Is the transmission dying again?
March 13, 2008 2:42 PM   Subscribe

CarFilter: Why does my transmission hate me so?

1999 Suzuki Esteem GL, manual 5-speed transmission, 1.6 L engine.

Purchased in January 2004, a lease return with 70,000 km. We both had a little trouble shifting into 3rd at first but eventually got the hang of it -- don't know if that's related.

July 2006, the transmission died a spectacular death. The transmission shop said they'd never seen a manual transmission in such bad condition. Every gear except second had multiple teeth completely missing. They did not see any of the tell-tale signs that would indicate that the transmission or clutch was abused. They believed that this transmission, at this age, without abuse, should not be showing any damage. They could not explain the damage other than maybe it was somehow defective when it was originally put together.

For a variety of reasons, I trust that this transmission shop is completely honest. Not to say they couldn't have made a mistake, but I don't believe they deliberately scammed me. I did personally inspect all the broken pieces they replaced -- everything was obviously badly broken.

So we replaced the following with new parts:
-Every gear except second, plus some other hard parts (don't remember the names, there were two arm-like things that were bent)
-All soft parts inside the transmission
-The clutch (it wasn't absolutely necessary yet, but the end of it's life was approaching and it was cheaper to do it while everything was disassembled anyway).

All together, including tax, it came to about $4000 (CAD). If we'd got a rebuilt transmission instead of new parts, it would have been $3500. The new parts had a parts and labour warranty for one year, unlimited mileage.

In the past few weeks, I've done alot of driving in slippery conditions. If the wheels start to spin, I try to start in second gear (I do not do this unless both drive wheels are on a surface too slippery for the car to move even a little bit in first gear). It has often been impossible to shift into second when at a standstill -- it just clashes and doesn't engage. Other times it works fine. Yesterday the car popped out of first gear while driving -- this was something that had happened a few times before the transmission went out the last time.

The car is currently approaching 140,000 km

Is the transmission or clutch dying again? If so, what could explain the short life-span of the parts in our transmission? Both drivers of this vehicle have long experience using a manual transmission on multiple vehicles (each of those driven for a longer period of time than we've driven this one) and have not previously had/caused transmission problems. This does not to seem to be a problem for 1999 Esteems in general, AFAICT.
posted by winston to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Another thought: FWIW, the current value of this car is less than the cost of just opening up the transmission to look inside.
posted by winston at 2:45 PM on March 13, 2008

My guess was it was abused on lease. It's hard to rebuild an already chintzy transmission, especially if it's been beat to hell.

Also, whether or not you trust your shop, they never should have sold you $4K transmission rebuild for a car that's worth probably half that. A junkyard replacement would have likely cost less than $1000, and if I were you, and I was really attached to this Suzuki, I'd take it to another shop and have them do just that.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2008

Oh, and it's possible to abuse a transmission, especially if someone doesn't know how to use a manual shift, without leaving other signs of abuse to the rest of the car.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:25 PM on March 13, 2008

Used parts are hard to come by for this car. The rebuilt transmission I referred to was the only one available in Canada that cost less than the new parts.
posted by winston at 3:37 PM on March 13, 2008

$4K includes the clutch and labour and tax. Stuff costs more in Canada than in USA.
posted by winston at 3:42 PM on March 13, 2008

Oh, and it's possible to abuse a transmission, especially if someone doesn't know how to use a manual shift, without leaving other signs of abuse to the rest of the car.

Very much agree with this. There may be some extra wear to the shift mechanism (ovalised holes in the bushes, for instance) but at 140,000k that'd be not all that surprising anyway.

It is possible that the gearbox was subject to lots of incompetence in an earlier life (I'd strongly suggest the lease period) which meant that the syncro rings were overly worn (hence the difficulty shifting into third). The bits of metal floating around in the oil from this (and potentially bits of chipped teeth from poor gearchanges) for the ensuing period would produce massive, increasing, havoc inside the gear casing as the bits get trapped between the gears and pit the hardened surfaces.

The gearbox was either abused or faulty early on, and the mess it left was self sustaining as the oil was presumably not changed, leaving the hard bits of gear in there thrashing around.

