Saturday, November 27, 2010

Toyota RAV4 Transmission issue: How to avoid a costly repair bill?

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"


mikaljains said...

Congratulations! This is the great things. Thanks to giving the time to share such a nice information.
Transmission Repair Denver

monica guziec said...

Thanks Im having the same problemwith my 2002 rav4.. Great info

Warner Carter said...

As it plays a significant role in moving, starting from a regular trip to a long vacation trip people does not forget to maintain it. transmission repair

Ökkeş Alpaslan Gençay said...

it is usefull for my problem. Dont understand where is the problem in the toyota repair services at Turkey toyota. They ask me replace new ecu,I dont accept it. I tried drive my car aprox 200 km with damaged ecu. I drive it slowly to getting high speed. it corrected and run well now. I dont repaired it. it run well. if you ask me any question pls don hesitate.

spinel premachandra said...

I had a same problem like you
I got big prices qotation to fix it but I followed ur incident and fixed up my car I only spent $650 for brand new ecu so I am really happy and many thanks for ur article

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

Thanks for the feedback folks.
I'm glad that you found it helpful.:-)

Nick McAuley said...

I have the same issues and am about to purchase a new ECU - does the vehicle need to be taken to a service centre for reprogrmming/clearing of codes etc if I install the ECM myself?
Cheers, Nick

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

Hi Nick,
It is not difficult to replace the existing ECU with a new one. Please see this . Just wondering why you need to reset the new ECU? If you need to reset the old one, simply disconnect the battery for 15 mins.

Nick McAuley said...

Hi Malinda,
I was only concerned with the ignition key/immobiliser having to be reset/programmed to the new ECU - will the vehicle start with a new ECU without any reprogramming etc?
Cheers, Nick

Nick McAuley said...

I managed to pick up a new ECU from Toyota, prices did vary as you suggested from $785 down to $600 (these were between Toyota dealers!). I replaced the ECU, made sure the vehicle operated transmission correctly, no thumping into reverse and selecting all forward gears normally. Fine. Booked in for transmission flush at Ultratune which was the place which diagnosed earlier that ECU and transmission would need replacing - they were honest and there was no need to even do a fluid flush, the transmission is like new, no metal in the sump at all. Thanks for your suggestions, it does pay off to test these things out if you do have the time (and a spare car). Nick

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

No worries Nick. I'm glad that you find it useful. Cheers !

motor Finder said...

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Holly Salter said...

This has just happened to me and my car is at the transmission place today. I have a 2003 Rav4 and starting jerking badly on Sunday. It is costing me $1750 (a new ECM and repairs to the transmission and clutch plates?? This is ridiculous considering Toyota know of this issue and didn't do anything about it. There was a class action against Toyota in the US and they increased the warranty, but doesn't apply here in AUS. I am disgusted! I've had my car since new and have had regular servicing etc. If we got enough people together that have had the same problem, I'm willing to take it further, re: Today Tonight or A Currant Affair.

ravfour said...

mine 2002 rav4, harsh shift, start up 3rd gear, up hill cannot climb etc, after google; took the ecu out, resolder 820 and r330, problem seems resolved; no more 3rd gear start up; will see

Susila said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susila said...

I have a 2001 RAV 4 with 130,000 miles on it. I am the only owner. Just had the battery changed, and the transmission acted strangely. Slipped gears and was clunking as it shifted (automatic transmission). The car guy said to drive it in city traffic to "reset" the car's computer. Is the right?

Susila said...

I drove the car around in town (about 30-35 mph) for 1/2 hour. NO LUCK. Slipping gears more than before. Someone, anyone who this a safety hazard for the transmission? Is this really from the NEW BATTERY? Never heard of this. Really peeved. The car ran SOOOO smoothly. Now, it's jerking like mad and going out of gear. Anyone?

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

Hi Susila,
You cannot reset the computer/ECU like that. So stop driving it around and replace the ECU as soon as possible.

Susila said...

Thanks Malinda. Is the ECU expensive? Is this a long repair? And, does this happen every time the battery is replaced? I never heard of this before...

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

Cost to replace the ECU is around $650-$750 with the labor. It shouldn't take more than 1 hour to replace the ECU.

Alternatively (a cheaper option), to re-program + shipping it will be about $350-$400. Again, during this time you cannot drive the vehicle, so I decided to buy a brand new unit to avoid hassle. Keep in mind that a damaged transmission can cost you heaps.

Battery replacement has nothing to do with the ECU issue.

Susila said...

Thanks!! It seems a bit better today...but a few slips. My only car.....low mileage, and have had it since new. One more day...
Thanks for the info!!

Destinyxx said...

Hi guys I'm wanting to buy a new ecu. My rav4 is a 2003 model and I'm based in Sydney australia. So just to confirm all i have to do is ring up a toyota dealership and tell them I want to order a new ecu for the 2003 rav4 and make sure it's the patched up ecu, is there a product code for the new ecu so I can make sure I'm getting the right one? Thank you guys your help would be really appreciated. My email is

Destinyxx said...

Is there a product code you could share with me regarding the new ecu?

Unknown said...

Once the new ecu is in, what do i do to know if the transmission will be okay or if it is already too damaged?

Malinda Kaushalye Kapuruge said...

Re: Unknown, probably you'll feel there is no slip while driving. Also check for transmission oil level.
BTW, If you think that your transmission is already damaged, it is advisable to seek professional advice.

Susila said...

Well for me, I knew right away. The car went into gear smoothly and normally. Def was NOT the transmission. The ECU did the trick. Good luck Unknown!

Susila said... can get a new ECU from the Toyota dealership. For me, they said therewere known problems with RAV4s (early 2000s) and they didn't charge labor to put it in. I have a 2001 Rav4 that is awesome! I am the original owner too.