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Please don't break, old beat-up car
February 3, 2012 10:07 AM   Subscribe

My car gave a big "kick" while accelerating. Is my transmission about to die?

2001 Nissan Altima. Automatic transmission. 148,000+ miles. I bought it a year ago with about 137,000+ miles on it... I'm assuming it had the original transmission. Three times in the past month the following has happened:

I've either rolled to a near-stop or started from a total stop and then hit the gas... but the car didn't accelerate, so my split-second reaction is to hit the gas harder, and it still doesn't go forward, while I hear a sound of the engine revving (this is all happening is such a short time frame that I think this is what's happening -- I haven't seen the tachometer)... Then, all of a sudden -- there's a "kick" and everything all comes into place and the car jerks forward.

I know very little about cars, but my uninformed impression is that the car has fallen down to the lowest gear while breaking, and then when I hit the gas the gears don't really catch for a second or two, until they do. This feels rather irregular to me -- and violent, too, as if the transmission is rather messed up and could in due course break entirely. (If that does happen, it would probably mean having to get another car... which is not quite in the cards right now, financially. So I'm worried.)

Any idea what is happening here? Is the transmission in risk of breaking outright soon? Is there anything I could do to stave off this possibility?
posted by lewedswiver to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Mine was doing this recently. It needed transmission fluid.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:09 AM on February 3, 2012


Without cracking open the transmission and looking at it, you're kinda reduced to checking fluid levels and/or getting a fluid flush.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:09 AM on February 3, 2012


I've had two cars do this. Both times they needed automatic transmission fluid, and both times it was already too late to "save" it.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 10:10 AM on February 3, 2012


Not engaging when coming out of a stop sounds to me like a transmission problem. If I were in your shoes, I'd take it to the mechanic sooner rather than later; what might be a smaller fix now could be a complete rebuild if allowed to persist.
posted by ellF at 10:10 AM on February 3, 2012


By the way, do NOT get a "transmission fluid flush". At worst, this happens via a machine which forces fluid through the tranny, which can rupture seals; at best, you're going to push new fluid into a transmission that has old fluid which has lost some of its efficacy, and can damage the interior.

The proper way to handle transmission fluid replacements is to drain the pan and replace what comes out, and repeat at every oil change until the fluid is clean.
posted by ellF at 10:13 AM on February 3, 2012


Mine was doing this recently. It needed transmission fluid.

Agreeing with this completely. The gears are 'held in' by hydraulic pressure. When engine revs fall at idle (like in your example) pump speed and hence pressure drops, and the car drops ut of gear until you rev it up again.

Check the level, and only if it is perfectly fine do you have further cause for worry.
posted by Brockles at 10:39 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, do NOT get a "transmission fluid flush".

This very odd advice. I think I'll have to correct that statement to : "Do NOT get a transmission flush done by idiots" which seems to be what you are describing. A competent transmission flush is not at all problematic, especially being as that is precisely what the job was designed to do - safely and efficiently flush the transmission fluid.
posted by Brockles at 10:43 AM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've had several mechanics that believed changing the automatic transmission fluid in a high mileage car that has not been regularly maintained is asking for trouble. I think the theory is that if you have 100,000 miles on your fluid in a high mileage car, the embedded gunk is sort of helping everything together at that point. This is not an issue in a properly maintained car with regular fluid changes. My car has 170K on it, but since I have religiously changed my fluid every 30-40K, I don't worry about it.

Not that I would ever second guess Brockles on an automotive question, but I've heard this from several mechanics. It could just be a widely believed urban legend among auto techs.
posted by COD at 11:08 AM on February 3, 2012


It was more the 'transmission flushes will rupture all your seals out' which is widely off the mark if competently completed.

I've had several mechanics that believed changing the automatic transmission fluid in a high mileage car that has not been regularly maintained is asking for trouble.

I think this is largely urban legend with a small grain of associated truth. There is nothing at all about shitty old fluid that is helping anything at all. Quite the opposite. However, there is a certain truth in that disturbing high mileage anything is asking for trouble. So cracking open a high mileage transmission is likely to expose problems from extreme mileage. It is logical to some extent (kind of) that the disturbance hastened the demise, but isn't necessarily an accurate cause and effect scenario. Often something small will break in some old assembly, you'll change that and the very act of taking it apart and putting it back together can mean you're chasing the next and next thing that breaks. Often this is because it's better value to replace an old assembly than band-aid it, but that doesn't mean the initial failure repair hastened or aided the later failures, but it certainly feels like it to those trying to fix it.

