CarTalk.com Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

Car suddenly leaked all transmission fluid - Update

I posted my situation with my Saturn last weekend and got a few helpful comments. Thanks for the responses. I listened to what most said and tried putting more fluid in the transmission to see where the leak is coming from. I can’t tell whether it’s a cooling line, gasket or seal that is the culprit (or something else altogether) but it’s definitely the transmission. My dad used to answer all my car questions and do minor servicing for me. I wonder if there’s anything anyone can tell me that would help me understand how to diagnose it further, and what the potential cost could be, ball park, for a fix such as a broken cooling line, gasket or seal (minor fixes) that I mentioned. I might just need to take it to the mechanic without really knowing whether it’s a big problem/cost that I’m looking at, or whether its one of these little fixes. I was trying to avoid sinking the diagnosis fee if, in the end, it turns out to be something that’s too costly to be worth fixing. In that case, I’ll just donate it without getting the diagnosis. With my limited skill set, determining what is leaking might be too tricky for me to do.

My original question is below:

I have a 1998 Saturn with about 270,000 miles. Two weeks ago, I was shifting in and out of reverse and drive, trying to get out of a tight spot in my driveway. Suddenly, I heard some sputtering noises. The transmission started jamming and jarring, rather than shifting. I got out of the car and saw transmission fluid rapidly leaking all over the driveway. I put the car in park, turned it off, and haven’t done anything for about two weeks because I had to go out of town.

Now that I’m back at home, I’m trying to assess the situation. I’m not sure if I should spend any money for a mechanic to even diagnose this car because it’s only worth a few hundred dollars, if that. I figure that any diagnosis and repair work will probably far exceed the value of the car. I guess the worst case scenario is that the transmission is blown. I would not invest in a new or rebuilt transmission. I suppose the best case scenario is that this is merely a leak that might only require a $2-$300 repair. I don’t think I could justify spending upwards of that, $400 or more, on this car.

I’m wondering if someone might be able to help me assess the odds of what could be wrong and the chance that this could be a $2-300 repair. Once I know those odds, I would feel more comfortable deciding whether I should have AAA tow it to a mechanic, or whether I should simply get rid of it for good.

Any expert opinions are welcome!
keith August 30 Report Could be the axle shaft seal, that would be pretty cheap. It could also be one of the cooling lines, that would be even cheaper. A leak like that should have left quite a trail. You should be able to look at it and see where the fluid escaped.

Its always best to just follow up from inside of your original thread: http://community.cartalk.com/discussion/2279903/car-suddenly-leaked-all-transmission-fluid#Item_6

Its not at all clear what you’re asking at this point. You’re losing transmission fluid. We knew that already. So someone has to get under the car to inspect and see where the leak is coming from. It isn’t clear what you have done along those lines.

There are lots of shops that won’t charge you just to put it in the air for a minute to look for a leak. At that point in time you’ll get an idea about repair cost. Without knowing anything, I think the best anyone could say it that it will cost anything from about $150 (pan gasket) to $3000 (cracked case = new transmission).

If you know anyone who even changes their own oil then I’m sure they could run it up on ramps for you and look for the leak(s).

I agree with cigroller. A leak that big should be easy to spot if you can get it up on car ramps or jack stands. NEVER, EVER, EVER GET UNDER A VEHICLE SUPPORTED JUST BY A JACK!!! Given you’re admitted limited skills, I thought that would be a very nice nugget of personal safety to add.

I don’t want to be negative, but I am not sure even if you can narrow the leak down, you would be able to fix it-or it is worth it. You will have to acquire some tools and parts and there is also trial and error involved. Even for those of us who have changed pan gasket and hoses, not every job goes smoothly. Towing would be wiser because if your transmission fluid is leaking you can run low even if you fill it up before you take off.

The only thing I will add to what everyone has said is this.
If the transmission is full of fluid and not apparently leaking when the vehicle is sitting stationary and with a non-running engine but IS leaking pretty badly when the engine is running, then I would strongly suspect a front pump seal. (a.k.a. torque converter seal)

If this is the case the transmission has to come out to replace this seal and in some cases a new converter or a repair of the old converter with a Speedi-Sleeve may be necessary if the old converter has a bad seal wear groove in it.