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Buying a Used Car: What Are Signs of Automatic Transmission Problems?

If you’ve experienced automatic transmission failure in a car, you know that transmission problems can be a big deal. In addition to rendering a car inoperable, a failed transmission can lead to huge repair bills — sometimes exceeding the value of the car. As a result, drivers interested in buying a used car undoubtedly want to avoid one with transmission problems, above virtually all other issues. To help you do so, we’ve listed some surefire ways you can tell if the car you’re considering is having issues with its transmission.

Shifting Issues

The easiest way to spot issues with a car’s transmission is if the car has trouble shifting — and there are several situations where a car with a failing automatic transmission may have such trouble.

The most obvious shifting issue comes when you push the accelerator and you hear a banging sound as the car goes into gear or attempts to select the next gear. If the car’s shifting slams you forward with each gear change, the transmission almost certainly has some sort of issue.

Another easy way to spot transmission issues: if you press the accelerator and the car revs, but doesn’t shift into the next gear. To check whether this might be happening to a car you’re considering, push the gas pedal and watch the car’s tachometer. If it climbs without a corresponding increase in acceleration, it’s likely that there are problems with the transmission.

Check the Fluid

If you suspect transmission problems, a quick way to check your suspicions is to examine the car’s transmission fluid. Typically, this can be done under the hood, much like checking a car’s oil level with a dipstick. Transmission fluid should be a transparent red oil that looks like cough syrup — but if it’s cloudy or murky, it probably hasn’t been changed in a while. That could be the source of the transmission issues you’re feeling.

Take It To a Mechanic

If you suspect that a car you’re considering might have transmission problems, your best bet is to take it to a mechanic for an inspection. Buying a used car is already difficult enough when you have to consider items such as financing, vehicle choices, mileage, paperwork and various other potential problems — so you shouldn’t go through with the purchase if you have any doubts with what you’re feeling behind the wheel.

A trained mechanic can examine a car and decide whether it’s in good shape, giving you additional peace of mind before you make a purchase. That way, you’ll be able to avoid transmission issues that lead to a huge, costly repair in the future.

Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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