The TransMission

April 10, 2016 — 7 Comments

A few weeks ago my wife and I headed to Tulsa for a family Easter weekend. We left after we got off work in the evening and estimated an 11:30pm arrival at my parent’s house after the four hour drive from Dallas.

All was going well until around 11pm when we got hungry and decided to pull over at McDonald’s for a late night breakfast (that’s how a lot of bad stories start). As we were leaving, we heard a grumbling sound coming from underneath. I’m used to these kind of sounds after McDonald’s but typically they come after I eat it (my parents referred to this as the golly woggles, which was a new, and pretty awesome term to me).

The noise sounded like metal grinding but returned to normal after getting over 20 mph. We made it home and hoped the car would repair itself overnight. We woke the next morning and took a quick drive before filling little plastic eggs with money and sweets and unfortunately, the 4Runner had not self-repaired yet. The noise still stopped after 20 mph, so we decided it was safe enough for the long drive back to Dallas the next day – and indeed, we made it safely.

Now it was time to start investigating the issue. I took it to our local mechanic and he gave me a pretty dire prognosis – there was a 90% chance it was the transmission. Oh no, that doesn’t sound good. He said he didn’t do transmissions but figured it could easily cost $4,000+ to get it replaced. My gosh, our 4Runner with 192k miles is hardly even worth that much!

I quickly went through the cycles of despair and anger and blame (or whatever that cycle is) and decided I’d better take it to the Toyota dealership and hope they’d give me some better news, as they’re the experts. They called later that afternoon and confirmed my worst fears – it’s going to need a new transmission. They could get me a used one for $4,700 or a new one for $5,700. I told them no thanks and picked the car up.

At this point, it becomes a question of value. Should we spend $5,000 to fix a car that’s only worth $5,000 in working condition? Of course not.

I didn’t give up yet and decided to take it to Eagle transmissions to get a third opinion. I dropped off the car and debated with Jocelyn if we should try and get it fixed or just buy a new(er) car. We decided our spending limit to get it fixed would be around $2,000.

In what became my weekly routine, I dropped the car off in the morning, waited for the call from them and then listened with disappoint as he confirmed what the other two had suspected. However, he threw in a new variable – the transfer case. He said  the transmission and transfer case are right next to each other and are both metal so it’s hard to tell where the noise was coming from. His only next step would be to drop the transmission, open it up and also check the transfer case. He’d charge $500 to drop it and check. I asked him if I decided not to do the work after their investigation if the $500 included reassembling. He said no.

What the heck, at that point I’m all in if I decided to “investigate”. That sounded like a pretty crappy way to investigate. I told him I’d think about it overnight and asked what he thought the minimum would be to fix it. He said it’s too hard to tell because they only replace what’s broken, but after enough pestering I finally got him to give me some numbers – very minimum $1,500, but more than likely between $2,500 – $3,500. Risky… just sounded too risky.

I did some more research that night and found three interesting things:

  1. Toyotas are known for having great transmissions that can easily last to 300k miles (Eagle transmission said the same)
  2. You can buy a “salvaged” transmission for $500 on eBay
  3. You can find a smaller shop to install them, and somebody in Dallas recommended Gonzalez Auto Services

I called Eagle transmission shop the next morning and asked him if he’d install a used transmission. He said he didn’t and warned me that it’s pretty risky because you never know what you’re going to get or how long it’d last. However, I still thought his proposal was even more risky so I called Gonzalez.

Gonzalez (the owner of the shop, Juan Gonzalez but goes by Gonzalez) said he could install the used transmission for $350. Okay, that number sounded a lot better – maybe $1,000 all in to install the used transmission. I was ready to order the new transmission, because I’m impatient and eBay seems to fully exploit it, like when I almost bought a city bus, but I waited.

The next day I started the routine again – picked up the 4Runner from Eagle transmission, took it to Gonzalez and waited for the call. Well, it was a bit different because Gonzalez wanted to take me for a drive so we could listen to it. He listed intently and said the transmission shifted good still. He said he’d check it out when we got back to the shop and drop the pan to see if there were any metal shavings in it.

After I left, I started researching transfer cases and wondering why the Toyota dealership didn’t catch it. eBay had one available but it was about $500 more than the transmission cost. Estimate went back up to $1,500 to fix, but still a lot better than $5,000. Gonzalez called later that evening with some interesting news. He said the transfer case was bone dry. How in the world did three other places miss that? All they had to do was check the fluid level in it.

