By on October 19, 2011



Brian writes:

Not sure if this would be appropriate “piston slap” fodder or not, but here goes:
Our blossoming family recently expanded to five. My wife and I, and a three year old, a 20 month old and now a 2 month old fill up the house. We occasionally travel with our 75 lb dog. Knowing the Volvo Turbobrick would not handle the cargo/dog/people, and the PT Cruiser remains the most reliable vehicle ever built (even if the timing belt changes are a big pain) we decided to sell the Volvo for something more appropriate, if a lot slower and FWD.

Enter the Freestyle. We routinely get 28 mpg on trips, parts are cheap, we have lots of cubbies for kid’s junk and the car seats fit easily. I purchased a high mileage (150k) example that was a one owner (ish) with all receipts. It was a fleet car for some guy who then bought it when his company was done with it. It had the CVT replaced at 118k miles with a remanufactured transmission from Ford, installed at a dealer.

A few weeks ago the CVT died on us. At 153k miles. There was just over 1,000 miles left on the warranty. We all got home safe and sound, and the transmission was replaced. Again. With a remanufactured unit. Again. It’s apparently the only thing available. No new ones exist and nobody rebuilds them. I have a connection with the transmission rebuild world. I’ve called transmission parts suppliers and they don’t even sell a manual for it.

I’m not what you’d call ‘shy’. I do all my own work on my cars with the exception of this, flashing the ECU for a TSB on the aforementioned PT Cruiser, putting tires on wheels and replacing windshields. I’ve done a fair amount, but I’ve never owned anything this expensive. I fully expect this remanufactured transmission to die in roughly the same amount of time. My theory is that while the original certainly seemed to fare decently (118K on a conventional transmission is not terrible for a heavier people mover), the reman probably was rebuilt by the same folks who do the $34.99 starters for small block chevies that seem to last just a day over the one year warranty that you find in the local pep-advanced-zone’s. The choices are basically as follows:

Take a big depreciation hit and attempt to sell it (we bought it in March) and buy a Taurus X with the conventional automatic and the better 3.5L engine. We cannot afford this now, but I have a few years to see that mileage on the reman CVT.

Replace the CVT in the Freestyle with the 6F in the Taurus X. I know this isn’t easy. The engine should bolt right up, and the mounts should be pretty close (I have a welder and a hammer) but the ECU is the tricky part. This is not a slam dunk.

Replace the CVT in the Freestyle with the Aisian in the 500. This is only slightly more of a slam dunk, because it’s probably the same ECU. I just need to find out how to flash it.

Learn to rebuild the CVT myself and build a great one and keep it onhand as a spare. My neighbor has a lathe and Bridgeport in his basement. I am a degreed engineer. It would take a while, but it could work.

Sajeev answers:

Oh yeah, this is totally a Piston Slap worthy article. Not like we haven’t done this before, ya know. And while I am (a little) surprised that a Ford Reman transmission does this poorly, who knows who actually did the rebuild! It’s an orphan design, which is never good. The ideal transmission for the long haul of ownership is something with tons of support, and GM transmissions have usually done the best for decades, for this reason. And if you can’t procure a 100% new, never rebuilt CVT assembly, I agree with you.

Having done transmission swaps before (and truly hating myself during that time) and knowing a bit about Ford electronics, here’s my recommendation: do that 6-speed swap. Get a Hollander Interchange manual to find out which Fords used the same vintage 6-speed as the same year of your Freestyle. If you can easily snag that gearbox from the same vintage Five Hundred, you are set. But who knows, maybe there’s a cheap wrecked Fusion nearby that has the same part for much less! It all depends on the market and availability.

From there you will need to see what’s different in the mounting and wiring of the transaxle on the subframe. Maybe you need a different mount, maybe not. Perhaps there’s an extra wiring harness, or a completely different one! Maybe a new shifter in the console too. Hopefully not, and a factory shop manual with wiring diagrams will help.

Once you clear that hurdle, the final part is easy. The ECU’s are pretty simple, as Ford hasn’t made a significant change in them during this era. Odds are you can take any one of them and re-flash the correct transmission logic with a brilliant person and an SCT tuner in his pocket. Which will set you back up to $500, I suspect. That’s your fallback, because I suspect getting a matching computer from a donor Ford Five Hundred will make it all work great…but if not, the SCT-tune is the way to go.

It will be a ton of work, both in research and sweat equity. But I suspect a smart dude like yourself can get this done for under $1500, if you get lucky with the cost and quantity of parts needed for the swap.

Best of luck.

