By on November 28, 2012

Duncan writes:

Hi Sajeev,
I have a question about a 4L60-E transmission in a 2001 Chevy Suburban K1500. The truck has 159k miles. The previous owner purchased the truck 7 years ago with 90k miles and hasn’t changed any fluids in that time other than oil – I don’t know anything about the truck’s early history.

The transmission feels fine, but the fluid is dark and doesn’t smell great. The pan looks like a deep (vs shallow) pan and has a drain plug – my internet research leads me to believe these trucks came without a drain plug, but it’s a recommended upgrade – does this mean the transmission has been serviced at least once in its lifetime and the pan swapped with an aftermarket one, or did Chevy deliver some trucks with and some trucks without plugs?

Onto the meat of the question – I’d like the transmission to last forever – what can I do to ensure that? Can I change the transmission filter and replace the Dexron III that I drain out of the pan with Dexron VI? Should I do another drain and fill soon after to increase the ratio of fresh fluid to old fluid? Will I do damage by drain, filter, Dexron VI? Are $50 electronic shift kits that program the transmission to be a little more aggressive worth anything for longevity/fuel economy on a transmission that already has so many miles?

I won’t be driving the vehicle much, so I don’t want to go overboard on maintenance/upgrades, but it’s really a nice truck and I don’t want its life to be cut short by neglect.

Thanks for the advice,
Duncan

Sajeev answers:

Not being an expert in Mr. Goodwrench related products, I poked around Rockauto.com to see what tranny pans are available for this rig.  Sure enough, the cheapo part has no drain plug, but there are several alternatives that are deeper with a drain plug.  Gotta love the aftermarket. YOU LOVE IT RIGHT NOW!!! (shakes fist)

I say this as I put on my flame suit: this ‘burb either has a factory towing package that mandates a better oil pan (possible) or its been serviced once before. And serviced quite well, considering it takes forethought to feel the need for an upgraded pan.

Your question: what can you do to make a transmission last forever?  Answer: Nothing. It will normally be the weakest link in a powertrain. I suspect more older vehicles wind up in the junkyard from a bad tranny (i.e. a $2000 repair on a $1000 car) than any other automotive malady.

So what’s my advice to improve the life of the tranny?  If you can electronically speed up the shifts for $50, do it.  Slow shifting is the worst enemy to a transmission’s lifespan, and its never too late to fix that. Now about the fluid: go to Dextron VI if you believe GM’s recommendation. I believe in a fully synthetic fluid from any big name manufacturer that’s reverse compatable with Dextron III. Read the bottle’s label thoroughly and buy the brand you want…

And finally, the $64,000 Question: change the fluid at this mileage or not?  Who knows if the fluid’s been changed on a regular basis, but from your assessment, I suspect its been changed at least once.  If so, another fluid service will extend the life of the tranny, not shorten it. Should you trust my suspicions?  That’s a very expensive question that only YOU can answer.

Good luck with that.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

 

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39 Comments on “Piston Slap: Lifespan of the Suburban Tranny?...”


  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The dark color and off-odor are strong evidence the ATF has been overheated or contaminated.

    Good transmission fluid is reddish in color, like blush wine. Put a drop on a white paper towel to check the color. The texture should be neither tacky nor varnish-like. A light pink milky appearance is antifreeze contamination. Grit on the dipstick points to internal wear. If it smells like burnt toast, has a discolored brown or foamy appearance or bubbles on the dipstick it has been cooked and is not lubricating components.

    Transmission fluid is strictly car make and model specific, it must adhere precisely to the automaker’s formula. The manufacturer’s branded ATF is best. Never put multivehicle ATF into your car. Chain stores and franchised repair, tire and quick-lube shops tend to install whatever ATF is on the shelf, often resulting in transmission failure a few months later.

    Take it to the car dealer or an approved transmission shop. It should be looked after by a certified automatic transmission technician with the specialized tools and exact fluid the automaker stipulates.

