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A four-speed's forty-eleven parts fragment into forty thousand; fortunately funeral fails to follow

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On: Sat, Apr 9, 2016 at 12:05PM | By: Andrew W Davis

A four-speed's forty-eleven parts fragment into forty thousand; fortunately funeral fails to follow

It looks like a hand grenade went off in it.”

There are VERY few times when that phrase is GOOD news. And let me tell you, when it comes to hearing it in reference to ANY part of your car, it is bad. VERY bad.

This is especially true when it's something complicated and/or necessary to the vehicle's being anything other than a lawn ornament. Because then you can bet that a phrase like that means just one thing: the fix—if there is one—will be expensive. Very, VERY expensive.

Trust me on this. I have very real—and very recent—experience with those words and the financial wounds they cause. But as bad as it was for me, chances are it'll be worse for you. Here's why...

Unless you drive something domestic they built a ton of a few decades ago that you have to shift for yourself, chances are near-certain that any transmission-related “problem” like mine is going to cost you somewhere near your vehicle's value to fix, especially if you want it done right.

Now my relationship with my vehicles borders on what psychiatrists would call “unhealthy”. (Or so I heard. About someone else. Never mind.) If I've gone to the trouble to meet, purchase, get to know and live with a vehicle for a while, then I'm in it for the long haul.

[Just ask my near-1.3-million-mile, known-since-her-birth '81 Volvo wagon (see HERE). I will die before she does, and I'm working on plans to ensure her life will continue long after that eventuality...]

My wife, on the other hand, sees a car the way most people do: Like it's a toaster. If it stops working and is going to cost as nearly as much to repair it as you paid for it, well, it's time to go toaster shopping.

Unfortunately for me, when my QX4's transmission went blooey, the cost to properly repair it—more on that in a second—was almost exactly what I paid for her in the first place. But fortunately for me, I had paid significantly less than she (and others like her) go for on the open market, so even with repair costs figured in I wouldn't be totally financially “underwater”.

Regardless, as far as I was concerned, Sam—that's her name (it's short for Samantha)—needed fixing, so she was going to get it. Sure, I paid under three grand for her and a complete rebuilding of her transmission and torque converter—plus installation of a separate transmission cooler (the original was part of the radiator and is nearly impossible to clear) AND the replacement of her shorted Park/Neutral Switch—would cost that, but, well, she needed it, so she got it.

Sure, that repair didn't make her like-new again, seeing as how her A/C isn't charged (don't care), her power antenna doesn't work (REALLY don't care), her HVAC blower fan is stuck on maximum (THAT I'll fix) and an impossible-to-access valve in her braking system is leaking [article on THAT bit of fun to follow], but the very fact that I can make a list like that proves the soundness of my point: she is a “known quantity”, whereas any other car I'd have purchased with the repair money would've just been a whole new basket full of nightmares waiting to be discovered.

[Check this space for an update to my Craigslist car-buying article soon...]

So, I'll put the question to you: Sentimentality aside, do you “overpay” for a vehicle you know by reinvesting its purchase price (or more) in repairs, or do you cut your losses by dumping the car for whatever someone will pay for it and spend that plus the “repair” money on a different used car, hoping that it won't be as needy as your last one?

Fortunately for me, one of the saving graces of being under-rich is that buying a new car isn't an option, so you're practically forced to be sentimental about—or obsessed with—the vehicles you own, as you can “afford” little else. Unless you've wadded it into a ball, burned it to the ground or fragged its engine, the repair costs for whatever's broken will likely be lower than the purchase price of any equivalent you can afford for the same amount—IF you can find one.

The other factor, of course, is that I always plan on keeping my cars forever, so when I was pricing out my options for solving my transmission kerfuffle, I didn't go with the cheapest solution—and its attendant question marks—but with the best one, and the certainty (and warranty) that came with it.

When the transmission first went BANG-and-grind I was in a parking lot close to home. She got me home, though, and as it was dark out I had to wait until first thing the next morning to find out what happened.

