Hint: “I Need an Estimate…” is NOT the best way to start the conversation
So, you are driving around town and your car begins to act funny. Perhaps your check engine light or another dash warning light pops on. You notice when you try to accelerate away from a stoplight that your car seems to take several seconds to get moving, or it shifts erratically when you are on the highway. Maybe your car goes into “limp mode” and automatically shifts into third gear and won’t shift past that, leaving you driving at a relatively slow speed regardless of how hard you step on the gas pedal.
You feel it in your gut… you know you have a problem and instinctively believe it could be expensive.
Perhaps you have a friend who is a “car guy” or you look up your vehicle’s symptoms on Google. You might stop at a local auto parts store and the person behind the counter comes out and scans your vehicle for error codes. You may even make an appointment with your regular mechanic to have them inspect things to figure out what is going on. Then you find yourself in a position where they all say the same thing: “You have a transmission problem.”
The first decision you need to make is whether you work with a general automotive repair shop or a transmission specialist. Obviously, the latter makes more sense for various reasons including (i) a diagnosis from a specialist is normally more accurate than a generalist, (ii) specialists are more likely to provide more repair options, (iii) specialists will perform higher quality repairs, and (iv) specialists often provide better warranties than general automotive shops. Sometimes it may be inconvenient to get to a transmission specialist relative to your neighborhood mechanic, but that’s why the best transmission repair shops often offer Free Towing.
Once someone realizes they need to get their vehicle to a transmission shop, the next step is predictable… you call three or four shops to compare pricing. Now you are on the phone calling around and you are asking every shop you talk to the same thing,” I need an estimate. How much will it cost?” While this seems reasonable, the fact is that you are going to get very little helpful information and will make your decision much more confusing than it needs to be. Moreover, be wary of shops that do offer estimates over the phone as those shops are NOT honest repair shops.
Your goal should be to find a highly reputable local transmission shop.
The Problem with an Estimate is No One Knows What’s Wrong
The fact is that modern transmissions are unbelievably complicated systems. This is why “car guys” and YouTube videos aren’t particularly helpful. It is also why auto parts stores and general automotive repair facilities depend on specialty transmission repair facilities. Advanced Transmission Centers have been handling driveline repairs in the Denver metro area for more than 35 years. In any given week, our team has found that somewhere between 30-40% of all vehicles brought to us do not actually have transmission problems! This includes vehicles that have been referred to us by professional automotive repair facilities. It is very easy to misdiagnose a transmission issue, and that is why it is so difficult to tell you how much it will cost to repair until we’ve had the chance to inspect the vehicle.
Let’s look at a couple of common examples. For instance, when your vehicle goes into “limp mode” it is easy to assume that it is a transmission issue. However, you have to remember that modern automobiles are computer-controlled and rely on a large number of sensors throughout your car. A faulty engine sensor can trip limp mode, as can a bad battery, wheel speed sensors, a faulty PCM module, or undiagnosed CAN bus difficulties (problems in the way that various electronic control modules communicate with each other). These are electronic issues and have nothing to do with the transmission, but they can all trigger limp mode.
Hard shifting or clunking is a typical red flag for a transmission failure… or is it? What if your transmission mount or engine mounts have failed instead? In such a circumstance, every time you push the throttle aggressively, let off the throttle quickly, or the transmission shifts, the physical movement of the engine and/or transmission causes movement because of the shift in torque on those components. This is a common misdiagnosis that can cost you thousands of dollars. A transmission specialist knows to look out for this trap if they focus on advanced diagnostic training.
Another common misdiagnosis is when the vehicle does not shift correctly and will not accelerate. Often this is caused by bad catalytic converters, which become clogged over time and begin to restrict the exhaust system. This exhaust restriction, in turn, robs the engine of power which results in the transmission being unable to shift normally. Other common problems are faulty fuel pumps or engine misfiring, which also restrict proper engine power to the transmission and feel like the transmission is slipping. You call a transmission shop asking for the price of a rebuilt transmission, and your transmission is actually working perfectly! This is a good way to waste $3,000 or more!
