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Follow these tips to ensure your transmission performs to its best ability.

1) ATF Additives: Do They Really Work?

In most cases, unfortunately, the answer is no. In general, the additives that you’ll find on the shelves of a consumer-oriented parts store won’t really deliver on their extravagant promises. And the more exaggerated the claim, the less likely it is to make good.

There are some highly effective additives on the market that can significantly extend the life of your transmission and are usually only available through your local transmission repair center. They make more realistic claims, such as:

► Neutralize acids that build up in the transmission fluid
► Provide additional resistance to the effects of heat
► Prevent or reverse fluid oxidation
► Prevent or reverse fluid sheer
► Modify friction characteristics to improve transmission performance
► Provide additional lubrication to moving parts
► Soften and remove varnish from internal components

These additives have the advantage of being able to deliver on their promises. Because of this, they can improve transmission operation and increase transmission life.

2) Avoiding Scams and Rip-offs When Purchasing Transmission Repair

Automatic transmission repairs are expensive; some can easily cost $2000 and more. So it’s more important than ever to find a shop that will provide quality repairs at a fair price. Here are a few ways you can avoid getting cheated when searching for a transmission repair center:

1. Get Recommendations — Ask friends and family to recommend a shop where they were treated well.

2. Look for a Professional Appearance — A clean, organized shop indicates a professional attitude. And that usually carries over into all phases of their business… including their repairs and job pricing.

3. Avoid Phone Estimates — Today it’s virtually impossible to give an accurate estimate over the phone. Any shop that will give you a price before they see the car is probably low-balling you. Expect the price to go up considerably before the job is finished.

4. Look for Membership in Consumer Organizations — Most reputable shops are members of an organization or association that provide consumer arbitration in the event of a dispute, such as the Better Business Bureau and AARO (Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario).

3) Checking the Transmission Fluid Level

It’s no exaggeration to say that transmissions run on oil, more properly called automatic transmission fluid, or ATF.

Low fluid level can have a disastrous effect on transmission operation — and even transmission life. That’s why it’s so important to keep an eye on the transmission fluid level.

In recent years, many manufacturers have started to eliminate the transmission fluid dipstick. Called sealed units, these transmissions require a much more involved process to check fluid levels than in days gone by. The process often involves electronic testing devices, such as a computer scan tool. This puts checking the transmission fluid level beyond the capabilities of the average car owner.

If your car doesn’t have a dipstick, you should have your local repair shop or dealership check the transmission fluid level at least a couple times a year, even if you don’t notice a problem with the transmission operation. A good time to do this is while you’re having the engine oil changed, in the spring and fall.

4) Extend Transmission Life by Reducing Heat

The most common cause of automatic transmission failure is heat. You can get more miles out of your transmission by reducing the heat that builds up during normal operation. Here are a few things you can do to help reduce heat, and keep your transmission working longer:

1. Avoid Jackrabbit Starts — Hard accelerations create a lot of friction and heat in the transmission. Take it easy on the gas, and your transmission will live longer.

2. Help the Shift — Most of the friction and wear in the transmission takes place during the shifts. Get to know when your transmission shifts normally. Then, just before the shift, back off on the gas just a bit. That’ll reduce the load on the clutches, and eliminate much of the friction during the shift.

3. Keep the Cooling System in Good Shape — Your car’s radiator also provides cooling for your transmission. And heat damage will take place in the transmission long before the engine appears to overheat. So regular cooling system service can help your transmission run cooler… and last longer.

4. Add a Transmission Cooler — If you travel a lot in extremely high temperatures or carry a lot of weight in your car, an auxiliary transmission cooler is a great way to reduce heat and add years to your transmission’s life.

5) Reading the Transmission Fluid

There’s a lot you can learn about the condition of your transmission just by examining the fluid.

New transmission fluid is usually transparent, and relatively odorless. A few years ago, virtually every transmission fluid was red; technicians would aptly describe a transmission with exceptionally clean fluid as being “cherry.”

Today, many manufacturers have begun to stray from the traditional red color. Transmission fluids may be green, yellow, some may even have a bluish tint. But in virtually every case, clean fluid will look clean, and smell clean. So checking the fluid’s color and giving it a little sniff is a great way to determine whether your transmission is in good shape, or in need of service.

Here are the basic conditions you should be looking for:


SLIGHT BROWNISH TINT, WITH A LIGHTLY BURNT ODOR — the fluid’s beginning to burn, and is probably due for a service.

BROWN COLOR, WITH A DISTINCTLY BURNT OR VARNISHED ODOR — the fluid’s burnt, and you may already be experiencing transmission operating problems.

BLACK COLOR, WITH A STENCH THAT WILL MAKE YOUR TOES CURL — the fluid’s severely burnt, and the transmission probably is too. You’re probably experiencing a serious transmission operating failure. A service at this point will usually be a complete waste of money; the transmission is going to need to be rebuilt.

Of course, fluid condition isn’t the only thing technicians check when examining a transmission’s condition. They also look at operating condition, computer system codes, and any loose material in the pan, to name just a few. Oil condition is just one of a series of clues they use to diagnose transmission condition.

6) Regular Service Keeps Your Transmission on the Road

Servicing your car’s automatic transmission regularly can dramatically extend its life.

That’s because the oil — or ATF — does more than just lubricate: It also helps drive the transmission. Damage to the fluid, such as oxidation and shear, will reduce its holding power. This allows the transmission to slip and overheat, and quickly cause it to fail.

A complete fluid exchange service, performed every 2 years, can add years to your transmission’s life.

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