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How to select the right ATF for optimal performance

The transmission is a complex system, and every piece needs to be working correctly together to keep the vehicle’s wheels turning. Most car transmissions have five or six gear sets and a series of gear trains that allow the driver to control the amount of power delivered to the engine and keep the engine operating at an appropriate speed. Newer models include up to 9 or 10 speeds. Without a transmission, cars would only be able to use one gear ratio.

There are four types of transmissions: Manual Transmission, Automatic Transmission, Automated Manual Transmission, and Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). This article will focus on Automatic Transmission Fluids (ATFs) for automatic transmissions.

Automatic transmissions are more efficient than manual transmissions but are more mechanically complex. There are a lot of different pieces all working together, and if they are not properly maintained and protected, they are expensive to repair. It’s important to choose an ATF that will keep the transmission protected from damage and ensure it achieves optimal fuel economy and performance.

Selecting an Automatic Transmission Fluid

In automatic transmissions, the ATF keeps the transmission cool and lubricated, and functions as a viscous fluid that transmits power from the engine to the transmission. It lubricates the mechanical components in the transmission, helps maintain fluid pressure, conditions the gasket, and prevents oxidation and rust. Without the right ATF, the transmission is at risk of experiencing severe wear and tear that can put the entire vehicle out of service.

Automatic transmission fluids will have different viscosities, friction coefficients and additives that will impact which types of vehicles they should be used in. The makeup of the transmission fluid protects the transmission and enables improvement in fuel economy. Knowing the make of your vehicle and its type of transmission will help you determine what properties to look for in an ATF.

Check the Owner’s Manual

When choosing a transmission fluid, the first place you should always consult is the owner’s manual for the vehicle. The best ATF will depend on the year, make, and model of your vehicle and its type of transmission. It’s important to be sure you’re using the correct type because using the wrong one can damage the transmission.

  • To learn more about the official OEM recommendations for virtually any vehicle type, check out our Find the Right Oil Tool.

Conventional vs Synthetic

You should also check whether the vehicle requires a conventional versus synthetic fluid. All major automakers have introduced fully-synthetic ATFs as they become more highly utilized for newer vehicles.

Many new vehicles perform better with synthetic fluids, so most ATFs on the market are now blended with synthetic base oils, but there are still some types that can operate on a conventional formulation. Check the official OEM recommendation for your vehicle to be sure.

Types of ATFs

There are several different types of fluids available for automatic transmissions. Some of the most common types are listed below, along with the Kendall recommendation for each type.

Ultra-Low Viscosity (ULV) Automatic Transmission Fluids [DEXRON ULV (GM) / MERCON ULV (Ford)]:

ULV is an ultra-low viscosity for the highest level of fuel economy performance. Kendall® VersaTrans® ULV is a newly introduced full-synthetic, ultra-low viscosity ATF approved for MERCON ULV for use in passenger car and light truck automatic transmissions that require a Ford MERCON ULV or GM DEXRON ultra-low viscosity ATF. VersaTrans ULV helps provide the best fuel economy performance over other ATFs and is one of only a few licensed transmission fluids that is Ford MERCON ULV approved product and can be used in DEXRON ULV applications as well.

Low Viscosity Transmission Fluid (DEXRON VI and MERCON LV):

First generation low viscosity fluids introduced for better fuel economy. Kendall VersaTrans LV is a full-synthetic, low viscosity ATF approved for use in passenger car and light truck automatic transmissions that require a Ford MERCON VI or GM DEXRON LV ATF.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) Fluid:

Kendall CVT Fluid is designed for use in most Honda, Jeep, Mitsubishi, Nissan (except Altima hybrid), and Suzuki vehicles with CVT transmissions. It is not recommended for eCVT or most chain-driven CVT transmissions, or in any non-CVT transmission. Kendall VersaTrans CVT Plus Fluid is designed for a wide range of CVT transmission including eCVT and chain-driven CVT transmissions. May also be used for step type transmissions which helps shops reduce inventory and minimize the risk of misapplication.

Multi-Vehicle Synthetic Transmission Fluid:

Recommended for older (mostly pre-2006) vehicles that require a higher-viscosity fluid. Kendall VersaTrans ATF is a part-synthetic transmission fluid specially designed for automatic transmissions and can be used in most passenger cars and light trucks. It has been extensively field-tested for use in most North American vehicles and a wide variety of European and Japanese vehicles.

How often should you change automatic transmission fluid?

For automatic transmissions, it’s recommended to change the transmission fluid every 60,000 to 80,000 miles. However, the exact mileage will depend on the vehicle’s use – and there is no harm in changing the fluid before it hits that mark, so it’s better to err on the side of caution and change it too early than too late.

If you don’t change the transmission fluid at the recommended interval, the lubricant is at risk of becoming less effective over time. Transmissions are particularly susceptible to rust and corrosion, so it’s important to make sure the fluid is fresh and working as it should be to prevent wear and tear.

Checking Automatic Transmission Fluid Levels

Most transmission failure is the result of overheating, which is usually caused by low fluid levels or depleted fluid due to a lack of regular maintenance. If fluid levels are too low, it can lead to permanent damage to the transmission and an expensive repair or replacement.

Always look for signs of leakage on the ground under the parked vehicle and check for leakage every time you change your oil. If your vehicle has a dipstick, you can use it to check the transmission fluid level. For newer transmissions without dipsticks, you should take it into a shop for regular maintenance so they can assess the levels and make sure there are no leaks.

Not using the correct ATF can prevent your vehicles from performing at their best and lead to expensive repairs later on. Make sure you’re using a formulation that provides superior protection for your transmission, and continue performing proper maintenance to keep getting out what you put in.

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