By on October 14, 2013

Jerry writes:

Sajeev,

Thank you and the rest of the TTAC staff for providing the community with an entertaining and genuinely informative automotive website. I’m a long-time reader, and hope you can answer some questions I had about my wife’s 2009 G37 S 7AT.

We purchased the car new in 2009 and love it. It’s paid off and we see no reason to replace it anytime in the foreseeable future. It’s a keeper.

We carpool and thus only have accumulated 29,xxx miles in the years we’ve owned it. I try to be diligent with my vehicle servicing, and prefer to do my own maintenance. When preparing for the upcoming 30,000 mile service, I noticed something peculiar in the maintenance schedule provided by Infiniti:

‘Replace automatic transmission fluid(except 7 speed automatic transmission).’

Even more curious, the 7 speed automatic is not recommended for servicing at any point in the published maintenance schedule (which terminates at 120,000 miles). I’ve always thought 30,000-40,000 mile transmission services were optimal. There is no dip-stick, which I know is becoming more typical of luxury cars, so I can’t visually assess the condition of the fluid. Visiting some Infiniti forums reveals the transmission is effectively sealed to shade tree mechanics, and requires a visit to the dealership if you’re inclined to have it serviced.

I’d love your insight. I know there is no such thing as transmission fluid that never needs changed. I know any dealership I call will disagree with the literature and recommend it needs changed as frequently as I can afford it(~$350 for a flush and fill at the local dealership). What I don’t know is: When does this fluid really need changed, and why is Infiniti keeping it a secret?

Sajeev answers:

The 7-speed Infiniti angle adds a new twist to one of the quandaries that’s been around since the early days of the Piston Slap series.  My first recollection of these “sealed for life” automatic transmissions was the 1997 Chevy Malibu, and the universal truth hasn’t really changed: change the ATF at regular intervals (being vague for a reason) and make sure to use the correct fluid.

Why be vague? Because while most folks wouldn’t go past 100k-150k on transmission fluid if they knew the benefits–and if they kept a car that long–the actual life of transmission fluid varies by owner. If you carry/tow heavy loads in a minivan that idles in traffic to and from school/work in brutally hot weather, consider a more aggressive ATF replacement schedule.  But if you are one person traveling mostly rural highways in cooler parts of the country, you may never need to change the fluid at all.  (slight exaggeration)

So what’s the right move for you?

The path of least resistance is to visit the dealer and have them do the deed, perhaps every 75k or 100k.  Which isn’t a bad idea, and considering your low mileage…when will you reach 100,000 miles? So don’t sweat it!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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59 Comments on “Piston Slap: Sealed for an Infinite Life?...”


  • avatar
    KevO

    As the owner of a ’99 VW Passat with the same problem, I understand this issue. There is no way to check the transmission fluid, and I don’t recall anything in the service manual about changing it. It’s just there “for life”, and the whole thing is sealed. I had it flushed and changed at just over 100,000 miles during some other work, and at 200,000 it still runs well.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      The Passat’s tranny fluid can be checked, but it requires a VW scantool or the VAG-COM software to do it. There is a thermistor (or similar sensor) inside the transmission that indicates when the fluid is at the proper level.

      I bemoan non-user-serviceable items, but alas, they are becoming more common. Mercedes has been pushing hard for having even the urea (AKA DEF or Adblue) be a dealer-only fill item. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday the vehicle’s hood can only be opened by a dealer!

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    BMW even says their manual transmission fluid is a “lifetime” fluid. Yeah, ok. Then why does the transmission have a drain plug? All fluid performance degrades over time and must be changed periodically.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    I might start with a reputable AAMCO franchise first, if they cannot service it (or don’t feel comfortable), then make a dealer appt.

    • 0 avatar

      Going to AAMCO for good tranny service is like Maaco for a nice paint job, or Jiffy Lube for… well, anything.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Where do you go?

        • 0 avatar

          Shops that aren’t the fast food of transmissions. Find a local guy, dude.

          edit: Which it looks like you do. We’d gone to a guy who does transmissions and mufflers, but he’s been out for years with a back injury. Never had a problem with his work.

          I made the mistake of Ammco with our Ranger (which is known for tanking no matter what with that transmission, but I digress). There’s a shop my brother suggested but never gave me an exact name, and now it’s a guessing game since he died before he could pass it along. Now the tranny slips again.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I agree, you should have previously established a “guy” for specific repairs or specialty work on any complex system. I’m all for the DIY, but without special training or apprenticeship I’m not going near a transmission, HVAC system, roof, or residential plumbing. A man’s got to know his limitations.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Does anyone know if GM or Ford has gotten this pinheaded with their newer transaxles?

