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Automatic Transmission Fluids

Responding to the needs of your transmission

 
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Valvoline DEXRON® III/MERCON®
Valvoline TYPE FA
 
Like the human body, your vehicle runs on fluids: gas, engine oil, lubricants and the lesser-known transmission fluid. Without a sufficient supply of all the above, your vehicle can come to a grinding halt or, worse yet, a vital and expensive component completely dies.
ATF Check
Even though your automatic transmission is one of the least conspicuous components in your car, it's a prime example of the potential problem of ignoring those precious automotive fluids. You're probably pretty good about regularly checking your engine oil, so we're going to talk about monitoring the fluid that keeps your transmission running cool and smooth. The whole procedure is fairly simple, and only slightly different than evaluating your oil level.
 
Automatic transmission fluid, or ATF, is also checked with a dipstick, which may or may not be labeled "TRANS" or "ATF." Sometimes, the dipstick handles are color-coded - yellow for engine oil, and red for trans fluid. If your vehicle's two dipsticks aren't labeled or color-coded, you can tell by each of their locations which one goes to the oil reservoir and which one goes to the ATF. The oil dipstick is generally close to the center and/or front of the engine compartment and the stick tube goes to the bottom of the engine. The ATF dipstick, on the other hand, can usually be found near the rear or off to one side in the engine compartment. (Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, so look in your owner's manual if you're still not sure.) Another clue to identify which is which is color. Motor oil is amber to brown; ATF is either light red, pinkish or gold.
 
Once you've determined where the ATF dipstick is, the next step is to make sure your vehicle is parked on a level surface and the transmission is warmed up - a 10-minute trip around the block is enough to reach the "warmed up" temperature. Unlike checking your oil, which requires that the engine be turned off, leave it running at idle. With your foot on the brake pedal, run the transmission through all gears and back to park or neutral, depending on the instructions in the owner's manual. Some auto manufacturers know that owner's manuals have a way of disappearing and have stamped terse instructions right on the ATF dipstick blade. Make sure your parking brake is on as well.
 
The reason to have the engine running and all the gears engaged before you check the ATF level is to make sure that all the hydraulic chambers in the transmission are filled with oil and the fluid is circulating normally. This should ensure that your fluid-level reading is accurate.
 
Make sure the transmission is in Park and the safety brake is fully engaged before looking under the hood. Then check the ATF level the same way you examine your engine's oil level. Remove the dipstick, clean it with a cloth or paper towel, and then re-insert, making sure the stick is seated completely into its tube. Next, remove the dipstick, and look at the fluid level on the stick to see how close it comes to the "FULL" mark.
ATF Specifics
Despite the similarity with an oil dipstick, there are a couple of other significant differences between oil and ATF checks. First, the ATF dipstick is much more flexible and often longer than the oil level stick, making it more difficult to thread into its tube. Just exercise a bit of patience; a well-lighted area should make the job easier.
 
Second, the ATF fluid level on the dipstick is a more transparent than engine oil, making it harder to read. The easiest way to determine the level is to place the stick against a clean, white cloth. The ATF level should be between the ADD mark and the FULL mark on the dipstick. The difference between the two marks is roughly one quart of fluid. If the level is at or below the ADD mark, add a quart and recheck the level after a minute or two. If the fluid is dark or smells burnt, check with your mechanic about having the transmission flushed and refilled.
 
To add fluid, use a funnel inserted in the dipstick tube (yet another difference from engine oil, which has a separate filler hole and cap). Pour slowly, adding just enough to bring the level up to FULL. This is one of those cases where too much is inadvisable as the fluid can become aerated and lose its lubricating ability.
ATF Types
Choosing the correct ATF is more complicated than engine oil where the decision is based on recommended viscosity. So, back to your owner's manual. As a clue, late-model GM automatics requires Dexron-IIE and Dexron III; Chryslers require Mopar ATF-Plus; most late-model Fords use Mercon; Ford vehicles from the early '60s through '80s used Type F which can't be substituted for the Mercon in late-model Fords. Dexron IIE can be substituted for Mercon and Mopar ATF-Plus.
 
To further complicate the situation, some manufacturers require specific fluids for specific models. For instance, Toyota's all-wheel-drive transmissions call for Type T fluid. Hondas require their own proprietary fluid (and, yes, it does make a difference).
 
Once you've determined which ATF is required by your vehicle, hang on to the empty container. You can determine what other ATFs on the market are compatible with your transmission by carefully comparing the content list on the container label. Of course, the safest, no-guess fluid is that recommended in your owner's manual.
 
How often should you check your ATF level? Every two to four weeks is ideal. It only takes a few minutes, but this brief bit of maintenance just might prevent your transmission from going too thirsty.
 

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