Transmission technology is changing. As with so many OE-driven automotive technologies, the issue is fuel economy. But how this relates to transmissions and the fluids that make them work is a unique world separate from other automotive lubricants. It is a world that takes some energy to understand–slippery stuff, this ATF.
First and foremost among the differences between motor oil standards and those for automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is that the standards are set and policed by vehicle manufacturers, with no connection to the American Petroleum Institute (API). There is no API donut on ATF.
“The OEMs set the standards and then they license their products,” says Dick Clark, products associate for lubricant issues at the API. As such, the API has no official role to play in the various ATF standards that are proliferating in the marketplace. This doesn’t mean that Clark is unaware of what’s going on though; he maintains a strong list of contacts at the car manufacturers.
“Ford operates their Mercon program and GM the Dexron program, and Chrysler its program. What happens is that as an oil marketer, you would have to apply to Ford or GM as an M number or a D number respectively.
“They set their specs and they license their products and they have their own quality programs. Part of the issue is that engine oils get looked at and changed more often than ATF. People should pay more attention to their ATF than they really do, but that doesn’t happen.”
Clark says that the fact that ATF is so often ignored leads to misunderstandings about it.
“A transmission fluid is probably one of the most technically complex products in a vehicle. It has to do so many different things over such a wide range, so it’s interesting that way.”
“The number one driver for transmissions is fuel economy,” says Jim Arner, manager technical services for Texaco Products Inc. “So hardware changes are the primary focus. As technologies change we expect to see more fluids introduced to meet those requirements.” Design considerations have led to some incredible improvements in the longevity of both the drivetrain and fluids. “Equipment and oil companies have cooperated to greatly improve durability, despite streamlining, reduced weight, and reduced capacities,” says Arner.
Developments over the past few years have spurred changes in the type and number of ATF standards on the market. It’s not just a question of “if it’s red, it’s ATF” anymore.
Ford’s Mercon supplanted Type F fluids and itself gave way to Mercon V for 1997 model year vehicles. DaimlerChrysler has its ATF +3 standard as a requirement since 1994, and has already changed to ATF+4 in 2000 and up models. General Motors has successively upgraded its Dexron products and Dexron III is now the standard for the marketplace, with Dexron IV continuing to be awaited, but yet to arrive.
The point of reference for the aftermarket is that vehicles from the mid-1990s are only now entering their prime aftermarket years, while older vehicles, using the older ATF types, also continue to linger.
“They’ve been working on a new Dexron for years, but they haven’t got there yet,” says Rick Morton, manager tech services, Pennzoil-Quaker State Canada Company.
“When I was in sales, we had two fluids. We thought we’d have one fluid by now. Then everybody started developing their transmissions differently, using different clutch materials, so we’re getting more types instead of fewer.”
ATF does share one common denominator with motor oil: maximum service life versus real-world requirements.
“The goal of the OEMs is to try to get fill for life. They fill it on the assembly line and you shouldn’t need to change it. However, that’s under normal driving conditions, and in the real world, everybody drives under severe conditions, especially in Canada.”
And, under those conditions, says Morton, ATF should be changed about every 40,000 kilometers (though some GM Dexron III specs put this at 90,000 km). And, in addition to the predictable lack of attention to change intervals on the part of the consumer, the growing number of ATF types on the market increases the possibility that consumers and even technicians can inadvertently use the wrong one, especially when service stations may only stock Type F and the older Chrysler type (and even if they have a wider selection).
“When you go to these stations, a consumer could be potentially putting in the wrong fluid,” says Gabe Giordano, product specialist, Kendall Motor Oil, in Exton, Penn. “Especially if you grab a quart of Type F because it’s cheaper, you’ll be looking for trouble in a hurry.”
Giordano says that even technicians have to be vigilant.
“They’ve really got to be paying attention. The worst part is that problems may not show up right away. It may show up 20,000 to 30,000 kilometers down the road as excessive slipping or shudder. Then it’s expensive.”
The situation has not been helped by the proliferation of import ATF standards either. While many imports tout compatibility with Dexron II standards, there are just enough differences to raise the red flag on any over-generalization about compatibility.
“Each manufacturer has a different frictional material for the clutches. The reason you can get by with a fluid that will be both Mercon V, Mercon and Dexron III is that there is an overlap in their requirements. It’s a very small window but it’s there. Unfortunately Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan have different frictional properties. What most oil companies do is to shoot for the Big Three business.
“What has happened, especially with the Japanese, is that some of the products that are out there are very similar–Mazda and Ford, Mitsubishi and Chrysler–but Honda is different. A Honda automatic transmission is more of a Dexron II type of product, but there some things that they do to make it unique.”
The simple fact is that there is no universal fluid–as Rick Morton says, “because there is no universal transmission”–and, unlike motor oil, when a new standard comes to market, it is added to the existing standards; it does not necessarily replace them.
For most circumstances, then, it’s back to the Big Three. In ATF terms, there is enough proliferation there to satisfy even the most masochistic in the aftermarket (see sidebar). The pain can be felt on your stockroom shelf.
There are solutions available on the market to curb this proliferation somewhat, however. In addition to existing and imminent multi-ATF type solutions from oil companies, there are additive packages available that can convert the more popular types, such as Dexron.
“We have specialized supplements that will convert normal Dexron/Mercon fluid into some of the specialized fluids from manufacturers,” says Bruce Richardson of ATP-Inc. “This will modify the Dexron/Mercon fluids and will have the same properties as the OE fluid. There is also the new Mercon V fluid and we have a supplement that will convert Dexron/Mercon to Mercon V. And then we have a synthetic protectant that will give some normal synthetic properties that will make it shift a bit better.
“There are a lot of vehicles that have torque converter shudder,” he explains. “The shudder is when the torque converter starts engaging and sometimes it doesn’t engage smoothly.” Verstile is the word. “The formula is such that it can be used in a variety of applications. I have installers call to find out what’s in it, because it works so quickly,” says Richardson.
In addition to additives such as this, ATP-Inc. is a supplier of transmission parts and, as such, Richardson has watched the changes in materials and design that have required the different fluids.
“What the manufacturers are trying to do is deal with two different issues. One is the friction material. They’re trying to get a fluid that will work with those materials, so that you won’t get that shudder.” They are trying to achieve seamless shifting, says Richardson, hence the desire to make slipperier ATF types. “The other issue is they’re trying to get a fluid they can leave in a transmission for over 160,000 kilometers without
having to service it.”
“For instance, Chrysler has tried to fix mechanical problems by changing fluids,” says Mark Campbell, technical services, Valvoline. Campbell says that the fact that some fluids are multi-use, such as Dexron/Mercon, while others are not, is bound to create confusion.
“What has happened is that life is a lot more complex now. ATF is the most complex fluid you have in your vehicle. There are 100 additives or so to choose from. You have to go to the right ones because the requirements are so different.”
Simply reaching for the wrong bottle can cause everything from shifting irregularities to outright transmission failure. “It’s like taking the wrong medicine. If you take aspirin for a stomach ache, it’s only going to make it worse.”
In ATF terms, getting it wrong has the potential to inject pain directly into the pocketbook of a customer.
The best view for jobbers and their counterpeople is to ensure they and the technicians they supply are extra vigilant when it comes to transmission fluid service. It is a market that holds some great profit potential, as vehicles stay on the road longer and more of them are equipped with automatic transmissions. It’s just not as simple as it used to be.
And when a mistake happens, you can be assured that blame and aggravation aren’t far behind. It’s automatic.