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What Transmission Do I Have? Types, Pros & Cons

filling up car engine with new transmission fluid

Most drivers know what kind of an engine they’ve got. However, the same can’t be said about the transmission. It’s still very important to know what type of gearbox you have, though. That will help diagnose it, get the right fluid, and save money on repairs. A modern-day car can either be equipped with a manual or an automatic unit, which can be further broken down into CVTs, AMTs and, say, dual-clutch systems.

Every single transmission type has its pros and cons, and we’ll cover all that in this guide. Next, we’ll learn how to easily and accurately determine the transmission type in your car. Finally, we’ll go over the cost of a brand-new unit, how much auto shops charge, the benefits of a fluid change, and more.

car and road dividerWhat Does a Transmission Do?

The short answer is—the transmission makes the engine spin at the exact right rate. On top of that, it controls how much power/energy generated by the motor the wheels get (with the engine still running fast). Without a properly working transmission, you won’t be able to shift gears. That, in turn, will put extra pressure on the engine, worsen the fuel efficiency, and maybe even lead to a disaster.

Remember: the gearbox makes sure the motor doesn’t overheat. When the transmission is malfunctioning, that leads to a lack of response, shaking, and inability to start the vehicle. But knowing the exact type of transmission installed in your car will make it easier to fix it.

mechanic draining the old automatic transmission fluid
Image Credit: PongMoji, Shutterstock

Figuring Out Your Transmission Type: A Detailed Guide

If you’re wondering—how can I tell what transmission I have—we’re happy to say that it doesn’t take much effort to figure this out. There are a few tried-and-true techniques that will help:

  • Owner’s Manual. This is the first place to check. If you still have the manual around, it should include all the necessary information.
  • The White Card. Open the front left door (the one on the driver’s side) and locate the white card. There, you’ll find info on the car’s model year, engine specs, and transmission details. There should also be a “TR” symbol there with a code. Get in contact with a local dealership and use that number to learn your transmission type.
  • Check The Oil Pan. This one doesn’t always work, but it’s still worth a try. Crawl under the car and find the oil pan. Do you see a card on its side? That’s what you need!
  • The VIN Number. Every single car has a vehicle identification number. You can find it on the white card or the insurance/registration papers. Another common spot for it is on the dashboard, right where it meets the windshield. It’s meant to be read from the outside, not the inside. The VIN is a bit tricky to decipher. So, again, contact the local dealer. Or go to a specific website for decoding VINs.
  • Use a Year/Make/Model Tool. We’re talking about websites like this one or this one where they provide info on a large number of transmissions. Just pay a quick visit, enter the serial number, and the search tool will let you know what kind of transmission it is.

Manual vs. Automatic Transmissions: What’s the Difference?

At the heart of an automatic transmission lies a torque converter. When you’re gaining speed, it jumps up a gear; and when you slow down the car, it drops to a lower gear. As the name suggests, this gearbox does everything autonomously: all you need to do is keep your hands on the wheel. But what about manual transmission, though?

They’ve been around for a lot longer and are still slightly more popular than their automatic counterparts. A manual gearbox is built around a clutch. You select which gear you want to shift to and disengage the clutch to make that happen. This does take some getting used to.

Learning About the Different Types of Transmissions

With the basics out of the way, let’s talk about the various transmission types. Here are the options available with a manual transmission:

  • Dual-clutch (DCT). As the name suggests, you get two clutches instead of one. Clutch #1 handles the odd gears, while the other one controls the even gears. These transmissions are generally found in older vehicles. In modern-day cars, most of the “heavy lifting” is done by the onboard computer, making the dual-clutch mechanism partially automated. Single-clutch systems are also available, but they’re not at all popular.
  • In many ways, this unit is similar to the previous one. Only this time around, the clutch (manual at its core) is operated by built-in sensors. AMT gearboxes are very common among heavy-duty SUVs and trucks, as they’ve proven to be both reliable and efficient.
  • Also known as the constant mesh transmission, the synchronized system is very easy to use. It’s all about the constant movement of the main shaft, drive, and cluster gears.
  • Back in the day, these were called the “non-synchro” transmissions. Much like the dual-clutch mechanism, they are not in great demand these days.