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Even my ancient Chrysler has a lifetime transmission fluid (or it did when new).
    It’s wishful thinking at best. In your case, take Sajeev’s advice and don’t sweat it. I am sure there is nothing wrong with that fluid. Don’t fix if it ain’t broke. I wouldn’t touch it until at 100k (if the manual indeed says lifetime for the trans).

    Regarding the lack of a trans dipstick, what is next, no oil dipstick?
    Actually, yes. Some Mercedes are check-by-wire only. Not crazy about it
    as again, you cannot see and smell the condition.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      BMW also removed the engine oil dipstick years ago. It is unsettling but I like to think of the oil sensor as a more consistent and accurate version of my nose and eyes.

      • 0 avatar
        burgersandbeer

        Wishful thinking. The oil level sensor in the E46 has a high failure rate. Fortunately in that car you can ignore it and use the dipstick. Owners of newer BMWs (which I hear still have high failure rates with the oil level sensors) aren’t so lucky.

        List price for the E46 oil level sensor is $160. All this hassle and cost for a marginal emissions gain (at least I thought that was the point – one less opportunity for failure with the PCV system).

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    If it’s under warranty, drain the fluid, replace the plug, then call the dealer and complain it won’t move. Play clueless, and the worse that can happen is they charge you for the servicing you wanted done anyways. If they want a crazy price, take it you an independent shop. They’ll just have to turn your car upside down… actually the fluid is pumped in. But it’s clear the OEM has nothing to lose by have a trans fail, long after the warranty expires. If they’re giving you FREE service for the entire warranty period, that’s all you need to know.

    • 0 avatar
      sobamaflyer

      This is the most insane bit of advice I’ve seen on auto enthusiasts websites (and after almost 20 years on them I’ve seen a lot). If this wasn’t intended as pure, perverse humor please don’t ever touch your car with more than a sponge.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Why?

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        This isn’t a formal advise column, but OEMs are clearly sticking it to the consumer on this one.

        Actually, my Dad innocently drained the trans fluid from his Tundra after the Toyota Parts dept happily sold him a case of the right fluid. He called me when he couldn’t find the dipstick/filler tube. But it was his idea to pull one over, on the dealer and it worked.

        If you don’t like my advise, feel FREE. If we were just talking about luxury cars, who cares? Some owners of German cars, especially, are hoping to get ripped off. My Dad bought a stripper/base Tundra to save money, not get hosed.

    • 0 avatar
      Halftruth

      Mike, that is a whole lot of trouble for a tranny service.. Thanks for the laugh.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Can automakers at least define what “Lifetime” means or how long a cars “Lifetime” is? Its too vague to just slap in a book and expect ust to accept it.

    • 0 avatar
      Battles

      Vauxuall in the UK make a really big deal about the “The 100,000-mile Vauxhall Lifetime Warranty”.
      I thought about complaining to the advertising standards watchdog but meh…

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      “Lifetime” means the lifetime of the transmission, whatever that turns out to be. If it pukes at 100k, there’s your answer.

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      As far as manufacturers are concerned, lifetime means until the part fails. Once it fails, the lifetime is over. Not trying to be an ass; that’s what it amounts to. Beat it until it breaks, then replace.

      I’m confused on what manufacturers get out of this. I think the oil dipstick is for some negligible emissions improvement (and of course cheaper to not have the dipstick). But why the transmission?
      Is it a marketing thing to give the impression of low maintenance? Only the most severe service schedule would necessitate a change in the time most first owners have the car anyway. Besides, people that don’t care can always choose not to change ATF fluid anyway.

      Are the savings from sealing the transmission really worth risking their reliability reputation?

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        Thats true, I just wish they’d specify the range to this vague lifetime.

        Removing dipsticks saves money yea (probably a few dollars per a car), but the idea to to make the customer simply not worry about maintenance and while the car will be great in their hands it’ll be a nightmare once its traded in to the used market.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    This lifetime fluid reminds me of the time the Cardinals won the Worlds Series, and the owner, 82 year old August Busch, told manager Whitey Herzog, “I’m giving you a lifetime contract.” Whitey looked at the old man and asked, “Whose lifetime – yours or mine?” It turned out to be the owner’s: Herzog was let go after Busch died eight years later. Given the annual mileage, eight years might be about right for a lifetime transmission.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    This is the direction we’re heading in. I recall someone figured out that a few of the manufactures have started to route vacuum lines through the big plastic engine covers they put on everything now a days so that it was nearly impossible to run the engine without the cover installed or at least removing it would trigger a check engine light.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      That was mentioned in a BMW (Z4?) review at TTAC, the reviewer tried to get the cover off to see the engine and broke a hose.

