Reader Question: The 170k Fluid Change?

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

Jody asks: I’ve got a 2013 Hyundai Elantra with 170k miles.  I’ve never changed the automatic transmission fluid. I have a mechanic I’ve been using for years. He does good work. He couldn’t say for sure if it was a good idea to change the fluid or not at 150k. The car runs well. I don’t feel any slipping or anything else to indicate transmission problems.  Most of the miles are highway driving.  What is your opinion?  Should I change it?

My reply: You have an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, you car is pretty new – or at least, it’s not very old. A seven-year-old car is a barely middle-aged car. It should have at least another 8-10 years of daily-driver service left in it before it begins to feel (and look) old.

But the fluid in your car’s transmission is ancient. It should have been changed 50,000 miles ago, probably. Then there would be no dilemma about changing it now.

Why the dilemma?

If the car were say 12-15 years old I’d leave it be, because changing it now could result in disturbing some small piece of grit within the small passages inside the hydraulic circuit, resulting in a problem you don’t have right now. Probably, it’ll be okay for the next couple of years – and if not, it’s an old car and that sort of thing (transmission failure) happens to old cars.

Your car is not even mid-way through its useful service life. You no doubt want to drive it for at least another five or six years and probably longer. But with 170k on it, the fluid is likely pretty contaminated – and the filter, too. A transmission failure before the next 5-7 years elapse would be bad news indeed.

If it were my car, I would probably change the fluid – but not just what comes out of the pan, which is only about a third or so of the total fluid capacity. I’d drain the whole thing and flush the whole thing – the transmission and torque converter – to get all the old fluid out. Obviously, a new filter should be installed – not so obviously, do this before you have your mechanic flush the transmission. So that the junk in the old filter isn’t forced into circulation. And also the sludge that is likely in the bottom of the pan.

Drop the pan, clean the pan. Remove the filter/replace with a new one and then flush the whole thing. Being extremely OCD, I would then drop the pan again, to clean out any crap that broke loose and to check/clean (and if need be, replace) the new filter you installed prior to the flush.

This procedure is a bit labor intensive and may cost a couple hundred bucks but it’s cheap insurance against a transmission failure caused by not changing the fluid, ever.

. . .

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  1. Don’t change that fluid!! Ok, to be honest, if the transmission was not performing as it always has, that would be my advice, or at least, change half of it and the filter. Yes, there’s madness to this but I’ve seen too many people change the fluid once a transmission started acting up and that was the soon to be end.

    I realize it’s not cheap to have the transmission fluid and filter changed but I’d do it once……with the same sorry fluid it came with. If it did better, I’d change it again in 10K to Amsoil synthetic.

    The wife’s car had been over 50,000 M once and began screwing up. I was using it to travel all over the country in the heat on really dry, plain-ass old dirt roads. It started screwing up one day so I high-pressure washed everything that cooled any part of it. It did a bit better but I was busy every day of the week and didn’t change it. Next thing I know it has a little leak, probably an o-ring in a line(my damned leg was broken highly restricting my mechanic abilities.
    Next thing I know it’s really screwed up. It wouldn’t hit OD and torque converter lock-up was out of the question.

    At that point I had nothing to lose. I changed the fluid and filter and used Amsoil synthetic. Every mile I drove it(use the best filter you can get), it got a tiny bit better. I was slightly encouraged. When it went into 4th with no problem, things looked better but not great. Then one day it just slipped into lock=up and I was holding my breath. Would it be the last lock-up or the first?

    Turns out it began locking up every time and shifts got smoother and like they should. After a couple months or less, the leak disappeared, the o-ring was “fixed”, amazingly enough. The car got to where we couldn’t use it because of the doors. I spent $500 one day on the drive’s door and it worked better for a while with nearly everything inside replaced. I’d already replaced those vertical sorry handles on that side 5 times and replaced a few niggling parts. I though the entire inner working would be the trick. I have doubts right now I could get either door open.

    286,000 miles on a GM 3.1 and a 60 series transmission, never even having the water pump changed I thought it would go half a million miles since it used no oil. But when you can’t get in and can’t leaved teh window down to wrangle the inside handle to get it open, we just gave up.

    There were other reasons such as the wife had run over everything you can think of, hogs, deer, coons, every sort of vermin and that didn’t bother it, tough sumbitch. She’d even ruined both sides running into guard rails. That was a beautiful car before she started driving it. She’s crippled enough so I just forbade her to drive again. The pickup doesn’t need the same thing done to it.

    I don’t mean to brag on myself but I haven’t hit an animal in so many decades I think it was the 60’s when I hit a coon and the 80’s when I stopped and a deer plowed into the fender.

    I’ve driving millions of miles in a big rig and have never run over even a rat. Going to town the other day I was doing about 60 in a 55 and a squirrel tried to kill himself. I jerked the wheel one way and slowly back fast enough I saw him stop just as he almost hit the rear wheel and hauled ass on to live. I was relieved and proud to not hit a squirrel. A few years ago the roads were icy in the dark and I was driving as fast as I dared, about 60 on ice. I saw a doe hauling ass toward my rig, hit the brakes had, saw her try to stop, fall down and slide under the trailer. Evidently there was enough room between her and the trailer axles she slid through on the ice. Coming back that day I saw no sign of a dead dear and it was bare field on either side for half a mile both directions. I was elated I had avoided her. There’s a chance I later shot her and ate her but I didn’t feed the yotes with her.

    Never say never. There is no way to know for sure if a transmission will survive or die but one that works fine, I’d change the oil and filter with this caveat, you don’t have to use Amsoil or any synthetic, but there’s a big difference I found out the hard way with that jobber ATF mechanics use and the good stuff you buy in the store.

  2. Thanks Eric. That’s very helpful. I’ll run your feedback by my mechanic. I suspect he will be of a similar opinion.

    What do you make then of the manufacturer recommendation of no check, no service required except every 60k for severe use? Marketing gimmick? Ploy to gin up business for Hyundai parts manufacture and dealerships? Or does Hyundai really expect that original transmission fluid will not be the limiting factor on the life of their transmission? It occurred to me that it must be improbable for transmission fluid to last the life of a vehicle. Yet I went with Hyundai’s prescribed maintenance recommendations for non severe use. If I understood correctly, you deem that a mistake.




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