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Transmission Noises and What They Mean


Most people drive their vehicles enough to know the different sounds it makes when starting the engine, shifting the transmission into gear, driving down the expressway, braking, stopping, etc. These are the ordinary sounds that you are familiar with.  So, when you hear something different, you need to take notice.  By different, it could be a completely new sound or one of the same sounds you always hear but maybe its louder than before or it happens more often than before.  The bottom-line is that these sounds may be a warning that something isn't quite right.

By knowing what the different sounds mean you can catch problems early and possibly save yourself a great deal of money and avoid dangerous and costly breakdowns.

Automatic Transmission Sounds You Might Hear
and What They Mean

Transmission Whining Noise

My Automatic TransmissionA whining sound coming from the transmission area, or specifically from the front of the transmission, is most likely the transmission oil pump.  A failing transmission pump will make a whining noise in all gears when the engine is running, including Park and Neutral.  The whining sound of a failing transmission pump will increase with engine speed.  As long as the pump is making a whining sound, it is working but could fail at anytime.  When it stops whining - it means the pump has stopped working and the vehicle will no longer move.

Note: A transmission oil pump will make a whining sound for one or both of the following reasons; the pump is in the process of failing and/or the transmission filter is dirty and clogged/restricted causing the pump to work extra hard to pump the fluid.

Repair Information: The transmission pump is an internal component so replacing it requires the transmission to be removed from the vehicle.  However, if caught early, replacing the transmission filter may fix the problem.

Recommended Action:  Transmission service, which consists of a fluid and filter change.  This is something most anyone can do themselves and save money.

DIY Transmission Fluid and Filter Change

Transmission Screeching or Rattling Noise

My Automatic TransmissionA screeching or rattling noise coming from underneath the center hump in a rear wheel drive vehicle or from the engine compartment in a front wheel drive vehicle while the engine is running and the shifter is in the Drive "D" position is likely a failing torque converter.  A torque converter going bad makes the most noise when the engine is running and the transmission is in gear with the vehicle sitting still.  If you move the shifter to the Neutral "N" position and the noise disappears, the torque converter is in the process of failing.  Also, if the noise decreases as the vehicle begins rolling, the problem is almost definitely a failing torque converter.

Once a torque converter begins screeching or rattling it is only a matter of time before the converter fails.  Sometimes, when a torque converter fails, it literally explodes.  There is no danger of injury, except you will feel it in your wallet because when a converter explodes metal chards mix with the fluid and enter the transmission.  When this happens, unless you can shut the engine off immediately the transmission will be severely damaged. 

Repair Information: Replacing a torque converter requires the transmission to be removed from the vehicle.

Recommended Action:  Replace the torque converter before it completely fails.  Doing so will likely save you the problems associated with breaking down on the highway and a higher repair bill since the failure of the torque converter can cause serious internal transmission damage.

Transmission Growling
or Grinding Noise

My Automatic TransmissionA growling or grinding transmission noise that is accompanied by a vibration when driving is indicative of a cracked or chipped gear.  A growling noise that increases in pitch and/or becomes louder as vehicle speed increases points to a problem with the transmission's final drive gears.  If the final drive gears are the culprit, the noise will remain consistent even when the transmission shifts to the next higher gear.

A transmission growling or grinding noise can lead to complete transmission failure.  If you continue to drive the vehicle in this condition, you risk further damage to the transmission along with a higher repair bill.  There is no way of knowing how long the transmission will last in this condition - it could last 6 minutes or 6 months.

Repair Information: The transmission or transaxle must be removed the vehicle and disassembled to identify the broken or damaged parts.

Recommended Action:  Drive the vehicle easy until the transmission can be repaired - it may operate in this condition for awhile before complete failure.   

Transmission Gurgling Noise

My Automatic TransmissionA gurgling noise coming from the transmission area may mean the fluid level is low or possibly overfilled. 

Repair Information:  Check transmission fluid level immediately.  If fluid level is low, add fluid until the dipstick reads "Full" or in the "Full Range".  If Fluid level is overfull, remove fluid until the dipstick reads "Full" or in the "Full Range".  

Recommended Action: If transmission fluid level is low - look for and repair a fluid leak.  Low fluid can cause catastrophic transmission failure.  According to the Automatic Transmission rebuilders Association (ATRA), approximately 90% of transmission failures are fluid related.

How to check transmission fluid level
Locating and repairing transmission fluid leaks

Transmission Banging or Clunking Noise

A banging or clunking noise coming from the transmission or transaxle when the shifter lever is moved from Park into any gear is likely an internal transmission problem.  More specifically, the clanging noise is probably a broken or chipped gear (or other hard part damage).  A badly worn main shaft bearing can also make a clunking sound when the transmission shifts gears. 

If you are lucky, the clunking sound could be caused by a worn or damaged U-joint in a rear wheel drive vehicle or CV axle in a front wheel drive vehicle.  We say "lucky" because a U-joint or CV axle can be replaced without having to remove the transmission, so the cost is minimal compared to an internal transmission problem.

  Transmission Problems - What to LOOK for...
Transmission Problems You FEEL - Slipping - Hard Shifts...
  Transmission Problems You Can Smell - Fluid Leaks - Burnt Fluid... 
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