By on June 14, 2011

Your worst nightmare. A pleasant drive along a yawning rural two-laner is met by a sudden ‘jolt!’  You quickly take your foot off the accelerator. Was it a transmission shudder? A miss in the engine? Some gravitational push from a UFO? After a couple of mini-jolts it looks like problem number one. You do what you can to not stress the tranny. But it gets worse and worse until ‘jolt!’ ‘JOLT!’ ‘Veeeee!!!!’ The engine spins over to the high rpm’s with nothing left to propel it. The tranny is toast… and now the fun begins.

I saw this one coming. I had changed the tranny fluid on the Honda Insight the prior August and had seen the unmistakable sign. Little bits of metal microns that had accumulated on a magnetic drain bolt. It was about the size of a dime and only slightly thicker than one. Some trannies can take that bit of wear without a hitch (V8 RWD domestics in particular). But not the CVT on a 1st generation Honda Insight. Not a chance. Once I saw the bit sized metal gloop, I knew it was time to start shopping around.

For the next few months I frequented…

1) Ebay

2) Craigslist


4) IAA (large salvage auction)

5) Copart (an even larger salvage auction)

6) Insight Central (enthusiast site)

The first two are known by everyones mother. Numbers three through six are more ‘enthusiast’ focused.

Carpart is an enormous database that links to thousands of  junkyards throughout the country. I refer folks to this site all the time. Most car owners who have mainstream vehicles and simply want a part, instead of a whole car, will find ‘the deal’ there. If you just need a common part and don’t want to go through the parts store or dealership, look no further.

IAA (Insurance Auto Auctions) is an auto auction that goes through over 1.2 million vehicles a year. They serve the public as well. In fact you can see multiple pictures of the inventory online and visit their locations if you need more information about a specific vehicle. I find them especially useful since the VIN number combined with a Carfax report will let me see the dealer maintenance history on most vehicles at their sales. This is perfect when you need to replace the tranny on a rare car… like yours truly.

Copart is also a salvage auction. However they only serve dealers. If you can’t find what you need in the first four places, you may find a friend at a junkyard or a mechanic’s shop. A number of transmission and engine repair facilities will actually buy the whole car. Take the part they need. Run a little small parts business on Craigslist. Then send it to the crusher or a nearby junkyard when they get tired of looking at it. If you ever wonder why a tranny shop may have a long wooden fence along the back of their lot, it’s because of all the parts cars.

Finally you have the enthusiast site. Ones that specialize in older or classic vehicles are treasure troves. You may find the part along with a lot of useful tips about what to look for when purchasing it. The late model enthusiast sites? It depends. The more enthusiasts. The greater the chance for a good find.

As for that Honda Insight? I found a spare one on Craigslist. Less than 40k on a dealership tranny along with a perfectly drivable vehicle attached to it. Salvage title. Asking $2500 with several months of reposts.. After a bit of friendly haggling  we settled at $1800. I drove it for about an hour to make sure everything was up to snuff. The seller hauled it back to my place and 10k miles later my Insight is still shifting like brand new.

As for the rest of the car? That’s part two. High voltage. The Bonneville salt flats. Racing shells. Engine storage. You know… the good stuff!


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36 Comments on “Hammer Time: The Boss Killed My Car...”

  • avatar

    Ohhh…I felt that awful shudder when my 1992 LeBaron gave it up in Septenber 2007. Except in this case, it was something in the engine. The car had 148K miles on it and was fixed too many times so as not be worth messing with it anymore for me.

  • avatar

    Brings back memories of my Toyota Matrix. Except it was a manual. Managed do make to a transmission place in forth.

  • avatar

    We went through Honda CVT hell with the 1st GX (CNG Civic). The car was sold before the Hondacare warranty expired. Hybrids cant use a conventional automatic because there needs to be oil pressure at all times and that doesnt work with engine stop/start of hybrids. The GX didnt need a CVT but I think Honda used it to build CVT volume and work the bugs out in a slightly bigger fleet. Our 2nd generation GX has a conventional automatic.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      “Hybrids cant use a conventional automatic because there needs to be oil pressure at all times and that doesnt work with engine stop/start of hybrids.”

      I’m glad you posted that. I’ve never thought about that before. Interesting.

      • 0 avatar

        Honda (and GM) doesn’t seem to have a handle on CVTs. I’m not really convinced they’ve got them sorted out even now.

        By comparison, Nissan seems to have no real issues, and Toyota and Ford’s eCVTs seems flawless.

