2003 Toyota Matrix (5-spd manual): Prematurely toasted transmission

I’m the original owner of this first-generation Matrix, and so far it has been great. This summer, though, I noticed some additional noise and took it into a couple of places to get it diagnosed. The first place had an inept mechanic (diagnosed a bearing, which made no sense and when checked was fine), the second one didn’t drive it, so it wasn’t until last Friday, at a state safety inspection, that a mechanic told me he thought there was a problem with the clutch or transmission.

I took it to my favorite shop (a different one than Friday’s), where a good mechanic drove it with me and heard the noise. He then put it up and worked with another guy to identify the problem. He told me that it was in third gear, that the gear itself was hosed. I could see it myself as they were testing it - the engine rocked sort of roughly in that gear, and there was extra noise as well. He said it was likely due to a broken gear tooth or something.

The shop I go to is very reasonable with its pricing. The owner called around and found the cheapest used transmission he could find was $1500. Add on $500 for labor, and it’s not chump change. I love the car - people remark on how they thought it was brand new until I tell them its age. But I’m leery about putting in the dough and work if the transmission will go again in another year, right after the warranty on the used tranny is up.

Given how I have babied this car and its transmission, almost never ground the gears, and earned the respect of everyone I drive by how I drive, including the fact that the clutch is still fine at this high mileage, it seems to me something is really wrong for the tranny to go before the clutch. I have done some googling and discovered that many, many people have had bad experiences with this transmission - a fact that really bothers me given the Toyota name and expectations. And these are people who got tons of miles out of their previous cars.

So here are my questions:

  1. Does anyone know of a TSB or recall on these transmissions?

  2. Does anyone have info about these transmissions in general? Failure rates?

  3. Is it worth it for me to invest in a replacement? If so, should I go used or rebuilt (I don’t want to do new)?

Stats: Base Toyota Matrix 5-speed; 137,000 miles, mix of highway, city and hills; no clutch riding, ever, and tendency to shift low; bought in 9/02.

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

There was a similar event on car talk, and it in my recollection boiled down to 2 options, get it fixed or go from second gear to 4th.

susanrm — "2) Does anyone have info about these transmissions in general? Failure rates?"
The failure rates on the 5-spd are higher than average. I believe 2003 was the year they were introduced; I think Corollas have the same tranny.
susanrm — "3) Is it worth it for me to invest in a replacement? If so, should I go used or rebuilt (I don't want to do new)?"
It's just one bearing that goes bad. I would go with a used replacement and then immediately sell the car. Evidently, the 5-spds (which are in short supply due to their use as replacement transmissions) can be replaced (exact fit) by Toyota 6-spd transmissions; these are more reliable because an extra bearing is used. See quote from edmunds.com below.
#456 of 499 2003 Matrix XR Transmission Bites the Dust by jon_e Dec 29, 2010 (8:30 pm) —

"My transmission started making a low grinding noise. It is the failed bearing. After doing some research I realized that the 6 speed does not have this reliability issue. I talked to the guys at monkeywrenchracing.com and they explained why this is. When toyota designed the 6 speed, they started with the 5 speed design and added an extra gear. The extra gear needs a longer shaft, the longer shaft needs an extra bearing, and that extra bearing tranfers alot of the load.

“I just bought a used 6 speed from them for about $1100. This is cheaper than available used 5 speeds because of the high rate of replacement. The connections to the engine and shifter are the same and there are no electronics so the installation should be identical to the 5 speed. With a clutch and labor this repair should be less than $2500 compared to toyota’s $4000 for a brand new inferior 5 speed.”

edmunds.com — 2003 Toyota Matrix Consumer Discussions

Good luck.

I wouldn’t blame the vehicle and transmission for this problem just yet. You state that you “almost never ground the gears”.
That generally points to error on the driver’s part or a dragging/out of adjustment clutch.

If your driving is predominantly city/stop and go stuff this can be made much worse because 3rd and 4th gears are the most commonly used ones while in motion.
Resting a hand on the gearshift lever can also exacerbate this problem.

I’ve done a lot of manual transmission repair and 3/4 gears are usually the trouble spot. In almost all cases these problems are due to the driver, as distasteful as that may sound to you.

Take a look at Consumer Reports rating of the 2003 Toyota Matrix. All but one of the ratings are either blank or are nice rosy dots, meaning average or better than average reliability. The one black dot in 2003 was for Major Transmission Problems. In 2004, the black dot is gone. 2003’s 5-spd transmission was a lemon — it most definitely was not the driver’s fault (as distasteful as that may sound to you).

Those dots on limited CR complaints don’t mean a whole lot to me for the simple fact that 1 or 2 complaints can lead to a ding, be it transmission, engine, or whatever else.
ALLDATA does not show any TSBs for Matrix manual transmission problems either.

The OP is the one stating that they “ALMOST never ground the gears”. Over 8 years and ? miles the word “almost” could have appeared a few too many times and odds are the memory is not ever going to keep track of how many “almosts” actually occurred.

I’ve fixed a lot of them on cars with anywhere from 20 to 50k miles so it doesn’t take much “almost never grinding” to create some havoc.

ok4450: Look, everyone grinds the gears occasionally. I did it maybe twice when I broke my left toe and couldn’t put full pressure on the clutch. But that was going from reverse to first (very brief), and NEVER between 2nd and 3rd or other gears. I never rest my hand on the gear shift lever, either. Sorry, not user error here. I mean, I got 120 K out of a 1987 MUSTANG transmission with no new clutch or tranny (and everything on that was made of paper) before an elderly man ran a stop sign into the side of the car, totaling it. I have never had any other tranny problems, either - never had to have any transmission work on any car I have owned except the ones I bought that were already ten years old/used when I was a teen - and those were automatics.

Everyone else - thanks - I don’t want to repair and sell, but the 6-speed tranny sounds like an option to look into.

…and before someone jumps on my “reverse to first,” yes, I do stop before shifting between these two gears. This is in the process of leaving my driveway. :slight_smile:

There’s been some complaints on the web of early bearing failures in the '04 & '05 Matrixes too.
I changed the trans oil in my 2006 Matrix 5-speed at 21k out of concern about this issue.
The old oil was dark with a metallic sheen and a gritty feel.

I would look for an independent trans shop to get this trans repaired or get a refurbished 6-speed from Monkeywrench.
I wouldn’t roll the dice on a used (but not rebuilt) transmission.

If it were me I would have the car fixed the cheapest way possible and then sell the car. A rebuilt transmission will have the same weak point at the bearing. Basically, it is a poorly designed transmission.

As for replacement with a 6-speed tranny, not every shop would be willing to attempt that. How would they estimate costs? They could run into a mess of trouble.

Have you considered finding a good transmission shop and seeing what it would cost to repair your transmission?

Perhaps I’m wrong but it seems that it’s possible that simply replacing the bad parts would cost less than the $1500 you’re being quoted for a used transmission and labor would likely be not that much more than the $500 he’s quoting.

Yes I know that you would still have this manufactured “defect” but it already lasted for 137k miles so would it be that bad if it only lasted another 137k?

Thanks. I have contacted a good transmission shop and am getting a quote on replacing the transmission with a 6-speed next week. I may also ask them to look at it and tell me what a repair would cost.

I also want to call Toyota and give them an earful. On further inspection, it really does seem to be the bearing issue; the noise is very audible in every gear from third on up, so no, I did not wreck my third or fourth gear. I doubt they’ll make good, but I can try.