Transmission fluid is almost as vital to your car or truck as motor oil is. Without it, your transmission either would not shift, or it would burn up entirely. Yet, many drivers don’t pay close attention to their transmission fluid. They change their motor oil often, but they rarely—or never—change their transmission fluid.
There are many different types of transmission fluid. So how do you know which one you need for your car or truck?
Manual, Automatic, or CVT?
Manual transmissions (MTs) use a variety of different fluids–from motor oil to ATF.
Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) allow for smoother shifting than manual or automatic transmissions, as they don’t have stepped gears. They also take a specific type of transmission fluid that is designed for CVTs only. If your vehicle has a CVT, or if you’re not sure what kind of transmission your vehicle has, check your owner’s manual to find out. Follow the recommendations in the manual to find the right CVT fluid. CVTs are becoming more and more common in Nissans and Subarus.
Automatic transmissions (ATs) take automatic transmission fluid (ATF). ATF comes in a few different types.
Always check your vehicle’s owner’s manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for what transmission fluid you should use.
Automatic Transmission Fluid Types
Car and truck makers have different specifications for the ATF in their vehicles. Check your car or truck’s owner’s manual to see which type you need. In general, synthetic ATFs allow a car or truck to shift more easily and smoothly, which prolongs the life of the transmission.
Chevy, Buick, Cadillac, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn, or GMC cars and trucks
General Motors (GM) vehicles after 1968 take Dexron ATF. Over the years, GM has updated and improved their Dexron fluid specifications. The newer versions are usually (but not always) backward compatible. This means that if you have a truck that calls for Dexron-II, you can still use the newer Dexron-V in it without problems.
Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, and some Mazda cars and trucks
Before 1977, Ford specified Mercon for it’s cars and trucks. In 1977, the automaker switched to Mercon. Like GM’s Dexron, newer Mercon ATFs are usually backward compatible with older ones. Do not use Type F in any vehicle other than a pre-1977 Ford. Type F lacks some of they key additives that reduce slipping in newer transmissions.
Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Jeep, Mopar, and Fiat cars and trucks
Most Chrysler cars and trucks use ATF +3 or ATF +4. It is vital that you use only these in vehicles from Chrysler. ATF +4 is a synthetic fluid for finely-tuned transmissions, so if you use a non-synthetic ATF instead of ATF +4 in a car or truck that calls for it, you could damage the transmission. You may use ATF +4 in most applications that call for older Dexron and Mercon fluids.
Honda and Acura vehicles
Z-1 and DW-1 are the recommended ATFs for Honda and Acura vehicles. Z-1 is the older version, and DW-1 is its synthetic upgrade. You can use DW-1 in vehicles that call for Z-1, but you can’t use Z-1 in a DW-1 vehicle.
Hyundai, Mitsubishi, and Kia cars and trucks
Most Hyundai, Mitsubishi, and Kia vehicles call for SP ATFs. For these vehicles, it’s important to stick to the Mitsubishi brand fluids in newer vehicles from these makers, as they have special additives that make the transmission run as smoothly as possible, which will give it a longer life.
Subaru and Nissan cars and trucks
These vehicles use Matic S, K, D, or J ATF or Subaru ATF or ATF-HP fluid. Prior to 2005, most Subaru vehicles used Dexron-III and most Nissan cars and trucks used Dexron-II.
Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks
Newer Toyota and Lexus vehicles require Toyota Type-IV (T4) synthetic ATF. Nearly all Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks before 2005 call for Dexron-III ATF. While Toyota has its own official brand that it sells at its dealerships, any good quality Dexron-III will do.
Transmission Fluid Maintenance
Check your transmission fluid regularly. Many newer cars and trucks have an easy-to-find dipstick for checking the transmission fluid. Your fluid should be bright red or pink (clear or light green for CVTs). If it’s dark brown or black and you can’t see the dipstick through it, you should take your car or truck to a mechanic to have it tested. Older vehicles and especially manual transmissions may be a little more difficult to access. If this is the case with your vehicle, have a professional auto technician check your fluid for you. Most automotive service centers check your transmission fluid level with every oil change. You should flush and fill your transmission with fresh transmission fluid every 30,000-60,000 miles for a manual or CVT, and every 60,000-100,000 miles for an automatic.