Bad Transfer Case Symptoms

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The transfer case is one of the most important components that distinguish all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles. Driving all four wheels provides superior traction, resulting in improved performance in challenging terrain. This is made possible by the transfer case, which allows power to be transferred to both the front and rear wheels.

When you have a faulty transfer case, you’ll find that you may have difficulty or are unable to switch to AWD or 4WD.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the symptoms you may experience when this component fails.

car transfer case
The transfer case allows power to be transferred to both the front and rear wheels.

What are the Symptoms of a Bad Transfer Case?

The transfer case is supposed to last the life of the vehicle—but that doesn’t always happen. Here are some of the most common signs you may encounter when you have a bad transfer case:

Gear Shifting Issues

One symptom of a bad transfer case is when you have trouble shifting between gear ranges. Although the issue can be caused by something simple, such as a low fluid level or damaged linkage, it typically indicates an internal transfer case failure.

Before assuming something is wrong, however, make sure that you’re following the directions (in your owner’s manual) for operating the transfer case. In many instances, before shifting into four-low, the vehicle must be stopped and the transmission placed into neutral.

Otherwise, you’ll hear a grinding noise when trying to shift gears.

Difficulty Staying in 4WD

Another common problem is a transfer case that pops out of 4WD. The issue can be attributed to outside influences (e.g., a problem with the differential or driveshaft) or it might be due to an internal transfer case concern.

4WD Will Not Engage/Disengage

There are many reasons why a vehicle’s 4WD system won’t engage or disengage. The issue could be due to anything from a faulty shift mechanism on the front axle to an electrical fault in the control system.

It’s also possible that the transfer case has internal problems.

4wd vehicle button
You may have a faulty transfer case if you’re having difficulty staying in 4WD or your your 4WD system won’t engage/disengage.

Puddle Formation Directly Under the Transfer Case’s Location

There’s only one reason why there’s a greasy puddle building up underneath your car—there has to be a leak somewhere.

And that somewhere could be the transfer case.

Verify that the leak is coming from the transfer case by jacking up your car and visually inspecting it. You should easily see it at the rear-end part of the transmission or transaxle assembly.

Weird Grinding, Growling or Humming Noises

Another telltale sign of a problem in your car is the presence of weird noises that weren’t there before. Abnormal noises can be bothersome, and they almost always indicate that bigger problems are right around the corner.

If you hear a grinding, growling, or humming noise that changes with vehicle speed, it might be coming from the transfer case. The root cause could be low fluid level or a mechanical problem, such as a loose chain, bad bearings, or damaged gears.

4WD Warning Light Illuminates

Some vehicles have a “service four-wheel drive” message (or something similar) that pops up on the dash when there’s a problem in the system. Other vehicles will simply keep the 4WD light illuminated continuously to indicate a problem, which could be a bad transfer case.

What are the Possible Causes of a Bad Transfer Case?

Typically, a transfer case will fail due to a low fluid level (caused by leaks), lack of maintenance, or regular wear from use.

It’s important to address fluid leaks right away to prevent internal transfer case damage. Changing the transfer case fluid on a regular basis is also important. You can find the service interval for your vehicle’s transfer case in the owner’s manual.

Bad Transfer Case or Transmission Problem?

The transfer case is a part of your vehicle’s drivetrain, as is the transmission—and they both have their respective functions. Despite this, the symptoms of transmission failure can mimic those of a bad transfer case. This can sometimes result in confusion for vehicle owners who are attempting to fix their car themselves.

To avoid any confusion, it’s a good idea to have a professional diagnose your vehicle if you suspect a transfer case problem, as they would have the proper tools (and years of experience) to better assess your vehicle and its underlying issues.

mechanic doing maintenance check under the car
It’s best to have a professional mechanic check your vehicle because the symptoms of a bad transfer case and transmission failure can be similar.

Can Bad Transfer Case Damage the Transmission?

There are instances where a catastrophic transfer case failure can damage other parts of your vehicle, including the transmission. It’s always a good idea to address any known issues with your vehicle as soon as possible to avoid additional problems.

What is a Transfer Case?

As previously mentioned, the transfer case is found on vehicles with AWD or 4WD capability and is integral in allowing drivers to switch to these modes of operation.

4WD Transfer Case

A typical 4WD transfer case is found at the rear of the transmission. It is powered by the transmission output shaft and operates much like a secondary transmission.

Most 4WD transfer cases have four modes of operation: two-high, neutral, four-low, and four-high. Because the driver only engages the 4WD when needed, this type of system is called “part-time” four-wheel drive.

The desired gear range may be engaged with a lever, engine vacuum, or onboard electronics.

AWD Transfer Case

AWD systems distribute power to all four wheels without any driver input. Many modern SUVs have AWD and a front-wheel drive-bias layout. Vehicles with this design have a transaxle instead of a transmission.

The transfer case mounts to the side of the transaxle and distributes power to the rear differential and one of the front CV axles. You may also hear people refer to this type of transfer case as a power transfer unit (PTU) or something similar.

There are also some vehicles that have AWD and a rear-wheel drive-bias layout. With this design, the transfer case is much like one found in a 4WD vehicle. The primary difference is that the transfer case doesn’t have multiple gear ranges for the driver to choose from (operation is automatic).

That’s why this type of setup is sometimes referred to as full-time 4WD.

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Staff Writers

In the Garage with is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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