    Chemical flushing can unstick deposits that are better left stuck. Carmakers rarely call for fluid flushing. Transmission flushing may drive tiny bits of clutch friction material into lines and channels, block them, and result in catastrophic transmission failure shortly after the flush.

    Engine, transmission, coolant, brake and power steering flushing are strong profit centers. If a service agency suggests it, ask why. Verify the need, time and mileage interval to your owner’s manual. It’s probably your wallet that is being flushed!

  • avatar
    danio3834

    If the fluid is dark and smells burnt, definitely do a fluid and filter change. It would be worthwhile to do it again after driving it a short time as there is no good way to change the fluid in the converter.

    When you said the pan had a drain plug, my first thought was that this is actually a 4L80E, which might actually last forever, but if it’s a K1500 with a 5.3L, it’s certainly a 4L60E.

    By 2001, they weren’t bad transmissions and with maintenance could last 200,000 miles. Unfortunately a lot of them did suffer from broken sun gear shells due to the lack of a proper heat treating process at the time.

    A lot of heavy load will destroy the planetary carrier and annulus teeth in the 4L60, a good upgrade is the 5 gear planetary from the 4L65 should you need to rebuild it. Speaking of rebuilds, they’re cheap, If you have the will to pull it out (it’s not that bad) a transmission guy will usually rebuild it for for about $6-800 depending on the amount of hard parts needed.

    If it’s shifting fine now, just change the fluid and filter and hope for the best. DON’T do a flush with an fluid exchange machine, that would probably kill it.

    • 0 avatar
      d524zoom-zoom

      ” DON’T do a flush with an fluid exchange machine, that would probably kill it.”

      COMPLETELY AGREE cannot stress that enough!!!

      • 0 avatar
        Ubermensch

        Misinformed and out of date advice. A fluid exchange machine doesn’t “flush” the transmission. Exchange machines use the transmissions own fluid pump to exchange almost 100% of the old fluid for fresh fluid. If a complete fluid change kills the transmission then it was on it’s last legs anyway. A fluid exchange machine like a BG or similar is really the best way to change the fluid as you get almost all of the old fluid changed in one swap even in the torque convertor. I am not aware of any shops still using solvent pump flushing machines. Almost all shops are using the 2 bladder exchange machines which are completely safe to use.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Uber,
        A service with an exchange machine is usually sold off the menu as a “flush”.

        The issue isn’t getting all the fluid out, but all of the friction material in the pan and filter. The exchange machines often stir up this material, don’t get it out, and cause problems.

        This practices caused so many issues that GM actually issued a service bulletin to the dealers telling them to cut it out.

        I stand by my recommendation and only do a drain, fill and repeat if needed.

      • 0 avatar
        Ubermensch

        A transmission that has it’s friction material in the drain pan is already failing.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        ” A transmission that has it’s friction material in the drain pan is already failing.”

        Technically, all transmissions are on their way to failing as the clutches are always wearing slightly on each shift. Just like each of us is slowly dying each day from life.

        It’s normal for there to be fine friction material in the pan and stuck to the magnet as the clutches wear. If the pan hasnt been removed, and fluid/filter have never been changed in 160k miles, there is certainly quite a bit of it in the pan and stuck to the magnet.

        A “flush” with a machine will not get all of this out, you must remove the pan, change the filter and clean things up as best you can.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    So assuming the following:

    -10 year old auto
    -100K miles
    -No smell/discolor/etc to the tranny fluid upon checking
    -No records to indicate whether a change has been done by prior owner
    -Still shifting just fine

    What would your [dear commenters] recommendation be for maintenance? I -think- the recommended interval was 60K miles, so it should’ve been done at least once already. Too late to mess with it? This has bothered me for a while.