      Modern cars may be better in many ways than before, but with lifetime nonsense and “sealed” engines they’re officially becoming disposable, but then again who even services their own car anymore?

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        On some used vehicles I see a missing engine cover as proof that someone was doing maintenance. For those of us who keep cars to 250,000 miles or so the last thing we want to hear at a 100,000 mile service is that some mechanic broke the cover and the engine won’t run without it.

        • 0 avatar
          Ryoku75

          Being from the generation I am, 20 years from now I can see myself putting some anti freeze into a Frankenstein’d Panther and everyone else my age will say “You have to put new fluids into that thing?”, then I’ll show them the odometer.

  • avatar
    raph

    Best comment I’ve ever seen on “lubed for life” was the manufacturer considers the life of the vehicle for as long as warranty lasts. Ergo if the vehicle in question as an example has a 10 year 100,000 mile warranty then don’t worry until you hit 10 years or 100,000 miles whichever occurs first.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    1. DO NOT take it anywhere but the dealer if you have someone change it. Piece of crap shops such as AAMCO use a universal fluid and then add friction modifyers as necessary. For certain brands/transmissions, that will destroy the transmission. 90% chance that’s why your transmission is sealed for life, because unfortunately if it were not, and some idiot at AAMCO/Jiffy Lube did their usual thing, it would fail and then Nissan would be left with a bad reputation from it. Just ask chrysler about what happened in the 90s due to idiots not using the correct fluid.

    2. If you do it yourself, buy the fluid from the dealership unless you are 100% sure what you are getting is the right stuff, even then, the dealer might not give you the right stuff so know before hand.

    I assume that your transmission doesn’t have a drain plug and no removable pan/filter? Does your transmission use an external cooler? If so, good. Undo the lines (if they are steel, go get some hose from the auto store to attach to the end of them, idle the car in park, figure out which line is the out and which is the in, let the out drain into a bucket, use the in line to suck the new clean tranny fluid into the system, you might have to rent /buy a pump to get the fluid back in or try to gravity feed it, if so, just be sure that the amount in is equal to the amount out.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I seriously just called my transmission guy (Cottman franchise) to ask him if they used Dexron in my GM product fluid changes. He explained they did and I quote “ain’t like the old days where you could throw anything in there; fluids are getting more important”. So at least not every indy is a cheat or a fool.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Sorry but the return line won’t suck the fluid back in. The usual flow is from the pump to the torque converter, from the torque converter to the cooler and from the cooler back to the pan.

      All transmissions have a way to put the fluid back in, it just isn’t necessarily a tube that the dip stick also resides in. For example the Ford 5R55 uses a tube that sticks up from the bottom of the pan. So you pump the fluid up that tube until it runs out. Others are similar to a manual trans with a plug on the side that you pump the fluid in until it spills back out. Note the vehicle must be level and it usually has to be up to temp and running.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh good, someone to back me up on not trusting those places.

  • avatar
    DubVBenz

    Uhh.. Nickoo.. There are plenty of great independent shops that are not AAMCO or Jiffy Lube, which can be equated to the McDonalds of auto-repair. If your shop has even as basic understanding of transmissions, they know where to get the proper specced stuff. There’s an ISO certification for these things, and as long as the fluid meets those certifications, it’s fine.

    You sound like one of the scared people that think the Dealer is the final word. If only you know how many 20 something idiots they have working there that can only diagnose and repair from a script, a scanner and throwing parts at it.

    • 0 avatar
      nickoo

      I’ve had “independent” shops lie to me and put dexron III with friction modifyers in my mercon V only transmission. After a few thousand miles when the torque converter won’t properly lock up/disengage causing massive drivability problems at highway speeds, I’ll never trust anyone to do it right again unless I actually see them pouring the fluid from the bottle. Fool me once…

      • 0 avatar
        DubVBenz

        Sounds like you need to do your vetting a little bit better. A blanket statement applied to thousands of other shops based off of one in bubbastan. I’ve always wondered how Dealers keep customers after the warranty period… It’s always so funny to run into someone like you that’s happy to throw their money away.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        There is nothing wrong with Dex III with the proper modifiers.

