All Types Of Automatic Transmission Fluid Explained


The modern automobile relies on a long list of different fluids, especially for its transmission system. However, there are several types of automatic transmission fluids (ATFs), and you must understand which one your car needs.

Firstly, there’s the multi-vehicle ATF that’s designed for use in most vehicles. Cars with CVT transmissions, however, require a specially-formulated CVT fluid instead. Meanwhile, some car brands need fluids made by their manufacturers, like Dexron IV (by GM), Mercon V (by Ford), and ATF+4 (for Chrysler). Older Ford models require an older ATF called the Type-F.

Using the correct type of automatic transmission fluid in your car is crucial, so this article will teach you about the different types that exist. You’ll also discover what happens if you use the wrong kind and what you can do to fix that problem.

Why Are There Different Kinds Of Automatic Transmission Fluids?

Automatic transmission fluids come in several types, and using the wrong one will have negative consequences. The reason for that is that auto manufacturers produce many different transmission systems, each with their own complex needs.

The differences among transmission systems mean each requires a fluid with unique friction characteristics. Manufacturers meet those requirements by producing different automatic transmission fluids, each with particular substances and additives to meet the needs of those different transmissions.

Despite their differences, all automatic transmission fluids ultimately serve the same core functions, which are the following:

  • Lubricate the transmission’s gears
  • Prevent or remove build-ups that form inside the transmission
  • Absorb excess heat to prevent overheating

Similarly, all the different kinds of automatic transmission fluid must also be clean and replaced regularly to ensure the system can function well. None of those fluid types is immune to getting dirty with extended use.

At the end of the day, the best and most straightforward way to know which automatic transmission fluid your car needs is to refer to the manufacturer’s recommendation. Doing so will prevent your transmission from suffering damage while ensuring it functions optimally.

You can find the manufacturer’s recommendation for which automatic transmission fluid to use by referring to the car owner’s manual or contacting their customer service hotline.

Read: How To Troubleshoot Honda Accord Transmission Problems?

What Are The Different Types Of Automatic Transmission Fluid?

There are 4 general categories of automatic transmission fluids or ATFs. This section will take a closer look at each one of them.

1. Multi-vehicle ATF

Firstly, let’s take a look at multi-vehicle ATF. As the name suggests, this fluid type is designed to work well with most transmission systems. That also means there’s a strong likelihood your vehicle currently has this fluid circulating in its transmission.

Multi-vehicle ATF typically consists of synthetic base oils that include the latest additives available on the market. 

Since they are widely used, these fluids are also tried and tested in many different vehicles and transmission types. So, you can trust that they’ll provide the best protection while also optimizing performance.

Unlike some of the other automatic transmission fluids you’ll read about below, multi-vehicle ATF isn’t licensed by any particular car maker. That means you can find the fluid sold by many different brands and, therefore, at many different price ranges.

Read: 3 Signs That Car’s Transmission Is Slipping And Has A Serious Problem

2. CVT Fluid

When you shop around or read about cars, you’ll find that many use a continuously variable transmission or CVT. These transmission systems offer numerous benefits, like increased performance and fuel efficiency.

However, they work very differently compared to more conventional transmissions found in most cars. In addition, they require an automatic transmission fluid explicitly designed for CVT models.

CVT fluid is also based on synthetic based oils, though the additives and overall formulation are different.

With over 20% of cars on the road these days using continuously variable transmissions, CVT fluid is also becoming increasingly popular in the market.

Read: Transmission Fluid Leak When Parked

3. Dexron VI, Mercon V, and ATF+4

Interestingly, there are also proprietary auto transmission fluids created by some of the largest auto manufacturers in North America. These fluids are formulated by those manufacturers and then licensed to other companies producing transmission fluids.

You can think of these fluids as tailor-made solutions aimed at specific car models and their transmissions. Each has a different combination of additives and chemicals added to it to optimize gear shifting and part lubrication, bringing out the best performance possible in their intended vehicles.

Three of the most well-known auto transmission fluids in this category are:

  • Dexron IV by GM
  • Mercon V by Ford
  • ATF+4 by Chrysler

Given how these three car brands are some of the most widely used in the US, each of their licensed ATFs is also some of the most common types you’ll ever find used in American vehicles.

Read: What Is Average Transmission Fluid Change Cost?

4. Type-F Fluid

Ford also makes another automatic transmission fluid called Type-F. Unfortunately, this fluid hasn’t been used in cars since the 1970s, which means it’s becoming increasingly rare.

Unlike the other ATFs on this list, Type-F lacks the standard friction modifiers in others. So, using that fluid in modern transmissions is a terrible idea.

Read: Automatic Transmission Repair Cost

What Happens If You Use The Wrong Transmission Fluid?

Using the wrong transmission fluid harms your vehicle, and you’ll quickly experience many problems.

Here are some of the negative consequences of using the wrong automatic transmission fluid:

  • Car stalls while it shifts gears
  • The transmission or engine will make loud clunking noises
  • The gears will shift roughly and slip
  • The clutch system will seize entirely

As you can see, using the wrong ATF can destroy the transmission system.

What Should You Do If You Use The Wrong Automatic Transmission Fluid In Your Car?

Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to correct your mistake as soon as you realize you’ve used the wrong ATF.

Here’s what you must do when you use the wrong transmission fluid:

  • Firstly, do not start your car engine or shut it off as soon as possible. That will minimize the circulation of the wrong fluid that you’ve used.
  • Next, drain the transmission system and flush it as much as possible. You can do it yourself or hire a mobile mechanic to do it wherever your car is parked.
  • Once the transmission is clean, you can then pour fresh automatic transmission fluid. Again, double-check the car owner’s manual to ensure that you’re using the correct ATF this time.
  • Lastly, don’t forget to take your vehicle for a test drive. The test drive is crucial to ensure that your transmission works correctly without any problems.

So to recap, as soon as you realize you’ve made a mistake using the wrong automatic transmission fluid, shut your engine off immediately.

Doing so will minimize the damage and hopefully prevent extensive damage to your transmission.

Final Thoughts

At the core of everything, all automatic transmission fluids (ATFs) serve the same purpose. They all lubricate moving parts and keep them from grinding against each other, help remove build-ups, and prevent overheating.

Given that there are many kinds of transmissions on the market from different auto manufacturers, there are also different ATFs tailored to suit their needs. Firstly, you have multi-vehicle ATF for general use and CVT fluid for continuously variable transmissions.

Then, you have brand-specific ATFs like Dexron IV for GM cars, Mercon V for Fords, ATF+4 for Chryslers, and Type-F for older Ford models.

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