My car sounds like a motorcycle! Advice?

I drive a 2000 Saturn SL2 with about 85k miles on it. My grandfather bought it in 2004 with 48k miles on it, and left it to me in December 2016 with 52k miles on it. I’ve put about 33k on it since of course, having had it going on 4 years.

I’m not a car guy but I’ve been pretty sure that the transmission isn’t the best. It’s slow to accelerate and jumpy when switching gears and always has been (my guess is due to my grandfather barely driving it for 12 years). No true issues ever though. Until now.

2-3 weeks ago I took the car to Vavoline for an oil change and they told me that according to Saturn, the car was due for transmission fluid and radiator fluid (whether this is simply “changing” the fluid because it is old, or adding new fluid, and whether those are even different is completely lost on me). I didn’t have the time that day plus I know they are notorious upsellers so I opted not to, thinking I’d take it to my mechanic. They did not give me any sense that this was highly urgent. Howeever, since they did say the car needs these every 30k miles according to Saturn, and I’ve driven it almost exactly that much, it checks out.

Here’s where I may have messed up. I drove north for a trip last week which involved me putting 400-500 miles on the car in short succession, including 2 150 mile or so trips, and driving up several fairly steep mountains (this part was an accident/not on purpose). Luckily, yesterday I set an appointment with a good local mechanic I trust to check the fluid issue. But today when I was driving around town the car did not sound right. By the time I was getting home it literally sounded like a motorcycle, and right as I pulled into my driveway the service engine light came on.

Like I said luckily I’m bringing it in Monday anyway, but what am I likely to be looking at here and how much (ballpark) would it run cost wise? According to Kelly Blue Book the car is worth anywhere from 1000-2500 when running properly (depending on trade in or private sale) so I will fix it for a reasonable price but there is a price point at which that would not make sense. Did I screw myself driving it that much with low/old transmission fluid, or will the problem maybe be resolved just by dealing with that?

My guess, an exhaust manifold.

If that’s it, how serious/expensive is that?

I usually change the transmission fluid and filter for the first time around 90,000 miles, and it does not look too bad. Others here recommend to change it much more often, although this is probably only necessary if you have a CVT, if you drive aggressively, or if you use the vehicle for towing. Since your Saturn does not have a CVT, was owned by an old man for most of its life, and is presumably not used for towing, I’d say changing the transmission fluid and filter now should be fine. The noise is probably something minor, such as a damaged muffler or exhaust pipe.

So you think it may be unrelated to my trip with low/old transmission fluid? Again I have very limited knowledge on all this lol, my fear is I did some sort of serious damange to the transmission with this long steep trip. Notably though, the performance hasn’t been much different, if at all.

Valvoline should not let you out of there with low transmission fluid, part of their package is checking fluids.

Saturn or GM have never recommended transmission fluid changes at 30,000 miles, but the people who upsell at oil change places are notorious liars.

Your transmission has a dipstick. Drive the car at least 8 miles, run it through the gears, puit in park with the engine running. Wipe off the dipstick and reinsert it. When you pull it out read the level. It should be clear red, not black and should not smell burnt. If you have to add fluid, buy the right kind at the parts store and don’t overfill.

The noise is likely the exhaust system. Could be the manifold as Barkydog said, or a rusted out exhaust pipe. This is likely the source of your CEL. Until the codes are read and the car is examined, we can only guess.
I don’t know the service schedule for your SL2, but generally cooling system should be serviced around three years, flushed and coolant replaced.
Brake fluid every three years, but I have mine done when I need new pads&rotors.
I think the transmission should be serviced too.
If the car is solid, and is adequate for your use, it makes sense to me to do the required maintenance. If the noise If something more serious—who knows.
Keep in mind any car will require maintenance. Any used car usually carries the risk of breakdown. But a new car equivalent to your Saturn will be in the $20,000 range. Granted a new one offers a lot more technology and safety features.

Take the vehicle to the shop . It should be an independent , not some chain type , You will most likely have a diagnostic fee which is normal . Just tell them you want to approve any work they recommend . After you see the cost then you can decide if it is worth spending the money .

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