Reader Question: Transmission Fluid Change?

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

Andrew asks: Seems to be a lot of controversy about when to change the transmission fluid in VW TDIs – both the manual and the automatic-equipped versions. According to the owners manual, the manual transmission should be changed at 40,000 miles and I do not see a recommendation for the automatic.  Also, to my surprise, the manual recommends timing belt change at 130,000. Do you agree?

My reply: But is there controversy?

The factory specifies changeout intervals – and also when changing isn’t specified. It’s fairly common for manufacturers to recommend never changing automatic transmission fluid. The recommendation for a manual (or a different make/model automatic) may be different.

But there is always a recommendation.

Unless there’s sound reason not to, I would always hew to the manufacturer’s recommended service intervals. If only for warranty reasons. But also for engineering reasons.

Failure to service the vehicle per the factory regimen can and usually will void the warranty in the event of a failure that can be attributed to improper maintenance.

Failure to abide by the recommend service procedures (and time/mileage intervals) can also lead to problems the engineers who helped write those procedures wrote them to help you avoid.

Like, for example, a timing belt failure – which can be catastrophic if the engine is an interference design and will be a major hassle regardless if it happens when you need to be somewhere or need the car to work right now.

It is probable you could drive past 130,000 without changing the belt, but be aware it could fail at any time; basically a ticking time (and money) bomb. The car is no longer reliable. And if the engine is an interference design, not getting the belt replaced could lead to having to replace the engine.

If it were me, I’d go ahead and get the belt done (or do it) on my terms, at my convenience – rather than wait for the Big Surprise!

Get price quotes; find the best deal – then get the work done when it suits and you’ve made arrangements to be without the car for the day or two it may take to get the work done.

Much better than being confronted with a repair you didn’t plan for that needs to be handled right now…

. . .

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  1. In a perfect illustration of Murphy’s Law my ‘91 Honda Civic lost the timing belt exactly one day before its scheduled replacement. Fortunately it was a non interference engine so no extra repair cost, but I did get stuck paying for a multi mile tow.

    • Mike, the first time I saw a car advertised with a replaceable belt for timing I thought, “you gotta be shitting me”. Made no sense at all other than being cheap and adding to stealership pocketbooks. When I build an engine, and I’m not just speaking of a balls to the wall engine, I always use high quality double row timing systems. They last longer and won’t stretch like singles do and won’t take a shit because of some change of settings in the manufacturing process they don’t catch for thousands of tens of thousands units till they start failing left and right. It’s easy to track down the “bad” run of any part. You just have to use a manufacturer that makes sure it’s parts are checked.

      Your story reminds me of a friend who had an amphibious vehicle called a Coot. Would go anywhere, water, mud, extreme slopes, you name it. We had to work on one of his wells one day that was surrounded by city shit water. We had big tools and parts and since we couldn’t get a lift close to it, we chose the Coot to get there, lots of muscle in 4 guys to pull the 4″ steel downpipe. The damn thing had such a weak spring on the throttle it was either idle or WOT. It almost always ended up being WOT since it was always, with its wheelbase, rough. We’re about 8′ from the edge of the shit water to a bit of semi-dry land around the well when the drive belt broke. At any other time, it would have been a mer inconvenience. So 3 of us got as far to the front and jump as close to the edge of the shitty water as we could. Meanwhile, this retired engineer about 6’6″ stood up, wearing his brand new high dollar white tenny diggers and said “What about me”. The three of us looked around and started laughing. Going into shitty water with waterproof boots wasn’t that big a deal for us. We never considered anyone wearing what he had on. At least he was the best jumper. I never inquired as to the final say-so on his new tenny shoes. It was all the three of us, and finally him too, could do to stop laughing.

      Murphy’s law of shitty water.

      • Great story Eight! Yeah, after that experience I did my research ahead of time and made sure any car I bought had a chain vs. a belt. The very least the engineers could have done would be to have the belt accessible, under a cover on the outside of the engine so you didn’t have to take half the engine apart to get at it. The serpentine belt is a pita to replace but at least it’s doable, a few skinned knuckles, plus I keep a spare in the trunk for my friend Justin Case.

