ATF fluid used in CVT Transmission

My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid died yesterday and the dealership said that the transmission is ruined and needs to be replaced. It has 102,000 miles and has a Constant Variable Transmission. At 84,000 miles I had the transmission fluid drained and refilled at a local reputable mechanic (not the dealership) and they added 3.5 quarts of Honda ATF fluid instead of CVT fluid.

Is that what killed my transmission? Why was it able to run for 20,000 miles with the wrong fluid? I have been very good about getting oil changes and keeping up on the maintenance. What is the life expectancy of this transmission? Should the mechanic who made the error replace the transmission at no cost to me? Should he reimburse me for my rental car?

What steps should I take?

CVT’s need specific fluid, and if your mechanic used the ATF for regular Honda transmissions, then it is very likely that this caused the failure of your transmission. CVT’s are somewhat new (actually re-surging), so we don’t know what their life expectancy is, but with proper maintenance they should be fine.

Now, getting your mechanic to pay for the repair might be difficult. You have all the receipts? Try talking to him and see what he says. If he has good insurance, you might get somewhere. You could look into small claims court.

If the OP knew that the wrong fluid was used by his/her mechanic…why did he/she allow it to remain in the transmission for 20k miles?

Using the wrong fluid in any transmission–but especially a CVT–will kill it, but if the fluid had been drained and flushed a couple of times before adding the correct fluid, it is possible that the damage could have been limited. But…after 20k miles…nothing would likely save it.

Truthfully, however, I am amazed that the trans lasted that long before failing.

Yes, your mechanic was at fault. Transmissions are very delicate mechanisms and need the correct fluid. I’m also surprised it lasted 20k miles with the wrong fluid. Usually a CVT will fail much sooner with the wrong fluid.

You should go back and talke to him nicely, with receipt in hand, and also the dealer’s written diagnosis and estimate for installing a used or rebuilt CVT. Have the dealer do the work, but ask the mechanic to have his insurance co reimburse you for the work.

Your mechanic has no excuse for his mistake, so he should absolutely pay. First, he should know that ALL Honda automatic transmissions require special Honda fluid, not generic ATF, and second, he should have consulted his book and found that yours was a CVT that required CVT fluid. So he has no excuse and should absolutely pay for ruining your tranmission.

Again, don’t let him do the repair. Make sure it’s done by the dealer.

PS…I see you said he installed Honda ATF…so at least he DID use Honda fluid…but still it was the wrong fluid and still a mistake he should not have made, so he should still pay to make it right.

I only found out the wrong fluid was put in after my car died and the dealership looked at the fluid and saw that it was not the right color. They speculated that the wrong fluid had been put in, and I confirmed this when I looked back at the work order from the mechanic who changed the fluid.

As it stands the mechanic AND the dealership are looking around for a used transmission to put in the car. On Monday let’s hope that the mechanic agrees to cover the cost. He admits to putting the wrong fluid in but is dubious because:

  1. the transmission lasted 20,000 miles on the wrong fluid
  2. only 3.5 quarts where added
  3. CVT’'s have shorter life spans and my car has 100k.

These are the points I will potentially have to argue on Monday so if anyone has any insight, please advise!

Could the wrong fluid cause a slow death? Does quantity not matter; could 3.5 quarts do the damage? Should my car have lasted to 120k-160k?

Where can I find info on the actual life span of this car, not the predicted life-span?

There was another poster who had something very simular happen to a civic Hybrid about two weeks ago. That poster had over 200K on his CVT when someone put in the wrong fluid and destroyed the trans. So yes in all likley hood, assuming you have been good at changing out the fluid, you had alot of life left to go.

A regular automatic transmission and a CVT automatic transmission are completely different in how they work mechanically. Therefore the fluids required is completely different too. A regular auto transmission is basically a hydralic pump with some gears and “bands”. A CVT uses concentric “cones” with either a belt or chain between them that changes ratios due to speed and centrifical forces.

The improper fluid “killed” the CVT transmission, no doubt about that. A used CVT replacement at the expense of the repair shop is due here, if you can get it. If you want a new or “factory rebuilt” CVT you might have to put some of your own money into the settlement. A new (or factory rebuilt) CVT would likely last longer since the condition of the used CVT is an “unknown”.

If you get a used CVT, I 'd trade the car in shortly after the repair is successfully completed. If you get a new or rebuilt CVT and you like the car then you should be fine for many more years if you keep the car.

  1. The transmission lasted 20k maybe because some of the correct fluid remained in it, or because you got lucky, or both.

  2. But 3.5 qts of the wrong fluid will absolutely kill a CVT. Therr’s no doubt your mechanic killed it.

  3. Modern CVT’s should last just as long as regular autos. You may have gotten another 100k out of that CVT with proper maintenance. As gsragtop pointed out, others on this forum have gotten 200k+ out of their CVT’s.

Do not let your mechamic off the hook. He has no excuse and owes you a replacement CVT.

The wrong fluid is the wrong fluid. Period. If your mechanic filled your transmission with brake fluid and it broke, would he question whether the fluid was at fault? If he filled it with washer fluid would anyone question whether the fluid contributed to transmission failure?

Cars are engineered with some very specific and important fluid specifications and to not follow them is going to result in mechanical failure. Now your mechanic made an honest mistake, as everyone does, but my opinion is he owes you a replacement transmission of about the same age and mileage as yours.

