Understanding and Maintaining Your Transmission without Losing Your Mind

The transmission system in your vehicle is probably its most complex system in terms of automotive mechanics. But take heart: You don’t have to be a genius to understand it (or I wouldn’t be writing about it!).

For starters, think of the transmission as a communication system that takes messages from you about whether you want to go forward or backward — and at what speed — and passes them on to the wheels. Transmission systems vary from one vehicle to another.

With a manual transmission (sometimes called a standard transmission), you shift into the proper gear at the proper time yourself; with an automatic transmission, the shifting is done for you. Some newer vehicles feature a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

But the result is the same: Every transmission transmits power from the engine and directs it to the wheels. However, it doesn’t do the job alone; it’s part of a system that has several components, commonly known as the drive train. This chapter takes you for a ride on the drive train. By the end of the line, the transmission and its related parts should no longer be a mystery.

All aboard! After you get familiar with the drive train, your next mission (if you care to undertake it) is to establish a closer relationship with it. Because most of the parts related to your drive train are either electronic or require special tools and a hoist to deal with, you really can’t do much to repair it yourself. However, you have no reason to feel helpless because there are lots of things you can do for your drive train, such as troubleshooting, simple maintenance, undertaking repairs wisely, and driving in ways that don’t abuse it.

This chapter covers it all. If you maintain it properly, the transmission and other parts involved will glide you along smoothly for the life of your vehicle. If it isn’t performing well, being able to troubleshoot the symptoms can save you hundreds — even thousands — of dollars. Whenever you encounter a term set in this font, you’ll find it defined in the glossary in Appendix A.

            The Drive Train

When your vehicle changes direction from forward to reverse, the drive wheels that actually drive the car (you find out which ones they are later in this chapter) don’t just have to be told which way to rotate. They also must know how fast to turn, and they must be supplied with extra power for starting, climbing hills, and pulling heavy loads.

All these things are accomplished via the drive train. By knowing what each part does and how it relates to the other parts of the drive train, you can trace the flow of power from the engine to the wheels.

Here’s an interesting way to look at how the drive train functions: Imagine that you’re the captain of a ship. You have a lovely set of engines down in the engine room that manufactures power to move your ship. You’re up on the bridge, surveying the ocean with your binoculars when suddenly you see an iceberg dead ahead.

Last word

Instead of running down to the engine room and personally reversing the propellers so that the ship moves backward, you pick up the intercom and call the engine room.

“This is the captain speaking. Reverse engines!” The person in the engine room hears you and does what’s necessary. The ship is saved.

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