        • Mike, GM has come up with a Doozy. It’s a 5 or 6 cylinder inline engine in their small pickups. Dual overhead cams that seem to have a timing chain problem being especially vexing and expensive since it’s on the rear of the engine. Servicing or repairing(I repeat myself)requires the removal of the transmission and transfer case on 4WD models. That just gets you to the real work. I saw a video of a guy doing one of these. It took him 3 days and looked like pulling the engine would have been about as easy.

          I keep a lot of parts for Justin too. But my serpentine belt is very easily replaced, bofum, since it had a single belt for the a/c. Probably one of the best things they ever did to keep people from having to walk and getting a tow. The only downside is the tensioner that’s really small and tends to die fairly often taking the belt with it. It is a simple fix though. Nothing like a tensioner down there with all the muck and dirt though. The smart guy will take that belt off now and then and spin that tensioner. When they do that shhhhhh thing, it’s time for Justin.

  2. With ANY automatic, it’s always better to change the fluid and filter before the fluid gets worn or funky, and before the mileage accrues. Once you get a lot of mileage on an automatic in which the fluid hasn’t been changed…then ya DON’T want to change it, as it will often cause nasty things to happen…and these modern trannies are too expensive to replace! I’d feel comfortable doing it at 40K.

    On ones that say “no changes for the life of the unit”, I’d do it anyway- ’cause if you don’t, the “life of the unit” will likely be somewhere between 80-130K…especially with VW, as they make crappy automatics (See the “new” Beetle!)

    How many miles is the powertrain warranty on your TDI good for?

  3. I can’t imagine not changing the filter and fluid on anything. The worst, and possibly final thing you might do to an automatic is get it “flushed”.

  4. I had a timing belt fail on my 1989 Subaru XT… on the way to my sisters’ wedding! Which I was going to videotape (I was in the business at the time). All the equipment (late ’80s vintage, so lots of stuff) was loaded in the back, about 5 miles away from the church. There I am, hitching a ride in my suit and non-hiking shoes. Then borrow a car to drive back and get the gear, high-tail it back to the church to get set up about half an hour before the ceremony was to start. Then figure out how to get the car off the highway and to a shop.

    Completely preventable.

  5. VW originally had a “no service required” interval for the Aisin/AW 6-speed 09G automatic in the A5’s (Jetta, Golf, etc.) behind the 5-cylinder 2.5L engine. They changed that sometime prior to 2009 to 40Kmiles for a fluid/filter change. 40 Kmiles is a good change interval in my opinion for most automatics driven in standard conditions.

    Oh, and BTW, I don’t know about yours, but my 09G has a blasted drain/standpipe combo for level checking and filling, FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE PAN dammit! No dipstick, no topside fill port. Makes level checking a major PITA, and requires hooking the computenmachine up to read the AT’s temp (level must be checked with fluid temp reading 35-45 deg C, on level ground). I’d like to find the mental midget engineer who thought no-dipstick was jolly good fun, and find a good place to shove that standpipe!

  6. The owner’s manual of my aunt’s 1974 Chrysler Imperial mentioned that the Torque Flite automatic transmission needed NO service at all. But wasn’t Chrysler wrong about that? It’d stand to reason that you’d want to at least change the fluid and filter.

    • AMC used Chrysler TorqueFlite automatics starting in 1972 and said the same thing – no service required in “regular” use. However my ’72 AMC owner’s manual does state that for heavy-duty use the automatic transmission fluid and filter should be changed, and bands adjusted, every 24,000 miles. (The term “heavy duty” is not defined and left to the imagination.)

      I seriously doubt mine would have lasted this long if I followed the “no service” advice of the owner’s manual. Of course neither company was looking at a service life measured in decades. (Really all they cared about was getting through the warranty period!) If your aunt’s ’74 has never had a fluid change and the trans still works she either doesn’t drive much, is very lucky, or both!

      • I was going through some of her old personal effects whilst cleaning out the attic last weekend and found the manual there. I took a look at it and was like “what?” when I read that. My aunt didn’t drive all that much, though, but I’m sure my uncle made sure that the cat did get its service: there was also a logbook that ended in 1984-5 or so that included all services except for the transmission.


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