        I’m running generic Dextron III ($2.19/qt @ Sam’s Club) with Lubeguard Black in my 2001 Odyssey (one of the Hondas with an undersized tranny and known reliability issues). So far after 30K miles, the fluid is still bright pink with no smell, and it shifts perfectly. No way I am going to spend $8-10/quart for ATF. I’d rather change out the cheap fluid on a regular basis and use an additive. YMMV

  • avatar
    onyxtape

    I own a 2012 G37 with the same 7AT (but supposedly with much better firmware to address all the complains about rough shifting since the 09s).

    I’ll be doing everything on this car myself, but this is a stealership-only fluid change. I’ve scoured the ends of the Internet and the only people able to do this themselves still have to use the special tool that dealers use. This particular AT unit basically has 2 holes on the bottom – one for filling and one for draining. The FSM has very specific procedures about using the special tool to check for a very specific temperature in the fluid, and this special tool pumps the fluid upwards into the hole after it forms a vacuum to prevent fluids leaking downwards. So if you absolutely have to DIY, it’s going to be quite a MacGyver thing you’ll have to come up with to make it all work.

    My plan is just to have the dealer swap it out every 50k-60k or so. $300-$400 every 60k miles is nothing.

    • 0 avatar
      mnm4ever

      I agree with @onyxtape, sounds like this is similar to the VW DSG fluid change. I researched it, figured out the procedure and it is just simply too much trouble to try to do it myself. I wouldn’t assume that an indy mechanic or trans shop can’t do it, but if the procedure is anything like VW then it most likely will not cost you any less than just bringing it to the dealer where you know that at least those 18-20yo “mechanics” have all the proper tools and procedures documented to perform the steps.

      You could also shop around some, check a few dealers, check the websites too, many times VW dealers offer discounts on the DSG fluid service that can be $100 less than typical rate. Nissan dealers might also have the tools to do the same procedure without the extra costs to pay for the espresso bar at the Infiniti waiting room.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Not necessarily many companies are using that type of fill method. Most computers monitor trans fluid temp so a scanner can check the temp. While there may not be an adapter for the Nissan/Infinity yet one of the companies will likely have one soon.

      Here is a video showing how it is done on a Ford 5R55 showing the aftermarket adapter and the process. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUP-nOsoJMA I haven’t really looked into the Infiniti but many transmissions w/o a dipstick use this system. The larger hex that is seen is the one that will drain the trans when removed, it has a tube that sticks up to the full level of the trans.

  • avatar

    The Nissan companies are doing this in more places than luxury transmissions. Check out the Nissan Versa engine, and you’ll note there’s a special tool needed to get to the spark plugs to change them. More money for the dealerships, etc. Hell, it was a salesman who pointed it out (he’d been a technician for a decade before that). The dude knew his stuff better than any salesman I’d ever met, and was honest. If I had the money I’d have bought a Juke from him out of appreciation.

  • avatar
    DIYer

    http://www.texasnissans.com/fsm/370Z/2009_370Z/TM.pdf

    The above links to a full service manual for a 2009 370Z, but the procedure for changing out the trans fluid is the same for an Infiniti, pages TM-280 to TM-281.

    You won’t have to change out the fluid at 30K of normal driving, but I’d recommend doing it at 50-60K.

    Good luck with your vehicle, it sounds like you want to keep on top of things.

  • avatar
    April

    I was a bit perplexed when I had my 1997 Honda Accord automatic transmission serviced recently. Apparently there is no internal filter to replace. Just drain and refill the fluid.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I’m not so sure about that. It should have SOME sort of filter to get all the metal shavings! Otherwise they’ll float about in there and screw things up.

      • 0 avatar
        April

        That’s what I thought but the service tech at the Honda dealer said that was all to a trans service required. Oh, and he corrected me that my car has a transmission and not a transaxle. :/

        • 0 avatar
          mnm4ever

          My CRV has a magnetic drain plug to catch the shavings, perhaps the Accord uses the same method. I don’t have a filter to change either. It’s recommended to drain and fill it every 3rd oil change. 3 quarts come out at each drain, and the theory is that it takes about 3 “drain and fills” to change out all the fluid. Seems like cheap insurance to me to keep the trans going, and at 200k+ its still shifting very well.

          As a side note, but with technology and engineering being so good today, do we really have much trouble with metal shavings in a transmission?? I have never seen anything visible stuck to my drain plug.

    • 0 avatar
      nickoo

      Some hondas use a metal screen instead of a filter. Other hondas use an external filter. Some hondas have drain plugs for the tranny, unlike american cars. That alone is reason to not buy an american car, cracking the pan/draining method is rage inducing.

  • avatar
    JK43123

    A mechanic once told me that “life time” in lifetime fluid meant “until it breaks because it needed new fluid” and that is certainly the way I feel.

