Five tips to help prolong the life of an automatic transmission

The classic automatic, variator and even dual-clutch robotised gearboxes have long since ceased to be a gimmick and a “bogeyman” for motorists. But not everyone knows how to provide transmission with maximum durability. We tell you.

It is possible to blame design features, more or less successful models, but still the “health” of automatic box (and under this general name we mean both automatic transmissions, CVT, and robotized boxes with one or two clutches) in no small measure depends on operation and maintenance. Even when experts tell about frankly weak boxes, their resource is usually given in rather wide range (say, 150-200 thousand km) and with obligatory specifications “how to drive” and “how often to change oil”.

1. Don’t forget about timely maintenance

Timely oil and filter changes are important. Why? Friction wear products accumulate in the oil during operation, which leads to several problems. Firstly, dirty oil dissipates less heat, which increases the risk of overheating. Secondly, in modern boxes, hydroblocks, as a rule, are very sensitive to oil cleanliness. Thus clogged fine channels or breakdown of solenoids lead to incorrect work of a box, and it already provokes new problems.

Even in reliable boxes it is recommended to keep interval between services no longer than 60 thousand km, and in the case of “soft” and “weak” boxes it is better to reduce it to 30-40 thousand km. Sometimes the manufacturer declares that the oil is filled for entire service life. Masters say that it may be for the whole service life, but the question is how long it is.

2.Don’t wait too long to diagnose and repair

By the way, maintenance usually means only oil and filter changes, although it’s a good idea to check the oil level at every service. However, firstly, the box may require firmware updates (especially if we speak about fresh models), additional operations within the framework of service or recall campaigns. Secondly, it is important not to delay diagnostics and repair at the signs of malfunction (jerks and shifts, vibrations at startup and acceleration), as further driving may lead to more serious troubles, and as a result – to more expensive repair.

3.Ensure efficient gearbox cooling

Automatic transmissions in modern cars operate in much tougher conditions than before: early torque converter lock-up is actively used, more aggressive software settings (e.g. for faster shifts), engines themselves have become more powerful and torquey, the layout of the engine compartment is denser.

In general, the risk of overheating is high enough, and standard heat exchanger is not enough for some units – and in practice, experienced owners install additional cooling radiators. How much such measure is really necessary, depends on the model of automatic or variator, but at least it is worth to specify this question (thanks to the internet it is simple). And of course, keep the radiators clean.

4.Remember about warming up in winter.

Everyone argues about necessity of engine warming up in winter. But also the boxes of all types don’t like to work in cold weather, especially if we speak about hydro-mechanical transmission and variator. Therefore, if it’s cold outside, let the engine idle for few minutes and avoid sudden acceleration for first kilometres.

5.Exclude impact (and serious) loads.

All types of automatic transmissions do not like them. For example, pulley cones suffer from variators, ‘robots’ with ‘dry’ disks – coupling, but also wet friction packages do not benefit from increased loads, arising from aggressive driving, skidding, towing trailers. Light racing reduces torque converter life and leads to accelerated oil contamination – so it needs to be changed more often, otherwise, as already mentioned, the risk of overheating and problems with the hydroblock is higher.

By the way

For many “robots” with “dry” clutch the driving mode in traffic jams is harmful as well, because very slow driving or constant starts-stops lead to accelerated wear of discs. But it can’t be helped, in fact, automatic transmitters are chosen not to suffer with clutch and manual gear shifting in city jams.

But, for example, it is possible to accustom oneself not to park the car on a strong slope. In this situation, the car tends to roll down – there is an increased load on the locking mechanism of the output shaft of the gearbox. That is why it is recommended that the parking brake is applied before parking mode is engaged. It is important that there should be “free run” after setting the handbrake: drive the gearbox to “N”, release the foot brake – allow the car to roll back a couple of centimeters and be fixed with the parking brake. Only then do we put the gearbox into “park”.

Our verdict

You will say: what about old automatic transmissions that could “digest” both huge torque of big motors and considerable weight of a car and not the calmest ride? There, even big American off-road cars have automatic transmissions – and nothing!
We shall repeat once again: modern transmissions, even classical automatic transmissions, are different. They have tight structure, light parts, they work in more loaded conditions even during normal exploitation, and therefore are sensitive to temperature mode and purity of oil. As a rule, trouble-free service life of classic automatic transmissions is estimated at 250-300 thousand km, in variators and robots it is usually 1.5 times less, as well as in less successful automatic transmissions. But this is also the average over a hospital.

That also returns us to the main theme of our discussion: if you want to prolong gearbox “life”, do not lengthen service intervals, react to signs of abnormal operation in proper time, and do not overload КПП with aggressive driving.