Hardlymoving writes about do-it-yourself automobile maintenance on various makes and models.
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 dipstick 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 socket
- 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)
Which Kind of 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.
The below video provides a step-by-step procedure for performing a ATF flush on a 4-cylinder Toyota Camry:
The video below will show you how I performed a transmission fluid flush (or fluid exchange) assisted with a 12-volt portable electric oil pump powered by the car's battery on a Lexus ES300 (equivalent to the Toyota Camry V6). In my previous transmission fluid flush videos, I would pour the new ATF in the transmission via the transmission dipstick tube. Car manufacturers have decided to eliminate the dipstick with all their new model vehicles, so I had to find another way to get ATF fluid into these transmissions accurately and efficiently. So what I did on the ES300 can be performed on any vehicle that has a transmission fluid service port. On Toyota and Lexus vehicles, it's a 24-mm service bolt accessible through the driver's side fender splash guard.
I bought the 12-volt portable pump on Amazon.
I bought the hard plastic tubing from Home Depot.
I got the waste container from a dumpster behind a restaurant. The container used to hold vegetable oil.
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 reinstalled.
- A leak from the valve cover plug (on the right side of the engine) is likely a leak of engine oil, 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.
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.
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
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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: My car is a 06 Toyota Camry with 2129k miles on it. It’s really sluggish now. Do you think a transmission flush will help, or do I need a new or rebuilt transmission?
Answer: When you said sluggish, do you mean the engine power or transmission shifting? That may affect the solution. It doesn't hurt to do a "drain and fill" Vs a flush of the transmission fluid with synthetic ATF.
Question: I have Toyota Camry 2012 with 138 km and no change with the trans oil. The transmission is now shifting poorly and is shaking. If I change the trans oil, will it help?
Answer: I believe so, yes. The first thing I do with spotty transmission shifts is to change the fluid.
Question: My car is Camry 2009 XLE v6 3.5 and my transmission is slipping on the first or second gear, would you guys recommend to change the transmission fluid because I just bought the car and I don't know when the last time he changed the transmission fluid, and what transmission fluid should I use synthetic or which number, I'm living in a hot country (Dubai)?
Answer: A trans oil change (a drain and fill only) might help with the slippage problem. If it gets better, wait a few thousand miles before doing another drain and fill.
Question: How does the fluid get pumped out of the return line from the radiator? Shouldn't one disconnect the line going TO the radiator? And how can I tell which hose is which?
Answer: A little left over fluid won't matter much. To tell supply from return hose ... trial and error.
Question: What is the transmission fluid should I use, synthetic or which number on my 2009 camry xle v6?
Answer: I like the Valvoline Synthetic ATF. Compatible with most cars.
Question: I have Camry 2016 having 159000 miles on it, mostly highway miles. Now, I feel the transmission shatter at a speed of 30-40 miles, Do I need to change the ATF in my Camry? Will changing the ATF help out to fix the shatter?
Answer: I would think that it would. Do a transmission drain and fill for the next 3 engine oil changes. Each drain and fill will only amount to about 3.5 qtrs of ATF fluid. The new ATF fluid will mix with the old fluid helping to dilute the old fluid. By the 3rd change, the fluid should appear red and little of the clutch sediment would remain suspended in the oil.
Question: I have a 2006 Corolla. Transmission colling lines rusted and I lost fluid. Replaced lines and added 3 quarts of fluid as manual suggests and car did not go at all, engine just revved. I added 2 more quarts and the car would go into gear and drive for a short distance, then would slow down to a stop while the engine still ran. I would turn off the car, start it back up and the car would go but after a short distance, it would do the same thing. Why is my Corolla stopping suddenly?
Answer: If you continued driving the car with low ATF before noticing the oil leak, the transmission internals may have been damaged. Recommend you bring your car to a professional transmission shop to get an assessment.
Question: My car is a 2008 Toyota Camry with 4 cylinders. How many liters of ATF do I need for a Toyota Camry?
Answer: I'm guessing the total capacity is around 8 quarts. If you're doing a simple drain and fill, around 3.5 quarts.
Question: You don't know for sure if the new fluid added via dipstick hole isn't getting pushed through the hoses and out to your bucket before it goes thru the torque convertor, right? Wouldn't it be better to have a bucket of new fluid getting sucked into the place where you disconnected in order to put in the discard bucket? In this way are you sure you are putting/taking in the same part of the 'loop'?
Answer: New fluid introduced via the dip stick goes into the oil pan; than the oil gets sucked up and pushed through the torque converter mixing with the oil fluid getting pushed out. The new fluid will eventually replace the old. This is called a fluid exchange.
Question: I have a 2012 Toyota Sienna with 75k miles. It doesn't have a dipstick, it has drain bolt with ATF fluid level Plastic tube and a fill bolt. As I have 75k miles on it, I drained and filled it with Toyota O.E ws ATF . Its 7.5 qtz capacity of ATF. How do I do the flush it with a pump?
Answer: View the video "Pump-Assisted Transmission Fluid Flush (or Exchange) on a Lexus ES300" within this article. For the Sienna, in lieu inserting the 12v electric pump fill tube into the transmission dip stick tube which you don't have, place the tube into the side service port (fill bolt hole). The remaining procedure for doing the fluid exchange is the same. You'll have to remove the air intake leading to your air filter box to get access to the ATF return line.
Question: How many quarts of transmission fluid does a Camry transmission need to be full?
Answer: It depends on whether the V6 or I4 engine. Better to drain and measure the amount in a used container. Let the engine get to normal operating temp, then check the dipstick fluid level.
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