What does my Mazda transmission need next?
July 2, 2012 12:19 PM   Subscribe

My 2002 Mazda Tribute is having transmission problems and I'm stumped about what to do next. Can you help? (My apologies for the length, I was trying to include all pertinent and potentially pertinent information).

I have a 2002 Mazda Tribute, which I bought used about 5 years ago. It's been a very dependable car up until about 10 months ago when I started having some intermittent transmission problems. I don't really have a "car person" to get advice from, so I'm hoping someone on Metafilter can point me in the right direction as far as next steps.

-- Not sure if this is pertinent but I originally used the car every day for commuting, etc, but about a year ago started working at home, which meant the car was used only a couple of times a week, usually for short (1-2 miles) errands.

-- In August of last year, while on a 5 hour drive, I noticed the O/D (overdrive) light was on, although I hadn't pushed the O/D button. It wouldn't turn off until I pulled over, turned the car off and then back on.

-- Further along on the same drive the "check engine light" came on, which I thought meant it needed oil. I stopped, put oil in it, drove it a few more miles without the light going off, so I stopped and had the car towed the remaining 1+ hours to my destination.

-- At the car repair place they said the oil was very low, changed it and sent me on my way. As long as I drove short distances around town, the car seemed fine. When I left town to drive the 5+ hours back home, the same thing happened (O/D light came on followed by the "check engine light"). I drove the rest of the way home with no apparent problems (other than the lights).

-- Once home, I took the car into the Mazda dealership. That's when I first learned that there were transmission issues. Up until this time I hadn't noticed any transmission problems like rough changing, etc. They changed the transmission fluid. The mechanic there told me the transmission fluid would either fix the problem or, if it didn't, I would need a new transmission. He said if the lights came back on, it was still OK to drive it, I couldn't make it worse.

-- I again made the 5+ hour drive (my mom was ill and I was traveling back to my hometown frequently) and, sure enough, the lights came on again. I completed the trip though with no performance issues.

-- My mom was going to be in an assisted living facility for a while, so I left my car with her and drove her car back home and have been driving it the last 8 months or so, while she recovered. My uncle has been using the Mazda occasionally for short trips around town with no problems and no O/D or "check engine lights" on.

-- My cousin, to be helpful, took the Mazda to a transmission place in my hometown to hopefully get it repaired. Not realizing the transmission fluid had recently been changed, they changed it for a second time and also put in an transmission additive (I'm uncertain if a transmission additive was used the first time it was changed at the Mazda dealership). Everyone assumed that had fixed the problem.

-- My mom needed her car back so yesterday I left her car with her and drove my Mazda the 5+ hours back home for the first in 8 or so months. Sure enough, a couple of hours into the trip the O/D light came on followed an hour or so later by the check engine light, so obviously the transmission still has issues. There *might* have been a couple of instances of the gears changing a bit rougher than usual, although that I might have *thought* I noticed that because I was kind of freaked about it all.

If you've made it this far, thanks so much for reading and here are my questions (finally!):

1) How alarming is all this and is there anything else I can do to try to improve the transmission situation? Is it possible that driving the car more to circulate the new transmission fluid with the additive could improve and hopefully solve the situation?

2) If not, and I need a new transmission, what is a range I could expect to have to spend? I assume taking it to a non-dealership transmission repair place and asking for a rebuilt transmission would be less expensive?

3) Considering this is a 2002 model vehicle, would it make more sense to buy a new-to me used car rather than have this one fixed? I like the car and it's been reliable up until now, but it does have a few issues (the door gaskets need to be reglued, one of the back window motors no longer works, there is a very slow, minor oil leak around the oil pan (?). On the other hand, I'm out of work on an extended medical leave and money is very tight so I need to be as frugal as possible and still have dependable transportation.

I know YANM mechanic, but any advice or things I should consider will be most appreciated.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total)
Have you ever had the ODB (Check Engine Light) code pulled? If so, what was the code? Most chain mechanics and dealerships will charge a 50-100 dollar diagnostic fee to pull the code, but Autozone will pull them for free. Its hard to say for sure how severe the issue is without knowing the code. Anecdotally, when the transmission on my wife's '02 Acura CL went it took less than four days from the check engine light first coming on to the entire transmission failing. In her case, she could feel that the transmission was 'sticking' when going from drive to reverse and back. When I pulled the code, I found out it was essentially the 'code of death' for Honda transmissions. You can find a lot of information about ODB codes here.

Every car sold in the US since 1996 has an ODB II port. I use a cheap ELM327 scanner and an Android phone to pull codes off my car's ODB computer.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 12:41 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, neither shop you've taken it to has given you a clear diagnosis, and the only symptom you're sure of is that some idiot lights are coming on during long trips. Is that right?

The check engine light does not mean that you need to add oil; there's another light for that, looks like an oil can with a little droplet below the spout. The check engine light means that the computer things something is wrong, and you should have a mechanic plug a scanner into the car to read some codes that will give him hints about what's wrong. The check engine light does not mean a tow is necessary unless the light is flashing.

I think it's premature to be worrying that this might be the car's death knell. It's impossible to say whether it's worth fixing because we don't know what's wrong. Your choices are to either take the car to a shop that is more competent than those you've already gone to, or keep driving the car until the symptoms of whatever this is become more obvious / problematic and THEN take it into a better shop.
posted by jon1270 at 3:41 PM on July 2, 2012

...computer *thinks* something is wrong...
posted by jon1270 at 3:42 PM on July 2, 2012

It looks like a recall went out in '04 for the auto-trans control module If the dealer is still honoring this, I'd have them replace it and see if the lights come back on.

If they do come on again, you either have bad sensors or the transmission is on its way out and I'm guessing that the transmission is finito. You're probably looking $2k or a little more to replace it.

Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 4:39 PM on July 2, 2012

I am a bit surprised the dealership said "if the light comes on, keep driving" because, even if the immediate problem was OK, the light can come in for other reasons too – emissions, computer issues, and any other place where things aren't right but don't set off dedicated warning lights like low oil or coolant.

When the dealer checked out your car, they should have written down the error codes and initial diagnosis on the bill. Can you find that and tell us what it says?
posted by zippy at 5:27 PM on July 2, 2012

Response by poster: Unfortunately I ended up having to get a new transmission. Cheaper than buying a new car though and my car is now in good shape!
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 12:20 PM on December 31, 2012

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