Transmission traps

When your transmission fails, don't get taken at the repair shop

When it comes to auto repairs, transmission glitches can be a gold mine for shifty garages looking to gear up profits. Last year, a transmission shop in Hamilton was fined $14,500 after performing unauthorized repairs on a fellow’s van. Charges were laid after the customer complained that his bill for a $36.95 fluid change had ballooned into $3,990 worth of transmission repairs carried out without his consent. When the customer refused to pay the in-flated charges, the shop held his van for more than 17 months during the dispute. Since then, I’ve heard many transmission horror stories, notably one from a woman who was charged $2,700 for a repair when the problem was just a $60 wheel bearing.

There’s a lot riding on your transmission. It’s the set of gears coupled with a shifting mechanism that allows your vehicle to gear down on hills and gear up as you accelerate onto the highway, transforming the power of your engine into useful power on the road. But its complexity and cost make it easy for shady operators to oversell repairs. A transmission can have 1,500 parts. Worse still, the symptoms of a $50 repair may be identical to those of a $1,500 repair, greasing the way for padded bills. And don’t expect your car’s on-board computer to pinpoint your exact transmission problem, says Alain Groulx, co-owner of Vimont Transmission Automatique in Laval, Que. It can only tell you that something’s wrong. Even dealers take their cars to Groulx’s shop when they’re stumped by a transmission problem.

In a minor collision where there are no injuries and both cars are driveable, the vehicles should be moved to the shoulder of the road, a side street or parking lot. “People often think they need to leave vehicles on the scene but a minor crash can sometimes create more serious collisions,” notes Eve Patterson, spokes-person for the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Avoid pulling over on a blind curve or past the crest of a hill.

As perplexing as transmission troubles may be, the simplest way to head off hassles is to prevent breakdowns in the first place. That means changing your transmission fluid and filter every two years or 50,000 kilometres. And be careful to avoid excessive transmission strain. The surest way to kill your transmission is to spin your wheels when stuck in the snow or mud, or to quickly rock back and forth to get out. When you’re stuck, consider calling a tow truck before trying these damaging manoeuvres – you might have to pay a minimum of $60, but it’s peanuts compared to the cost of a typical transmission repair (which will usually run you about $1,500 to $2,500).

If you start experiencing jerky or erratic shifting, have your vehicle checked as soon as possible. Don’t just visit the shop with the splashiest ad. Ask a garage you trust for a referral or call your auto club for names of reputable shops. Your local Better Business Bureau may also steer you away from the worst offenders. Check your phone book.

A favourite ploy of less-reputable shops is to lowball a customer with a cheap verbal estimate. Once the transmission is dismantled, the quote balloons be-cause of “unforeseen” problems. If the customer balks, she is quoted hundreds of dollars just to put the faulty transmission back together. Groulx says good shops will be up-front about charges and give you both a best-case and worst-case scenario before a full diagnosis is made. “We lose some customers that way,” says Groulx, but it’s a much more honest way to do business. Not that the news is always bad. Groulx estimates that at least a quarter of repairs performed at his shop are for inexpensive problems such as sensors.

Be wary of quotes from shops that try to lure you with low-cost transmission checkup deals. Groulx knows of a shop that advertised a $49.95 special, but quoted major repairs to every customer. Stumble into the wrong shop and you could discover the wisdom of the old saying “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.