By on December 1, 2014

byzantine. Shutterstock user Pit Stock

Mehran writes:

Greetings to you Sajeev and your evil twin Sanjeev, (yeah he’s dead to me – SM)

First of all thank you very much for answering my other question, just to give you an update on that, I ended up not buying the extended warranty. Now we recently bought a 2012 Toyota Highlander Limited to replace my wife’s old car(V6, 5 Speed automatic with the towing package which adds the trans cooler) it has 34K miles and this one has the extended warranty (100K or 2019). The issue that we have with the car is as follow, after a cold start (in the morning) if I put it in any gear (D or R) something funny happens, the transmission acts funny, it goes in and out of the gear couple of times. For example if I want to back-out of the garage when I put in R and give it a little gas it starts going but for a quick second it seems like that the transmission dis-engages and then re-engages and the tachometer jumps from 1K to 3K. If I wait about 10 sec after I start the car and then put in gear everything is OK.

The other day something strange happened, 3 min after cold start, I wanted to merge onto the highway so I mashed the gas all the way to the floor but it stayed in the same gear and did not kick down, now this has only happened once.

I did take it to the dealer and they gave me the “Could not replicate the issue” answer. I looked at the Highlander forums but did not find anything.

Any idea what might be the issue? I looked at the trans fluid, it seems OK and there is no evidence that the previous owner has done any towing with the car and it has always been serviced at the dealer.


Sajeev answers:

Automatic transmissions (and transaxles) are smart cookies, what with all their fancy electronic controls controlling a byzantine system of fluid pipes, valves, clutches, fans etc. There’s a reason why internal transmission problems are normally handled by repair techs with a particular set of skills. Like this guy:

If there are no check engine lights, the electronics are probably spot on.  That leaves the fluid or that byzantine system to blame. Since your ride is under warranty, I’d leave it with them overnight to see if they can recreate the problem first thing in the morning. Pick an especially cold week for this, and insist it’s kept outside (if they don’t already).  Odds are the dealer is right, it’s operating within specifications. It’s just that the fluid is maple syrup-ish when cold.

There’s a good chance that switching to fresh fluid (maybe even synthetic, if this is true) will help the byzantine system work better when cold, mostly because newer fluid could be more viscous when cold. That is, cold fluid can be thicker, harder to move in the system and resulting in everything moving much sloooooower.  Be respectful of that and the transmission will respect your time and money.

If you want to keep the Highlander past the warranty, consider a preemptive fluid change at 75,000-ish miles.

[Lead image: Shutterstock user Pit Stock]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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20 Comments on “Piston Slap: Byzantine Transmissions in Frozen Highlands...”

  • avatar

    Or you know, like my Dad told me: “Slow the f*&% down!”

    Just wait a few moments and let it idle back out of the driveway.

  • avatar

    I thought the Highlander was exempt from any problems. I was getting ready to drive down to the dealer to score a cyber Monday deal on one but I’ll go exercise at the Y instead.

    • 0 avatar

      Our 2008 Japan-built Highlander has been problem free. Not so the American-built Highlanders my wife’s three sisters each bought.

      • 0 avatar

        My 50,000 + mile 2010, first year of Highlander production in Princeton, Indiana model has been just fine thank you.

        Sorry but if anybody tells me that the problem goes away if they wait 10 sec after staring the car, I don’t care if it was made in the USA, Japan, or Germany. I’d tell them to slow down fiddle with the controls a moment or two in the interior. It takes me that long to get my phone in the the cradle and connect my Bluetooth.

        • 0 avatar

          Nah – this is a symptom. Right now, if he waits 10 seconds, it goes away. In 1,000 miles, it will take 15 seconds, etc. and then we’re off to the races. Pretty sure the vehicle did not exhibit this behavior when they bought it, which means that by definition it’s progressing.

          Deal with it now.

          • 0 avatar

            It may be a symptom with these new-fangled trannys, but the same thing happened to me when I was in Massachusetts with a Mercury Montego 3-speed auto. He didn’t say HOW cold, and it was about 10 above zero when I got the same thing from a non-electronic transmission. It’s the thick fluid, dude.

            Warming up the engine and running the transmission through PRNDL with a foot on the brake took care of the ’68. I endorse BOTh Sajeev’s fluid change AND take a few moments before moving the car. The older I get, the more I know what a transmission goes through on a cold morning.

      • 0 avatar
        punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

        That is funny! I have two friends and one acquaintance that each had to replace a throttle body assy in each of their Highlanders over the last few years in their old-body style models. Hmmm.

        • 0 avatar

          Yes, we have been extremely fortunate with our 2008 Highlander Limited 4×4.

          Maybe by 2008, the last of the Japan-made bunch got it right. We’ve never had to go to the dealership for anything since the day my wife drove it off the lot.

          These days that old Highlander soldiers on as my 17-yo grand daughter’s daily ride to/from High School in El Paso, TX. For her to be seen driving her mom’s 2013 Odysssey was just not cool!

          But a Highlander? Pretty cool for a demographic that drives mostly beat up old jalopies and ratty sardine cans on wheels.