Nissan CVTs have some reputation for early failure but in my opinion the Hondas have proven to be quite durable.

Many Honda CVT transmissions have failed before 120,000 miles with the correct CVT fluid in them…At this mileage, hoping for a new transmission paid for by someone else is wishful thinking in my opinion…Maybe you can get the shop that installed the “wrong” fluid to pay for some percentage of the repair…

The wrong fluid sent this transmission to an early grave. However there is no real way of telling what amount of life was left.

Not sure if you are “owed” a transmission.

Thought I would make a comment on the situation. I can see it actually happening totally by accident. I went and grabbed a latest version of Honda transmission fluid off of the stockroom shelf. It does actually say that it is for All Honda Transmissions in a round about double speak way. No where on the bottle did it say not to use in a CVT transmission. So with all of the different types of fluids out there that are now being called universal and can be used in all transmissions. As they are doing in antifreeze advertising. And some of the newer synthetic oils. It sounds like a honest shop you went to, so chances are they will replace it and cover your expenses and what ever else might of occurred because of it. Remember the technician is only human and also can make mistakes just like every other person out there. So don’t give up on them, honest repair shops and mechanics are very hard to find. Just remember all the garages that use to be out there 20 years ago. Many…Many of them are gone…

Just realized that all this time I have been listening to the show and reading these questions. I never bothered to take the time to register and comment. Guess I am getting kind of old. Will have to get on this computer and read and answer more I guess. The computer age is here to stay.

Hey lets us know what the shop does, and how many miles on the one installed. You may get lucky and get one installed with actually less than what you have.

It’s been going on for a long time…When a manufacturer makes a less than perfect product, like an engine or transmission, and that product starts to fail in significant numbers after millions have been made, blaming the failure on using the wrong lubricant is one way to limit the liability of these failures…By marketing “special” fluids for these less than perfect engines and transmissions, the margins generated can cover a significant part of the warranty costs of replacing defective units…As a side benefit, if the hapless consumer should use the wrong fluid, the manufacturer is off the hook without ever admitting to making a defective product…So selling $10/quart Hondamatic Fluid is a win/win proposition…

Kind of like Honda with their outrageous maintenance schedule. When I worked at a Honda Dealership I was amazed at just what Honda said had to be done to maintain their vehicles. Then if you didn’t do some of it. Well you didn’t follow the schedule, so we will not cover that failed part…Just how often does Honda even say it wants you to service their CVT transmissions ? If I remember correct on the Honda CVT transmissions, they want you to change the fluid every 30,000 miles ! Ca Ching ! Oh don’t forget to adjust the valves every 15,000 miles also. Bet 90% of the owners never do that part !

@MasterTechician you obviously have not worked on Honda’s built in the last 10 years at least. Maintenance schedule has changed. Even my 1995 did not require valve adjustments every 15k. You are dating yourself :slight_smile:

Raj… Maybe no valve adjustment but the 30K still remains. Its a FULL Fluid and filter exchange (oil, Trans, anti-freeze, power steering, and brake fluid…PLUS air filter, and cabin air filter… PLUS new wiper blades, etc)… This is a $500’ish (depending on the car) service, at least in my dealerships shop… They make us do it on every car near 30K if we want to certify it.

@ Caddyman - CVT transmission fluid is VASTLY different than normal ATF. It is not some marketing difference to weasel out of paying claims for “bad” transmissions.

ATF is a combination lubricant and hydraulic fluid which is necessary to operate the various valves, bands etc within the transmission and lubricate the gears. CVT fluid is a combination of those two properties plus a friction ENHANCER - small particles of rubber dispersed in the fluid to allow the main belt to engage on the cones. Normal ATF will not allow the belt to properly engage the cones and the belt or cones will wear out due to the slippage.

Adding ATF to a CVT will result in eventual death of the transmission - How fast it dies is directly related to the ratio of ATF to CVT fluid.

Additionally, the more frequent fluid change schedule vs a normal automatic transmission is due to size reduction and decreasing efficacy of the rubber particles in the CVT fluid. Don’t follow the recommended fluid change frequency and you are quite likely to damage the belt or cones.

It would be very helpful to the people looking for advice if before responding with what you “think” or what you “know”, you take some time to learn the actual facts.

Kcurt–I am not an expert on CVTs by any means, but I do want to correct a misconception that people may pick up from your post, namely that all CVTs utilize rubber belts and cones. The one with which I have the most familiarity is the CVT that Subaru began using as of the 2010 model year. Unlike the belt-driven CVT that was used in the old Justy model, Subaru’s new CVT utilizes a very wide roller chain, and steel cogs.

While Subaru does specify a different trans fluid for its CVTs, as compared to its “conventional” ATs, I wonder whether their CVT fluid contains the rubber particles that you mentioned. While it may contain them, it would seem that they are not necessary in a trans that does not rely on belts and cones.

And–unfortunately–Subaru claims that their CVT fluid only needs to be “inspected” every 30k miles, just like they now claim for their "conventional " ATs. However, I am not that naive, and I will continue to use 30k miles as the interval for changing the fluid in my “conventional” 5 speed automatic Subaru trans. I have always followed that schedule, and I have never experienced trans problems on any of my cars over the years.