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You’re bound to experience a couple of issues when driving your vehicle, including a flat tire, worn-out bulbs, or even a dead battery. These problems are usually easy to fix and are on the less expensive side of things.

But if there’s one thing drivers don’t want to deal with, it’s a powertrain malfunction.

What Is a Powertrain Malfunction?

A powertrain malfunction is a general term used to describe a problem in the engine or transmission. This is usually represented by a warning message, check engine light, or a wrench icon.

Powertrain Components

The powertrain refers to the assembly that propels a vehicle forward. It’s usually composed of the engine, transmission, driveshaft, axles, and differential.


The engine converts chemical energy into heat, kickstarting the combustion process that produces a mechanical force to move the vehicle.

The engine is a complex structure that’s made up of a block, rotating assembly, and cylinder heads. It also houses several systems, including the cooling, lubrication, fuel, and ignition systems, as well as the intake and exhaust manifolds.


Using a set of gears, the transmission lets the engine speed increase at low vehicle speeds and decrease at high vehicle speeds. This helps the vehicle maximize its fuel economy and reduce exhaust emissions.

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The driveshaft sits between the transmission and rear axle assembly on a rear-wheel drive vehicle. This part is also known as the propeller shaft.

The driveshaft is typically made from hollow steel tubing where forces are transmitted through its surface.


The axle is a rod or shaft that links two wheels. This part is responsible for transferring power from the engine to the drive wheels.


The differential changes the direction of engine torque and lets the drive wheels rotate at varying speeds during cornering or traveling over bumps and dips in the road.

What Causes a Powertrain Malfunction?

Any one of the key components in the powertrain can trigger the malfunction warning light. Here are some of the most common reasons why this could happen.

Oil Starvation / Contaminated Engine Oil

Engine oil is the lifeblood of any internal combustion engine. Failure to get an oil change in specified intervals can result in poor lubrication, causing metal components to rub against each other and accelerating wear.

Getting an oil change is arguably one of the easiest maintenance tasks your vehicle needs to run properly. Staying on top of this task can also prevent catastrophic engine damage and expensive repair bills.

Oil change intervals are specified in your owner’s manual, but many manufacturers recommend getting an oil change anywhere between 7,500 and 12,000 miles.

Coolant Leaks

Leaving coolant leaks unaddressed increases the risk of the engine overheating. In most cases, a leaky or blown head gasket is the reason behind this problem.

Faulty Spark Plugs

Spark plugs create an air gap inside the cylinder, producing a spark that kickstarts the combustion process.

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Carbon and oil fouling are common reasons why spark plugs can fail. This can result in several engine performance problems, such as excessive idling, overly rich air-fuel mixture, and a weak ignition system output, among others.

Ignition Coil Failure

The ignition coil generates high voltage to fire the spark plugs. After some time, spark plug gapping, leaking valve covers, and excessive moisture can cause the ignition coil to fail.

Once this happens, your vehicle might exhibit symptoms like engine misfires, hard starts, sluggish acceleration, and poor fuel economy, to name a few.

Fuel System Issues

A typical fuel system consists of a fuel tank, filter, lines, and injectors. All of these help supply fuel to the cylinders, and any one of them can fail and result in a powertrain malfunction.

Your fuel system is prone to several issues, including clogged injectors and filters, leaking fuel lines, and a faulty fuel pump.

Using the wrong fuel can also damage this system and cause your vehicle to exhibit symptoms like performance loss, misfiring, knocking, and backfiring.

Low Transmission Fluid

Like your engine, the transmission also needs enough lubrication to function without damaging its parts.

Having low levels or contaminated transmission fluid, may cause your vehicle to produce loud grinding noises as a result of metal-to-metal contact between moving parts. You may also notice a burning smell because of overheated transmission fluid.

You may also notice reduced vehicle performance caused by slipping gears and poor acceleration.

How To Fix a Powertrain Malfunction

The exact cause of a powertrain malfunction can be quite tricky to diagnose because it can mean a lot of things.

Fixing a powertrain malfunction requires careful inspection of the affected systems, so it’s best to leave the job to a trained professional instead.

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Tinkering with engine and transmission parts without the right tools and information can result in more damage and a more expensive repair bill.

How Much Does It Cost to Fix a Powertrain Malfunction?

Repair costs to fix a powertrain vary greatly because they depend on the component that needs to be replaced.

The problem can range from a simple spark plug issue to a more pressing one like a seized engine.

Major transmission and engine repairs can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $3,000.

The Importance of Getting a Warranty

Powertrain repairs can be quite expensive, which is why it’s ideal to get a warranty for your vehicle to minimize costs.

A powertrain warranty usually covers the transmission, transfer case, driveshaft, differential, and axle. It also covers most engine components like the cylinder block, heads, timing belt, fuel injectors, gaskets and seals, flywheel, oil pan, etc.

This type of warranty usually lasts up to five years or 60,000 miles, but there are also some automakers that extend this figure to 70,000 or 100,000 miles.

However, it doesn’t cover most wear and tear parts, collision damage, prohibited alterations, and other damages caused by aftermarket parts. Failure to follow the vehicle’s maintenance schedule can also void a powertrain warranty.

About The Author
CarParts Research Team
Written By Research Team

Automotive and Tech Writers

The Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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