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Transmission failure: Who's fault is it?

The transmission in our 2007 Toyota Highlander has failed and needs to be replaced at a cost of about $5,000.

Toyota says it’s not covered under the power train warranty because they found the fluid was about 2.5 quarts low.

Toyota’s top regional service techs are pointing the finger at an independent oil change place we used in rural Oregon on a road trip three months ago. They think the technicians there mistakenly drained some of the transmission fluid and didn’t replace it. We had driven about 3,000 miles since that oil change.

We bought the car as a certified used Toyota vehicle a year ago and had the oil changed at the dealer one time at the appropriate interval after that. The dealership where we bought the car has been very helpful in trying to track down the source of the failure but reasonably enough, they would prefer not to be the responsible party.

Does it seem reasonable to you that the car would go 3,000 miles, up and down the Rocky Mountains, before failing if the transmission fluid was 2.5 quarts low for three months? Is it just as reasonable to think we could have driven 12,000 miles before the failure, just in case the car wasn’t properly serviced at the dealer?

We of course feel we have maintained our car properly and really ought not to have to pay $5,000 for a new transmission with less than 60,000 miles on it.

Advice/consolation/new ideas would be most welcome!

If you haven’t checked your transmission fluid in three months, I’m afraid I don’t agree with the statement that you’ve maintained your car properly.

Really? You check your transmission fluid in between oil changes? Do others agree with that?

I check trans fluid regularly but not nearly as often as oil.

But that’s neither here nor there. Here’s what I’m having a hard time with. Are you sure it wasn’t 2.5 pints low? If you were driving around 2.5 quarts low then the transmission had to have been exhibiting some symptoms - things like hard shifts, maybe a little rougher when it was cold, maybe even some slipping. Was the transmission behaving perfectly normally? B/c if it was low enough on fluid to kill it I think that something should have been noticeable. And - the first thing to do if the trans does anything funny at all is check the fluid.

If they stick to their story, good luck getting anywhere. I doubt that you really have any way of placing fault.

Was it leaking at all?

Are you saying that you should only check fluids and oils when you plan to change them?

You should check fluids often. I check mine at least once per week. It is the easiest and cheapest thing that people can do to ensure they are doing everything they can to avoid preventable major repairs.

At the very least, a car owner should check everything–all fluid levels, and perhaps even things the air filter box and vacuum hose connections–under the hood after the car has been serviced, and this is especially true if the service was done by a quicky lube place. Their screw-ups are legendary.

While most people do not do this, failure to have done some under-hood checks is something that is not going to work in your favor, unfortunately.

Here’s what I read on this site:
Automatic: Service intervals for an automatic transmission vary from every 30,000 miles … to never. The typical service interval is 60,000 to 100,000 miles. Changing it more often does no harm.

(The transmission was serviced at 40,000 miles when we bought the vehicle.)

Car Talk Tip: Unlike engine oil, transmission oil doesn’t burn up. So if you’re low on transmission fluid, you almost certainly have a leak.

According to the dealer’s mechanics, there is no sign of a leak anywhere, either externally or internally through a seal into another chamber.

There was no warning at all; we pulled off a highway into a small town and the transmission started slipping. We immediately drove a few blocks to a local mechanic. He checked it using the dipstick and advised us to drive to the dealer, as the dipstick showed him there was enough fluid. He thought it might be a “forward pump.” We drove two more blocks before the gears gave way completely. The car was transported to the nearest Toyota dealer about 50 miles away. The local dealer’s service manager said it was 2.5 quarts down.

I understand from the Toyota service people that the transmission fluid capacity for this vehicle is about 9 quarts. The owner’s manual is in the car, of course.

Do I wish I had checked the transmission fluid every week? Sure! But I believe we faithfully followed the maintenance recommendations, we did not ignore any warning signs, and we sought immediate assistance when the trouble occurred.

If there are no leaks, then somewhere, sometime, somebody failed to make sure the transmission fluid was properly filled. It’s a bummer.

Legally, I think we have no obligation to doublecheck the work performed by automotive professionals. We are paying for their expertise. That’s like saying you should do your own x-rays after surgery to make sure the surgeon put your parts back in. Hmmmm, well, maybe that’s not such a bad idea! In any event, I’m a professional person in a non-automotive line of work; it sounds like most of my correspondents here are terrific do-it-yourselfers with mechanical aptitude and interests. That’s wonderful but it’s not me! I bought a good, reliable car, highly ranked by Consumer Reports, and I pay to have it well taken care of by others on the schedule that is laid out by the manufacturer. This shouldn’t have happened and I’m simply trying to gather some opinions on the possibility that the car could have gone 3,000 miles with inadequate transmission fluid.

The ultimate problem here will be proving which service facility is at fault.
It is logical, given the timeframe of events, that the quicky lube place is the guilty party, but proving it will be difficult, bordering on impossible.

I agree that you have no legal obligation to doublecheck things under the hood after the car is serviced, but this falls into the category of prudent self-protection–sort of like the person going to the hospital for leg amputation who writes “this one” in Magic Marker on the bad leg prior to surgery. Mistakes do happen and whatever someone can do to prevent a mistake, or to limit damage from a mistake, is certainly in that person’s best interests.

In the future, I strongly suggest that you do an underhood check after your vehicle is serviced, every few weeks thereafter, and before any extended road trips. This will help to prevent problems from cropping up, and as the old saying tells us, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

LOL! Thanks–good point about the magic marker!

We will most definitely be more cautious in the future. I’ve always taken great care of my cars and have never had something like this happen. We’ll never know, of course, but since the mechanic at the time of the failure thought the dip stick showed enough transmission fluid for us to drive it 50 more miles to the dealer, I’m not sure my own checks would have prevented this. But at least I would have known I had checked it.