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47 Comments on “Piston Slap: Justy-fied Freestylin’ over CVTs, Part II...”

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Back in 2006, I was in Northern Arizona on a new plant construction job. I rented a lot of cars and SUVs that year for 2-4 week stints. I did rent a Freestyle with the CVT and can confirm the 28 mpg which was the best milage I recorded for a SUV that size. Most of the trucky SUVs I rented were in the 22-23 mpg highway range.
    I wondered about the durability of the CVT on a vehicle that size. Your post confirms my suspecsions.
    That being said, my wife has a 99 Honda Odyssey that needed a new tranny after 82K miles of light duty, and it’s a conventional five speed AT. Honda replaced it with a remanufactured tranny in accordance with a class action suit. So much for Honda’s reputation with me.
    I wonder how long this one will last?
    Good luck with the new CVT. Maybe it will be better than the original.

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, I was a part of the D219 Chassis Engineering Team there are safety-things in that car for which I have “unpublished patents”.

    If this is to be your daily-driver, I would recommend that you:
    1. either stick with the CVT and expect to replace it between 118 and 153k miles (obviously these are too few data points to calculate a B10-life w/a high-confidence interval, so your results may vary outside these bounds.) Not necessarily equate Reman with junk (after all, the Reman exceeded the original CVT failure life by like 30% – from where I sit, that’s pretty good.)
    2. realize that you will be hauling your family in this car, and poverty-rigged home-made design solutions add significant uncertainty into the performance, reliability, safety (a big one, as the changes you propose cross a lot of system,sub-system,functional boundaries) of a vehicle.

    For a family-hauler, I see making such changes as playing with fire.

    If that has not dissuaded you, please consider whether your insurance company would be so generous as to cover any potential crash claim for a car that has been so tremendously altered from the manufacturer’s specification (I would think that, but do not know, if an insurer would be able to bring justifications as to why to reduce payout for a private experimental vehicle.)

    This car has, by my calculation, north of 271k miles, this is already quite a high-mileage; not to sound cavalier, but how much depreciation could there reall be on such a high-mileage car?

    • 0 avatar

      Perhaps I misread the original information but my understanding was that the original transmission died at 118,000 miles, the remanufactured one at 153,000 miles – on the car. So the remanufactured transmission lasted only 35,000 miles.
      As for the rest of your answer I’m inclined to agree. It’s a lot of work without a guaranteed payoff and many potential questions.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you misread that. The original cvt failed at 118,000 and the reman failed at 153,000 on the car but only 35,000 on the reman cvt.

      Or at least that’s how I understood it.

    • 0 avatar

      Insurance company will not care about a transmission/ecu swap. People do crazier swaps (engines, bodies, ‘vette drive-train in civic, etc..) without issue.

      The swap is probably theoretically possible, but I doubt it will be easy. The electrical wiring will be completely different. I’m not just talking to the transmission, but to the ECU connectors as well.

      Even back in the ’90s with the EEC-IV/V, the EEC pinouts from vehicle to vehicle could differ wildly, and there could be multiple programming strategies for the same model – for the same model year.

      I’m not sure if this is the case with the newer Ford EECs, but it something to keep in mind.

    • 0 avatar

      You guys are right, I see now that I mis-read the info…

      Guess what I’d modify is this, if 35k is the best one can expect of the reman trans, better dump-it soon.

      Re. insurance companies, the devil is in the clauses… they will all be happy to take your money, but in the event of a major crash with injuries, they can be sticklers on enforcing the exits afforded by their self-benefiting clauses; Caveat EMPTOR baby!

  • avatar

    I got 10 years out of my first 4L60E, when it was replaced by a GM certified rebuild.. which lasted 4 years before the clutch pack went.. Not surprised the Ford one didn’t do any better. I’m not too ticked at the transmission, it’s still cheaper than the engine replacements the car needed (one rebuild at 6 years, another replacement 3 years later)

  • avatar

    IF you can get the replacement box cheap, go for it. If not, sell it quick.

  • avatar

    The part I don’t get is why another Ford would be considered as a replacement. Gee, I wonder if the lurching Focus automatics will have durability issues?

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, get a Honda Odyssey, their trannies are bulletproof…

      • 0 avatar

        How about a 98-02 accord v6 auto?? *chuckle*

      • 0 avatar

        Totally the same thing! One generation of bad transmissions in the past twenty years, something so common that I never heard about it until I encountered UAW shills on the internet, and Ford’s history of selling unsorted ideas and then abandoning them once people know that they’re garbage and Ford can’t fix them. You’re holding all the cards!

