Many modern transmissions in cars are now labeled as having a “lifetime” transmission fluid. At face value, this implies that the fluid or lubricant in the gearbox doesn’t have to be replaced for the entire lifespan of the car.
Nonetheless, much in the same way that Thanos believed wiping out half of all life rather than doubling the amount of resources would prevent the extinction of resources, the term “lifetime” is wide open for interpretation and debate.
What Do Carmakers Mean by ”Lifetime”?
To the layman, a lifetime might be mistaken as forever. That’s a mistake. Forever implies until the end of time whereas lifetime infers that the existence of something is finite and will cease at some point.
Still, at the risk of evoking the wrath of Aristotle, Gandhi, and Friedrich Nietzsche, let’s not fall down the rabbit hole that’s existence but circle back to lifetime transmission fluids.
Most transmission fluids such as ATF (automatic transmission fluid), CVT fluid, DCT fluid or manual transmission fluid require replacement after the car has clocked a certain amount of mileage. Therefore, “lifetime” transmission fluids wouldn’t need to be replaced at all, right?
Again, back to the definition of “lifetime.” It implies there’s an end to the car’s life, or a point when it becomes obsolete.
That’s due to the fact that modern cars are all designed with planned obsolescence in mind, meaning that the carmakers consider them obsolete after a certain mileage has been clocked.
Corresponding with that, they designed the transmissions; usually traditional torque converter automatics, with a sealed case that doesn’t cater to replacing the fluids within.
For example, the scheduled maintenance list for a 2015 Mazda 2 doesn’t carry a suggested interval for the ATF’s replacement. As such, the official service center won’t perform an ATF replacement, even if requested by the owner.
Of course, the owner can opt to have an independent workshop carry out the task but that would likely result in the warranty being voided.
In fact, some carmakers that implement a lifetime transmission fluid in their vehicles design the transmission case in such a way as to prevent easy access to replace the fluid.
Circling back to the definition of “lifetime,” it’s generally understood to be the span of the car’s warranty. That’s approximately 5 years or 100,000 km, though the timeline and mileage can vary depending on the make and model.
For argument’s sake, the carmaker will argue that the “lifetime” claim is completely accurate as once said car surpasses 5 years or 100,000 km, it’s considered obsolete by their definition.
Obviously, most car owners don’t exactly replace their rides after 5 years. Not everyone has been able to cultivate the fabled money tree in their gardens yet.
Read More: Auto vs Manual Transmission
Should You Replace Your Transmission Fluid?
The pertinent question now is, how will the transmission fluid in the case stand up to the vehicle’s use following the end of this period?
Regardless of the type of transmission, all fluids within the case will degrade over time under the heat and sheer forces exerted by the gears. That means the fluid will lose its ability to properly lubricate the transmission’s internals over time.
This is precisely the reason most specialist, independent workshops strongly recommend you replace the transmission fluid regularly in cars that come with a “lifetime” fluid. Prevention is better than cure, so keep the fluids fresh before they degrade to the point that the transmission experiences catastrophic failure.
Furthermore, depending on the type of vehicle or your usage of it, these specialist workshops will suggest a shorter interval. It might seem like an unnecessary cost on your end but don’t be penny-wise but pound-foolish. If your transmission fails, that might leave you needing lubrication for yourself.
How transmission fluid is drained
If you’re fretting over how these workshops will replace the fluid due to the sealed case, well, that’s why we pay them… They’re the experts.
While it might not be as simple as unscrewing a drain plug and letting the old fluid out, even these sealed transmissions will have been designed with accessible service points for technicians.
The reason for this is that if the center were to carry out a transmission rebuild or perform major work, they would definitely replace the fluid due to the possibility of contamination. So, yes, there will be a way. It’s just not made easy by design.
If you’re unsure of the type of fluid in your transmission or its lifespan, just check the owner’s manual. Most types that require a replacement will be within the 80,000 to 100,000 km range.
Furthermore, if your car has an ATF dipstick, you can check the condition of the fluid yourself. ATF is usually red in color and turns darker as it degrades with use.
To sum it up, “lifetime” transmission fluids fall squarely under the carmaker’s definition of what said lifetime’s span is and not as long as the car runs.
Among the fluids in a car, the transmission fluid undergoes extreme forces. Therefore, it’s paramount that the transmission fluid doesn’t lose too much of its properties due to degradation.
So, even if your car comes with a “lifetime” transmission fluid, it’s recommended to have it inspected by an independent workshop to ensure optimum levels of performance. If you’re worried about voiding the warranty, have that inspection done as soon as the warranty period is over.
At CARSOME, when we refurbish a pre-owned car, we make sure all the parts, including the lubricants, are in good condition. Otherwise, we’ll replace them to ensure an optimum service life for the car’s parts. So you can rest assured that you’re getting a quality vehicle when you buy from us.
“Better late than never.” Some despise it, others begrudgingly agree with it but he swears by it… much to the chagrin of everyone around him. That unfortunately stems from all of his project cars not running most of the time, which in turn is testament to his questionable decision-making skills in life. A culmination of many wrongs fortunately making a right; much like his project cars on the rare occasions they run, he’s still trying to figure out if another project car is the way to go.