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When I think of transmission problems, I go back to a day around 1980 when I was working in downtown Los Angeles. A sales representative and good friend from an additive company (which did not market an ATF additive package) called on me and invited me to lunch. As we walked out to his car, parked alongside the office building where I worked, he told me the transmission wasnt doing very well and hed need to park in a location where he could pull straight ahead.

I thought this was somewhat strange, but not a big deal. We got in the car and he started it up and put it in gear. You know when there is a lag between your transmission engaging and starting forward? This lag was measured in seconds. After we got rolling and had a good chuckle, we made it to a restaurant not far away and parked on the street.

Lunch was fine and we had a good business discussion. When we returned to the car and started it up, the forward gears were dead – none would move the car at all. My friend was a resourceful guy, so he said to be on the lookout for cars and we took off in the only functioning gear: Reverse!

I dont know how he knew where to go, but he found every alley and back street from the restaurant back to my office. It was like a scene from Bullitt (or for you younger folks, The Transporter). It was one of the most harrowing and yet hilarious rides I have ever taken. We were laughing so hard that my sides ached. In fact, I am laughing out loud as I type this.

Even after that adventure, to this day I dont give my transmission or automatic transmission fluid much thought. After all, how often do you have to change it? For most, the only time ATF is a subject of thought or conversation is when there are oily redpuddles on the garage floor (rarely), or when the performance of the transmission leaves a lot to be desired. When that happens, we likely take our vehicle to a local car dealer, quick lube or service center to scope out the problem.

Seeing Red

By contrast, ATF is not a simple equation for lubricant marketers. The U.S. market for ATF is about 175 million gallons a year, or 7 percent of all lubricants sold, according to the market research firm Kline & Co. This technology has changed steadily over the years (see left), yet almost all of the products still have applications today. And given that a lot of vehicles on the road are battle-scarred veterans, many oil marketers want to field a broad mix of ATF products.

To add to the complications, newer vehicles have longer drain intervals for ATF, with some now sealed for life. To enter this factory-fill segment, oil marketers must scale very high quality and cost barriers.

So whats an oil marketer to do? One longstanding approach is to develop a multipurpose ATF that meets a number, if not all, of the specifications for the service market and is suitable for a broad swath of vehicles. Thats a noble plan but there are conflicting requirements that make a universal fluid impossible. For instance, the classic Type A Suffix A fluid contains a friction modifier while Fords Type F does not. Cant combine those two; wouldnt be prudent!

In the past, this wasnt much of an issue. Formulators could satisfy the Ford Mercon and GM Dexron-III trademarked specifications with just one fluid, and meet the needs of two-thirds of the market.

That option dissolved in the past five years, with the latest fluid upgrades. Think you can create a Dexron-VI/Mercon V fluid? It wont work. To start, the viscometrics of the two are mutually exclusive, with the latter requiring kinematic viscosity of at least 6.8 centiStoke at 100 degrees C. Dexron-VI is capped at 6.8 cSt though – so it cant meet Mercon V.

Sizing Up the Market

To better understand the approach taken by the oil marketplace, I talked to some folks in the oil industry and got some interesting feedback. Most major oil marketers offer a family of ATF products, to meet those specifications which cannot be combined with other products. That means a product line consisting of a Type F, GM Dexron-VI, Chrysler ATF+4, Ford Mercon V – and multipurpose ATF covering many of the older, compatible requirements. (Mercon V, for example, can be combined with earlier Dexron specs.)

Sources also pointed out that unless a company has original-fill business or supplies car dealers, the sales volumes of the currently required products are not very large. Bigger by far is multipurpose ATF for the service-fill market. In addition, a significant amount of ATF finds its way into non-transmission applications such as hydraulics, where the bright color serves as a red flag in case of leaks, and the wide functional temperature range is ideal for applications such as cherry-pickers.

Depending on the company and its marketing plans, a lot of the multipurpose fluid is sold to reblenders and third-party lubricant marketers for private-label business, often for the quick-lube and retail markets. Many of these allude to older specifications, calling themselves Dex/Merc, D/M and the like. Others simply say they meet Dexron and/or Mercon.