I strongly advise following the 'get a gearbox from a car breakers' advice. If the car isn't worth much, swapping a box is inexpensive (it should be no more than changing a clutch, in reality, as you take the 'box off to do that). so if you can find a reasonable place to quote for it, and find yourself a second hand gearbox, you'll be fine. A reconditioned one would be overkill if the car isn't worth much.
posted by Brockles at 3:44 PM on March 13, 2008

I may be wrong, but I think the Esteem used most of the same drivetrain components as the 4-cyl version of the Geo Metro/Suzuki Swift, which was far more commonplace, and will be well-represented in junkyards. That goes for both the 1.3L and 1.6L versions, but not the 1.8L which was also offered beginning in '99.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:56 PM on March 13, 2008

In slippery conditions - like, really slippery - your wheels may still be turning a little evven when the car comes to a stop. If you try to jam it in gear again, the tranny won't like it. Is it every gear that you can't get it into at a stop in slippery conditions, or just second?
posted by notsnot at 6:30 PM on March 13, 2008

Just second. Even when starting from a dead stop (e.g. a long wait with the brakes on).
posted by winston at 8:15 PM on March 13, 2008

In slippery conditions - like, really slippery - your wheels may still be turning a little evven when the car comes to a stop.

Even if the wheels are turning, the gear should still go in easily and without crunching, so that makes no difference. That is what syncromeshes are for. The transmission is screwed (assuming that you can put it in first without any problems - ie the clutch is working fine).
posted by Brockles at 8:22 PM on March 13, 2008

$4000?! That's insane. I agree with everyone that the transmission is probably toast. The fact that teeth were missing implies some serious abuse - a gear, itself, wouldn't lose teeth due to being a "lemon" gear, that just doesn't compute. So, sure, the transmission could have been faulty in some way, but for nobody to notice teeth getting ground off.. I mean, that sort of thing should cause some obvious noise.

To answer your question, I suspect your transmission doesn't hate you, personally. Perhaps due to past abusers, it chose to end its life in an attempt to try and get back at said abuser.
posted by mbatch at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2008

To clarify on the price (off the top of my head)

$450 labour to remove and replace the transmission
$550 labour to disassemble and re-assemble the transmission
$330 parts for replacing all the soft parts

So we had already committed to the above before we discovered the extent of the problem

Then it was a choice of $2000 for new parts or $1500 for a rebuilt transmission
$500 for the clutch
And then we had a 10% discount plus a $100 coupon.
Add 15% tax.
posted by winston at 12:28 PM on March 14, 2008

New question: So if several used (not rebuilt) transmissions can be had for the price of a new or rebuilt transmission, is there ever any reason to buy a new or rebuilt transmission?
posted by winston at 12:29 PM on March 14, 2008

Yes : Life of the car - a used transmission is always a risk, although the risk is reduced if you know the mileage. If the car was less than 3 years old (ie potentially within warranty) or still had significant life (more than 5 years) I'd be tempted to invest in a rebuilt transmission.

Any car more than 7 years old and/or less than $15,000 new value? I'd generally never consider it. But then, I'd be certainly fitting it myself. Between and around the two is the grey area that is dependent on the type of car, the expected use, intended life and peace of mind. Any of those requirements can trump the decision.

Example: I had a 1991 high performance BMW that I drove like I stole it every day. I'd stick a rebuilt transmission in that because I was hard on the car. If it was my girfriend's car (who drives on freeways, pretty gently in a 2004-ish Accord) I'd stick a comparably aged second hand 'box in and take my chances. Unless it was unlikely I had time to do the job twice, in which case I'd not take the risk of her being stuck without a car again if I had the money.

Incidentally, $500 is horrifically expensive for a clutch (in terms of parts cost). I think they screwed you and charged you the standard cost of fitting ON TOP of the gearbox work, whereas they should have just charged you the parts plus an hour (tops) labour to fit it to the engine.
posted by Brockles at 12:45 PM on March 14, 2008

Yeah, you got screwed for the clutch price.

Scratch that shop off your list...
posted by Brockles at 12:46 PM on March 14, 2008

Well, don't worry about me going back there, but, to be fair, I was just remembering off the top of my head a bill that I got a year and a half ago. It could easily have been $400 (CAD), plus the Canadian dollar was worth somewhere around $0.80 USD at the time, plus things in Canada tend to be more expensive even after the exchange rate.
posted by winston at 4:41 PM on March 14, 2008

Yeah, but even so, you should only have been charged the cost of the parts for the clutch, so $400 is still way too much. Japanese parts aren't that much more expensive in Canada.
posted by Brockles at 5:23 PM on March 14, 2008

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