Will Suzanne's Subaru transmission break down on her cross-country road trip? Find out.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2007

Dear Tom and Ray:

My 1998 Subaru Outback with an automatic transmission has started not going into second gear -- sometimes. It started five days ago. I have driven only short trips of a mile or two during that time. About a third of the time when I start moving again from stop signs or traffic lights, the engine sounds like it's straining, and it won't go into second gear. I have to manually shift into second, which it then does. Afterward, I shift into drive. This situation worries me, especially because we are supposed to drive across the country, New York to Oregon, in a few weeks. Any idea what it is? -- Suzanne

TOM: Well, Suzanne, you're probably reading this in a transmission-repair shop somewhere in the Midwest. Sorry about that.

RAY: Actually, it might be relatively inexpensive to fix -- as transmission repairs go. Since you can manually shift the car into second gear by using the gear selector, that tells me the transmission itself is probably OK. But your automatic transmission is "electronically controlled," and it's those electronic controls that are causing the problem.

TOM: You didn't mention whether the "AT Oil Temp" light on your dashboard is flashing. It should be. That means that the transmission's computer has stored a fault code, which can be read by a mechanic.

RAY: This car has something called an "inhibitor switch," which tells the transmission's computer what gear you've selected. If the setting for drive is not working for any reason, the computer will default to first gear. It sounds like that's what's happening to your car.

TOM: So have a mechanic put a scanner on your car and check for fault codes. I suspect it's the inhibitor switch. And believe it or not, Suzanne, when it comes to transmission repairs, this is extremely good news! Enjoy the rest of your trip.

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