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Transmission fluid ripoff?

So, I bought an Angie’s list coupon for a transmission service – replace fluid and filter. When I went to redeem it, the mechanic said my fluid was so dirty that he didn’t do the whole job, just changed the fluid, for a total of $120.
Instead, he said I need to come back in a month and have the fluid changed again – for another $120.
Then in 2 months, I should come back in, redeem the coupon and he’ll change the fluid AGAIN, and then replace the filter.
His reasoning is that I shouldn’t install a new filter until most of the old, bad fluid is out of the system, and that will take two fluid changes.
I have a 2004 Toyota Highlander with 106,000 miles on it. I believe this is the 1st time the fluid has been changed.

The mechanic’s reasoning is not off-base, IMHO.

If this is indeed the first trans fluid change on this vehicle (meaning that you and/or previous owners failed to do trans fluid changes at 30k, 60k, and 90k miles), it is likely that the fluid is extremely dirty, and it is also likely that it will take a few drains of the transmission before all of the burned/dirty/discolored/degraded fluid and sludge is removed from the system.

All of this may seem expensive to you, but the cost pales by comparison with overhauling the transmission to the tune of…maybe $3,000. This guy’s prices may seem high to you, but I think that his approach to an unmaintained transmission is appropriate.

However, I also think that it is necessary at some point to drop the trans pan, clean out all of the sludge from the pan, and reinstall the pan, along with a new pan gasket and a new filter. I suggest that you discuss with him when he plans to drop the trans pan and clean it out.

“just changed the fluid” can mean two very different things. One is that there might be a drain plug, and he just drained and refilled. Charging someone $120 for that would be highway robbery. This kind of service will typically change something like 40-60% of the fluid depending on the vehicle. This is when it makes sense to drive for a while and do it again.

The second thing it means - which would probably cost $120 - would be a complete fluid exchange. This involves a machine that you hook up to the transmission lines. The machines pumps new fluid in while the old is pushed out. This changes 100% of the fluid. In that case, nothing else you were told makes any sense.

Either way, the pan should have been removed and the filter changed. Report back with details on exactly what was done and people could say more about what to do next.

What kind of a shop was this?

Furthermore, he serviced your transmission, took your 120 bucks, and refused to give you credit for your coupon–for credit on the service you just paid for-- until you spend another 240 bucks? What kind if bogosity is that?

The guy may be doing the fluid replacement correctly, but it sounds like he’s taking you to the cleaners in the process.

Or maybe I misunderstood his pricing…did he mean you’ll pay 2x 120 = $240, and then the third time is free with coupon?

Even so, that’s not much of a discount, if any.

Hmmmm…come to think of it, I went to the Angie’s List website once. I found it to be absurd. The web is full of reviews of all sorts of things - most of which are of very questionable value. I learned that you have to actually pay to use Angie’s List. So that’s where the absurdity comes in - you pay a web site for questionable reviews.

Perhaps someone with experience with it could explain why Angie’s List, in general, has some virtues that aren’t apparent to the non-user. Perhaps CarTalk could start charging a subscription to use the Mechanix files.

Since you asked for a fluid and filter change, and he only changed the fluid, he should charge you the standard price for a fluid-only change, less the full value of the coupon; i.e. he should fully redeem the coupon now. Then you can decide yourself whether you want to come back for another change that he’s recommending later. Don’t let him change the rules for coupon redemption midstream.

yup, I pay $240 for two transmission fluid changes, then I use the$80 coupon that’s worth $160 and get the full service … so, let’s do the math:

$120 (first fluid change)
+$120 (2nd fluid change)

  • $80 (coupon for $160 service)
    = $320 (what I’ll have spent for a $160 service)

hmm…i’m thinking I gonna get the raw end of this deal.

this is at a locally owned transmission shop that actually has good reviews on a couple of sites.

Here’s the deal: If this is the first time you’ve had the transmission fluid flushed, then you’ve been neglectful. You should have been getting it done every 30k. It’s entirely possible that the transmission fluid needs this kind of service (it’s a common service, often called a 3x3 - you are not the only one to have to have this done).

That said, the mechanic should have explained this to you, and given you the option of doing the 3x3, which you should do, or doing the $160 transmission service you got the coupon for. That he didn’t is troubling.

It sounds like a scam to me.

Lets see, Toyota uses a drain plug so a fluid change is about as easy as an oil change for the engine, not counting the filter. The Toyota ATF is about $7.50/qt and you need 4 qts. I’d say $120 is way too high, it shouldn’t be any higher than a regular oil change.

Now to replace the filter in this transmission is very expensive if you use a Toyota filter, but it is just a stainless steel screen and it can simply be washed out. A new filter is not necessary. But the pan does have to be dropped so the labor is a lot more than changing a filter on an engine.

I kind of agree with the fluid change and coming back for the filter and fluid change, except that one is enough. The filter should be cleaned/changed on the next visit.

AZ shows a filter kit is 17 dollars so why not just drop the pan and clean it (verifying there is no serious debris in there), replace the filter, and the flush the fluid out in one shot.

If the fluid is as dirty as claimed then I would want to know what’s in the pan if the car were mine and make sure that transmission is even worth the amount being charged for the fluid services.

A 120 + 120 + whatever the final go round tally is sounds pretty convoluted to me.

yup, I pay $240 for two transmission fluid changes, then I use the$80 coupon that’s worth $160 and get the full service … so, let’s do the math:

$120 (first fluid change)
+$120 (2nd fluid change)

  • $80 (coupon for $160 service)
    = $320 (what I’ll have spent for a $160 service)

hmm…i’m thinking I gonna get the raw end of this deal.

this is at a locally owned transmission shop that actually has good reviews on a couple of sitesing

One of the downfalls of not properly maintaining your transmission. At least its not failing. You would be dealing with a much more expensive problem. I dont think he’s trying to rip you off at all. It sounds like he’s trying to get your trans back on track. Let him service it properly and its up to you to keep it serviced every 25-30k miles.


While I agree that the fluid should have been changed sooner…If this uses Toyota’s WS fluid…then I think Toyota is part of the problem also. There is no recommended tranny service if using WS fluid. Not sure if this vehicle uses WS or not. It’s right about the time WS was coming out.

that is true i have a 2001 highlander thought same thing need to change the trans fluid it does not have anything bout changing the fluid in it

Go to a Toyota dealer and buy several qts of the proper transmission fluid, get enough for 2 changes. Either do it yourself, or take it to a general garage; just drain and refill the fluid. Then in about a month drain and refill again. A month after that take it to the trans shop for your service with the coupon.

The concept of getting out the old fluid makes sense. This is better than one of those machine flushes that could more problems. I just don’t understand the $120 for the fluid drain and fill? Perhaps the shop is going to some extra effort to drain the torque converter that accounts for some of the seeming high charges?

transman618, it sounds like you might be a professional transmission guy…if the OP’s shop is doing the right thing, as you suggest, is it really fair that they’re charging him $120 just to drain and fill the tranny? And then suggesting that he do that three times? For a total of $320, even after the coupon?

I can agree with the sequence of the work, but the price seems a bit gouge-like, no?


I agree there is no tranny fluid change interval recommended by Toyota…however it’s still a good idea to change it. I change mine on my 4runner and my wifes Lexus about every 40k miles. The transmission is far to expensive to take any chances.