Toyota Camry ATF (Transmission Fluid) Flush or Replacement
When to Replace Your Automatic Transmission Fluid
The Toyota Maintenance Guide for the four-cylinder Camry 5SFE engine says to inspect the automatic transmission fluid (ATF) every 30,000 miles. It doesn't say when or whether to replace the fluid, but in general, mechanics recommend a simple "drain-and-fill" every 30,000 miles.
With most automatic transmissions, ATF operating at or below 175 degrees F should last close to 100,000 miles. But for every 20-degree increase in temperature, ATF fluid life is cut in half. Cars can reach temperatures of 210 degrees or more during towing or stop-and-go summer driving. Fully synthetic ATF can withstand approximately 225 degrees before thermal breakdown.
When ATF breaks down, it "cooks," or oxidizes, losing its detergent and lubricating properties. It turns from bright red to brown or black, and has a burnt smell. Oxidized ATF can cause buildup of varnish and sludge.
Draining and Replacing the ATF
An ATF drain-and-fill is similar to a motor oil change, except there is no paper filter element to replace, and not all the fluid is drained. There is an internal metal mesh filter within the transmission drain cover, but it does not have as fine a mesh as an oil filter, and rarely requires replacement. The drain plug is a 10-mm indented hex bolt requiring a hex socket. You add the new transmission fluid by removing the fluid level dipstick, and inserting a narrow-mouthed funnel into the dip stick tube.
Approximately 2.6 quarts of fluid can be drained from the transmission oil pan, and replaced via the dipstick. Considerable fluid will remain in the transmission's torque converter, the transmission oil lines, and the radiator. If the fluid is dark red and has not turned brown, it’s okay to mix old and new fluid without flushing. But if the fluid is brown or black, a complete flush of the system would be in order. This would require about four additional quarts of oil.
How Flushing the ATF Works
The purpose of a 'flush' is to pump out as much as possible of the old oxidized ATF fluid out of the transmission and fluid lines. The engine's hydraulic pressure pumps new ATF through the system to push out an additional 4 quarts of trapped ATF.
Before doing a flush, perform a drain-and-fill and drive the car for a few days. The new fluid's detergent additives will dissolve harmful deposits from transmission components. Once these deposits are broken down and suspended in the fluid, a flush will remove them.
Even after doing a complete flush of an old, high-mileage Camry, you can expect the ATF to turn dark again within six months. At that time you can do a simple drain-and-fill or repeat the flush. The fluid should now stay red much longer.
- 10 mm hex wrench
- Containers to catch used ATF, including one or more transparent or translucent containers like milk jugs or empty ATF jugs
- Long-tipped needle-nosed pliers
- (Optional) hose pliers
- New ATF (3 quarts for a drain-and-fill, 7 quarts for a flush)
1. Lift Front End to Access Drain Plug
Lift and support the front end safely so you can locate the drain plug for the ATF.
While you are under the car, you can look at a couple of other things:
- Check for any fluid leaks where the CV axle meets the transmission. Signs of oil from this area may indicate a worn transmission axle shaft seal. If so, the axle will have to be pulled from the transmission, the seal pried out from the transmission, a new seal pressed in, and the axle shaft re-installed.
- A leak from the valve cover plug (on the right side of the engine) is likely a leak of engine oil, and not a transmission leak.
- Check the fluid level of the torque converter - although I've never encountered one that leaked.
2. Remove Drain Plug and Drain Out ATF; Replace Plug
Locate your 10 mm hex socket to remove the transmission drain plug.
Remove the drain plug and drain out the ATF into a ready container. Screw the drain plug back in when draining is complete.
An inexpensive socket set you can use on Japanese cars.
Just Doing a Drain-and-Fill?
If you are just doing a drain-and-fill, and not a flush, skip to step 8 below, position your funnel as shown there, and add 2.6 quarts of new ATF. Replace the dipstick. You are done. Check your transmission fluid level again after your engine has run for a few minutes and has reached normal operating temperature.
3. To Flush the ATF: Remove the Hose Clamp on the ATF Return Line
If you are doing a flush, using an additional four quarts of ATF, you will want to drain the ATF from the torque converter. To do that, remove the hose clamp on the line that returns the ATF to the transmission from the radiator. Needle-nosed pliers make this easier.
4. Remove Return Hose
If you have hose pliers, you can use them to hold the hose. Twist the hose and push down.
These hose removal pliers make removing the hose easy.
5. Position Return Line Through Splash Pan
Run the ATF return line through the splash pan hole.
6. Feed Return Line Into Empty Container
Put the end of the return line hose into an empty 5-quart container, to receive ATF that will be pumped out of the torque converter.
7. Place Funnel in Dipstick Tube
Put an appropriate size funnel into the dipstick tube, and add 3.6 quarts of new ATF (for a flush; just 2.6 quarts for a drain-and-fill).
8. Pump out Two Quarts of Old ATF
Start the car and observe the ATF being pumped into the container at the end of the disconnected return line. Stop the engine when the 2-quart mark has been reached.
9. Add Another Two Quarts of New ATF
Add another two quarts of ATF through the transmission dipstick tube.
10. Pump Out Another Two Quarts
Start the car again and observe the ATF oil being pumped into the container. Stop the engine when the container is at the 4-quart mark.
11. Add One More Quart
Add one last quart of ATF, to leave 2.6 quarts total in your transmission oil pan. Replace dipstick.
12. Replace Return Line
Reconnect the ATF return line to your transmission and secure the hose clamp.
13. Check Fluid Level
13. Start your car and let it reach its normal operating temperature. While the engine is running, check the ATF fluid level with the dipstick. Add more oil if not at the high mark.
What ATF To Use
Synthetic ATF, such as Mobil or the new General Motors Dexron VI Synthetic Blend ATF, will extend the drain-and-fill interval beyond 30,000 miles and may extend the life of your transmission. 1990 to 2001 Camrys require Dexron III. The Dexron VI is backward compatible to Dexron III and will not harm your transmission.
Even though auto manufacturers want you to buy their own ATF, I have used other brands successfully in Toyotas, Volvos, and VWs. I have had the best success using a Universal Synthetic ATF made by Amalie Oil Corporation, which supplies WalMart under the SuperTech Brand. Also Valvoline Full Synthetic ATF, compatible with Toyota Type IV ATF and Honda ZF, was selling at Walmart in Oct. 2013 for $16.40 a gallon, or a little over $4 a quart, whereas most auto retailers sell synthetic ATF for $8 - $10 a quart. A colleague who used to work for Valvoline told me they maintain a very high quality control standard.