Inside Your Car 5 August 2022

What you need to know about your car gearbox


There’s more to your car’s gearbox than that fiddly gearstick. The gearbox is part of the car’s transmission that shifts gears between speeds and improves torque. The gearbox is a robust mechanical part and should last a long while as long as it’s regularly serviced.

But not everything lasts, and even with proper maintenance, your gearbox can run into issues. So, what problems should you be on the lookout for, and what driving factors are involved to keep a gearbox in top condition?

What is the lifespan of a gearbox?

Whether you drive a manual or automatic transmission, a properly maintained gearbox should last you many years. Exactly how long they last depend on driving conditions, whether you’re towing heavy loads and even outside temperatures. That said, with normal driving you could get as little as 5-7 years out of a gearbox/transmission, or it could last the lifespan of your vehicle depending on the maintenance. (There’s a bit of luck involved from time to time).

Manual gearboxes tend to last even longer due to their relative simplicity and the ability to give the driver more control for switching gears.

What causes gearbox damage?

As your car’s gearbox contains lots of moving parts, it relies on the transmission fluid or gear oil to keep it lubricated and cool. The quality and age of the fluid can have a huge impact, so it’s important to replace it regularly, as well as use the correct fluid for your car.

The way you drive also influences how long your gearbox/transmission will last, so doing the basics like coming to a complete stop before shifting from Drive to Reverse and vice-versa will mean less physical stress is placed on the gears.

If you drive a manual, simple things like not resting your hand on the gearstick unnecessarily and making sure you always depress the clutch fully will help keep the gears in good shape.

How do you know if your gearbox is going?

Knowing how to recognise gearbox problems early could mean the difference between a simple fix and a total overhaul of your transmission. Here are a few problems to look out for:

  • Leaking fluid: If you see red fluid (or amber for manual transmissions) underneath your car, this is coming from your gearbox. You’ll need to get the leak fixed quickly as your gearbox needs all its fluid to maintain good lubrication and prevent overheating.
  • A burning smell: If you smell burning it could be because your gearbox is overheating, which is bad news. It means that you either have a leak and there’s inadequate fluid to keep it cool, or you’ve used the wrong transmission fluid for your vehicle, so as above, get to a mechanic.
  • Slipping gears: This is when your car slips into a gear that doesn’t correspond with its speed. Other signs are a lack of responsiveness, or a lag between when you shift into gears, and it gets going. Driving it like this is dangerous and can cause overheating.
  • The clutch doesn’t work: If you’re in a manual car and nothing happens when you depress the clutch, this could also be a sign of a faulty gearbox that needs quick attention. This could also mean your clutch has wear or is un-serviceable. This would need to be inspected sooner rather than later.

How do you maintain a gearbox?

You can be forgiven for neglecting your gearbox maintenance, but it’s the number one thing you can do to avoid costly problems in the future—so it’s worth the extra effort.

The simplest way is to check the fluid in your gearbox/transmission regularly. To do this in an automatic, you need to start your car and warm it up, making sure it’s on a level surface. Depending on your car you may need to turn it off to check the fluid, so check the owner’s manual to be sure. When it’s warmed up, check the dipstick found under the hood in the engine compartment. The fluid should be at the top mark, so if it isn’t, it’ll need a top-up. Go slow because too much oil is as bad as too little and it’s hard to take out!

Because life is never simple, some automatic cars don’t have a dipstick, and no manual cars do, so in this case it’s best to take it to a mechanic and get them to check it for you.

Take note of the colour too - dark brown, black, or light pink means it needs replacing.

How can I increase my gearbox’s life?

With so many variables that change the longevity of your gearbox, it pays to know how to get the most out of it.

Having the fluid changed every 40-80,000 km for a manual and every 60 -160,000 km depending on use, condition and previous maintenance for an automatic will ensure that your gearbox is protected from excess wear and tear.

If you’re towing heavy loads or doing a lot of stopping and starting on your commutes, a more frequent change is a good idea. These conditions will cause your gearbox to be under more strain as it will get hotter, and the oil will lose its quality.

How much is a new gearbox?

Price will depend on whether your car is a manual or automatic transmission, as well as the make, model, and size of the car, but it can cost upwards of $4,000.

This is because replacing a gearbox is quite labour intensive, and in the case of automatic transmissions, the gearboxes themselves can be extremely complex.

If you think your car’s gearbox needs some TLC, don’t wait until it’s a bigger problem. Call one of our qualified gearbox specialists.

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