Thanks again for your note.

You may be stuck either way, but the whole sequence just doesn’t “smell” right. If the symptoms came on very very suddenly then this would mostly make sense with a very sudden fluid loss - like from a blown seal or something. If you had been driving around for a few thousand miles that low on fluid then I think that you would have noticed something amiss.

Does this car have a tachometer? And, if so, do you ever pay any attention to it? The only thing I can think of for it to make sense is that you’ve been driving around with the transmission slipping the whole time, but didn’t notice. (Slipping would be where you step on the gas and the engine revs up, but little to none of the power is transferred to the drive wheels). All the while you were overheating the transmission, burning up the fluid and the clutches until it all just finally reached a tipping point or something. Its just that slipping is a hard thing to not notice.

I feel there is a leak somewhere. Let’s say the trans was serviced and had a full complement of trans fluid at 40K miles about a year ago. Toyota does an oil change 6 months later, did they “top off” the trans fluid at that time? 3 months later you have an oil change at the shop in Oregon; was the trans fluid topped off then?

It seems you were about 25% low on fluid, 2 1/2 of 9 either pints or quarts. 25% low doesn’t seem like enough to wipe out the transmission. Something else is going on here and the shop in Oregon is giving the Toyota folks a scapegoat.

I agree an owner should know how to check the fluids including trans fluid themselves, in this case there is little fault I can find with the owner. My guess is over 90% of car owners wouldn’t check their trans fluid at all. In this case the owner has records of due diligence in having the car serviced IMO.

There are still facts unknown, for instance was the SUV ever used for towing? Did someone put in the wrong type of fluid in this trans? Was the proper procedure for checking the trans fluid followed, ie idling, warm motor, in park, as per the owner’s manual? Somebody messed up here but it wasn’t the owner.

Perhaps the owner could have caught someone else’s error. I just had my oil changed and before I left the parking lot I pulled the dipstick to make sure there was oil in the car. People shouldn’t have to do that, but I do it to avoid problems.

You know, we thought that as well. A sudden fluid loss seemed more likely. Truly, there were no warning signs at all. Driving this winter has been challenging enough with lots of ice and snow so we have been especially mindful of the car and its performance. My spouse and I are in our 60s and well past the age where we would be driving an impaired or unreliable vehicle, especially with our grandchildren in the car.

The Highlander has been parked outside here and I know we would have noticed transmission fluid on top of fresh snow if there were an external leak. We have to trust the Toyota dealer here that they found no evidence of a seal breach. (I know this is confusing! There are two dealers involved: the one where we bought the vehicle in Oregon and the one where the car is being repaired here in Colorado. They are talking to each other daily and have involved the senior regional technical specialists from both districts.)

Because of the weather and road conditions, I’m sure the all-wheel drive has been well-used. We have used the ECT option to start driving on ice and snow, as directed by the owner’s manual.

Yes, there’s a tach and since this our first automatic transmission car, we are accustomed to keeping an eye on it. There has been no engine revving–well, not until the big disaster itself.

Thanks for your thoughts and for taking the time to write. It is much appreciated.

The dealer is correct for the most part. Never go to a quick oil change place. They will cost you if you are the one who gets the bad service. What you described is exactly what will cause a transmission to quit.

Thanks for your thoughts–they are greatly appreciated. I actually brought that up to the Toyota folks–25% fluid loss would cause catastrophic failure? Seemed unlikely to me!

The Toyota oil change records show the fluid was “checked” and so do the quickie-lube records. I don’t think they topped it off. Since the car was purchased with a Toyota warranty from a dealer, I have to think they used the correct type of fluid when they prepared it for sale.

I don’t think the vehicle was used for towing; it did not come equipped with tow package and it doesn’t have a hitch. Of course, somebody could have used a temporary hitch, but that would have been before we bought the car so I don’t know.

At both oil changes, the vehicle was warm. It was also warm when the mechanic checked the fluid at the time of the breakdown.

Again, I really appreciate all the “investigative” questions and constructive comments here. It’s really helpful in educating myself enough to maybe put together other clues and ask the right questions.

It’s IMPOSSIBLE, NOW, to determine WHEN the transmission lost the 2.5 quarts. It could have been a slow, ongoing process or a sudden leak developed…Now that it’s full, we don’t know if it’s still leaking or not…But 2.5 quarts low is indeed enough to lead to failure…YOU, the owner, are responsible for checking and maintaining fluid levels…and YOU will end up paying for this tranny rebuild. Do yourself a BIG favor and have an independent Mom & Pop transmission shop do the work and you will save about half over the dealer price…

I expect you’re right–we’ll end up paying!

As I’ve described, no one can find any evidence of either a slow or sudden leak. Now that it’s filled up again, any unfixed internal leaks will certainly cause the same problem again, so you can bet we will be monitoring this fluid level very closely.

I do think that by following the maintenance schedule, we did indeed check and maintain fluid levels and exercised reasonable care in doing so. I don’t think I’ll go with the independent transmission shop though–going to an independent small business seems to have been our biggest mistake.

Thanks for your comments!

If there is a NAPA store in your area, ask the Counterman who HE recommends in the local area for transmission rebuilds… These guys see it all, the good, the bad and the ugly and they know who does good work…If you go with the dealer, ask them EXACTLY what they are going to do…Rebuild YOUR tranny in their shop? Install a rebuilt transmission? From WHERE?? Install a FACTORY replacement (new) transmission? Be sure you know what you are getting…

Thanks. I will ask those questions immediately. I’m calling them now!

The transmission they plan to use is a Toyota remanufactured transmission with a 1 year/unlimited mileage warranty.