automatic transmission

Next, we’ve got automatic gearboxes. Here’s a full list of the available configurations:

  • Standard Automatic (AT). Designed back in 1921, automatic transmissions with torque converters are the new normal. As mentioned, they don’t require any effort on the driver’s side and handle everything autonomously. They can be a bit rough, though (depending on the vehicle), and lag behind manual units in terms of fuel economy.
  • Continuously variable transmissions deliver their best performance when combined with small-car engines. Originally introduced for ATVs, CVTs have a very strong presence on the market today (including the market of hybrid cars). Compared to a traditional automatic transmission, a CVT is smoother and more fuel-efficient.
  • Have you ever heard of the intelligent manual transmission? Technically, it’s considered an automatic gearbox, but while it doesn’t have a clutch, you will still have to switch between the gears manually. Manufactured by Hyundai, the iMT is a worthy alternative to AMT and CVT.

Do Automatic Transmissions Last Longer?

No, it’s actually the other way around. Although automatic transmissions are much easier to operate, they have a shorter lifespan compared to manual transmissions. Depending on the vehicle, the engine, your driving style, and other factors, the difference in the lifespan can be as big as 2–3 years. Manual gearboxes are also safer, more reliable, cheaper, and tend to be a bit more fuel-efficient.

How Much for a New Gearbox?

The price range is quite large here, but on average, you can expect to pay between $1.2K and $5K. A fluid change will only set you back $100–250. Leaks, in turn, can be fixed for even less: $150–200. Now, if you’re on a somewhat limited budget but still need to have the faulty factory gearbox replaced, consider going for a used or rebuilt unit. That will cost you a lot less, approximately $2.5K.

While it won’t last as long as a brand-new transmission, it’s still an excellent alternative. Or you can ask the mechanic to fix the faulty unit. If it’s not beyond repairs, that will cost $250–1.4K. But before you pay for anything, get estimates from 3–5 auto shops. This way, you’ll be able to get the best deal.

How Much Do They Charge for Labor?

This depends on the complexity of the job, the area that you live in, and your car, among other things. With that said, the average auto shop will charge $750–1K to have the transmission replaced. Usually, it takes a licensed mechanic 2–3 hours to get this done.

disassembled car automatic transmission

How Often Should the Fluid be Changed?

If you’re the proud owner of a big, bulky SUV or truck and it’s equipped with a manual transmission, you’ll have to change the fluid every 25–30K miles. In contrast, automatic transmissions installed in a small or medium-sized car will only require a “refill” once you go over the 60–100K mark. To be 100% sure that it is, indeed, time to buy new gearbox oil, here’s what you can do.

The main job of any fluid is to lubricate the mechanical parts and prevent overheating. However, over time, it gets overwhelmed by sludge and metal shavings. When that happens, the color goes from bright red to something else. So, how do you check this? It’s really simple: open the hood, find the dipstick, and pull it out. If the fluid is brown or black, that means it’s time to flush it.

car and road dividerConclusion

You don’t want to be caught off-guard when it’s time to change the fluid, fix the transmission, or buy a new gearbox, right? Then you need to know what transmission you have installed in the car. This doesn’t require any expensive tools or hard work. Just follow our guide, have some patience, and you’ll find the answer! Transmissions come in all shapes and sizes.

So, first, see if it’s a manual or an automatic gearbox. That should give a basic understanding. Then, using all the knowledge that we learned today, you can figure out whether it’s an iMT, DCT, synchronized, or any other type of transmission. Drive safely, don’t forget about regular maintenance checks, and we’ll see you next time!


Featured Image Credit: Oteera, Shutterstock

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