Where the hell is Jon-o? He'd know more about trans fluid flushes than me.

I guess a worn pump may be slightly more able to maintain pressure with gloopy old fluid, but at the same time, the crap in the gloopy old fluid is shortening the pump life anyway (and the rest of the trans), so it's 6 of one and some eggs, to be honest. In this example, changing the fluid may make it obvious that your pump is screwed, but you'd only have been putting the pump replacement off a few thousand miles anyway.
posted by Brockles at 11:32 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brockles, the advice that I'm going for here is to not go someplace where a pressurized flush is done; this includes the typical quick-stop flushes hawked by oil-change shops. Forcing fluid through a transmission, especially a poorly maintained one, has a decent risk of causing problems.

As with most car advice, if you know what you're asking for/doing, there are exceptions. However, the OP notes that they know very little about cars. There is no harm in a gradual replacement of fluid over the course of 2-3 oil changes. Obviously, if the system LACKS fluid, more should be added, but that's different from "flushing" because some Valvoline computer tells the mechanic that he should sell that service.
posted by ellF at 11:38 AM on February 3, 2012


Hmm... lots of ideas here.

The basic takeaway I'm getting is that I should bring the car in to the mechanic ASAP and have them change the transmission fluid.

Beyond that, let's narrow down my goal with regard to the car this way: I would like to drive it until it dies; hopefully tens of thousands more miles. That simply might not be possible, however, when the car is already this used.
posted by lewedswiver at 12:37 PM on February 3, 2012


Lewedsiver, it's possible. It might not be cost effective for you. I drive a 2001 Camry and a 1999 Jeep Cherokee, the latter of which has 130,000 miles and probably another 150k-200k left in it; neither age nor mileage would cause me to part with my Jeep. That said, I've rebuilt the front end, regularly do large amounts of work on it, and *enjoy* it as a hobby as much as a mode of transport.

An Altima isn't a Jeep, but a tranmission rebuild isn't the same as the end of an engine.
posted by ellF at 12:59 PM on February 3, 2012


The basic takeaway I'm getting is that I should bring the car in to the mechanic ASAP and have them change the transmission fluid.

Not at all. The absolute first thing you should do is check the level of the transmission fluid. Before you do anything else at all.

It'd be great to flush your transmission fluid but it is neither causing nor hampering the issue at present (necessarily).

I would like to drive it until it dies; hopefully tens of thousands more miles.

You're way ahead of yourself. You may just have a fluid level problem that is fixed with $10 of transmission fluid (make sure you use the manufacturer recommended fluids).
posted by Brockles at 1:29 PM on February 3, 2012


And, just because some people don't know, you want to check your transmission fluid with the engine running and warm. Park your car on a flat surface, set the parking brake, and put the transmission in Park. You're going to be checking on a running engine, so make sure you don't have any loose clothing, loose long hair, jewelry, or anything else that might get snagged by a moving part.

Pull out the transmission dipstick (may be marked as "transaxle" on front-wheel drive cars), and after letting it cool for a bit (it can be hot!), rub some of the fluid from the end of the dipstick between your thumb and finger. Transmission fluid should be red to pink in color, and pretty clear. If it smells burnt, looks dark like used motor oil, or has grit/particles in it, you really should have it changed. Use a clean rag and wipe the dipstick, and reinsert it. Remove it again, and examine the level. If it's a little low, set the dipstick aside and use a long funnel (a rolled-into-a-cone sheet of heavy paper works in a pinch) and, into the hole where you pulled the dipstick from, add fluid a little at a time, re-checking the level until it hits the "full" mark. Make sure to use the proper fluid!
posted by xedrik at 1:49 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


And, just because some people don't know, you want to check your transmission fluid with the engine running and warm. Park your car on a flat surface, set the parking brake, and put the transmission in Park.

Always check your owners manual before checking transmission fluids (or any fluids). Not all systems are the same, and this procedure is not correct for all vehicles by any means. Some require cycling through the shift sequence three times, some only once, some need a delay between shift cycle and checking, some should be immediate.

Check the manual, both for method and fluid type.
posted by Brockles at 2:41 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nth-ing 'check the fluid'. You may want to get your trans and motor mounts checked too if the fluid is ok.
posted by just sayin at 4:24 PM on February 3, 2012


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