    For the record, 01 GS430, 105K miles.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Changing the fluid and filter is never a bad thing to do, it’s never too late for this kind of maintenance. If it will mean peace of mind to you, have a reputable place change the fluid and filter for you. If someone recommends a flush, go somewhere else.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      As a used car buyer, I’ve always wondered about that. I grew up in a family in which my father NEVER changed the transmission fluid but then again always got rid of his cars prior to hitting the magic 100,000 mile mark.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        My late Dad was the exact same way; but the magic number for him was 75,000. So, I never changed the fluid in his 1995 Taurus GL until this year, with 138,000 miles on it.

        The fluid was dark brown in color, with no noticable smell. The mechanic who changed it reported there was little in the way of fuzz on the magnet; he just cleaned it in the parts washer and put it back in.

        It no longer hesitates downshift, with the pounding that went with it. But, a bad side effect was when the Texas heat set in. I drive 500-700 miles a week on highways with portions of stop and go traffic; it was loseing 2-3 quarts of fluid a week. Sometimes, I would come out the next morning to find fluid puddling in the driveway; I was also leaving tracks of fluid down the driveway into the street.

        With the colder weather, it was loseing less, but still roughly a quart a week. It was difficult to keep the fluid at the proper level with that kind of loss; so I finally added a single quart of Pennzoil® High-Mileage Vehicle™ ATF:

        http://www.pennzoilexpresslane.com/P…aspx?id=MwA4AA==

        It did the trick; it has loss roughly a quart in the past 1500 miles or so.

        My theory is draining the dirty fluid out also drained out the dirt that was keeping it from leaking. The fresh fluid with fresh detergents cleaned the dirt out; but then began the leak from the front seal or TC.

        It now has 158,000 miles on it. The fluid pump makes a loud pulsing sound on cold startup, it goes away with the first throttle application. And, it clunks still into Drive; but that may also be a bad engine mount. It will probably need at least a new torque converter in the near future; but it seems to be holding it’s own right now.

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    My 1995 caprice wagon had the same tranny. it had been used for towing. It broke at 165k miles. An autopsy revealed friction materials that were still in good shape. I believe it’s called the “sunshell” broke. There is a part called a ‘BEAST’ sunshell available. Basically it’s a cheap piece of stamped metal that can’t stand up to the torque of a relatively torque motor and high loads.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Later on in production, they went to a heat treated sun shell that was much more robust. The problem with the earlier parts were they were just stamped heavy gauge steel.

      The collar where the splines are cut was a stress point in the material when stamped, and this is where they cracked and failed.

  • avatar
    Mach

    I’ve got a similar situation that I could use the B&B’s help with. I bought a 1988 Chevy Cheyenne half ton from some 18 year old kid (who undoubtedly spent 2 years doing powerbrake burnouts) with only 86,000 miles on the clock. He bought it from some old man in Alabama who bought it new and practically never drove it for 20 years. The truck has a wheezy old 305 under the hood, but more importantly has a tow package, which in 1988 got you a TH400 tranny (Texan oil pan confirmed). This thing is in amazing shape for it’s age, and I want to keep it on the road for as long as possible. Should I change the tranny fluid and filter or not? The fluid is a nice dark brown, and a little thicker than I think it probably should be. I once had a 1992 Plymouth Acclaim with 120k on the clock, and I had the fluid professionally changed (2 bladder flush machine). One week later the tranny crapped out, and I’ve been gun-shy since.

  • avatar
    Ubermensch

    Question I have for people that think that changing the transmission fluid causes the transmission to fail would be this:

    If you change the engine oil and the engine dies 1000 miles later, did the oil change cause the engine to fail?

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    • 0 avatar
      Mach

      Since you change oil pretty often, it’s difficult to pinpoint the failure to an oil change. When you change your transmission fluid every decade or so, and have problems with the transmission shortly after, then you can start pointing the finger at something going wrong with the fluid change. I’ve known several people who have changed their transmission fluid, and had problems within a few weeks. Almost every case has been with a Chrysler product from the 90s, so there may be some correlation there. Either way, my experiences are purely anecdotal. That’s why I asked the B&B for their input, I’m hoping someone here has some in-depth information to share.

