Recently I started experiencing a hard shift and a slipping in my Toyota RAV4 2002. Especially, when the engine is engaged with lower gears. So I checked the transmission oil and found it is slightly darker than usual (pink if new) but the color was still OK to drive. Anyways I brought the car to my usual repair shop and asked the bloke to change the transmission oil.
After the transmission oil change the car drove fantastic. No problem in shifting and no slipping at all. I assumed that the issue was with the transmission oil. But, after a couple of days again I felt the same issue in shifting and thought there can be a serious problem in the transmission. But it is strange to get such transmission issues given that the car is not that old. So I started searching for similar issues and found that I am not alone.
The issue is?
Apparently the issue is common to Rav4 2001-2003 model. The actual culprit is the ECU (aka ECM) or as usually called the Engine Computer. You can find such complaints in the references given at the end. To make a long story short, this is what happens. When you drive, the ECU (brain of the car) is sending signals to the actuator based on its collected data. But due to a flaw in the design, the ECU is sending the wrong signal when it is engaged to lower gears. So the actuator engages to a wrong gear, consequently giving some slipping and loss of power to move forward. The not-so-funny part is that this can gradually damage the entire transmission unit.
One solution for such electronic issues in a car is to re-flash the ECU. But in this case the re-flashing would not work as the problem is a design flow of the ECU. Re-flashing might possibly hide the issue temporarily but as you continue to drive it can come again.
So one obvious question is why Toyota is so silent about this issue. Given the large number of complaints received they have a responsibility to call the flawed ECUs and replace with upgraded ones. But apparently Toyota here in down under is not that ethical as its counterpart in the USA. (Well, due to pressure from some State governments?). Instead they wait until your transmission unit gets completely ruined. You are lucky if that happens within the warranty period. But most Toyota Rav4 buyers were not so lucky as this issue usually comes after 100K. After that Toyota has no responsibility. So they can just wash their hands. How convenient is that?
OK. So what to do?
The best thing to do is check the ECU as quickly as possible. There is a bulletin available here on how to do the checking. You can do it using a Toyota Diagnostic Tester Kit, which is available in almost all repair shops. If faulty, do not hesitate to replace the ECU. You may take one of the following actions.
- You can buy a brand new ECU from a Toyota dealer. But call few places and get quotations as prices vary a lot. Also do not buy from wreckers because that might also contain the flaw. You cannot guarantee and you do not need to burn your transmission gears for a quick saving.
- Or you can get your ECU re-programmed. Based on my readings, I found that a repair shop in Brooklyn, NY doing the job for you. Check more details here. But if you live in Australia like myself, you have to ship the ECU and wait until receive it back.
I took the first action as I wanted my car in good shape as quickly as possible
What not to do?
- Do not drive your car anymore if you get the symptoms I mentioned earlier. More you drive, more the damage would be on the transmission. Especially take care to avoid frequent stops if you really have to drive the car (e.g. to repair shop).
- Do not just listen to what the transmission repair guys say. From my experience, these guys know the actual issue is with the ECU. But replacing the ECU is a very easy thing and they can’t charge you a lot of money for it. So expect them to say, "Hey, let's open up the transmission and check it". But that costs you a lot. And they can continue to charge you for this and that, which is something you don’t need at this stage. Some people were even quote $3000+ for such instead of simply replacing the ECU. So do not show that you don’t know. Simply say you think the issue is with the ECU. Show them a printout of the bulletin . Also the funniest part is some guys would say "Yes, we need to repair the transmission (cost a lot) and also need to replace the ECU as well". So anyways replacing ECU cost is there. But strangely they do not like to check the ECU in first place. But you know the reason now. (Good luck if these guys are to fix humans). So take the cheapest action first. And then go for expensive transmission repair provided the transmission too is damaged due to driving with a faulty ECU.
- Do not listen to Toyota dealers. They are the worst culprits of all. First, they know that it’s Toyota’s fault. Well… they manufactured the ECU. Yet, they do not ready to accept it. Second, they charge you a lot just to replace it. At least they should say, "Hey buddy, we know this is our fault. But how about you buy the ECU (still $650+) from us, and we will fix it free of charge for you". Naahhh! Do not expect that from them. Just buy the unit and then either fix it yourself or go to a transmission repair shop (probably cost about $60). The ECU is located just behind the glove box.
How much I'd save?
Transmission related fixing is a very expensive job. A repair shop can charge you a lot just to have a look. It is understandable as the job is not an easy one. The assembly is very complex.
But the total cost to replace the ECU is around $650-$750 with the labor. If you re-programmed and get it shipped it will be about $350-$400. This is in contrast $3000+ you pay for a transmission failure issues.
What else can I do?
This is a safety hazard. Make your voice heard. At least to the ears of state governments (that’s way to convey a message to Toyota). Write to programs such as today-tonight, current affairs. Complain in internet forums. Share your story with others. Simply nag Toyota from whatever the way you can. Also let me know if you found a cheaper way to fix this issue.
Good luck and hope this help you to save some bucks due to STUPID faulty ECU from TOYOTA.
More readings on the issue:
Or just google with "RAV4 Transmission ECU"