          When I was in HS, I got around in a 1949 Buick with a Straight 8 and Fluid Drive. Kids of today have come a long way.

  • avatar

    Not clear if the car was left with the dealer in such a way that they would be able to duplicate the problem condition, i.e., overnight – if not, that is the owner’s mistake.

    If it was and they still could not duplicate, I would not take it back to the dealer…I would take it to another dealer…one that actually wants to figure out what’s wrong…and leave it overnight with them.

    Look on your dipstick – if it says “WS” (World Standard) etched on the stick, as I believe it does on every 2012 Highlander, then you already have synthetic fluid and any discussion of “switching” to synthetic as suggested above is a wild goose chase, even though the general gist that the funny behavior is temperature-based is probably correct.

    Now, that said, with the miles on this vehicle, there should not be anything wrong with the fluid, but the never-needs-changing spec for the WS fluid is not right either. I had personal experience with Toyota WS fluid in a 77,000-mile 2007 Sienna Limited (not remotely the same tranny as your Highlander, I know), where the tranny went nuts, slam-shifting, delayed upshifts, delayed downshifts, converter locking and unlocking, etc. that was remedied by a knowledgeable dealer service dept. recommending a memory wipe of the drivetrain ECUs, flush and refill. It worked.

    I would suspect a valve body with some impurities in it, and suggest the most rigorous tranny flush Toyota will perform, with, of course, new WS fluid refilled, and wipe the ECU and let it relearn.

    Oh – and if I were the owner, I would not be floorboarding it 3 minutes after a cold start, in any event.

    And the suggestion that you may want a “preemptive” fluid change at 75k – ? How is it preemptive if the car is already displaying this kind of issue, and why in the world would the owner want to put up with this behavior for the next 41,000 miles?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      “And the suggestion that you may want a “preemptive” fluid change at 75k – ? How is it preemptive if the car is already displaying this kind of issue, and why in the world would the owner want to put up with this behavior for the next 41,000 miles?”

      Quite right. I change ATF every 25k miles, so to me, it’s already overdue.

    • 0 avatar

      I did leave it overnight and they said they could not replicate it. As I said, you will see it only if you put it in hear right after you start it, otherwise it will not happen. I am planning to change the AT oil at 50K, but right now it only has 35K.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for the info – it’s your car, but…there is no way I would have a car exhibit that kind of behavior for the next 16k miles instead of getting it done now, because I don’t want to wonder for the next 16k miles what is going wrong with it.

        At the very least, I would make sure the complaint is recorded and the dealer response noted NOW, rather than get into a coverage battle later when they claim that you allowed the problem to worsen.

        It’s easy to say, “whatever – it’s under warranty” but I have never had much luck trying to drive a warranty to work on a Monday morning.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I like Sajeev’s suggestion to have the dealer replicate the condition with an overnight stay.

    My guess is the first owner traded the car after seeing this behavior, so it needs to be addressed pronto. It isn’t safe to drive, IMO.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    We had an issue with our 2004 Taurus Wagon DOHC V6 with 150K miles recently. It would sometimes clunk into gear when cold. I did a filter and fluid change (syn fluid, almost ALL trans fluid is now) along with explicit instructions to my wife (her car) to count to 3 after selecting drive from reverse and vice versa before hitting the go pedal. So far its been a few months and a few thousand miles and no clunk.

    I know that a Taurus transmission with 150,000 miles on the ticker is living on borrowed time, but it has been maintained well (full fluid dump with filter change on the tranny) and the fluid coming out always looks as good as whats going in.

    I agree, under warranty? Take it and leave it at the dealer, overnight.

    • 0 avatar

      The Taurus trans, while not the greatest piece of engineering, is not as bad as many make it out to be, at least when attached to a Vulcan. My 92 is still running fine, thanks to a few fluid changes. And mine is considered much worse than yours…

  • avatar
    George B

    There is a phenomenon with automatic transmissions called “morning sickness” where clutches engage slowly when the transmission is cold, but operate normally once the transmission warms up. Generally it’s a bad sign of expensive repairs in the future. Unexpected in such a relatively new vehicle. I’d leave the car parked at the dealer overnight and make an appointment with the service department to demonstrate the problem from a cold start with you present.

    I have a beater with a bad transmission that has survived more than a year with severe morning sickness. For cars worth less than the cost of transmission repairs, transmission failure can be delayed by being very careful how you drive when the transmission is cold. Wait for clutches to engage for reverse or drive before accelerating slowly. I have to shift the automatic manually for about the 1st mile. Shifts fine once it warms up.

    • 0 avatar

      Sometimes a shot of brake fluid down the dipstick will at least temporarily help a morning sick trans. It helps swell any leaking seals and can make a difference if that’s the problem.

  • avatar

    Sounds like a hydraulic pressure problem not applying the clutches correctly. It could be a solenoid or mechatronic/valve body issue not directing the pressure correctly, or could be a leak in a clutch circuit. Either way, the dealer needs to have the vehicle under the conditions which it occurs so they can duplicate it and see what is and isn’t going on inside the transmission. Keeping on them about the issue even if it can’t be duplicated at the time helps your chances of getting it covered outside the warranty if it outright fails later.

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