Do I give up on my transmission? 2003 Civic Hybrid CVT

I brought my car to one of those “quick change” places to get the oil and transmission fluid changed (the CVT is notorious for needing regular transmission fluid changes). Less than 2 weeks later, after several hundred miles of driving, the car was barely drivable. I brought it back. When they checked on their computer, it turned out they had put in regular transmission fluid instead of CVT fluid. They flushed and refilled transmission a bunch of times. I was there, watching, so I know the work was done - and the car worked fine for about 2 weeks. Then it started to act up again. I brought it back again, and they flushed it twice more, but now it’s acting up again after only 2 days.

By “acting up,” I mean shifting out of or into park, reverse, or drive is really, really stiff, and the car “lurches” at certain points when driving, both at low speed and at highway speeds. It’s worst in stop & go traffic - attempting to stall when we come to a stop. If you try to manually shift into “L,” it doesn’t go, or rather it will go into low most of the way, but not quite far enough for the little light that says it’s actually in low to light up. If the last two instances since the wrong fluid change are any indication, it won’t be long before it fails to go into “L” no matter how hard I pull on the shifter, which also means it’s going to start stalling again when I come to a stop.

They’ve been really, really nice about all this, and I’ve wanted to try to save the transmission - if for no other reason than to prevent the kid who made the mistake from being fired in this awful economy. It’s a big name company, and I have a feeling they’re not going to be very understanding of an honest mistake up at “corporate HQ.” At the same time, however, I need my car to work.

Is there something else to try that could save the transmission? I know it can’t be taken apart and rebuilt, because on this model car, the transmission core is completely sealed and is not serviceable. Or is it too far gone - should I ask for a new transmission?

I think it’s time fora new trans. In mist cases shops like that have insurance for such things.

The only thing I would make sure of is that they are using real Honda cvt fluid and not some generic cvt fluid. It maybe the only hope.

Driving the car for a few hundred miles with the wrong transmission fluid in it is a sure way to kill it, no matter whether it has a CVT or a more conventional type of automatic transmission. If a transmission needs a specific type of fluid (as do Hondas, some Chryslers, and all vehicles with CVTs), using the wrong type of fluid is very similar to giving someone a transfusion with the wrong type of blood. After a few hours, death is pretty much of a sure thing.

While I understand your reluctance to have the employee who committed this gaffe fired, the reality is that YOU are the victim of this mistake, and if you don’t press the company for full compensation for a new transmission and for a rental car while the car is being repaired, you will make yourself the victim twice.

Incidentally, I hope that this incident serves as evidence of what we always say in this forum regarding quickie oil change places, namely–don’t even go there for directions! Yes, most of them really are THAT bad, as a result of a business model that uses barely-trained employees who are pushed to speed the cars in and out of the service bay.

The most frequent problems for those who are foolish enough to patronize these places are:

Insufficient oil or no oil added after draining the old oil
Putting the wrong fluid into engines, transmissions, brake hydraulic systems, cooling systems, differentials, and windshield washers.
Draining the transmission, instead of the engine crankcase, thus leading to an engine with twice as much oil as it should have, and a dry transmission.
Failure to use a new gasket/crush washer on the oil drain plug, thus leading to leaks and to overtightened oil drain plugs.
Incorrect installation of oil filters, including “double-gasketing” and failure to properly tighten the filter.

Any of the above mistake scenarios is enough to result in huge repair bills, unfortunately, and what is even more unfortunate is that these mistakes are not unusual at these places.

An automatic transmission can be damaged or wiped clean out within a few miles if a low fluid or incorrect fluid type situation exists so a few hundred miles can certainly do it.

If they admitted to the use of the wrong fluid (possibly verifiable on a receipt) then I’d say they owe you a new transmission. I would also be skeptical of the use of any used transmission because a fair percentage of salvage yard engines and transmissions are suffering from their own set of problems, be they minor or major.

Kudos for thinking of someone who may end up unemployed but that should not really be a concern. If someone gets fired over this then the terminated employee should look at it as a life lesson and if the truth be known that employee has likely made other mistakes. It’s just that this one came back and bit them badly.
It remains to be seen how nice this company will be if a request for a new transmission leads to pushing and shoving, figuratively speaking.