    John

  • avatar
    George B

    Jerry, at some point a year or more before the end of the 6 year drivetrain warranty period I’d pay an Infiniti dealership to do a fluid change. That way if the transmission fails shortly after the fluid change Infiniti eats the cost, not you. Wouldn’t do anything else that would void the warranty.

    Does anyone know about the efficacy of the external magnetic inline automatic transmission filters like the Raybestos Magnefine filter?

    http://www.amazon.com/Raybestos-Magnefine-Magnetic-Automatic-Transmission/dp/B0065LZA94

    Seems like potentially a good idea for automatic transmissions without a pan and removable filter.

  • avatar
    RHD

    This is a great point to research before buying a car, especially a used car.
    Not changing the fluid will greatly reduce the life of the transmission, and it will likely cost a bundle to replace. So Mr. and Mrs. Autotran Owner will just sigh, trade it in and buy another one.
    Selling durable, cheap cars is only profitable for a while. The dealership makes their profit in the “service” department, and in the financing.
    This is just planned obsolescence, cynical style. No thanks, I’ll take a manual transmission, please, until old age finally creeps up on me.

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    It is pretty clear that manufacturers have a vested interest in getting people to keep buying new cars. By making cars more and more complicated to maintain and service over the long haul, they win on both ends. More and more buyers will aspire to trade their old car in, and then as those cars go back to market as used cars, the manufacturers win on the service side as well.

    There is no gain to be had from making a car that is long lasting or cheap to maintain except for the consumer. And the general public has already proven that they care way more about iPhone integration and Twitter access than they do about how well a car is made or how easy it is to service. If you can lease a car for $200-300/mo and not have to shell out a dime for service for 3 yrs, why not?? Most people I know who are not “car guys” think I am crazy for still driving my 2008 VW… “your still driving that?” is what I hear a lot. It is barely 5 yrs old.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      “general public has already proven that they care way more about iPhone integration and Twitter access than they do about how well a car is made or how easy it is to service.”

      Unfortunately I agree.

      “Most people I know who are not “car guys” think I am crazy for still driving my 2008 VW”

      Methinks those folks need a prolonged dose of poverty to correct this attitude. You are wise to drive a [presumably] paid off car. A car is a transportation system at its heart, one that can be broken down into costs and benefits. The wise person does an analysis and chooses the system with highest benefit for least cost.

      • 0 avatar
        mnm4ever

        Well it’s not completely paid for, I got it used but it’s getting pretty close to it. But still, it isn’t old, and that kind of makes it worse since I have had it only 4 yrs and people ask me that.

        Maybe it’s because I work in IT and with a lot of sales guys, but most of my coworkers are deep in that 3-yr lease cycle, driving some form of luxury car or talking about getting one soon. Oh and trucks, a lot of new full sized pickups.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Sales may explain part of it since those folks have told me its all about putting on airs with clients. I’m also in IT and I just shake my head at some of the financial choices my IT colleagues make. I suppose if you have a reasonably successful wife (as some do), you might have a little throwaway money to burn on throwaway toys. Where I come from you can’t just be so frivolous with your money.

          Additional: My now former boss falls into the “making it rain” category with her money, she told me last year her M package 335XI sedan lease was $900 US dollars per month, and it was in the shop something like six times in the past two years. Now due to a major reshuffling and bad luck she was effectively removed from her six figure position and put in the corner with Milton. She confided in me she’s near broke and now is frantically searching for another management/supervisor level job. What kills me car wise with her was after the BMW went back in June, three days later she went out and bought a CPO Cadillac CTS for something like 26 grand I believe as a sub-prime loan. He thoughts to me on the CTS was something to the effect of I worked hard to get where I am and I want to enjoy it.

          For the record I drove the ’93 240 today and just got back the ’98 Saturn last night after replacing the dying tranny with one out of a junkyard for $1100 and I’m still not that impressed with the shifting although it should last the winter.

  • avatar
    SC5door

    Oh comon, just wait for one of the cooling lines to burst, spray trans fluid all over the expressway, have it towed and repaired with brand new fluid from the dealer….all in one easy (and co$tly) step!

  • avatar

    I’ve always changed oils….my 300k BMW has had trans oil (manual) every 100k….diff every 50k…my mdx has had three full fluid changes in 90k (two due to dealer attempts to fix, and one due to a busted radiator) but now is great at 99k…..

    The fact is the company does not care past first owner….anyone who has DIY repair and found stuff that was meant to be assembled but not fixed learns this. My Indy mechanic still mentions doing struts in my Mystique (replaced with SVT parts) and uses obscenity. Designed to be assembled, not fixed.


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