By on July 1, 2009

TTAC commentator Patrickj writes:

I have a 2006 Ford Freestyle with about 75,000 miles. I like it well enough, including the CVT, and it has been very reliable, but I can’t say I love it. Biggest current issue with the car is wear on the interior, especially carpets. The high depreciation is a sunk cost, and I’m not going to decide anything on that basis. Problem is, there’s nothing else I’m particularly eager to drive that has the cargo room, comfort for a big driver (6 feet, 230 pounds), and any better gas mileage for my long commute.

Several Piston Slap posters basically said that the CVT was something to run away from, and that I’ve already pushed it well beyond its expected lifetime. I had the fluid changed by the dealer at 55K miles.

Am I committing the car ownership equivalent of driving on the wrong side of the interstate? Is the expense of CVT repair that high and that imminent? At 3 years old, shouldn’t I be able to get a transmission from a low mileage wreck if it does fail?

Sajeev replies:

You like the bones of the Freestyle, which means you actually want a Taurus X. I’m no CVT worrywart, I just can’t stand their modus operandi. The “X” has the same excellent value proposition, only with a far superior engine and a popular 6-speed automatic. WIN.

I don’t know if we can accurately predict the lifespan of that CVT unit: it wasn’t a popular option and Ford stopped production rather quickly. Freestyle/Five Hundreds/Montegos aren’t dropping like flies either, unlike yesteryear’s Chrysler Ultradrive transaxles. Unless the vast majority (of what few were made) fail in the next few years, there is no relevant statistical base to make an informed decision.

And finding a replacement unit 10 years from now should be easy: I went to car-part.com and found at least one CVT for a (1992) Subaru Justy for the modest asking price of $650. So if Justy owners can still get their CVT on, the Freestyle should fare well. Because if there’s a will, there is a way.

But a Taurus X is still better.

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24 Comments on “Piston Slap: Justy-fied Freestylin’ over CVTs...”


  • avatar
    kaleun

    do all the CVTs have potential problems or are there good ones? I mean, a Chrysler or Ford Transmission to fail is not new… then one could blame 4-autos and 5-MTs as well. But those exist in reliable form from other manufacturers.

    I once test-drove a Chrysler CVT (that little car they have) while my Mazda 3 had a n oil change. engine larger than the Mazda, but way worse driving and it was revving high all the time. Mileage was way worse than my Mazda too. (I was just bored waiting for my oil)

  • avatar
    don1967

    Sajeev is right; there just isn’t enough data to draw meaningful conclusions about the longevity of your CVT. If you maintain it well and drive it sensibly there is no reason to dispose of it.

    My father-in-law once got 300,000km out of a Mercury Topaz – arguably one of the most disposable cars ever built – because he took care of it and drove it gently.

  • avatar

    A lot of people say “run” when they hear “CVT” but there’s nothing wrong with a CVT just because it’s a CVT. Audi has used them in their FWD A4s and A6s for years and as far as I know, there haven’t been any problems reported.

    It’s probably more a function of who manufactured it and how well it was engineered than just the fact it’s a CVT. Ford and Chrysler apparantly had bad experiences with them. Nissan’s being using them for a while and, like Audi, seems to have a good track record with them.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    IIRC the Justy’s CVT had a notoriously short lifespan and the cost of parts + labor to replace it usually far exceeded the value of the car when the dreaded moment came.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Some cars are appliances. Tools meant to achieve a purpose. Some cars are toys. Just for fun. A 2006 Freestyle with CVT is much more appliance than toy. My advice would be keep driving it. You have suffered the big economic hit, and at 25 thousand miles a year, you will suck all the juice out of the lemon in a few more years. Take some of the money you save and buy a toy, a convertible, or a sports car.

  • avatar
    jberger

    Let’s not forget that you can replace the interior carpet for just a couple of hundred bucks and make it feel new inside.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    My mechanic warned me to avoid CVT equipped cars regardless the manufacturer’s pedigree. He says all have serious reliability issues and disgruntled, much poorer customers.

    They have strange performance characteristics, are short-lived, unrepairable, often fail soon after the warranty expires, and cost mucho dinero to replace.

    Ford, GM, BMW and others introduced then quickly discontinued them. Run away, run away, run away!

  • avatar
    jaje

    Being a taller driver (6’4″) I can commiserate on finding cars that I can properly fit in. I had an Honda Element EX AWD and loved that car (sold it as had to buy pickup for towing a large trailer). The head room was phenomenal, the interior cavernous, decent fuel economy (23-24mpg), it rode an handled like a car (albeit a tall one), and it was very easy to clean the interior – all one needed was a leaf blower and a wet rag to wipe down the surfaces. I sold it to a vball friend who uses it for tournaments and camps out of it (it became the defacto vball support vehicle).

