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Consumer Guide to Transmission Repair

What You Need to Know Before Getting Your Transmission Repaired


Your Transmission: What’s the Problem?

Simply put, your transmission is a device that is connected to your vehicle’s engine and serves to deliver power to the drive wheels while keeping the engine running at ideal Revolutions Per Minute (RPMs). The transmission is able to accomplish this through multiple gear combinations that are controlled manually (by the automobile’s driver) or automatically through a complex electrical system. Basically, your transmission works with your engine to make your vehicle move. When your transmission malfunctions, your car, truck, or van won’t be much good to you until you have the problems repaired.

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Some of the most common transmission problems include:computer-diagnostics

  • A lack of response
  • Dirty, leaking or low fluid
  • Gears that slip
  • Inability to move into gear, or shifting into wrong gear
  • A burning smell
  • Strange noises while changing gears, such as clunking, humming, or whining
  • A noisy transmission while in neutral
  • Transmission overheating

The extent of your transmission repair will be determined by the root cause of your problem. But, if your transmission must be rebuilt, it’s important to know that there really isn’t such a thing as a partial rebuild. Due to liability constraints, once a transmission is opened up, the entire transmission needs to be properly inspected for wear.

Who you Gonna’ Call?

strandedEvery day, you depend on your vehicle to get you everywhere you need to be safely and on time. Unfortunately, automotive breakdowns, malfunctions, and no-starts happen to us all, leaving us feeling frustrated, stranded, and sometimes desperate. And for most of us, we dread getting the answer to the ultimate question, “How much is this going to cost me?” Or, “Why can’t I just go with the cheapest place?”

You’re counting on your car to get to work, your kid’s soccer game, or that important meeting on time, every time. You need to have that kind of unquestionable trust in the mechanic that’s responsible for fixing it when something goes wrong. For too many people, bargain deal repair jobs end up costing them more time and money than they can really afford when those repairs fail. It’s always wise to look for a fair deal when it comes to auto repairs. You just have to make sure you’re actually getting quality service for the price.

So when the unthinkable happens and your transmission starts smelling, clunking, slipping, or just not responding, you deserve to know that you can depend on your mechanic to get the job done right just as much as you depend on your car itself to get you where you’re going each day. There’s just one problem: how do you choose the right place to do the work when there are simply too many transmission repair shops to choose from? When cost is an issue, is cheaper always better?

The Problem with Cheap

“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s unwise to pay too little. When you pay too much you lose a little money, that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it’s well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.”

~John Ruskin – Author, Critic, British Philosopher, Artist

Like we said before, it’s always wise to look for the best deal possible when it comes to a car repair. But the truth is, there is much more involved in an auto repair job than simply a price tag. Looking for a cheap mechanic for an expensive transmission repair job can be really tempting. After all, this kind of work can be very labor intensive, depending on the severity of the problem. Up front, the lowest price seems like the best solution for your bank account. But, when you choose the bargain route, in the end, you’re left with uncertainty, questions, and more potential problems that could prove more costly in the long run.

Warranties don’t last forever. Many low-end transmission repair shops offer low-mileage, one-year limited warranties that only cover a few potential problems that could arise in the future. But what happens when this short-term warranty runs out and another problem surfaces?
Price often reflects quality. Oftentimes, the cheapest guys around usually are cheap for a reason. Do they cut corners? How much time do they actually spend on a typical transmission rebuild? A quality transmission rebuild on many of today’s vehicles may typically take between 15-20 hours to complete. If someone quotes you a shorter time, ask them why.
Vacuum Testing. Today’s transmission operations are designed to improve fuel economy and in doing so, they have more gear ranges. They shift more and also apply the torque converter clutch at a lower speed. All combined, this causes wear in the valve body bores. This is why vacuum testing is so important.

What is Vacuum Testing, and Why Does It Matter?

car-on-jackVacuum testing is a diagnostic technique that professionals use to evaluate your transmission’s wear and the effectiveness of any repairs performed. It is an important feature of every transmission repair because it can identify potential problems such as incorrect hydraulic pressure. Vacuum testing the valve body of your transmission will help the specialist confirm the root problem of your transmission and identify exactly which repairs need to take place. Without this technique, your transmission could have performance issues again in the future.

