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How to Check a Vehicle's Transmission Fluid

If your automatic transmission hesitates when you change gears or shifts with a “clunk,” first check your transmission dipstick. Your transmission fluid may be low or dirty.

To check your automatic transmission fluid, look for a dipstick handle sticking out of your transmission toward the rear of an in-line engine on vehicles with rear-wheel drive:

Finding the transmission dipstick on an in-line engine.
Finding the transmission dipstick on an in-line engine.

If your vehicle has front-wheel drive, you will find it sticking out of the transaxle:

Finding the transmission dipstick on a transverse engine.
Finding the transmission dipstick on a transverse engine.

If you have a manual transmission, the fluid level must be checked with the vehicle on a hoist to enable the technician to reach a plug in the bottom of the transmission. It’s best not to monkey around with this yourself. The next time your car is in for service, have the technician check the transmission fluid level for you. It’s a good idea to know what type and viscosity of fluid goes into your transmission and to make sure that’s what the technician plans to use. Some newer manual transmissions use automatic transmission fluid; others use engine oil.

To check your automatic transmission fluid, follow these steps:

  1. With the gearshift in Neutral or Park and the parking brake on, let your engine run.

    When the engine is warm, pull out the dipstick. (Don’t turn off the engine.)

  2. Dip the tip of your index finger into the fluid on the dipstick and rub the fluid between your finger and the tip of your thumb.

    The transmission fluid on the dipstick should be pinkish and almost clear. If it looks or smells burnt or has particles in it, have a mechanic drain and change the fluid.

  3. Wipe the dipstick with a clean, lint-free rag; then reinsert it and pull it out again.

    If the transmission fluid is clear but doesn’t reach the “Full” line on the dipstick, use a funnel to pour just enough transmission fluid down the dipstick tube to reach the line. Don’t overfill!

There are several types of transmission fluid. Each is made for a specific type of automatic transmission. Newer transmissions from the major automakers require different fluid than older ones. Because so many different kinds of transmissions are around these days, check your owner’s manual or dealership to find out which type of fluid your vehicle requires.

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