    • 0 avatar

      I would be surprised if this CVT is indicative of Ford’s conventional transmissions. I wondered about this from the start: CVTs have always been in small lightweight cars, and have often been service disasters even there. Take the design and put it in the heaviest car it has ever been put in (at least in the U.S. market) and voila: we have our letter today.

      A well serviced fleet car with 118K highway miles should not need a transmission, period, no matter what it is. I think that Brian’s experience with this CVT confirms my ill-informed suspicions from 2007 or so.

      • 0 avatar

        My concern is that it is indicactive of Ford’s willingness to let their customers be development drivers and then leave them cut off when they sold them a technological dead end. If Ford was still willing to provide new CVTs, preferably ones that validate the CVT idea by routinely lasting at least 165,000 miles in their intended applications, then I would feel differently about this. The fact is that they sold a bad design because it would eek out a few tenths of a CAFE MPG and then hung their victims out to dry. Now they say, ‘trust us, it’s normal!’ when their new MPG special transmission feels frail. It is hard to respect anyone involved.

      • 0 avatar

        CJinSD: This is why I hate CAFE. It is not just Ford who grabs for the incremental mpg increase and gives the customer crap. Every one of the domestics has done it, and fairly often over the last 15 years.
        The choice: Do we pay the fines or do we lighten the car or eke out more mileage with a crap part. It is like waiving a scotch on the rocks under the nose of an alcoholic. You know what is going to happen.

      • 0 avatar

        How about we put the EPA creeps out of work and buy what we want? Stupidity is our only unhobbled natural resource. Whenever I read a review by someone who should know better saying that direct injection, or turbocharging, or gears reduced in physical size to resemble watch parts are now worth buying because they allow a heavy car to post competitive EPA figures, I understand how we got into the problems that we have.

      • 0 avatar

        I wondered how long is would take before someone blamed the federal government for a report that a transmission made by a private company stopped working after 118K miles.

      • 0 avatar

        If the federal government didn’t get involved in placing arbitrary regulations on private industry then there would be no reason to.

      • 0 avatar

        The vast majority of regulations are hardly arbitrary. Just compare what cars were like in the 60s in terms of safety, cleanliness, and efficiency compared to today. Hardly the result of the market asking for it…

  • avatar

    Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It is running with a reman transmission. Now is the time to shop around and trade the silly thing on a roughly equivilent Chrysler minivan. You may have another transmission issue down the road, but it will be a simple one.

    If you like the Freestyle, trade for a TaurX instead. If you want cheap and enjoy being your own mechanic, a Windstar/Freestar is for you, so you can do tranny and head gasket repairs to your heart’s content.

    A better idea – find a nice minivan/wagon with a bum transmission (not another CVT, either), buy it for peanuts, and do the rebuild at your leisure while you drive the Freestyle. Then sell the Freestyle and pocket the difference.

    You sound like a bright guy who likes a challenge. But there is no golden trophy or cash prize at the end of all of this, just a drivable car that you will never be able to sell or get conventionally serviced because it is a screwed up one of a kind (so far as the rest of the world is concerned, no matter how good a job you did).

  • avatar

    The CVT is terrible, but as a 500 owner I would advise you to avoid the Aisian. It shifts hard. It’s correctable with a reflash, but the vehicle has “adaptive learning” that gets messed up by the cruise control (at least in my vehicle). When this happens the car starts shifting hard and the computer needs to be reset by disconnecting the battery terminals and touching them together for thirty seconds. If you do it when you check your oil it eliminates the problem, but it is also an inconvenience and leaves significant questions as to the quality of Ford transmissions (actually it leaves no questions, they’re junk). The CVT, though, seems to go out at either 30,000 ish miles or 90-110,000. I wouldn’t buy a car that had it.

    • 0 avatar

      To conclude, I would advise that you sell the car and get as far away from any Ford transmission that has been imported from China as you can (which includes most of them). I love Ford’s vehicles, but they really need to improve quality control.

      • 0 avatar

        How do you know it’s from China?

      • 0 avatar

        Actually the D219 CVT was designed by ZF AG of Germany, and was built in the Batavia plant that Ford contributed to a JV w/ZF … ZF, however, bungled the project, and Ford had to yank the project and plant back from them, and then had to sort-out the design (there was a terrible whine on throttle-off deceleration) to get it into production…

        In summary, this CVT was designed by Germans (ZF), developed by Americans (Ford) in the U.S.A. by U.A.W. workers in Ohio.

        Aisin is a part of the Toyota kiretsu, it is Japanese, not Chinese.

