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I just broke down. Here's a description: ('97 Subaru Legacy)

Driving completely normally along a town road, the car suddenly began to sputter and jump as I pressed on the gas. Then the check engine light started FLASHING, which I'd never even seen before. Meanwhile I could hear a very loud clicking coming from somewhere beyond the left air vent, right next to the driver's door. So I immediately pulled over.

I called a slightly more car-knowledgeable friend, and they came and listened to the various sounds/effects of me pressing on the gas, and immediately said "It's trying to change gears and it can't. Something's wrong with the transmission." This seemed obvious to me in retrospect, but I hadn't thought of it myself.

But anyway, we opened the hood and checked the transmission fluid: empty. Before I left home for college a month ago, I had a mechanic give my car a VERY thorough lookover after taking it out of a year of storage. How they failed to notice this is beyond me, and kind of upsets me. But this is beside the point. I bought a quart of the appropriate transmission fluid and poured it in (my manual is missing, so I wasn't sure how much it would need...a quart seemed like a good starting place.)

The problem didn't go away. When I started the car, it started fine. When I shifted to drive, it died. This happened 3 times before it stayed on after shifting to drive. Once I pressed the gas, the sputtering and jumping resumed, along with the clicking, engine light, and general failure to change gears. The car moved forward, but slowly. I turned it off pretty fast.

I'm having it towed and looked at tomorrow, but I'm impatient. Can anyone take a stab at what kind of problem I'm looking at here? I'm hoping to God I don't have to replace the transmission. For all I know I just didn't put enough fluid in yet. Anyone?

UPDATE: The mechanic said he can't even start the car, and that it looks like the car hasn't gotten a tune-up since it was originally purchased. He's going to replace spark plugs, wires, and coils. That'll cost me $200+ before he's even gotten the codes from the engine to figure out what the other problem is. It never stops!

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Transmission could have easily been fine when the car was checked out, but lost the fluid since then. Those things happen sometimes. I have a car that would periodically just suddenly lose all the power steering fluid. It'd be perfectly fine for the longest time, then suddenly it's dry. Fill it up and it'd stay fine for awhile, then suddenly completely dry again... –  Brian Knoblauch May 1 '12 at 11:46
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I'd recommend changing the title question to something that will catch people's attention a little better: e.g., Is my automatic transmission broken? –  Bob Cross May 1 '12 at 15:02
    
Thing is, I'm not certain it is the transmission. I'm far from knowledgeable about these things. The mechanics this morning said it sounded more like engine trouble to him, like it was misfiring, but he's going to look at both and get back to me soon. Update pending. –  Aerovistae May 1 '12 at 17:29
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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

my manual is missing, so I wasn't sure how much it would need

Let's fix this problem first thing. Go to MySubaru with your VIN number and create an account. You'll have immediate searcheable access to all of the manual information.

we opened the hood and checked the transmission fluid: empty. ... I bought a quart of the appropriate transmission fluid and poured it in

At least two things have gone wrong: 1. Your transmission fluid went dry (automatic transmission is not going to work without fluid). 2. You didn't put in nearly enough replacement fluid.

Always remember, regardless of owners manual availability, dipsticks are marked. If you check the stick and it's below the FILL line, it's needs filling. If it's dry, it really needs filling (and damage may have occured).

If you were totally on your own, I would recommend adding the correct amount of transmission fluid and giving the car a try. I don't have the 97 information in front of me but it appears that the correct amount should be on the order of five quarts.

In the future, you should keep a close eye on the transmission fluid (and all other fluids, of course). You're clearly leaking or losing fluid from somewhere. This is going to happen again.

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For the record, having identified and fixed the problem: I was low on transmission fluid, but not out. Apparently I just couldn't see well enough in the half-light under which it was examined. The true problem turned out to be simply that my coil had died altogether and needed to be replaced entirely. I still don't fully understand why that allowed for the car to start at all. Thanks for your answer though! –  Aerovistae Jun 16 '12 at 7:43
    
@Aerovistae, glad things are getting fixed. Good luck! –  Bob Cross Jun 17 '12 at 20:55
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Take a look at the new transmission fluid. Does it have any evidence of metal in it? Is it at the proper level?

Also, the sputtering and jumping when pressing on the gas sounds more engine-related than transmission related. How does it idle? How does it respond when redlining in neutral? Check all the vacuum lines and the air filter.

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