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Does your car really need a transmission dipstick?

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2017-09-07 Brian Turner
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De-contenting is a euphemism coined a number of years back to politely describe automakers penny-pinching in their products’ manufacturing process. Think things like no clear coat on body surfaces that can’t be seen, such as door jambs.

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Some automakers took it as far as only using a coloured tint application instead of true colour paint, meaning they could use the same tint to inexpensively treat several different complimentary shades of exterior colour. And there’s things like deleting manual lock cylinders off the front passenger side door; items like this can save a few dollars per vehicle made, and that’s a lot of coin in a mass-production factory. One of these famous or infamous moves, depending on what type of car owner you are, was the deletion of the lowly automatic transmission dipstick.

DIY maintenance types have bemoaned the loss of a way to easily check automatic transmission fluid levels, but this device wasn’t only removed to save a few pennies. Not every driver knows how to correctly measure automatic transmission fluid – and adding too much fluid can do just as much, if not more damage to a transmission that’s running low. Excess fluid tends to create foam, which doesn’t do much for allowing internal clutches to grab correctly. It can also create overflows out of the dipstick tube.

And then there’s the seemingly illogical situation where most automatics are required to have their engines running and be fully warmed up before a correct level can be measured. Some require the driver to cycle the shifter through each gear position and then returning it to park before checking the level. And of course, all automatic gearboxes needed to have their vehicles on a completely level surface to get any kind of accurate reading. So if you don’t have a dipstick, what do you do?

Different vehicles offer different solutions. Some still use a dipstick tube and the dipstick itself is available as a manufacturer-specified tool. These can be ordered through an authorized dealership and some automakers have farmed this out to a third party; for instance, Fiat Chrysler uses Snap-On tools.

Others use either fill-and-check plugs, mounted on the side of the transmission case, or require a short and rigid metal rod to be fitted into its corresponding check-plug hole on the case. These set-ups aren’t easily accessed with vehicles on the ground, and usually requires them to be on a hoist – read: not DIY-friendly. And just to make things more fun, certain transmissions, such as CVTs, can only have their fluid level verified by an electronic scanner.

If you’ve given up, you’re not alone. You should make sure your regular mechanic has the equipment and know-how to verify your transmission’s fluid level during routine services. It’s not only a matter of ensuring the level is correct, but getting a regular report on the fluid’s condition. An experienced tech can tell a lot about what’s happening inside your vehicle’s gearbox just by the colour, smell, and condition of the fluid. This is critical for reliable operation, even on those newer transmissions that are labeled ‘lifetime fill’ or where no regular changes are required.

Finally, these dipstick-less units have pretty much put the kibosh on driving a unit with a small fluid leak that could be topped off from time to time. It’s pretty much fix-it-or-park-it when the dipstick is gone.

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