By on March 29, 2017

Saturn Vue Hybrid Engine Bay, Image: © 2017 Bozi Tatarevic

Last week, I noticed a new stain on the driveway in the spot where my wife parks our Saturn Vue Hybrid. A quick sniff test revealed it to be automatic transmission fluid and an inspection of the Vue showed a leak at the transmission pan gasket. The car has just crossed the 100,000 mile mark and the worn gasket decided to accelerate my plans for a transmission fluid change.

Like many modern cars, the transmission dipstick is absent on the Vue, so checking the level is not a quick task. Adding fluid is even more time consuming and requires removal and disassembly of multiple components just to get to the fill plug.

I went out and picked up a filter, gasket, and some ATF and decided to tackle the convoluted process of this transmission fluid change.

Our 2009 Saturn Vue Hybrid uses the ME7 version of General Motors’ 4T45E transmission. The 4T45E is an evolution of the 4T40E, which first debuted in 1995 on J-Body cars such as the Pontiac Sunfire and Chevrolet Cavalier. The 4T45E appeared in the early 2000s on cars like the Oldsmobile Alero and Pontiac Grand Am coupled to the 3.4-liter LA1 motors and others of similar displacement, and was mostly unchanged and used exclusively in cars until the introduction of the Saturn Vue Green Line in 2007. The Green Line necessitated adding an external oil pump along with electronics to work with the hybrid system, but remained much the same internally, sharing its final drive ratio with the Chevy Cobalt.

GM 4T45 Transmission, Image: General Motors

Much like the hybrid system, the transmission was the product of using existing components from the parts bin along with some engineering patchwork, which resulted in the transmission’s fill and drain locations of our Vue shared with the Alero and others. My first rule of thumb when doing any fluid change is to make sure I can remove the fill plug so I’m not stuck with an empty component, so I looked at the diagram for the 4T45E and started searching for the fill plug.

All other vehicles that use this transmission have some room between their airbox and engine to reach the fill plug, which is on top of the transmission on the engine side. This usually requires snaking your hand in from the front to unscrew the fill, then using a long funnel or hose to extend it to a height where fluid can be poured in. The VUE has no such access due to its height, putting the engine deeper into the bay. Making the task even more difficult, packaging necessitated putting electronics for the engine and hybrid system directly on top of the fill plug.

I started disassembling.

At this point, I have not started the fluid change and am only trying to reach the fill plug as one would if they wanted to add fluid. The process went something like this:

  1. Remove the cover for the ECM and Hybrid Electronics
  2. Unbolt 10mm that holds the washer fluid fill to ECM plate
  3. Unbolt 10mm that holds the positive jump start terminal to ECM Plate
  4. Unbolt remaining 7 nuts and bolts that hold the ECM plate to the engine bay
  5. Flip the ECM plate over to the engine side to avoid disconnecting the ECM and other electronics
  6. The fill plug is now slightly visible but obstructed by the battery; remove battery hold-down
  7. Remove battery from the car
  8. Remove 4 bolts that hold battery tray in place
  9. Realize there’s a fifth bolt under fuse box, loosen the two bolts that hold the fuse box
  10. Find a couple swivels and remove the bolt under fuse box
  11. Remove (break) snap holding engine harness to battery tray and remove battery tray
  12. The fill plug is finally visible, but since the engine and transmission are warm it has expanded and is stuck in the transmission. Find small pliers and loosen the fill plug.

This whole process could have been avoided by putting a little thought into the fill location when the engineers decided to grab the transmission from the parts bin. Instead, we’re left with disassembling half the engine bay in order to just add some fluid.

GM 4T45 Transmission, Image: General Motors

Once I was sure I could refill the transmission, I put the car on jack stands and started removing the pan to drain the fluid. The fluid actually looked quite red for 100,000 miles, so I knew that the transmission was healthy. I installed a new filter and threw away the thin, rubber gasket that comes with it in favor of a reinforced OEM-style gasket and bolted everything back up. I looked up the fill specs and saw the Vue should take about 7.4 quarts for a drain and fill type of fluid change. I added just over 7 quarts and decided to check the level.

4T45E Transmission with Pan Removed, Image: © Bozi Tatarevic

The level check is a bit simpler than the fill, but is convoluted in its own right. To check the level, the car has to be on level ground and running — normal for many automatic cars — but since there is no dipstick, a check plug has to be removed. Since I did not have the car on a lift and didn’t trust getting an even reading from the car being on jack stands, it had to go back on the ground. I dropped the battery back in and re-assembled the area enough to be able to start the car and run it through the gears. With the car running, I stuck my hand underneath with an 11mm socket and felt for the check plug to remove it. Since no fluid came out, I re-installed the check plug so I could go back up top to add fluid. Failure to reinstall the check plug before shutting the car down would have caused a loss of about 2 quarts of fluid since the pump would be shut off, letting the fluid settle back down.