      • 0 avatar

        Does Synergy drive or eCVT use the Van Doorne belt variator style transmission? Ford’s earlier CVTs, used in cars like the 500, seem to have created their fair share of failures, based on a quick Google search. I think the nature of metal on metal belt and pully systems leads to shrapnel in the transmission fluid and the potential for short, nasty lifespans.

      • 0 avatar

        Don’t believe everything you read. The Accord Hybrid used a conventional 5sp. automatic.

    • 0 avatar

      Hybrids can use conventional automatics. The new Sonata Hybrid does.

      • 0 avatar

        Beg to differ regarding Nissan CVTs. Daughter’s ’09 Altima has 50k, going in tomorrow for new one after reporting the Whine of Death to dealer. Discussion groups report serial failures. Good thing Nissan doubled the trans warranty to 10/120k. Needless to say this car will be gone when the warranty is.

      • 0 avatar

        Nissan most certainly did have teething problems with CVTs. But they stepped up by greatly extending the warranty.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t think Nissan’s had out of the ordinary levels of transmission trouble. If you believe CR (and I don’t think there’s a reason not to for this kind of thing) their CVT-equipped models don’t show anything out of sorts in the transmission categories.

        Compare that to, say, Honda’s V6/5ATs from the early part of the last decade. That’s what endemic transmission problems look like.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      Hyundai replaced the torque converter with a drive motor and can use the same tranny as their nonhybrids. I actually quite like the design, I assume they have an electric AT pump.

  • avatar

    Car-Part is a great web site.

    Oh, and Steve, not to say I told you so, but:


  • avatar

    2002-2004 Saturn VUE CVT 4-cylinder.

    That is all.

  • avatar

    I never knew you were so mechanically-inclined. How hard was it to swap out CVTs?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Not hard at all. It took far less time on this vehicle than most other FWD models. The small size and simplicity of the bolt on process made it almost Volvo 240 like.

      I first took the engine out along with the tranny. Then I removed the transmission from the engine. It was a lot easier to do it this way. Chances are whoever buys the Insight will want the racing frame instead of all the components. I can sell those parts separately or keep them for my own use.

      The engine will be sellable at Insight Central when it comes time. I believe the battery and quite possibly the CVT will wear out on my current Insight before the engine ever gets tired.

      I am expecting about 8 more years and 120k miles service before my Insight is on it’s last legs. If all goes well I should be able to make my money back on the Insight I bought with parts to spare.

  • avatar

    After grenading the Isuzu tranny in my old Pontiac, I had a similar situation a couple of years ago. You would think with the huge amount of J cars built, there would be a fairly large supply of these transmissions left. Unfortunately we could not find one within a 250 mile radius of the shop, and I ended up getting one online from a member of a user forum in Texas. The trans was $300, the shipping $200 and the install $400.

    I treat this trans like a fragile vase.

    • 0 avatar


      Do you think this was a better deal than, say, a rebuilt from AAMCO? Not sure what I would do in a similar situation. Obviously you’ve done the math, but I’m curious.

      • 0 avatar

        You think AAMCO would touch it for near that price, it would likely be $2K by the time you were out the door.

      • 0 avatar

        @Zackman: I don’t think I made it clear, but the Isuzu tranny I was looking for was a manual five speed. (The 3T40 or 4T40 THMs were the automatic trannies used in the J line. Those can take a hell of a lot of abuse; ask me how I know).

        Apparently, the aluminum case of the Isuzu tranny was worth more than the whole assembly, so the boneyards started scrapping them some time ago. Regardless, I couldn’t find one anywhere. I’ll take that back, we did find one, used with 150K miles on it in a bone yard in St. Louis, MO. They wanted $1000 + shipping. The one in Texas had 100K miles on it and was a relative bargain.

        @scoutdude: I don’t know for sure that AAMCO rebuilds or does anything with manual transmissions. My mechanic offered to rebuild, but no rebuild kits available. The car was 14 years old at the time, few dealers would even bother with it. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was my OLD Pontiac!

        It really wasn’t a case of this price versus that price, it was will I ever get my car back on the road? I really didn’t have much choice, luckily the kid in Texas saved me a wad of cash.

        Otherwise, I may have scrapped the car.

      • 0 avatar

        Wow. That’s pretty scarce. My buddy in Missouri had a similar problem when his 1997 Neon R/T cylinder head went out. It took forever for him to find an engine, but he did for not a whole lot of money – can’t recall how much – but his reason for not re-building the old one was: Rebuild the head – blow out pistons; rebuild the engine – blow out transmission. Don’t know how accurate his line of reasoning was, but as he is/was a mechanical engineer, I figured he was correct. Makes sense to me, but what do I know? I’m not in his shoes, and could afford to replace the car like I did with the LeBaron.

