There are few components more important to vehicle performance than the transmission. Automotive manufacturers use many different designs for transmissions, which often leads to vehicle owners asking, “What transmission do I have?”
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Understanding what type of transmission you have can help make it easier to understand the driving dynamics of your vehicle. In addition, knowing what transmission you have will ensure that you’re well-informed should your vehicle ever need repairs.
Let’s dig into the wide world of transmissions and tell you how to find out what’s in your vehicle.
What transmission do I have?
Transmission design has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years or so. Today, there are four types of transmissions found on gasoline-powered vehicles:
Today’s automatic transmission uses a combination of gears and valves that are operated with hydraulic fluid to smoothly and efficiently propel vehicles down the road.
Automatics require no clutch to get moving. As the vehicle accelerates or slows down, the transmission selects the best gear for the situation based on speed and the input of the throttle. Higher gears offer better fuel economy, while lower gears offer more acceleration and performance. Although the first mass-produced automatic transmissions only had two forward speeds and reverse, today’s modern automatic transmissions have as many as 10 forward gears. On some vehicles, gears can be manually selected via steering wheel paddles or the gearshift lever.
Often known by the term “stick shift,” the humble manual transmission is the DIY option for car enthusiasts.
Manual transmissions use a third pedal known as the clutch to get moving from a stop or change gears while underway. Drivers must select the right gear for the right situation without the aid of computers or sensors. Enthusiasts are are expected to keep the manual transmission market alive, but new buyers seem to be catching on. So far in 2023, 1.7% of all new-car purchases have been vehicles with manual transmissions, which is a 41.7% increase from 2022 at 1.2%.
Semi-automatic, or dual-clutch, transmissions offer a blend of traditional automatic smoothness and manual transmission performance.
Originally designed for Porsche race cars, the semi-automatic transmission uses two electronically operated clutches to get a vehicle moving and switch between gears. Once underway, one clutch is engaged, while the second clutch is pre-engaged with the next gear. This design drastically increases shift speed compared to a standard automatic. Semi-automatic transmissions are often found in high-performance vehicles.
Although “automatic” in principle, the CVT, or continuously variable transmission, is nothing like a traditional automatic transmission.
Rather than using a torque converter or clutch to move the vehicle forward and change gears, a CVT uses two pulleys connected via a chain or belt. One pulley is connected to the engine and the other is connected to the rest of the drivetrain. Each pulley is shaped like a cone, and as the engine produces more or less torque, the belt or chain moves up and down the cone-shaped pulley.
This allows the transmission to produce a nearly infinite number of gear ratios within a given range. It also keeps the engine at the proper RPM for both performance and fuel economy. Dozens of popular models from brands such as Subaru, Toyota and Honda have CVT transmissions.
Every type of transmission on the market has advantages and disadvantages, based on the application. For example, a high-performance vehicle like a Porsche 911 would get the best results with a semi-automatic transmission. And while a vehicle such as a Toyota Prius could work with a semi-automatic, a CVT provides maximum fuel efficiency.
How to find out what transmission you have
Think you need to drop the transmission and get your hands dirty to figure what transmission is in your vehicle? Well, luckily for the less mechanically-inclined among us, there are plenty of ways to figure out what transmission is in your vehicle without getting a drop of grease on your hands.
One of the first places you can look is the owner’s manual, which is usually stowed in the glove compartment. Although we rely on the internet for most things these days, the owner’s manual will provide you with everything you need to know. This vehicle bible offers information such as vehicle specifications, service schedules and more. If you haven’t checked out your owner’s manual yet, this is the first place you should look.
Under the hood
Although the engine bay can be intimidating, many manufacturers put plaques or stickers in the front of the engine compartment for consumers. These stickers indicate crucial information such as which engine is installed, a fan belt diagram and the transmission type and model. There is no universal location for this placard or sticker, and some manufacturers don’t install it at all.
Driver’s side door frame
In addition to the plaque in the engine bay, most vehicles have a plaque in the driver’s side door frame. This plaque provides crucial information such as the vehicle’s VIN number, gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), engine code, transmission information, where the vehicle was assembled and more. Once again, there is no universal standard for what information is on this plaque or where the plaque is placed.
This method is a bit more advanced but may be necessary on vehicles without plaques or owners manuals to reference. You can determine the type of transmission based on the part number of the transmission oil pan. You’ll have to get underneath the vehicle to take a look and possibly take a photo with your cellphone to reference the transmission oil pan later on. Look for numbers stamped or etched into the oil pan and reference those numbers with an auto parts store or online.
Using a trusted VIN lookup or VIN decoder tool will pull up all applicable information on your exact vehicle. Running a VIN search will provide information such as the make, model and year of your vehicle as well as the transmission type and engine. This is especially helpful If you’re missing your owner’s manual, have an older vehicle or have no desire to get underneath your car.
When in doubt, you can always turn to the internet. Just type in the year, make and model of your car, and use any of a number of trusted websites to determine what possible transmissions are in your exact car, truck, van or SUV. If you know the trim of your vehicle, it’ll be helpful to have this handy. Certain trims often have different transmissions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you look up transmission by VIN number?
Yes, you can use a trusted VIN search tool to provide you with critical information about your vehicle such as the engine, transmission, and drive type.
What digit in a VIN number is the transmission?
Although plenty of information can be determined from a VIN number, the NHTSA does not require vehicle manufacturers to indicate transmission type within the VIN number.