Latest Reader Question : Automatic Shifts Strangely

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Dave asks: My 2012 Ford Fusion has 44k miles and shifts awkwardly and sometimes jams into first gear. Most of my issues seem to be around 2nd-3rd gear. Yet it also fails to respond appropriately to downshifts even with the pedal forced down over half-way on the freeway to pass. Seems like I have tons of lost horsepower and only 26 MPG as thanks. I know you cannot drive it to see this but can you possibly point me somewhere other for service than a Ford dealer in the Los Angeles Area? I feel I may be taken advantage of at a dealership, another dealer cleared the vehicle CPU shifting mechanism in 2016 (on warranty then, from Ford rep that ran the VIN for me). I feel I need more information given this vehicle’s low miles. I also want to clarify this is so infrequent (1-3 times per week) I just wonder about long term tranny mostly. Transmission fluid still brighter red and full. Started using remote start to slightly warm the transmission before hitting the road (even with lows in the 50s) seems better; has not happened in 2 weeks. I’m the third owner; the second owner is honest family friend owned for previous 15k miles. They do body work and car had slight fender and bumper damage, no air bag or title issues. Your advice is most appreciated!

My reply: One of the tricky things here – with many new/modern cars with automatics – is separating out whether the transmission has or is developing a problem or has always behaved this way. I’ve been test-driving brand-new cars (all brands/types) since the early ’90s and I have experienced many that have not-great shifting characteristics or shifted in a way that felt not-quite-right. For example: Some will “hang” in between gears or (lately, with some of the 9-10 speed automatics) “jump” forward several gears such that it feels as though the car is trying to accelerate on its own. In those instances, the transmission is operating (sigh) normally.

So, the first important question here is: Has your car’s driving feel changed? Is the transmission shifting differently than it used to? If so, then something is probably not right.

You write that it “jams” into first gear. I am not sure exactly what you mean by this. When you move the range selector from Park to Drive, you should be in first gear – even if you’re not yet moving. In other words, you are not in Neutral (as would be the case with a manual transmission). You should feel the transmission “connect” to the engine; if you take your foot off the brake, the car should creep forward. You are in first gear. As you accelerate/gain speed, the transmission should upshift to second gear – and so on.

Ok. So, when you first move the selector from Park to Drive (and into first gear) what happens? Do you feel the transmission engaging? Or does it feel as though the engine is still freewheeling and you are in neutral? If so, that’s bad. It is also bad if it takes more than a brief moment (it should be almost instant) for the transmission to engage when you move the selector from Park to Drive. In both cases, if this happens, the transmission is slipping. Further indications of this include delayed/sluggish upshifting or (worse) the sensation (and actuality) that the engine speed is increasing (revving, as you push down on the accelerator) but the transmission isn’t keeping pace and feels as though it’s disconnected.

All the above can be caused by low fluid level – or something worse.

A hard/harsh “clunk” when engaging Drive from Park is also a bad sign.

The first thing to do is make certain the fluid level is correct. There are varying procedures for this, depending on the car (brand/model/year, etc.). Generally, the fluid level is checked with the engine running (unlike checking engine oil level).  There is also a “cold” and “hot” check- be sure you know the difference.  Automatics can be very sensitive to even minor drops in fluid level such as being a quart low. This may be your issue and it’s the very first thing to check and eliminate as a possible source of your troubles. I would also check under the car where you normally park it for any sign of leaks.

If the fluid level is correct, more diagnostic work is in order. At this point, I would find a shop you trust to evaluate the situation. It may be nothing more than a minor adjustment; if the transmission has never been serviced, that’s all it may need. But regardless, I’d have it checked sooner rather than later so as to avoid a hopefully small problem becoming a big – and expensive one.

Hope this is helpful!

 . . .

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  1. The unfortunate truth is that now with all the Govt. interference and meddling with the auto manufacturing industry, the makers are putting virtually untested designs out there, thus using the buying public as guinea pigs. They did this occasionally in the 70’s and 80’s with weird “innovations” such as the Cadillac 8-6-4, and the Chrysler “Ultra-Drive” electronic transmission. Those were often discovered and put to death by a vigilant buying public, but today’s idolatry of “technology” is making this garbage harder to distinguish as outright poor engineering. Thanks to tyrannical government mandates, which continue to push the limits of physics, this ever increasingly delicate balance of performance, fuel economy, and emissions abatement will ultimate fail catastrophically, and we will have just a wee bit of social unrest, to put it mildly!

  2. Go for broke on the “lemon law” on this one, before you “go broke” trying to fix the unfixable. At 44K, outside of a severe collision requiring major drive train repair, there should be no reason for this vehicle to behave this way. Sadly, the factory warranty may have only been 36Mo/36K, in which case you merely purchased someone else’s unfixable lemon! Keep the car fully insured, and hope for a survivable collision that totals the car and pays off the remaining debt for you.

  3. 2012 seemed like a bad year for Ford transmissions. A friend had a Focus that went through two transmissions in short order. The warranty was up, so she traded it.