Piston Slap: Justy-fied Freestylin' Over CVTs, Part II

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

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.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Robert Schwartz Robert Schwartz on Oct 19, 2011

    "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: http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/grouchocigar.asp

  • JKC JKC on Oct 19, 2011

    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?

    • See 4 previous
    • Patrickj Patrickj on Oct 20, 2011

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

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