ATF Fluid: What Type Is Right For My Car?

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Articles, Transmission Service


Automatic transmissions use a special type of oil, called Automatic Transmission Fluid, or ATF. This fluid has a number of duties in the transmission, including lubrication, cooling, and clutch application.

ATF even provides the connection between the engine and transmission, through a hydraulic coupling called a torque converter. And, when squeezed between the clutches, ATF acts as a “glue,” providing additional friction and holding capacity to drive the vehicle.

So ATF is a very versatile fluid. That’s why maintaining that fluid can be so critical to transmission life.

Several years ago there were only two types of fluid on the market: Type A and Type F. Conventional wisdom said that Type F was for Fords and Type A was for everything else. Conventional wisdom wasn’t all that accurate even back then, and today it’s completely out the window.

Today there are literally dozens of different fluid types, each with a specific set of friction modifiers to meet the requirements of the hundreds of different transmissions on the market.


ATF Automatic Transmission Fluid
There are many different types of transmission fluid on the market, and using the wrong type can affect your transmission’s performance and longevity.

And that includes the newer Continuously Variable Transmissions, or CVTs. These units place additional demands on the transmission fluid, and require a special fluid that meets their unique requirements.

Using the wrong fluid in today’s transmissions will affect transmission performance in the short run. And it can cause the transmission to fail by providing inadequate lubrication and friction modification. So it’s very important to make sure you’re using the fluid your transmission is designed for.

How can you tell which transmission fluid is right for your car? Check the owner’s manual or transmission dipstick. They should both provide a detailed specification for the fluid type required.

And always use a quality fluid; avoid the no-name brands. They might save you a few cents — or even a few bucks — for a quart. But many of those nameless fluids can provide incomplete additive packages, regardless of the rating on the bottle.

In some cases your only choice will be to use a factory fluid, available from your dealer. They’ll usually be expensive, but worth the extra cost in the long run.

If you have other questions about the fluid requirements for your car’s transmission, your local ATRA Member shop will be happy to answer them for you. Stop in and ask for their recommendation; they’ll be happy to check your car’s fluid level and help you top it off.

To find an ATRA Member shop near you, click the Shop Finder link.

If you have any questions you can e-mail them to ATRA's Technical Department through the Technical Services page or call 1-866-GO-4-ATRA (1-866-464-2872)

More Transmission Service articles available.