      • 0 avatar
        Ubermensch

        In my experience this happens because people start having problems with their transmission and change the fluid in an attempt to fix it. The transmission dies because it was on it’s way out anyway.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Terrific thread ! .

    I always do routine ATF & filter changes on the various old beaters I save from the crusher , so far only one has failed and it was on it’s last legs anyway .

    For sure , if the fluid is anything but red & sweet smelling , I’d immediately do a filter & ATF change , the bit about the BG machine not removing the accumulated crud and deposits makes sense to me as I’ve found some really bad looking sediment in some trannies…

    The GM TH400 , is a *very* robust slushbox and often begins to ‘ sing ‘ as it ages , this almost always indicates clogged intake screen and degraded fluid , a simple _HOT_ ATF & filter service should set things right again , firm shifts and quiet , no more noise .

    My 1980 Caddy S & S Victoria Hearse’s TH400 keened loudly when I got it with 130,000 miles but one service stopped that dead and it’s still going strong years later .

    I always run a couple hundred miles then give the dipstick the ” sniff Test ” ~ if the ATF turns brown again or has any burned smell , I change it again as the torque converted holds more fluid that the entire tranny does so it often re contaminates the fresh fluid .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    86SN2001

    A fluid change and a Corvette servo and you’re bullet proof ride will be even more bulletproof.

    That powertrain is one of the most reliable on the planet.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    The 4L60-E is a great transmission and I wouldn’t be worried about changing the fluid & filter inspite of its mileage. The reason that GM frequently doesn’t put a drain plug in the pan is so that you will have to drop the pan to change the fluid. All of the Turbo-400′s pans were designed like this (though not so on the Turbo-350′s). Once the pan is dropped, there is no excuse for not changing the filter too as it is right there adjacent to the valve body. Also, don’t worry if you find small amounts of friction material in the pan, it is normal as the clutch packs wear down. It shouldn’t be excessive but some is completely normal.

    How do you make an automatic transmission last forever? For starters, skip the shift kit; that’s a drag racer’s trick and it makes sense with a heavier sprag and additional clutch discs but I wouldn’t use it in your application. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as once it is installed, the transmission frequently gets pushed harder (kind of like Flo-master mufflers) and then a problem develops.

    Some auto’s will last seemingly forever (Turbo-400) and some won’t (Turbo 200 behind a V8; original Turbo 700 R4, ironically the predecessor to the 4L60-E). Either way, excessive heat and abuse will ultimately trash any automatic transmission.

    All you need to do is maintain it (change the fluid & filter) and don’t ask it to do something that it was not intended to do.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, the fragile as glass 4R55E in my ’95 Explorer lasted 225,000 miles before metal fatigue broke the 2nd gear band. I never towed with it, and really never expected more than just leisurely acceleration out of it. Some people on the forums have gotten no more than 70,000 miles out the same trans. The shop the rebuilt mine kept asking me who had worked on it before, and was astounded that the last person to turn bolts in it was the guy that put it together at the Ford plant 12 years earlier.

      Meanwhile one of my friends has managed to kill every automatic he’s had in any of his cars that were built by him. I’ve only had one TH350 fail but it was already on borrowed time when I got it. The TH350 that replaced it came out of my first car, and was rebuilt in 1993 due to fluid loss from the vacuum modulator going bad. It now has about 200,000 miles on it and still is going strong.

