First let’s mention that manual transmissions from this century rarely fail. Occasionally a manual transmission will die from abuse, sometimes because the clutch or shifter failed and the pilot forced shifting until the unit failed. The moral of this story is: Don’t shift fast unless really you need to, and never push really hard on your shifter. We have seen manual transmissions go a quarter million miles without a fluid change. The fluid was not pretty, but they made it.
If you change your manual transmission fluid by 80,000 miles, you probably won’t need another transmission ever. All manual transmissions in these modern cars run synthetic fluid rated GL4. If a manual transmission dies, rebuilding is much less expensive than an automatic. Replacement with used units is an option, just don’t expect perfection every time.
DSG automatic transmissions are a recent breed since 2005.5. DSG means Direct Shift Gearbox. They are built like a manual transmission with 2 clutches instead of a torque converter. The Transmission Control Unit (TCU) is located inside the transmission. Early versions had a small rate of TCU failures, as well as broken dual mass flywheels and clutch pack issues. These problems were resolved within a few years, and modern units are very hardy.
CVT Automatic means Continuously Variable Transmission. Based on a steel link belt driven between two pulleys that vary in diameter to effectively change gear ratios infinitely, only a few of our fleet every had them, just some two wheel drive Audis since 2004. Early versions had a high rate of TCU failures, which are located inside the transmission. Inherent weaknesses of the steel band vs pulleys, clutch assemblies and planetary gear sets made them inappropriate for high power applications.
It must be said that there are a couple of discouraging scoreboards concerning automatic transmissions, their lifespans and failure rates, and your choices to remedy the problem. The factory removed the transmission service from their list of maintenance requirements in 1996. They said that the new synthetic fluid was so good, you never had to change it. Really it was because a transmission service added to the cost of maintenance and thus made their JD Powers ratings fall. JD Powers ratings are very important to manufacturers, as ratings are the basis for comparison between brands. The cost of the factory maintenance up to 100,000 miles is by far the largest factor in a JD Powers rating. So the dealers were afraid that additional cost of adding a transmission service to the required maintenance would result in selling less cars.
When a customer heeds the factor edict to never service the automatic transmission, Volkswagen 4 cylinder 4 speed automatic cars tend to start breaking transmissions around 130,000 miles. The 5 speed automatics have a better track record. The hardiest units seem to be in the Audi 6 cylinder cars. Since 2004, the failure rate is fairly low, except for a few sporadic units like the Asian sourced Aisin brand transmissions found in the 2007 Jettas. Modern 6 to 8 speed automatic transmissions are gaining a good track record, but lack of maintenance will always take a toll. By far, the worst scoreboard goes to the 4 speed automatic transmissions in the Eurovans and V8 cars. They tend to have 30% or more of their transmissions fail before 100,000 miles. None of them ever make it to 150,000 miles, unless someone services their transmission, and regularly.
The other bad scoreboard is rebuilding. First, let us mention that we at Karmakanix have a policy of not dissing on other shops, and this statement is NOT aimed at ANY repair facility. Of all the 4 speed automatic transmissions for cars from this century that got rebuilt at an independent transmission rebuilder, it goes like this: 15% go back under the knife at least 3 times, yet never end up even drivable for more than a few weeks or months. About 50% may get multiple repairs, then work flaky for the rest of their numbered days. A whopping 80% never work, shift and drive like the car did new. They have something fluffy and/or iffy about the way they work. From our experience, these scoreboard numbers are genuinely conservative.
The biggest factor in rebuild reliability is the valve body. In the valve body, electric solenoids and complicated piston-like valves and springs control the fluid supply to the different clutches and bands to achieve shifting. Since most of these units never had the fluid changed early in life, the valve bodies are often quite worn and cannot accurately control fluid transfer. The reason that a valve body causes transmission failure is simple in theory and very complicated in reality.
All the clutches and bands in an automatic transmission are controlled by diaphragms that are designed to leak at a specified rate. A clutch or band is actuated by controlling the volume and pressure of the flow of fluid to it. To disengage that clutch or band, one cannot reverse the flow of the fluid, one can only slow up and stop that flow, and the predetermined leakage rate allows the clutch or band to disengage. Consider that any gear change involves more than one clutch and/or band. Many different components may be engaging and disengaging simultaneously.
Testing the leakage rate of each component is called a leakdown test. That requires a special adapter that goes in place of the valve body, and has fittings to accept a leakdown tester, the same tool used to check for engine compression loss. A leakdown tester uses air pressure to feed the circuit, and shows the pressure applied versus the pressure maintained, giving a leakdown specification as a percentage of the pressure difference. Normal leakdown is given as a range and varies with each component, such as 35 – 45% or 60 – 75%. Performing leakdown tests can take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on the model.
A valve body is an aluminum housing with many dozens of passageways filled with steel pistons, springs, balls and electronic solenoid control valves. Old fluid with more filth than a sewer plant is really going to wear the aluminum badly and cause a loss of the fluid control necessary to work all those clutches and bands in smooth unison. The transmissions can slam until they beat themselves to death or slip like bananas on ice. This can cause transmission failure no matter how well rebuilt the rest of the transmission may be. Valve bodies vary in price, generally between $1000 to $2000, which is why rebuilders generally do not replace them.
At Karmakanix, we use mostly factory transmissions which virtually all come with new valve bodies, hence the price. For transmissions which are not available from the dealer, we give our local rebuilder free reign to replace the valve body with a new unit. With some cars such as Eurovans, we require a new valve body. With older cars with non-electronic transmissions, such as Vanagons, where new valve bodies are not available, we depend on our rebuilder to evaluate when a valve body has too much wear and must be replaced with a used unit.
Replacing an automatic transmission with a used unit is often worse than trying to have an aftermarket shop rebuild it. You are quite likely going to end up getting a unit very close to dying like yours did. If you could get a used transmission with 40,000 mile or less on it, it would probably be OK. What are the odds of finding one of those for a ten-plus year old car?
Ultimately, understand that transmission failure in general is not about age and miles, it is all about servicing the automatic transmission fluids. Never changing your transmission fluid will never result in long term reliability. And wear to internal parts may yield a transmission that cannot be successfully rebuilt for less than the cost of a factory rebuilt transmission.
When it comes to automatic transmission failure time, Karmakanix will recommend replacement with a factory unit. Factory rebuilds work perfect right out of the box, and if properly serviced, will remain that way for as long as you own it. We have only ever had one issue, and the dealer replaced it for us at no charge. While it is true, factory units cost way more than any other option, they are generally the only option that makes sense. What is the cost of being without your car for weeks while someone tries to get it right? Months? Keep going.
A failed automatic transmission represents much more of an issue than most because of the cost and the possible risks. Before considering any course of action, the question must be asked: Is it worth it for this car and for this owner? An accurate inspection of the rest of the vehicle is in order. Ask your Service Advisor to check on your vehicle’s service records for any transmission fluid change.