation. Driving through deep water, however, can be catastrophic for this vent.

As the vehicle moves through standing water, the water can rush into the open vent and contaminate the transmission fluid inside.

Unfortunately, automatic transmission fluid and water do not mix well. The water dilutes the fluid and causes it to foam, preventing proper lubrication of internal components. It also introduces corrosion and rust within the transmission case. The end result is often complete transmission failure requiring a full rebuild or replacement.

A moment of carelessness driving through flood waters can cost thousands in repairs. So be vigilant about assessing water depth before proceeding, or find an alternate route.

The cost of being stranded or towed is trivial compared to a flooded transmission.

2. Don’t Accidentally Shift From Drive to Reverse While Moving

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It’s easy to unintentionally shift from Drive to Reverse with column shifters that are mounted on the steering column or on the console next to the driver’s seat. The driver’s elbow or knee can inadvertently bump the shifter and knock it into Reverse while the vehicle is moving forward.

But floor-mounted shifters located between the front seats on the transmission hump make this error nearly impossible.

Shifting to Reverse while the car is moving forward applies tremendous stress and torque on internal components not designed to handle it. The resulting damage can be catastrophic – snapped drive shafts, stripped gears, even cracks in the transmission case itself. This mistake often requires extensive repairs or full transmission replacement.

Teenage drivers learning to drive manual shifters are prone to this error, accidentally knocking the shifter backwards into Reverse from Drive. Many have ended up with totaled cars from a simple distracted shifting mistake.

Remember to be conscious of your shifter location and position to avoid this very costly error.

3. Don’t Leave The Car Idling In Drive For Extended Periods

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It’s common to leave a car idling when stopped for a short time, for example waiting to pick someone up. But extended idling in Drive causes excess heat buildup within the transmission. The pump continues circulating fluid even while stopped, and the torque converter remains engaged with the engine spinning.

So leaving the car in Drive forces transmission components to rotate constantly while not moving. This constant motion and friction generates internal heat, especially in very hot weather.

Excessive idling while in gear can lead to overheating and eventual transmission failure as fluid breaks down and lubrication is compromised. Instead shift into Park when stopped for longer periods of time. This disengages the torque converter and relieves pressure on internal components.

Idling in Park allows proper cooling and reduces stress on the transmission.

4. Don’t Do Burnouts

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Burnouts may look cool, but they place a lot of strain on drivetrain components. When doing a burnout, the tires break traction with the pavement and spin freely while the output shaft continues applying torque. This puts severe stress on the gears and shafts not designed to operate at such extreme opposing forces. Automatic transmissions in particular suffer greatly during burnouts.

The abrupt changes in torque and wheel speeds generate tremendous heat and vibration within the transmission. Even occasional burnouts can damage internal components like bands, clutches, planetary gears, and bearings leading to premature wear and eventual failure.

Manual transmissions can withstand the abuse of burnouts better by slipping the clutch to reduce drivetrain shock loading. But automatics have no such protection.

Replacing a badly damaged automatic transmission can easily cost several thousand dollars. So avoid temptation and keep your burnout desires in check to preserve your transmission.

5. Don’t Neglect Transmission Fluid Changes

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Many newer vehicles tout “lifetime fluid” that never needs changing. This seems like a maintenance bonus but actually causes transmissions to fail prematurely as old fluid degrades. Automatic transmission fluid is a precisely engineered formula designed for specific friction coefficients, thermal capacity, and viscosity. But over time and miles the fluid breaks down and loses its protective qualities.

Dirty fluid leads to internal wear, overheating, and eventual transmission failure. Mileage-based fluid changes every 60-80k miles ensures fresh fluid maintains proper lubrication and cooling.

Although modern synthetic formulations last longer than old type F and type A fluids, they still require periodic changing. Do not simply trust a manufacturer’s often overly-optimistic service intervals.

Instead stick to the tried and true rule of changing transmission fluid every 60-80k miles for optimal longevity, especially on vehicles used for towing or frequent highway driving.

Regular $100 fluid changes are far cheaper than a $4000 transmission rebuild when neglected fluid fails.

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Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.