        Far as I know, the only Chinese transmission Ford imports to the USA is a version of a Tremec design which goes into the Mustang and has given many troubles of late.

      • 0 avatar

        Thank you for the correction, Walter. I got the information on the origins of the Aisin transmission from a relative who is fairly knowledgeable on cars, guess this time I should have checked my facts :) That doesn’t detract from the point that it is an awful piece of equipment though.

      • 0 avatar

        Aisin transmissions are generally very robust and reliable, shift quality notwithstanding. The AW4 used in the Jeep Cherokees for years has a legendary reputation for being bulletproof regardless of how much abuse you heap upon it.

      • 0 avatar

        Too bad they didn’t use that one in the ford, because their are plenty of documented issues with both :/

  • avatar

    Then again there are lots of vehicles that fit your lifestyle with conventional trannies. Why go through lathes and bridgeports and all the other insane hassles if you dont have to? Good luck regardless!

  • avatar

    Aisin six-speeds of those years are hardly bulletproof. Though they don’t often fail outright, they are prone to shift flare and botched shifts.

    Ditto the GM/Ford six-speed automatic in my Taurus X, which probably WON’T bolt right up to the 3.0 engine. It often bumps and thumps when executing shifts, and is at least partly responsible for the vehicle’s poor fuel economy. Probably by design–but why?–the torque converter is quite loose.

    Is it possible to pull CVTs from totaled cars in junkyards?

  • avatar

    If you know how to work on cars then dump the Freestyle and buy a 1996 (i.e. OBDII) Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. The Toyota Highlander brat can suck it.

    Also, as a trained engineer with mechanical ability think about what your time is worth. You could probably make enough money to buy a Taurus X outright by selling your skills instead of (no offense) wasting them figuring out how to replace a CVT with a 6AT in a Freestyle with more than 150,000 miles.

  • avatar

    Does anyone know if the CVT in question here is the same CVT used in the 2006 Escape Hybrid? We currently have 3 of them in service and all 3 have close to or well over 200k on the CVT’s with no signs of wearing out. Just curious.

    • 0 avatar

      The CVTs used in Prius/Escape-type hybrids is totally different from those in the Civic Hybrid and with conventional engines. The former group are based on a planetary gearset–so just as reliable, if not more so, than a conventional automatic–while the latter group use pulleys connected by a metal belt.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for the response. However it begs the question, why don’t all the manufacturers use the same system? I was always told a CVT is like a snowmobile’s drive unit, I.E. the pulleys and belt system. I had no idea there was a planetary gearset system, and have been wondering why there was such disdain for the CVT when we have been using them for years with zero issues. Mental note added to my simple mind.

  • avatar

    From one Engineer to another, I’ll echo previous comments and say you will get far better return on your time investment doing almost anything else.

    Also do not neglect the political considerations, in my experience Engineers’ spouses take a dim view of time consuming jury rigged solutions and the resulting roadside breakdowns. As my dear Mrs DougD wisely told me, “not everything has to be a project.”

    What I would do is drive the CVT gently while setting some cash aside for a different vehicle. When the CVT dies again scrap the car. If you really have extra time to spend with vehicles get something cheap and interesting, like a Fox body 5.0 Mustang or an older motorcycle.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I was planning on writing an article on CVT’s… and just so happened to have bought a perfectly good 05 Freestyle with 149k for $3000 a couple weeks ago.

    It breaks down this way (pun intended)

    Toyota: Exceptional durability. They use a power split transmission that applies planetary gears to all stages of shifting. In my opinion (one of many) it represents the best non-traditional transmission design if longevity is your goal. However technically it’s not a CVT.

    Ford: The Escape Hybrid has the same transmission system as the Prius. The Freestyle, Five Hundred and Montego used a chain driven CVT that was eliminated after a little over two years due to high failure rates.

    These transmissions required special maintenance and were overmatched for the vehicles that used them. But they could have satisfied compact and subcompact vehicles if not for their weight.

    Honda & Co.: The Wikipedia article on CVT’s offers a pretty good synopsis. I am very negative on using these transmissions on anything heavier than around 2600 pounds or so. They work fine on 1st gen Insights. But are fairly horrific on most everything else including the Civic Hybrid. Nissan recently extended the warranty on many of these transmissions as well.

    I have only bought vehicles that had these versions if the unit was recently replaced. If you do buy one you must have the fluid changed annually.

    GM: The VTi released in 2002 is the absolute worst transmission put in any vehicle over the past decade. Failure rates before 80k are likely right around 85+%. Every Vue or Ion with a CVT at the auctions is either a red light vehicle (as/is) or an inop.

