Are "lifetime" transmission fluids a SCAM?

Arif · Sep 13, 2020 07:00 AM

If you found a genie in a bottle and wished for enough money to last an entire lifetime, things could turn out several ways. He could give you a billion ringgit to let you live lavishly for a good 50 years. He could also not give you anything at all, but make you die the moment your money runs out.

The point is, “lasting an entire lifetime” is only as good as how long a lifetime is. With that, lifetime transmission fluids also depend on the definition of what a lifetime is.

"Genie in a bottle" can also have several interpretations

You’re probably familiar with terms like ATF, CVT fluid, DCT fluid, or manual transmission fluid. They all require some sort of scheduled maintenance if you refer to your owner’s manual.

However, there are cars that come with “lifetime transmission fluids” that claim to not require scheduled maintenance. After all, the name itself implies that the fluid lasts a lifetime.

Is this true? Let’s find out.

Q: What are lifetime transmission fluids?

A: Transmission fluids that last a “lifetime”. Lifetime transmission fluids are usually found in automatic-transmission cars. The bold “lifetime” claim is not due to a magic transmission fluid, but has more to do with the “sealed” design of the transmission.

Q: What cars use lifetime transmission fluids?

A: The 2015 Mazda 2 doesn’t have an ATF maintenance interval stated in the owner’s manual. The interval for the manual transmission is clearly stated. Adrian hashad a Mazda 2, and the official service centre would not do an ATF change upon request. He could get the ATF changed in outside workshops, but that would void the warranty.

More practical than a Toyota 86

Some BMW cars with ZF transmissions also claim to have Lifetime transmission fluids. There is a sticker that explicitly says “Lifetime Oil” on the transmission oil pan.

Mercedes-Benz also has something like this called the “Sealed for life” transmission. The design of the “ATF dipstick” makes it only accessible to Mercedes-Benz service centres.

Brands like Toyota, Hyundai, and Jeep also have their own version of lifetime transmission fluid in their model line-up. If you’re curious whether your car is equipped with a LTF or not, you can always check your owner’s manual under the “scheduled maintenance” section.

You can't live forever. Photo: Mental Floss

Q: Can a transmission fluid last a lifetime?

A: If by lifetime, you mean Queen Elizabeth II life time, then definitely no. There is no clear definition on lifetime. However, it seems that it is understood as the “lifetime of the warranty” or the “standard ownership period” of a brand-new car which is 5 years or a 100,000 km mileage.

If that’s the case, then we can confidently say that “lifetime transmission fluid” does last a lifetime. Go any longer than that (5 years & 100,000 km) without servicing, and your automatic gearbox becomes Schrödinger’s cat. It could be perfectly fine and it could be terribly broken at the same time. You'll have to remove the drain plug to find out.

What's in the box? Photo: Father Edward Barlow

Naturally, fluid transmission degrades over time due to the heat and the shear forces that it experiences. It does not last forever.

Q: What do manufacturers have to say about lifetime transmission fluids?

A: Apparently BMW's "lifetime transmission" transmissions are manufactured by ZF. And ZF never claims their transmissions to run on lifetime transmission fluids. ZF did a presentation on this subject matter a long time ago, and according to them, “lifetime transmission fluids” are only meant to last 100,000 km. Looks like we know what “lifetime” means now. Here’s the video of the presentation:

Q: So, I need to do scheduled maintenance on my lifetime transmission fluid?

A: If you plan to use the car longer than the “standard ownership period”, we’d recommend that. But you might want to do it after the warranty period of your car ends, which is usually at 100,000 km. If your car doesn’t come with “lifetime transmission fluid”, proceed to follow the recommended service interval in the owner’s manual.

Photo: bmwrepairguide.com

Q: But how? The transmission is sealed!

A: No, it’s not. “Sealed” transmissions are sealed from the owners only. Maintenance free transmissions still have accessible service points. For example, the “sealed for life” transmission in the W220 S500 Mercedes-Benz has a one-time-use lock that needs to be broken off to access the dipstick tube.

You need to break the clip to access the ATF dipstick tube in a W220 S500. Photo: mercedessource

It just needs the right tool and the right expertise. Ask around in car owner clubs to know where the best mechanics are.

Q: Why do manufacturers claim to have lifetime transmission fluids?

A: I have no idea. But I think it is something along the lines of regulation on waste disposal and the environment.

Q: My car doesn’t have lifetime transmission fluid. How long can it last?

A: Just refer to the owner’s manual. The service interval could be 100,000 km or less. If you’re fortunate enough to have an ATF dipstick, you can do some DIY inspections too.

Q: How do I check it?

A: The ATF level should be checked with the engine running and the gear shifter in the “N” or “P” position. ATF is usually red in colour and gets darker and thicker the longer you use it.

Photo: jackingramnissan.com

Photo: automobilexyz.com

Summary

Well, looks like “lifetime” means about 100,000 km then. If you’re just doing regular commute and do at most 20,000 km a year, it seems you won’t need to change out your “lifetime transmission fluid” for about 5 years.

Are lifetime transmission fluids a lie? Well, not really if you consider that the average consumer doesn’t drive that much anyway. But the name is misleading, just like the words of our politicians. Always bear in mind that the transmission fluid bears a lot of stress and degrades over time.

Whether you own a car with “lifetime transmission fluid” or not, we always recommend that you take good care of it and conduct regular inspections for the best ownership experience.


 

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