      I’ve got a 700-R4 to swap in at some point, but the last I remember of it, it was incredibly noisy

  • avatar
    nikita

    #1 way to make this tranny last, get a trans temp gauge. If the fluid temp gets significantly over 200F, downshift. If it still overheats, pull over and idle. Do not shut down the engine, as the fluid needs to circulate in order to cool. Heat of course does not damage metal parts, but servo seals. Burnt fluid still functions as hydraulic fluid and heat transfer medium, but frictional properties may be degraded and deposits may form in the valve body or gum up the servos. If available, use the recommended fluid, “synthetic” or “universal” fluids may or may not have the right frictional characteristics. Read the label. If a major oil company claims its fluid is Dexron “x” compatible, it probably is, quick lube universal fluid + additive, maybe not.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Change that fluid and filter right now. And then do it again in a month.

    Install a cooler and temperature gauge. Then hope for the best.

  • avatar
    noxioux

    4L60E’s are a dime a dozen. Even if it dies, you should be able to find a low-cost replacement without a lot of trouble.

    But if you keep fluid levels up in it and don’t hoon the crap out of it, your transmission will last a long, long time.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I’ll offer the Cliff Notes version…

    1) Take it to a reputable indepednent mechanic.

    2) Have him remove the pan and see if there are any metal fragments.

    3) If there are substantial metal deposits, you are on borrowed time. But at least replace that filter and have him do a drain and fill anyhow. You want to make sure the torque converter is also drained as well.

    The key word here is drain…. not flush…

    4) If you decide to DIY instead, Dexron Mercon III fluid is available for less than $5 a quart at the local auto parts store. I usually couple the filter and transmission fluid with an online disount code at Advance Auto Parts. A good Mityvac and some time are all you really need.

    5) Make extra sure the fluid level is right on level when you get the vehicle back and that there are no leaks. Many shops will screw this up.

    Replacing the tranny on these models is dirt cheap. You shouldn’t have to pay more than $1000 to replace and install a new unit if this one fails.

    Hope this helps…

  • avatar
    CompWizrd

    I’m confused by the fact the transmission is still alive. My experience with the 4l60-e’s involves many local currency equivalents of Benjamin Franklins.

    Maybe it’s the fact mine was linked to the LT1 which is a good transmission destroyer.

  • avatar
    readallover

    Here`s another question: Growing up I was taught to check the Tranny fluid with the engine running ( and the motor oil with the engine just turned off). Now they say to check it with the car on. Which is correct ?

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      It should say on your dipstick. The procedure I was told was to get the transmission up to operating temperature, shift it through each of the gears for a second, then check it; the dipstick on mine says to check while in park with the engine running.

      The motor oil should always be checked with the engine off.

  • avatar
    Lee

    Given that you don’t know when it was last done, and based on your description of the fluid condition, i’d be draining it, dropping the pan and cleaning it out thoroughly after inspecting it’s contents, swap out the filter for a new one, re-assemble and re-fill.

  • avatar
    Angus McClure

    My son flushed the fluid in his Ford Pickup without the usual talk with me.. Transmission went out within two weeks. Coincidence? I doubt it.

    It makes me feel better to know a 4L60E will push a burban around. My S10 has a 700r4 which is the same unit but not electronic. I expect it will last a long time and I ignore it. I would like a deeper pan with cooling fins but doubt if I’ll do it. Would love to have a drain plug because I think they all should come with them. Knowing me though, doubt I would use it.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    If you can electronically speed up the shifts for $50, do it.
    do u mean a shift kit or the old way of dialling the modulator up so it will shift with shorter time as u feel a bit more abrupt as compare to more gentle glide?
    older Mercs have the key in modulator to make shift more crispier ( more abrupt & banging )is helpful as some older merc do shift slow and slip or flare up in between shifts.
    it has helped a few of mines.
    one way of slow changing was reading from volvo board, go undo one of the tranny line going to rad and start engine the line will spit out old ATF slowly into an open can, and u keep a adding new atf into the filler. My old volvo did have some semi solid and looks jello type fluid coming out, it kind of scarry to look at. But after the change i did feel the car moves lighter.
    I think i did added 4 qt or so new atf in it, probably didn’t change everything.
    but better than not changing at all.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    On the positive side, each gear in a 4L-60 is 50% more stout than each gear in an 6-speed GM transmission. Change the fluid now and you probably have a transmission with the potential to last just as long as a transmission in a brand new Suburban.