That meant it was pretty much the transfer case. I asked him to fill it with fluid and maybe we’d have a little miracle and everything would turn out okay. He said he’d do it in the morning and give me a call. I continued my research on transfer cases and found another really interesting tidbit – apparently this model of 4Runner is notorious for having leaky seals around the transfer cases! Once again, what the hell, Toyota dealership??

The next morning I woke up with a little bit of optimism and hoped it’d be okay. Gonzalez hadn’t called by noon, so I decided to give him a ring. The rest must be narrated to fully appreciate. Ring, ring, answer:

Gonzalez: Gonzalez

Me: hey Gonzalez, it’s Dan with the 4Runner

Gonzalez: …

Intentionally blank

Me: So, did you get a chance to put fluid in the transfer case?

Gonzalez: Yes

Gonzalez is more of a man of action than words. I waited for a good 5 seconds to see if he’d continue

Me: Ok, how did it sound?

Gonzalez: No noise, it sounds fine now.

Me: No shit?! That’s incredible!!! I can’t believe the Toyota dealership didn’t check that!

Gonzalez: Ya

I was clearly more excited than him

Me: Okay, I guess I’ll come pick it up and drive it around for a while to see if it continues to sound alright

I picked it up later that afternoon and paid Gonzalez $100 for his investigation and re-fluiding. We went from a minimum $5k for a new transmission or buying a newer car for $20k, to a $100 charge to fill up some fluid. It still leaks, but I’ll just have to occasionally fill it up.

The quest for 200k miles on the 4Runner is back alive!!!!

I was impressed with Gonzalez’s knowledge and honesty, and he’s definitely made me a long term customer. Now the Toyota dealership on the other hand (Toyota of Richardson), I was very disappointed they not only misdiagnosed with what could’ve been a $6,000 repair bill, but they also somehow missed checking a very known issue with 4Runners… so much for being the experts. I don’t want to assume they did it on purpose… but dammit, it sure seems like it!

If you made it this far, I commend you, I just had a full verbal vomit. I wrote it out in detail to remind me of the valuable lessons I learned:

  1. If something doesn’t seem right, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion
  2. If that doesn’t seem right, don’t be afraid to get a third opinion… or a fourth opinion!!
  3. Remember, just because someone is an “authority” like a mechanic, doesn’t mean they’re always right
  4. Patience grasshopper. Don’t buy a bus on eBay and don’t buy a transmission until you absolutely know that’s the issue

It was a real test of patience for me. Usually, I’ll make a decision with the knowledge I have on hand and go with it. However, this one just didn’t seem right… and of course I didn’t want to throw away $5,000!! The 4Runner is back in business and while it does drop gear oil on our driveway, I’m okay with refilling every couple of months to keep her going strong.

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7 responses to The TransMission

  1. You should do another drain and fill to flush out all the debris, and then get Gonzales to replace the leaking seal for you, they aren’t that expensive and you won’t wonder how much fluid is left.

    • Ian – good point, it would be nice to have a more permanent fix. I’ve read the seals are only a few bucks but it usually costs ~$800 to do the work since you have to drop the transfer case to do it. I bet Gonzalez will do it cheaper though!

  2. Dan – I broke down on a dark November night between Houston and Dallas due to a repair that I was not prepared for and had never encountered; the alternator. Plus my wife, my other passenger was a 6 month old baby, headed to a family Thanksgiving in Oklahoma. Before cell phones. Old cars have issues, breaking down on a road is dangerous and scary; you’ll spend lots of time trying to anticipate the next issue; your time will be consumed. Just my thoughts from nearly 56 years of life, it might be time to relegate the Toyota to in-city driving. It can still make money for you as a second car, just not the car that you depend on. That’s what I’m doing. A very good article addressing different sides of a common dilemma that thrifty folks like you and I encounter. Keep up the fine writing.

    • I think you’re one of the few who can rival us in total miles for two cars! Of course, that doesn’t include your daughters’ cars :).

      That’s a good thought – transition the 4Runner to more in-town driving and use the other car for the longer road trips. I’m also driving it myself so I won’t strand J… and I think it’s time to renew my AAA!

  3. Great story with an even better lesson. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  4. Dan — it really does pay to shop around. Eyeglasses and hearing aids are two other products where the prices fluctuate widely. Frankly, both are a scam because they can be made so cheaply but have always commanded very high prices. That’s until lately and credit the Internet with creating more transparency in pricing. PS — I just had cataracts removed and bought new reading glasses at the Dollar Tree store: $1 each and they work fine.

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