You are worried about a kid with a likely $10-15 job vs a $3-$5k transmission job. He can get another job easily. The transmission likely is done, CVT’s can only be fixed usually a one place, the car makers OEM rebuilder.

The transmission fluid change was a good measure to revive. However at this point you may need another opinion from Honda dealer. Another alternative is a used CVT if possible to find.

They have insurance to cover this so no big deal. However don’t expect a fluid process getting there. Sorry.

The CVT is a totally different kind of animal than a normal auto transmission. Therefore the fluid in the CVT is very different too. The damage was done, and nothing can bring the transmission back. CVT’s are not rebuilt either, at least not by a regular transmission shop. A CVT needs to be replaced. Your choice is a used one from a junker, and hope it is still OK. Or, a new one. The shop is on the hook for this one and you’ll have to negotiate how to get your car running properly again. The shop has been nice up to this point, but let’s hope they stay nice as they face replacing your transmission.

These transmission have a high failure rate, do not get a salvage unit installed. A factory unit is the only way to go.

You might be doing the kid a favor too. Maybe he will go back to school and learn something.

How many miles on this car?? You did not bring them a new transmission and getting them to install a new one will be difficult…

I would go to a Honda dealer, get a repair estimate, and present the Quick Lube place with that estimate. From then on, it’s a matter of negotiation…

Thanks for the advice, everyone! It sounds pretty unanimous, so I’ll get rolling on seeking a new transmission.

@Caddyman: Ironically, by being religious about changing the transmission fluid, I kept the transmission happy for 230k+ miles. It was running fine until this particular fluid change. I had used the same company, but a different location before, and they’d been absolutely terrific and very thorough. Unlike certain chains, you remain with your car at this chain, so you can see what they’re doing to the car throughout the process. Alas, you can’t see which fluid is in the machine servicing your transmission… Oh well.

Update: I scheduled an appointment with a Honda dealer today. They’re going to charge $85/hr to assess the damage. I hinted that if it took more than 2 minutes of driving to assess the damage, I’d be highly unamused, after which the scheduler said they “probably” wouldn’t charge more than 1 hr, but would call before doing more than that. Are there any honest garages left in this world?

Do you think that they are being dishonest? They should be able to charge for their time. When doing a inspection for a performance problem on a CVT it is necessary to check for daignostic fault codes, perform the related diagnostics and monitor the TCM inputs.

I think with that many miles on the vehicle with a CVT if the transmission is failing I would just walk into the parts department and ask for a price on a replacement trans.

Since the trans was wrecked by a 3rd party, I need to submit a repair estimate to them, which means I need the service department to take a look.

There is no way it will take more than 2 minutes of their time to determine that it doesn’t shift at all into certain gears, lurches when it tries to shift otherwise, and stalls when you come to a stop unless you manually shift into neutral (on an automatic transmission).

Using the OBD-II to check the codes takes about 30 seconds, which I know, because I’ve got one and have checked the codes myself.

I am happy to pay them for their time, but the scheduler tried to claim it could take 3 hours. That’s complete baloney. This tranny can’t be serviced. The absolute most they could do with their time is put it on the lift, open the transmission’s outer case, look at the factory-welded-shut core from the outside, see that, yep, there’s a core there, and close it again.

Anything more than 10 minutes is a rip-off, more than an hour is highway robbery. I know their rack rate is $85/hr and they’re going to charge that no matter how little work it takes. I’ll put up with it because I need the quote to submit to the other folks, and intend to recoup it from them. But there’s not a chance in the world I’m paying more than $250 for them to twiddle their thumbs while pretending they’re doing something. I’m not someone they can scare into paying for work that isn’t being done just by throwing around some complicated-sounding words. I just want to get back on the road with as little hassle as possible.

1 hour minimum fpr diagnostics is standard now. In my area it’s typically about $100. I don;t mind, because I’m tying up his resources and buying his expertise.

I hope for the sake of other customers this dealer isn’t condemning transmissions after a short road test and an undiagnosed fault code.

After the OP’s experience with this car he may be certain that the transmission must be replaced.

There is a difference between a price quote and a diagnosis. When a technician is asked to diagnose a problem the inspection is expected to be thorough and accurate.
The person doing the inspection must be prepared with supporting information in the event that it is later revealed that the transmission was replaced elsewhere and is under warranty.