      • 0 avatar

        @Zackman: Yes, it was tough to find, but after a certain dollar amount, I can find something suitable for daily beater use pretty cheaply on Craigslist. I had originally purchased the car as a father-daughter project, but she lost interest and her grandfather bought her a nicer car shortly after… Gotta love in-laws…

        I kept the car thinking the younger kid would like it, but she’s 18 now and still hasn’t wanted to get her driver’s license. At this rate, I’ll never get her to drive it, at least with a manual trans.

        I’m kind of weary of keeping an extra car on the insurance and would like to find a nice little HHR or something to haul my drum kit to gigs. It might be time to put it on Craigslist…

  • avatar

    Although Steven gave the Kia Rio little love in his 2008 review, I have to give it credit for giving us plenty of warning when the transmission fell terminally ill last week. Bad news is it had only 50,000 miles on it, good news is Kia is replacing it for free under warranty. Hope the replacement is good for more than 50K.

  • avatar

    If you have a Nissan Pathfinder, just keep $3550 handy as you or the next owner will need it. Nissan doesn’t owe you jack 0.01 second after the warranty expires and takes about that amount of time letting you know it.

  • avatar

    2001 Acura TL. We know tranny failures.

    Honda says only 5% fail, but everyone I know who has that generation TL has done the tranny dance.

  • avatar

    CJinSD – “Does Synergy drive or eCVT use the Van Doorne belt variator style transmission?”

    The Toyota hybrids use a planetary transmission with the engine driving the sun gear and the electric motor driving the planet gear. I believe the Volt does something similar.

    • 0 avatar

      Good explanation here
      no belts, planetary gear set and computer controlled motor/generators

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks to both you and monomille. I was curious how the Prius achieved such a bullet-proof reputation with a CVT, and assumed they must not be using the belt varator system like the ones performing so badly in every other application.

  • avatar

    I’ve been fortunate to have only had one tranny failure, and it was due to the thrust plate for the torque converter on my old 78 Ford Fairmont back in about 1990-91 when the thrust plate sheered and the torque converter shifted, causing all the tranny fluid to leak out and burn the clutches to some extent…

    We got it fixed and it did just fine after that until I sold it, still doing well in 1992.

    My best friend for a brief time had a pretty well used 1980 Honda Civic hatchback with the 5spd manual, it was originally from Michigan, but bought it here in Seattle, went to have their mechanic redo the clutch, only to find it so rusty that he could not get the bolts off without risk of breaking them and when we drove the car home from Tacoma back to Seattle, he lost 5th, than later lost 4th and had to get off the freeway and drive through town to his place in NE Seattle in the neighborhood called Lake City.

    I was following him in my 83 Civic and noted his turning on the right turn signal to move to the right, then a few minutes later, hit that same signal and moved all the way over and got off at Madison St I think, which is just before downtown and motioned me to continue on home.

    So far, I’ve not had another transmission incident since that old Fairmont but my current truck’s 5spd manual is balky and occasionally grinds going back into 1st at a light and doesn’t like to slip into 2nd or reverse occasionally either, but a little wiggling/coaxing and it’ll go eventually but does not happen all the time and the transmission has 234K on it. Its’ the Mazda sourced 5spd in a 1992 Ford Ranger, but so far, knock on wood though and the clutch is good, has always been difficult even with the clutch brand new when I bought the truck in 2006.

  • avatar

    Steven – I’m no engineer, but the drawing you’ve used looks to me like a manual transmission Insight engine, not CVT. Am I right?

    As a frequenter of Insight Central, I have not noticed CVT failure being reported as a particular problem as it has been with other vehicles. I suspect that the very light weight of an Insight means less wear on the CVT. However, your experience shows that it certainly does happen.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      The light weight does certainly help. Judging from the utter lack of Insight CVT’s, I’m thinking that the failure rate for this vehicle may not even be statistically accurate.

      My particular one failed right around 175k. I don’t consider that too bad for what was then a rare vehicle. The 1st gen Civic Hybrids don’t have near as good of a record. But they haul about 40% more weight than the Insight.

  • avatar

    Less than 40k on a dealership tranny along with a perfectly drivable vehicle attached to it.

    The only way to know the actual mileage of an engine or transmission! Good find.

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