Transmission Failure: 7 Signs That your Transmission may be Failing

Your car’s automatic transmission is the behind-the-scenes workhorse of your engine, constantly shifting up and down through your gears to smoothly and silently transfer power to your wheels. When it works correctly, you don’t notice it—and that’s the whole point. However, the longer your transmission is in service, the more susceptible it could be to problems.

Sometimes, the issue is inexpensively fixed, but if left unchecked, you could find yourself in need of a full transmission overhaul, which can be an expensive and technical repair job. It’s worth knowing some early signs of a potential transmission failure, so you can catch developing problems before it’s too late.

7 Early Signs of Potential Transmission Failure

Transmission Warning Light

While the transmission warning light turning on may sound obvious, a surprising number of drivers will ignore their dashboard indicator lights. Some models have a specific transmission warning light, while others will have a general “check engine” light that can signal early transmission failure. In either case, you should take your car to a repair shop to check up on those warning lights as soon as they pop up. 

Bumping Noises While in Neutral

You’d think that there wouldn’t be anything to look out for while your transmission is in neutral since your vehicle is not in motion. If you are hearing bumping noises in neutral, this might indicate that the transmission fluid is low or in need of replacement. Follow the instructions in your owner’s manual to test the dipstick under the hood to make sure the level is right and the fluid is still bright red and sweet-smelling (and not dark brown and burnt-smelling).

Noises in neutral could also indicate a mechanical problem, like a worn idler gear or work bearings. If a top off of your transmission fluid–follow the instructions in your owner’s manual–doesn’t resolve the problem, you should visit your mechanic to have them take a look.

Leaking Transmission Fluid

Automatic transmissions are closed systems. Unlike your engine’s motor oil, there is no reason why a transmission should leak or burn up its fluid. If you notice a puddle of bright red or dark brown fluid under the center of the car, that could be a sign of impending transmission failure. You should have a mechanic track down the source of the leak.

Whining Noises

You need to keep your ears open to notice this warning sign. When a transmission is starting to experience distress, it will sometimes start to emit a whining, whirring, humming or even a slight buzzing sound when in use. Often these noises are intermittent at first, but, if you don’t get them checked, they will happen more often over time and increase the risk of serious damage.

Uneven Gear Shifting

This is another warning sign that occurs when you’re out on the road. A properly functioning automatic transmission will shift almost imperceptibly between gears. The sensors are designed to transfer power as smoothly and efficiently as possible. However, if your transmission is having problems, you may start to feel a kind of shimmy or shudder when it attempts to shift from one gear to the next. That sensation can be one of the early signs of transmission failure.

Transmission Hesitation

This warning sign feels less like a stumble or a stutter during shifting, and more like an annoying pause before the next gear engages. If your automatic transmission starts hesitating between gears, it’s going to feel like something is off. You’ll want to have a mechanic examine the system. Not being able to rely on your transmission to give you more power when you need it can be a real safety hazard, especially in highway driving conditions.

Slipping Gears

If a car starts to slip gears, this is a clear and present danger that needs to be examined by a mechanic as soon as possible. When a car spontaneously slips out of one gear while driving, popping down to a lower gear, it’s time to get the car examined pronto. 

Coverage for Transmission Repairs

Transmission repairs can be a real headache and a major expense, but hopefully knowing the early warning signs of transmission failure will help you identify when trouble is brewing and take action before major repairs are necessary. Reaching out for routine maintenance when early warning signs arise is nearly always a more cost-effective strategy than waiting to resolve major issues.

Luckily, it may not be necessary to brave transmission repair costs alone. As long as it’s not a pre-existing condition and you are beyond any waiting period when the breakdown occurs, a Vehicle Service Contract (VSC) may be able to help pay for some or all of the expenses related to covered transmission repairs. (Deductible and plan limits apply.) Explore VSC provider and coverage options online to get the best protection for your vehicle.