  • avatar

    One thing I’d like to add: many automakers do indeed use CVTs and not all are junk, but I cannot find information as to how long their CVTs last in relation to their conventional autoboxes.

    And that’s what really matters: how one car performs (dynamically and monetarily) with both transmissions. I bet if a study was ever done about the lifetime cost of ownership of these transmissions (forget about re-building costs, that’s the end for CVTs) the results would lean towards the old autobox.

    don1967 : My father-in-law once got 300,000km out of a Mercury Topaz – arguably one of the most disposable cars ever built – because he took care of it and drove it gently.

    But the Topaz didn’t have a CVT. Just kidding, I think.

  • avatar
    oldowl

    Only one data point, but our 2003 Nissan Murano with CVT has passed 90,000 miles with no transmission problems.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    I think “Piston Slap” is right on, but here’s what I think.

    I’m not going to by a car with a CVT unless the manufacturer still sells CVTs. So no Fords, Chryslers, or BMWs off the used car lot with CVT. (But I would LOVE a Taurus X with AWD, it’s just a station wagon to me, not a CUV, and I LOVE station wagons.)

  • avatar
    RayH

    I drove a Subaru Justy with CVT about 10 years ago. I can’t remember if it was AWD or FWD, but it had me longing for an automatic Metro.

    I know someone who bought a one-owner Freestyle used last year with the CVT with 130,000 miles on it dirty cheap. The tranny is doing well with I believe 140k on it now, and the previous owner upped the tranny service to every 30,000 miles, as per massive pile of service receipts in glove box I had fun going through last December. Anecdotal on my part, but hope it contributes.

  • avatar
    zaitcev

    I have nothing to add to Sajeev’s comment on the topic of CVT, but being 6.5 and 210lbs, welcome to the club. I tried everything wagon-like that was made in 2006 and eventually settled for RAV4. And excellent vehicle from utility standpoint. I actually measured the prospects inside and RAV4 beat everything including real SUVs such as the new fat xTerra. Too bad I was too cheap to buy a minivan, those suckers all started above 33k + fees and for RAV4 I wrote a check for 25,256. Of course 2009 is not 2006 and cars came a long way since then… or did they? I’m afraid that the dreaded CUVs make the only option for Patrick. Sajeev implies that Taurus is roomy, but the question is how tall Sajeev is. I learned long ago that “normal” people simply have no appreciation of my difficulties, no matter how well they mean.

    — Pete

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Traditional car people have real trouble with CVTs: even when they work right, gearheads are so incapable of getting over the “slipping” sensation that they’re sure they must be bad. Put it this way: the kind of people who hate CVTs are also the people who probably hated fuel injection, hate hybrids today, and worship at the Shrine Of The Panther Platform.

    Ford’s CVT isn’t any more unreliable than a conventional automatic (and is probably more reliable than some of the more troublesome ATs: Honda, Volvo and Chrysler come to mind). Nissan has had no problems, and Audi seems to have good luck, too. Only Honda and GM really had problems with them, and the problems were spectacular. Honda, of course, also had spectacular problems with V6-equipped automatics and GM never met an esoteric technology it couldn’t f_ck up.

    Where they can bite you is twofold:
    * Mechanics are unfamiliar with them, and may misdiagnose or improperly maintain them.** If yours is ok now (and you’ve been good to it), it’ll stay ok; there are fewer moving parts, sensors and general shit-that-will-break in a CVT.
    * They are somewhat rare. Unlike the dirt-common GM four-speeds, or the laugh-a-minute paper-maiché Chrysler and Ford transmissions of the 90s, you won’t find them as cheaply

    I will agree about the interior, though. I was shopping for these recently (it came second-place to the Sienna that we actually bought) and every one has worn or pilling carpet and the seat fabric and trim plastics (both grey) looks like hell in anything that isn’t the black-interior’ed Limited.

    In some ways, I wish I’d bought it over the van. I could have got a loaded, AWD Limited for what I’d paid for a base Sienna CE. But the Toyota had much more usable interior space, got better mileage, had sliding doors and, quite oddly, is marginally easier and more fun to drive***

    ** I’ve had a colleague witness this at Ford dealership’s service department: Techs who work on Panthers and F-Series all day nearly ruined a customer’s Freestyle by a) overfilling, which can be deadly, and b) using “normal” ATF.

    *** Mind you, that’s like saying French Vanilla is nicer than normal vanilla.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Sajeev implies that Taurus is roomy, but the question is how tall Sajeev is. I learned long ago that “normal” people simply have no appreciation of my difficulties, no matter how well they mean.

