If the transmission fluid is dirty or burnt-smelling, it's going to have to be drained and refilled with clean fluid.Next to your engine, your vehicle’s transmission is the most important component to maintain. When it comes to the engine, basic maintenance consists of ensuring your vehicle receives oil changes every 3,000 miles or so. And while oil is the key cog that helps an engine run smoothly, transmission fluid is the lifeblood ingredient of a transmission.

Noting this, you want the fluid to be clear and pinkish in color for an efficiently operating transmission. If the fluid is dirty, burnt, or contaminated, you’ll likely need to take the vehicle in to have it drained and refilled, or flushed. Just like how oil becomes contaminated over time, so too does transmission fluid – it’s a fact of vehicle ownership. So how do you check the transmission fluid to determine its status? Follow these steps:

 How to Check Transmission Fluid

  1. On most vehicles with automatic transmissions, all you need to do is pop the hood of the vehicle and look for the appropriate dipstick. The dipstick should be emanating from the transmission itself. On most rear-drive vehicles, it’s located near the back, closer to the windshield, behind the oil dipstick. In front-drive vehicles, it’s typically positioned near the front of the car. (If you drive a manual, the only way to check it is on a hoist, as there’s a plug underneath the transmission that needs to be accessed. Unless you have a hoist in your garage, checking the fluid on an automatic transmission is likely best done at a service center.)
  2. Once you find the dipstick, pull it out. On a side note, you should always check your transmission when the vehicle is on and the engine is warm.
  3. Once the dipstick is out, swipe your finger against it. Next, rub it between another finger and assess the fluid. Like we mentioned in the opening, good transmission fluid is pinkish in color and somewhat transparent. If it smells burnt or has debris in it, take note.
  4. Wipe the dipstick off and reinsert it, then pull it out again. Look to see if the fluid reaches the “Full” line. If it doesn’t, but the fluid is in otherwise good condition, pour more fluid into the tube so that it does. Be careful not to overfill.
  5. If the fluid is dirty and smells burnt, then it’s time to get your transmission flushed, or drained and refilled. Though these services typically cost a few hundred dollars, they consist of removing the soiled fluid from your transmission and replacing it with clean fluid.

When Should I Check the Transmission Fluid?

You can get a general idea about how often you should change the transmission fluid by consulting your vehicle’s operator manual. However, some tell-tale signs to watch out for that may indicate poor-quality transmission fluid include hesitation when the vehicle is changing gears, issues staying in gear, and signs of gear slippage.

Generally, transmission fluid should be serviced about every 30,000 to 50,000 miles, though there may be some exceptions to this rule. For instance, those who drive in stop-and-go city environments and regularly haul heavy loads put more wear and tear on the transmission and thereby require more frequent fluid changes.

Like we said in the opening, the transmission is the second-most important component in your vehicle, so you want to ensure that it gets the proper care and maintenance. Failure to address issues with the transmission fluid could result in premature transmission failure, and new transmissions can cost several thousand dollars. The good news is that it’s very easy to check the quality of your vehicle’s transmission fluid and fluid levels, and then take the necessary next steps from there. You just need to know where to look under the hood.

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