The seriousness of the situation became clear as soon as I saw the six-foot-diameter slick that had formed dead-center underneath her midsection. Luckily, I have a Nissan dealer not that far from my home, and my insurance company paid to tow here there.

[Literally kicking and screaming, as her wheels were locked-up thanks to a no-longer-turning transmission.]

Their answer? The transmission was toast (true), and the best they could offer was to install another one—a “junkyard transmission” in THEIR words—from a vehicle with “just” 120k miles on it. Price? $2,800. Warranty? Not even a “taillight guarantee”.

[You'd think a dealer would try and sell you an all-new OEM transmission, or one that was freshly-rebuilt or something, but no. And as for that “worse for you” I alluded to? It's even worse with newer cars: The major car manufacturers I spoke with that are producing six-, eight- and ten-speed auto 'boxes said wholesale replacement is the ONLY “repair”, and it all has to come out as one piece. “Rebuilding” has officially become a thing of the past on these super-sophisticated transmissions, as replacement-part costs alone—that means not counting labor—are now higher than buying a “new” 'box outright.]

That meant doing some of my own digging, and on the interweb I found a restored-to-as-new gearbox online for a little over three grand and several used-but-”certified” (notice I didn't say “warrantied”) units for two grand and change. None of them, naturally, included shipping or the labor involved in the swap.

But then I stopped thinking like a Californian and started thinking like a Michiganian. Or is it Michigander? Whichever it is, the point is that it dawned on me that the greater Motor City area is crawling with shops whose entire existence is based upon repairing a car's oily bits, not just staring at them dumbly and suggesting a dubious replacement scheme.

So I did my homework on THAT and found a place that not only had a stellar reputation for working on just about every kind of car in existence, but one that would not only basically recreate the guts of my Nissan/Infiniti transmission AND rebuild the torque converter AND install a brand-new transmission cooler—things the dealer NEVER mentioned—but would throw in a one-year/100k-mile warranty (parts AND labor!) to boot.

The grand total? Exactly what the dealer wanted for it's slip-shod, half-ass plan: $2,800. [Not counting the Park/Neutral Switch we didn't know was fried until AFTER the transmission was back to like-new, so add $185 all-in for that.]

Now, regardless of your feelings towards your own car—as to whether you love it beyond reason or are simply tolerating it until something pricey goes blooey—if you bought it used, there's no doubt that you'll be impressed by what it can do when it's in tip-top shape.

You will not believe, for instance, the performance difference a basically brand-new transmission makes: instant acceleration, torque on demand across the rev range, seamless, turbine-like power flow, etc. It's like an extra 50 lb.-ft. of torque accessible whenever you want, with better fuel efficiency at all speeds when you don't.

The upshot? Yes, in hindsight if I had spent SIX grand on a QX4 instead of three, it's likely I would have gotten one with fewer problems—or at least one in which the problems would've manifest themselves much later.

Rule No. 1 in used car buying is “Buy the best one you can afford”, and I did that. I didn't HAVE $6k at the time, and I needed a vehicle, so I bought the best one the $3k I DID have would buy me. The fact that it would turn out to BECOME a $6,000 vehicle in time, well, them's the breaks, I'm afraid, when buying something as complex—mechanically and electronically—as a modern motor vehicle.

The silver lining? As you can see in the accompanying pics, I have a whole bucket full of mangled metal tchotchkes that any car guy (or gal) would be proud to display on their desks, garage walls or anywhere else they wanted to incite car-related conversations, even if—like me—they don't have ANY idea what those parts were beyond the fact that they made the transmission, um... transmit.

And who (other than my wife) can put a price on that?

Photo Gallery (click a thumbnail to enlarge)



Carrosserie | 3:25AM (Tue, Apr 12, 2016)

Insightful article !! Reading this post makes me more aware car related issues. Thanks Andrew for sharing this post.

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