BTW the first four CVTs that I worked on had either a broken wire or a failed sensor, no internal problems.

@liantics … I think you are making the right move. The Honda dealer should be able to figure it out. They’ve got the tools and the experience needed. And they may have some tricks up their sleeves on how to rescue your transmission from the tranny crusher.

My best guess though is that your tranny is history. The wrong fluid plays hob with transmissions. It isn’t pretty. The fluid-change shop who made the mistake – in my opinion – should re-imburse you the complete cost of a fully installed and drive-tested new or rebuilt transmission. That will get you back on the road again at least.

Update 2:

The first thing the Honda dealer did was try to convince my husband to pay $200 for a transmission flush (it’s been flushed 7 times in 4 weeks, another one isn’t going to make any difference, and if it were, we’d be able to get it for free from the quick-change place). Then they tried to sell me a new starter clutch, even though that’s not the issue. Then they tried to sell us an unnecessary alignment.

This particular CVT transmission (the 2003 Civic Hybrid) is different from all other Honda CVTs, except for the 2004 Hybrid. It cannot be taken apart. There is an outer shell that can be opened, and an inner core with the important stuff. The core is welded shut at the factory and cannot be opened for assessment, repair, or rebuild. Period. It’s not possible. The only way to diagnose it is to check the codes and drive it.

If one drives the car, it’s apparent, immediately, that the transmission is shot. It’s that obvious. It’s not a sensor or a wire, it’s an inability for the internal parts to move properly. Attempting to move the shifter into gear (say “D”) does not result in the car going into that gear - at least not without a bunch of effort. At this point, it doesn’t even think about going to low, even if you pull back on the shifter with both hands. When the transmission fluid gets hot, after a long drive, the car cannot get into a low enough “gear ratio” (there aren’t really gears, per se, so “gear ratio” is not the most accurate term, but it’s a good shorthand) to not stall if you slow or stop. It often jolts, at speed, on the highway. At one point yesterday, it felt like the car was trying to jump. It’s really, really, really obvious. We’re not talking basic juddering, or other minor issues that tend to make people panic, we’re talking barely drivable.

Anyway, after several hours of back & forth phone calls, ending with some stern “stop trying to upsell me” discussion, they actually bothered to diagnose it, and … the transmission is shot.

Surprise! It would have been nice if they’d just done that at the beginning. At least I have the piece of paper with the diagnosis and repair estimate, so I can move on toward regaining functionality.

umm, one factor not discussed is that it’s a 9 year old car closing in on a quarter MILLION miles. Which is great, impressive, not surprising with careful maintenance of a good car.

One thing you may want to expect, pro-ration. The trans fluid mistake likely pushed the tranny over the edge it was already close to. Any tranny going 230k is great, esp. imho a cvt in a car, but you may have had the same problem six months later anyway, there’s no way to tell. The fluid mistake seems to have just sped that eventuality up a bit.

I’m not saying the shop is without blame, it is; but the shop or the insurance company will likely not want to pick up the whole bill for a new replacement as the trans is nearly 6 times past it’s warranty and well past what a great majority of units would last.

It’s awful that the stealer tried all it did on you; but that’s the pressure they put on the service writers, which often doesn’t align with manufacturer recommendations or what a mechanic has been trained to do. Stay on each party involved. otherwise they will ignore you.

Incidentally, I hope that this incident serves as evidence of what we always say in this forum regarding quickie oil change places, namely--don't even go there for directions! Yes, most of them really are THAT bad, as a result of a business model that uses barely-trained employees who are pushed to speed the cars in and out of the service bay.

My experience has been pretty good with these places, and I can watch my vehicle. On the other hand I haven’t had perfect experience with a recommended independent mechanic, who wouldn’t read what’s stamped on the caps for the engine or transmission and gave me ‘what all those Toyotas get’.

The only way to be sure, of course, is to do your own.

Your fluid change place is going to buy you a new transmission. Putting the wrong fluid in is a no no that the high school dropouts they hire should have been carefully told. They took a working piece of equipment and ruined it. Does not matter what some statisitian thinks what the remaining miles were. You are due under law to be made a whole and complete replacement. This is not a tire or a battery, it is THE transmission. They may fight so talk to your state attorney general. They are the ones to stand for you when a shop makes this kind of mistake.