    GM still fights people to the nth degree on these transmissions despite a failure rate that is likely the highest in the modern era. I would even go so far as to say that these transmissions harmed Saturn’s reputation more than any other quality issue in the brand’s history.

    My opinions? I have zero faith in any CVT that does not have a planetary gear set. Even in the cases where they do offer one for overdrive with a belt driven mechanism for other gears (like the new Versa), the historical longevity of belt driven CVT’s makes me highly pessimistic of these units realizing 200k miles.

    For now the only CVT ‘like’ transmissions I endorse for folks are those sold and licensed through Toyota’s hybrid technologies. Perhaps the new ones coming out will have exceptional longevity. But I would not want to be the $4000 guinea pig in that experiment.

    So there you go! Good luck!

    • 0 avatar

      Good summary Steve, thanks.

      I remmember about 15-20 years ago, the CVTs using the Van Doorne belt system werent rated for motors over 1.0L displacement.

      Ford’s problem was that ZF oversold the capability of the technology, and Ford, wanting to save fuel by using a smaller engine (IIRC ca. 3.0L) but not lose performance, jumped at the ZF pitch (after-all, Audi was starting to use these transmissions in the A4 – which themselves, had less than a stellar record immediately after launch.)

      Nearly from the beginning of the D219 launch, Ford realized that the CVT was not going to be in the product plan for the long-term, as there was a new higher displacement engine with a 6spd transmission available, and the necessary capacity was coming on line to handle the miserablely-low sales volumes of the D219/Cross-Trainer/Freestyle.

      One of the D219 launch managers remarked to me, just shortly after the launch, “Pity, we worked so hard to fix that thing, eliminated the whine on no-throttle coast-down, and now we’ll drop it after a year in production.”

    • 0 avatar

      There’s one other variation: with Audi’s CVT the belt is pulled from pulley to pulley, like on a motorcycle, rather than pushed like it is on other CVTs. This supposedly makes it able to handle more torque.

      • 0 avatar

        Re. the Audi … owners in Germany were kinda wierded-out by the lack of shifting, and the related sensory-feedback of a thump or surge, that Audi decided to program a faux-surge into its CVT system to replicate that of a conventional automatic…

        Like taking a point-and-shoot camera, and then fitting it with a fake focussing ring around the lens…

        Go figure…

    • 0 avatar

      We were stuck with the CVT in the prior-generation Civic GX (CNG) as well. Three were replaced before the Hondacare extended warranty expired. The car was sold at that point. The wet clutch packs appear to be the weak point, even in a relatively light Civic.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “My wife and I, and a three year old, a 20 month old and now a 2 month old fill up the house”

    GROUCHO: “Why do you have so many children? That’s a big responsibility and a big burden.”

    MRS. STORY: “Well, because I love my children and I think that’s our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband.”

    GROUCHO: “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”

    quote depreciated:

  • avatar

    Interesting discussion, because the wife drives a ’05 Freestyle with 110K on the clock. The car has been dealer maintained and so far we have had no transmission problems with the vehicle. Is this car living on borrowed time?

    • 0 avatar

      I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. With the exception of the GM CVT, failure rates are rarely anywhere near 100 percent. They’ll seem high even if they’re over 20 percent, and I don’t think responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey suggest a failure rate even this high (though I haven’t looked closely at the data). Of course, I would closely follow the maintenance schedule for the transmission.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks, Mike. I’ve been pretty meticulous about keeping the car maintained, and the 110000 miles on it have been pretty trouble-free.

      • 0 avatar

        We have an ’06 with 65,000 miles, so this article was interesting to me as well. Our Freestyle has been pretty good, but I was not happy about having to replace the throttle body for $600 to get rid of a (common) idle surge issue.

        Robert.Walter, thanks for your comments. I do think that ride and handling on this chassis is excellent. One of the reasons I bought the Freestyle was for its excellent manners on the freeway. Very quiet and comfortable. Well done.

      • 0 avatar

        Agree on the highway manners of the Freestyle. Driving into near-downtown DC on a regular basis, not so good.

    • 0 avatar

      My Freestyle was the subject of Part 1 of this Piston Slap, two years ago. Running OK at 126K, sorting out thuds and rattles in the suspension has been the only major issue.

      My need for a 7-passenger box has nearly passed, and I’m in the early stages of shopping for a compact to mid-size replacement. Backing the Freestyle into a garage wall in downtown DC a couple of weeks ago helped with the decision.

      Just need to decide whether to spend $1500 or so (tires, CVT maintenance, rear struts, battery) to get through the winter, or dump quickly.

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