The ability to pull error codes has been a huge step forward for the automotive repair industry. Unfortunately, it is extremely easy to misdiagnose what the error codes are telling you or to focus on a couple of codes and not look at the whole picture. For instance, an input or output speed sensor code could mean that the transmission is failing. It could also simply be that the sensor itself is malfunctioning and needs to be replaced. Or you find multiple gear ratio or slipping codes and conclude you need a new transmission. However, coupled with a “loss of prime” code, this would tell you that you are simply low on transmission fluid! It could even mean there is an underlying electrical system issue.
And then often there are the simple oddball issues that we see getting diagnosed as transmission problems when they are something else entirely. We’ve seen cups of coffee spilled in the console that cause faults in the shifter, along with coins, pen caps, etc. that have fallen down into the shift linkage and made it impossible to shift correctly. We’ve seen wiring harnesses chewed through by rodents that prevent proper communication between the onboard computer and the transmission, leading to all sorts of error codes and even stopping the vehicle from moving. Also, keep in mind there are other components within a drivetrain that can cause a misdiagnosis. What if the symptoms are stemming from the transfer case or driveshaft? These are not “cheap” repairs, but it certainly can be more affordable than transmission repairs. Asking someone for an estimate on a rebuilt transmission without giving experts a chance to inspect the vehicle will not help you with problems like these!
The Right Way to Do It
If you are going to make a serious decision about repairing your car, you need to make sure you have an accurate idea of what is going on. It is perfectly understandable to decide that the cost of a transmission repair might be more than your car is worth and sell the car rather than repair it. However, you certainly wouldn’t want to sell that car based on the idea that it was going to cost thousands of dollars to repair when the actual fix might have only cost a few hundred dollars!
We’ll use a vehicle that we recently worked on as an example. The customer was told at a general repair facility that the shift actuator in the front differential was bad and needed to be replaced. The cost of rebuilding the front differential and replacing the actuator came to just under $3,000 and the customer brought the vehicle to us for repair. However, once we opened up the differential, we discovered that the actuator had been installed incorrectly and was not properly seated, preventing the front differential from working correctly and letting the vehicle go into 4-wheel drive. Cleaning up the incorrectly done work and servicing the differential was substantially less than the customer expected. The customer had seemingly accurate information from a general repair facility that the repair was going to cost roughly $3,000. Once we had the opportunity to diagnose the actual problem, the repair bill was a little over $400. And that was not something we could have told the customer over the phone when he called to get an estimate.
At Advanced Transmission Center, we provide a comprehensive inspection of your vehicle’s drivetrain called our TrueTest inspection. This inspection is FREE of charge and gives us an accurate idea of what is going on with your vehicle. As we have discussed, in many cases we determine that there is nothing wrong with the driveline and we will refer you to one of our excellent partners who can address issues with your engine, exhaust, etc. We might find that the solution is actually a very simple repair, and we will let you know what that entails and how much it will cost. In the event that there is an actual problem with the transmission, transfer case, differential, etc. then we will discuss with you what will be involved, different repair options, and cost estimates/ranges for those various options.
So when you have transmission issues (or suspect that you do), consider this before you start calling multiple shops and asking for an estimate for a transmission rebuild. Is that what you actually need? Are you really getting helpful information if someone gives you a price without looking at your vehicle first? Is a really cheap price for a rebuilt transmission from shop XYZ useful if you actually have another problem entirely? Moreover, how does a shop know what parts are necessary to rebuild your transmission if they do not inspect it or have it disassembled?
Finally, if you have some joint pain in your hip, would your first action be calling a doctor’s office and asking the cost of hip replacement surgery?
Call and Schedule Your FREE TrueTest Inspection Today
If you need service or are having problems with your transmission, transfer case or differential, contact Advanced Transmission Center at either of our locations and we’d be happy to help! Unlike dealerships or many independent repair shops, we are transmission specialists trained to fix issues related to a vehicle’s drivetrain. You can reach out to either location that is most convenient for you.