New or Used: One Dimensional Analysis Edition

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used one dimensional analysis edition

Paul writes:

I’m about to shell out $3500K for a Honda Odyssey transmission. A very unexpected turn of events for me, given the Big H’s reputation for quality…or so I thought. Googling shows that transmission problems are endemic. They are across all brands, all styles, all price points, all years. I was pretty surprised.

Your readers have a pretty high collective wisdom and -usually- leave insightful commentary. I wonder what they would say if asked, ”What make and model car has the most trouble-free transmission? The worst transmission?” I’d use the feedback to guide my next car purchase.

Sajeev Answers:

Ah yes, the recent phenomena of bigger bodies, more horsepower and not enough transaxle to keep it on the road. Be it a minivan, crossover or big displacement V6 family sedan, this is a problem for car-based brands with once-flawless reputations. I’m looking at you, Honda and Toyota. But buying a car on autobox alone isn’t the smartest idea: any vehicle with a proven gearbox is probably a less-than-desirable choice. Because the safe bets are famous fleet vehicles: Impalas, Panther Chassis Fords, or full size SUVs. How does that grab ya? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

An automatic transmission/transaxle is a combination of fluid, moving metal bits, friction-y clutch materials and geeky electronics moving in harmony. Or not: even serious gear heads have a tough time understanding the game, comparing a transmission rebuild to a black art. The wiser move is to shop properly, and stick to a service plan. Buy the vehicle you need, install the biggest transmission cooler possible and change the fluid every 30k to 50k miles. If you tow or overload a vehicle in hot climates, annual fluid servicing is mandatory. No exceptions there, especially if you stick with car based platforms that have no business with 240+ horses and 3500+ lb curb weights.

My choice? Replace the minivan with a 1-3 year old Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition. Or a Ford Panther Chassis, but that Appreciation Week is over. Fuel mileage be damned, these rigs don’t eat gearboxes and clearly have the laws of Physics on their side when someone decides to run a red light and to crash into your family. Sturdy and safe may seem like the cop out when you consider fuel prices, but how much do you really save on an Odyssey when it commands a hefty price premium when new, eats $3500 transaxles when old and forces you to into a rental car for days, if not weeks?

Steve Answers:

The most trouble free transmission would likely be a 1980’s through early 1990’s Toyota pickup. But somehow I don’t see you attaching three or four child seats to the bed of a truck.

I would ignore the transmission issue entirely. Shopping for any car based on a transmission is like picking a lifelong partner based on the size of their bank account. Yes you will have one less worry. But woe be the poor soul that looks at any important decision through only one dimension.

Let’s just say that ALL manufacturers have issues with automatic transmissions. I won’t give you a history lesson. Life is too short. Instead I’m going to give you a path that won’t require a five figured liposuction procedure for your wallet.

Keep the Odyssey for a while. Put in the Honda tranny. Have them throw in a good transmission cooler so that it doesn’t get stressed (negotiate on the price and ‘responsibility’ for the repair). Change the tranny fluid annually. Replace the radiator every five years. That’s it.

I have a friend of mine who has a very large mini-warehouse business near Athens, Georiga. He uses Chrysler minivans (1991 – 1995 models) that supposedly have among the highest level of transmission issues ever recorded for a modern vehicle. But his don’t break. Why? Because with fresh transmission fluid the temperature is kept low. The use of a tranny cooler and new-ish radiator eliminate all other heat concerns.

Other than shifting from reverse to drive without coming to a complete stop, heat in all it’s forms is the only thing that can kill a modern transmission. Minivans are the most frequent destroyers of automatic transmissions. They carry a lot of weight constantly and don’t benefit from the bulky rear-wheel drive powertrains you can get from certain body-on-frame vehicle such as SUV’s, pickup’s, and old full-sized Fords. But on the road they are the most comfortable and spacious vehicles you can find at a bargain price.

I would definitely consider making the Odyssey a long-term keeper.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to, and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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5 of 92 comments
  • Mr Carpenter Mr Carpenter on Oct 13, 2010

    TANKINBEANS, I have the perfect solution for you. Having lived in the United Kingdom for 9 years, I can advise you how it's done there, and it is a good method. Find a car (or truck) with a handbrake between the seats and manual shift, suiting your needs, and buy it at your leisure. The method is this: Every time you stop the vehicle wheels for more than 1 second, you reach down and pull the handbrake up sufficiently to stop the car from rolling at all. When it is time to pull away, you manipulate the gear shift lever, move your feet to the gas and clutch pedals, manipulate those as needed, put your left hand on the steering wheel as normal and put your right hand on the handbrake - release the handbrake catch with your thumb and ease the lever down as you pull forward. With a small amount of practice, you will not roll backwards more than an inch or two, even on a severe upward incline. This is not a new problem. Studebaker engineers invented the "hill holder" system 75 or so years ago. The even incorporated it into their Studebaker Automatic Drive (automatic transmission) announced in 1950 and built through 1955. (Lucky for them, acronyms were not as common then as now). The ONLY automobile company that I know of which uses any similar system to the automatic "hill holder" is SUBARU. In fact, my AUTOMATIC 2010 Legacy CVT car has a hill holder button which works very well. You must select it on or off. Interestingly enough, this car has NOT got a handbrake; it has an electric parking brake which doubles as the hill holder. I'm pretty certain the manual shift Legacy (and therefore Outback) has this, also. So if by chance you cannot "pick up" the method of driving as the British do (and also most Europeans), then you could always consider a stick-shift Subaru with Hill Holder....

    • See 2 previous
    • Bimmer Bimmer on Oct 13, 2010

      BMWs also have Hill Start Assist on manual transmission cars. Another interesting technology is Self Drying brakes.

  • Mjal Mjal on Oct 13, 2010

    I agree with Steve Lang wholeheartedly. To avoid an Odyssey simply because of its transmission issues versus other competing models is foolish. I bought new an '03 Odyssey that has lived a hard life with 3 growing boys. It has never let me down and is going strong with 75K miles. It is a quality vehicle and still drives new. I'm keeping my fingers crossed with respect to the tranny, but I regularly maintain it with fluid changes. I recently rented a new Dodge Caravan that drove well but was incredibly cheap in terms of interior and exterior hardware, seat and cushion quality, etc. More important, the interior room was vastly inferior to my Odyssey (can't speak for the '11 Odyssey). Lastly, while I know this site is largely down on Consumer Report's ratings, they rate the mid to late 2nd generation Odyssey as, overall, above average in reliability. So far, they won't get an argument from me.

  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…
  • Mike978 Wow 700 days even with the recent car shortages.
  • Lorenzo The other automakers are putting silly horsepower into the few RWD vehicles they have, just as Stellantis is about to kill off the most appropriate vehicles for that much horsepower. Somehow, I get the impression the OTHER Carlos, Tavares, not Ghosn, doesn't have a firm grasp of the American market.