Vacuum testing is reliable and economical, producing quantitative results that service providers can use to more effectively perform transmission repairs. If the mechanic that you’re considering for your transmission repair does not provide this diagnostic service, ask them, “Why?” and consider looking elsewhere. If a service pro doesn’t invest in this technology, what else might they be skimping on?

Although vacuum testing is not a new technique, Sonnax Industries pioneered the process to how it is used today.

ATRA Membership Means Confidence in a Job Well-Done

The Automatic Transmission Rebuilders Association (ATRA) in an international trade organization for professionals within the transmission repair industry. Established more than 60 years ago, the organization today consists of more than 2000 members worldwide. Every repair specialist, student, trade school, and supplier that is a member of ATRA supports the training, research, and improvement of the transmission repair industry. Most members of ATRA do not only specialize in automatic transmission repair, but also in diagnostic testing and repair for:


  • Clutches
  • Differentials
  • Driveshafts
  • Drive Axels
  • Transfer Cases

No matter the difficulty of the job, these professionals really do have the expertise and skill needed to get it fixed the way it should be.

ATRA Code of Ethics

Every ATRA Rebuilder member must follow ATRA’s Code of Ethics policy; this code identifies their commitment to providing honest, professional service with every job. Every member agrees to follow the association’s strict service and repair guidelines and standards, and they must commit to following the association’s advertising standards as well. When you take your vehicle to an ATRA member, you can be confident knowing that you’ll receive exceptional service at a fair, honest price.

ATRA Golden Rule Warranty Program

Members in good standing with ATRA participate in an inter-shop warranty plan offered for any transmission rebuild. The Golden Rule Warranty is offered in 12-month, 24-month, and 36-month plans. If you choose a shop that isn’t a member of ATRA, you may be left wondering what your transmission’s warranty actually does cover, if you receive one at all.

What a Quality Transmission Repair Should Look Like

mechanicHaving the experts work on your transmission repair may seem like a hefty expense upfront, but the peace of mind that comes from experienced, professional work is well worth the investment. When you choose a shop that is committed to following industry standards through every step of the process, you can rest assured knowing that your transmission repair won’t consist of cut-rate mechanics that overlook important diagnostic testing.

A quality transmission repair should include:

  1. An itemized list of all parts and labor, including bushings. Bushings are special sleeves that serve as bearing surfaces that seal or add lubrication to various facets of a transmission.
  2. Standard testing of every electrical component of your transmission to determine weaknesses or potential deficiencies.
  3. A vacuum test of the valve body. (Valve Bodies are essentially the control center of an automatic transmission, and are a key part of a transmission’s hydraulic system.)
  4. Service professionals that are committed to following all industry standards and regulations of a transmission rebuild.
  5. Clearly defined, truly useful warranties that will offer you peace-of-mind after a transmission rebuild.
  6. Complete inspection of transmission parts, ensuring that everything is working to peak performance.

Your Transmission Repair Checklist

baldguyWhether on the phone or in person, before you say “Yes” or sign on that dotted line, take a few minutes to ask your transmission service professional a few important questions regarding your repair job. Asking the right questions from the start could help prevent a shoddy repair job from ever taking place.

Before dropping off your car at the transmission shop, get prepared.

  • Before taking your vehicle to a transmission repair shop, take some time to do some research. Learn as much as you can up front so you are prepared when the technician starts talking about facts and figures. Ask your regular mechanic for help and recommendations.
  • Write down the questions you want to ask. Not only does this help you make sure that you cover everything when speaking to the transmission repair shop, it also provides a list of your concerns that the transmission repair shop can be certain they are covering during your repair.

Then, make sure to ask the technician some important questions.

  • Is the shop a member of the Automatic Transmission Repair Association (ATRA) or other trade organizations?
  • Can you get a list of references or referrals from satisfied customers? Research the company’s reputation as an area transmission specialist.


  • Who will be doing the actual work on my transmission repair? Will that shop do the work, or will they outsource the job out to another facility?
  • Do they provide an itemized breakdown of all parts and labor for every transmission repair job?
  • What kinds of warranty terms does this shop offer on their transmission maintenance, repair, and rebuild services?