  • avatar
    ratkoda

    This is a good maintenence question that has a tremendous amount of controversy due to missinformation for a lot of reasons. I have been a mechanic for 40 years after college. I am a repair shop owner and maintain individual owner vehicles to fleets, including ambulances. The key to maximum life of a transmission is proper maintenence. PERIOD. When the fluid gets dark or burnt from overheating it starts to fill the filter up causing a restriction in oil flow, reducing oil pressure and allowing the clutches to slip and glaze. The torque converter clutch has a high failure rate. The first sign the driver notices is poor shift, constant shift, engine reving. Now the trans is starting the failure mode. Sometimes a filter change and flush will allow the trans to build full pressure and the clutches will hold and shift correctly. I have an 80% sucess rate on saving the transmission for good service for many miles ande years. If you pull trailers or drive hard you should change the fluid and filter about 15,000 to 20,000 miles, normal driving 30,000 or so miles or according to factory recomendations. If you get stuck and spin your way out, flush imediately.
    Following these recomendations will give you the maximum life on your transmission. I’ve seen 500,000+ miles on a trans and still shifting good.
    Now for the nay sayers….. When you see dark fluid and burnt fluid, shifting problems, it’s almost a garantee the trans will fail within a few hundred miles. A trans fluid and filter change (flush) will extend the life of the trans significantly. I have had customers come to me with a bad trans, barely able to coast into my yard, claiming they just had a flush and filter done and now it’s failing. When I inspect their work I find the filter improperly installed, double seals on the filter (because they didn’t remove the old seal before installing the new filter) gouged bore for the filter seal, wrong filter, etc,etc. These cause air leaks into the oil causing oil pressures to fluctuate and drop low causing the clutches to slip, which is a garanteed failure. Many trans shops strongly talk against trans flushing and filters for a lot of reasons that sound very convincing. My response to them is look at the profit they make on a trans overhaul at $2500 to 4000, (usually 40-60% or more)(and the customer will need it every 120,000 miles average) compared to the profit on a flush and filter at $180 to 200 (40% profit) every 30,000 miles and the trans lasting the life of the car or 300,00 to 500,000 miles.
    Here’s the bottom line after the argument is over, Driving a vehicle is going to cost you to drive it, in fuel, maintenence and repairs.The fuel is fixed. maintenence is a must for long life. The repairs is dependent mostly on proper maintenence and driving conditions/habits. I can do a lot of trans flushes for $3000. But I don’t make near the profit a trans shop makes on an overhaul. Which shop are you going to go to? Take your pick. I don’t care, it’s your car and your money. You choose who your going to pay and and they say how much.
    Remember to choose a qualified experienced shop to service your trans. There are a lot of bad mechanics out ther trying to pad their pockets from unknowing trusting customers when they are the most vulnerable.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    As to the fluid changes and getting all the old out, I had a friend that did it on his rig using 2 buckets, some trans cooler line and the truck running. He filled one bucket with fresh fluid and let the transmission pull that fluid in while pumping the old fluid into the other bucket. When he saw new fluid running into the old fluid bucket he called it good.

    Not sure if this is advised, but it was on a 62 series land Cruiser that is approaching half a million and he hasn’t had any transmission issues.

    I wouldn’t let the trans scare me. Change the fluid and set aside a little cash just in case…probably a good idea on any used car. If it does go this may be the most common RWD transmission on the road in the US and as was pointed out, service costs will be at the lower end of the spectrum.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    It’s a Chevy not a Chrysler/Dodge, change the fluid completely and do the filter etc. Put aside some money just in case, but it shouldn’t be a lot since it’s probably the most common RWD transmission in the country.


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