    Preach it, bro.

    At 6’8″ I can tell you that the Taurus is no worse than the Freestyle up front, save for the footwell. It’s pretty narrow for a car that large. In the back, the Freestyle’s “hump” roofline makes a world of difference.

    The Flex kicks the crap out of it, though. It’s one of the best tall-guy cars outside of freakmobiles (and I mean that in the nicest way) like the Honda Element and Nissan Cube.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Join a Ford forum and see what the other owners are experiencing. My inlaws have a Saturn Vue with a CVT. They wanted to make me a good deal on it at 75K miles b/c they wanted a new Saturn Outlook (they replace cars much more often than I do. Our Honda has nearly 180K miles on it and still going strong).

    The forums said basically that the Vue CVT either failed very early or at 80,000 miles. A few were reaching 120,000 miles. What was important to me was that they weren’t regularly lasting 200,000 miles (my target mileage). The junkyards the story said did not have alot of the CVTs because GM did not sell alot of them in the first place and those CVTs that did reach the junkyards were often snapped up to repair other Vues. Rebuilding them was several thousand dollars. Apparently the chain or the pulleys were not holding up very well and after alot of warranty work GM just went back to using the tried and true four speed auto. Also yuck from my point of view b/c I prefer a five speed or better.

    Fast forward a year and they traded in their other vehicle and kept the Vue and the Outlook. The Vue is starting to have issue at the low 80K miles. Glad I did not buy the vehicle. Old CR-V still going strong and not using any oil. Original clutch even too. (Knock on wood).

    For your situation – look and see what it would take to upgrade to a traditional transmission later. Can you do the work yourself? Would be nice to get the front half of a wrecked Freestyle with the drivetrain intact and move over whatever you needed. Plus you’d have parts left over to sell later.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Sept 2010 Update – Vue has about 8K more miles on it and is making all sorts of whirly-whirly noises in the CVT tranny. It still functions but the noises are hinting at the end of the story.
      CR-V = 205K miles, no problems besides a little oil seeping past the cam seal (fixing that this weekend), original clutch, wife drove it three hours each way this week to a conference.

  • avatar
    Patrickj

    Thanks, Sajeev–you even got the color right!

    @Robert Schwartz
    You’re right on the appliance aspect. I wanted a large vehicle for family vacations and moving large objects that would ride comfortably. If I can hold out three years, a vehicle this big can safely be a one-time purchase.

    @jaje Honda Element was second choice, even though it wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable on long trips. Reminded me too much of driving a bread truck, though I’ve only ever been a passenger in one.

    @joeaverage
    Ford forum experience seems to say that number of failures isn’t unusually high, but it’s costly when it does happen.

    I’m not a real wrench-turner, things like oil changes, oxygen sensors, and alternators are OK. I’ll be fairly near my limits removing the intake manifold to get at the firewall-side spark plugs at 100K miles.

  • avatar
    Patrickj

    The real key to me is that there isn’t much that I really want to buy that will meet my practical vehicle needs. I’m starting to like the second, sports car, especially one that would take some commuter miles from the big box. But the big driver problem rears its head again.

    My normal point to change cars has been at about 125K miles. By reading here and elsewhere, that seems to be an awkward point to sell–too late to get anything in return while giving away 50K or so miles that probably won’t cause major hassle.

  • avatar

    zaitcev : Sajeev implies that Taurus is roomy, but the question is how tall Sajeev is. I learned long ago that “normal” people simply have no appreciation of my difficulties, no matter how well they mean.

    You’re gonna have to explain that to me: I restated Patrick’s positive impressions of the Freestyle for validation when segueing into the Taurus X. Because it takes balls to recommend a “X” to anyone without such validation. (which is sad when you think about it)

    I’m 5’10, but don’t call me a “normal” person. That’s just not fair.

    psarhjinian : Put it this way: the kind of people who hate CVTs are also the people who probably hated fuel injection, hate hybrids today, and worship at the Shrine Of The Panther Platform.

    Exaggerate much?

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Exaggerate much?

    Hyperbole is the second-lowest form of wit. And I use it a lot.

  • avatar

    Bless you.

  • avatar
    Patrickj

    On psarhjinian’s post on CVT/hybrid hate.

    I’ve already given up standard shift with this car, I really don’t feel any traditionalist attachment to the 4 speed FWD autobox.

  • avatar
    Patrickj

    Freestyle update:  102,000 miles.  About $1000 spent on car (maintenance and repair) since original post.  Not a peep from the transmission.

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