The automakers no longer license or issue approvals for the older fluids, so theres no way to verify that a multipurpose ATF today meets these claims. Things can get dicey here since the original approval numbers for the formulated products (if any exist) can get lost in translation. There have also been reports of oils being adulterated to reduce the cost, and of substitutions in the original ingredients, leading to substandard products in the marketplace. The multipurpose ATF market has become a no-mans land, with only the oil brand or marketers reputation to bolster consumer confidence.

In the Trenches

To hear another side of the story, I spoke with representatives in the quick-lube industry. Most quick lubes that sell transmission service (typically a fluid change and/or power flush) keep a drum or small tank of multipurpose ATF for that application.

For those of you who arent familiar with power flushing, first as much fluid as possible is drained from the transmission, although its difficult to fully drain the torque converter without disassembling the transmission. The power flush equipment is then connected to the transmission and fresh ATF is circulated under mild pressure (so seals wont be blown out) throughout the transmission. This effectively flushes out the old ATF, especially from the torque converter, plus any loose deposits. After several minutes of circulation, the transmission is deemed to have been refilled with new ATF. Typically, this process requires three to four gallons of ATF by the time youve flushed and refilled the unit.

Quick lubes also carry a few packaged quarts of fluids meeting the most popular ATF specifications for top-up of transmissions. This isnt the easiest thing to do since the transmission dip-stick is hard to access or may not be present. In fact, some quick lubes do not do any transmission work, especially flushes, since it requires a skill set that few operators have.

Then there are a few quick lubes and installers that use a basic fluid, add a top treatment of additives, and claim this meets all the latest requirements. If offered such a deal I would run, not walk away. The risk isnt worth it.

One additional problem in the service market is that, with the exception of cross-contamination with Type F, there is no way drivers can easily tell what quality level they have received with an ATF flush or change. If the wrong fluid is used, it may be months or years before the transmission fails. It might never be bad enough that the customer would recognize a problem. (The person who buys the vehicle used might get a big surprise however.)

What Automakers Want

As far as the OEMs are concerned, their position is clear: Use only the latest specification for service fill of their vehicles, new and old: Dexron-VI for General Motors, ATF +4 for Chrysler, and with a few exceptions, Mercon V for Ford. Each OEM stresses that its transmission fluid is backwards compatible, just as are engine oils, so the most recent version covers everything earlier. (Thats all well and good, except how to explain why cars that originally needed Dexron0III (H) now can use the lighter-vis Dexron-VI)

The latest ATF specifications have been in place for some time. Mercon V debuted in the mid-90s, and Dexron VI and ATF +4 in 2005. So a good many transmissions on the road (millions of them) now require these fluids. The products are more durable too, so in normal driving they may never need to be drained. Severe-service intervals are 40,000 to 50,000 miles.

These ATF formulations are quite complex. Some of the most important functions built into these fluids are viscosity stability, oxidation stability and frictional durability. Each transmission OEM has a different take on these properties and how to address shift performance. Their newest transmissions are designed to work with a distinct set of frictional and viscometric characteristics, which makes their fluids incompatible with each other.

All this highlights the fact that for new vehicles most transmission work – and any fluid refill – is or should be carried out in auto dealerships, or in shops which specialize in transmission work.

The Buyers Quandary

That leaves the service market now largely without oversight of product quality. Is there a solution to this dilemma? I think that the short answer is yes. However, it means that vehicle owners should consider where they go to get transmission service. For newer vehicles, especially those still in warranty, increasingly the only place to go is to new-car dealerships. They have the tools, access to parts (if needed) and the proper specification ATF for each transmission. Since a transmission is now more expensive to replace than an engine, it only makes sense that the people who know best should be the ones to work on it. Since dealers tend to charge somewhat more than independents, it will cost more but it is more likely to be done right.

For an older vehicle there are more options. Some will simply drive it until it dies and let the leasing company take it away, as my friend did. Others wishfully may use any of a number of top treatments to try to regain some performance and/or stop leaks. And others will take it to a shop that specializes in transmission repair and have it fixed, or at least improved. The choice here depends on the consumers price point.

This leads me to the bottom line on ATF. It is a complex, technically sophisticated product which is nearly transmission-manufacturer and model-year specific. It is the vital lubricant and hydraulic fluid in the most expensive unit in a vehicles powertrain. It is also one of the lubricants which is most often misapplied.

You had better be sure what your vehicles transmission requires, and that you get what you need. Otherwise you could be in for problems now or later. Caveat emptor!

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