Could a fluid change be responsible for a total transmission failure?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 1995

Dear Tom and Ray:

Last week I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life! I was driving my 92 Toyota Camry wagon on the freeway when it suddenly started losing speed even though the engine was still running. I had been going 55mph and thought the car had accidentally slipped into Neutral, but it had not. I was in the left lane because I was about to exit off to the left, and the only thing next to me was a guard rail. The car eventually coasted to a stop. I had my flashers on, I turned the engine off, and listened to the screeching of tires as drivers behind me slammed on their brakes! Wanting desperately to move my car, I started the engine again and, to my surprise, my car moved. I was able to accelerate to about 45 mph before I lost power again, but at least I was able to move out of traffic. A policeman came by and had the car towed to the Toyota dealership where, one week before, it had an oil and transmission fluid change. I was told I needed a new transmission and torque converter. My car is a V6 with 61,000 miles on it. I had no warning of impending transmission problems. Could there be a link between the transmission fluid change and the transmission failure? The dealership says no, of course.

TOM: Gee, Sally. I'm suspicious of the dealership, but I think you're going to be very hard pressed to prove it was their fault.

RAY: The reason I suspect foul play (or, more likely, "dumb play") is that Toyota transmissions almost never self destruct after 61,000 miles. So either it was defective, or someone did something stupid to it.

TOM: If the dealer had installed the transmission oil pan gasket improperly, for instance, your transmission fluid could have leaked out over the course of the week, and if you ignored the warning signs, that could have led to transmission failure.

RAY: Or if he put the wrong fluid in the transmission--you know, like Grade A Vermont maple syrup--that would also croak the transmission, although it would make the pieces taste pretty good.

TOM: It's unlikely that he simply forgot to put fluid in, because in that case, unless you were completely oblivious, you would have noticed it slipping from the moment you left the dealership.

RAY: So what do you do now? Well, I'd have an independent mechanic you trust take a look at the transmission. If the wrong fluid was put in there, there may be some evidence of that. Then you can hire Johnny Cochran and have him assemble a legal team for you.

TOM: But more likely than not, it'll always be your word against the dealer's. And in fact, it may not be their fault. It may have been a manufacturing defect, which is why, ultimitely, you're going to have to appeal to Toyota.

RAY: Write to Toyota's regional "zone manager." Tell him that you bought this Camry because of its reputation for indestructability. Tell him you had only 61,000 miles on it, you had it serviced regularly at the dealership, and ask him if Toyota would like to "participate" in the rebuilding of your transmission.

TOM: Try to make it sound like an enticing offer, as if they'd be missing out on an some exciting opportunity if they didn't "participate."

RAY: They'll probably tell you to take a hike, but who knows? They might surprise us and offer you some assistance in the hopes that you'll buy another Toyota someday. Maybe they saw that bubble over your head that said "'96 Nissan Maxima" as you walked out of the dealership. Good luck, Sally.

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