Saturn Vue Hybrid,  Transmission Fluid Fill Plug, Image: © 2017 Bozi Tatarevic

This time I decided to add a little over half a quart in order to skip having to add more. I started the car and jumped underneath to remove the check plug again. This time, there was fluid flowing out of it which meant that it was slightly overfilled. I waited until the fluid came to a dribble and put the check plug back in the transmission. I re-assembled all the components on top and took the car out for a successful test drive.

I’m doubtful the Vue will still be in our possession for another fluid change, but if the process needs to be done again, it will be going on a lift as GM seems to have intended. The only part left of this job is figuring out how to remove the ATF stain in my driveway.

[Images: © 2017 Bozi Tatarevic, General Motors]

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55 Comments on “Adventures in Parts-bin Engineering: The Saturn Vue Transmission Fluid Change...”


  • avatar
    sirwired

    Yeah, having to pull the battery in order to fill, but not being able to check fluid level without the car running was a bit of a fail there. Using some simple tubing and a threaded fitting to implement a “remote fill port” would have been a good idea for GM here.

    And I know why transmissions don’t have dipsticks any more (consumers thought they were just like engine oil dipsticks and rarely followed the directions in the manual for reading them properly) but I still think their removal from most cars was a bad move. They could have left the dipstick in place, but made it some unlabeled black widget, so ignorant owners wouldn’t feel tempted to incorrectly check it.

    (I’ll bet service writers don’t miss those bright-orange dipsticks at all; I can only imagine how many service writers had to patiently explain why the dipstick made the transmission look horribly over (or under) filled, depending on the particular way in which the owner read it wrong.)

    My new Honda CR-V’s CVT (same CVT they use in the Accord, Civic, etc.) is also of the “check plug” variety, but at least both the check and fill plugs are easy to access. You can see the fill plug just by opening the hood, and the check plug is also easy to reach. The only hitch, really, is the car needing to be level when pulling the check plug… takes a bit of careful fiddling to get the car safely level on four jackstands.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, even a plastic extension pipe like the GM 3800 oil fill would have done the trick. https://goo.gl/fELxpx

    • 0 avatar
      Advance_92

      A lot of modern cars don’t seem to have dipsticks at all any more. Subaru hides (or hid; I’m talking my 2005 here) the transmission dipstick way down on the right side of the transmission itself. It’s a bit of a stretch but you can still reach it even when the motor’s hot.

      • 0 avatar
        jjster6

        Maybe the reason they took the transmission dipsticks out was because service writers would pull a sample of the fluid and tell the owner the fluid needed to be replaced. On nearly new cars.

        Had a Jeep dealer pull this crap on me with a Wrangler that had 15K miles on it. Said the transmission fluid needed replacing when I went in for an oil change. It was slightly darker than the new fluid shown for comparison. Last time I ever went back.

  • avatar
    e30gator

    This is almost as bad as replacing a headlight bulb on my wife’s Saturn Aura. To change a light bulb on that car, one must…

    -Jack the car up
    -remove the front passenger side tire
    -remove the plastic shroud in the wheel well
    -remove the clips holding the bumper cover in place
    -pull cover out and away from fascia
    -Lying on the ground, snake arm up through tiny space and unscrew harness from back of headlight (btw, this has to be done by touch only as there’s no way to see the back of the light)
    -replace the bulb and reconnect to back of light, again all done by feel only
    -repeat on other side of car (recommended since doing it again in 6 mos would be a PITA
    -put everything back together again
    -drink multiple beers and curse GM engineers

    • 0 avatar

      That sounds like a fun time. I also had to replace the headlight bulbs on the Vue a few weeks ago. I bought some Silverstar zXe bulbs for it last year and they decided to burn out 3 weeks after the warranty ended. The bulb change procedure is not as bad as working on the transmission but it did require removal of the upper grille trim (10 or 12 plastic clips) and completely removing the headlight assemblies in order to replace the bulbs.

    • 0 avatar

      That seems to be a common approach to most GM cars these days. The Malibu and Traverse also require this approach, including beer and curses.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      Sounds like my uncles Honda Accord. It took him 2 hours to change a damned head light!

      Thankfully my Impala literally takes 2 minutes to change a headlight bulb and checking and changing the transmission fluid on the 6 speed automatic is pretty easy.

    • 0 avatar
      low_compression

      Similarly, the Cruze requires removal of the air box and and a passenger side motor mount – to change the serpentine belt!

      I don’t think the engineers purposely make this stuff hard, it’s just that they purposefully design them to be built on an assembly line. If the belt is already on the motor when they bolt it up, not a problem.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      I hate my S2000 for this. You can almost service the headlights with the wheels on the ground, but you only really have a shot at the indicators and parking lights with the vehicle on the ground (parking lights require some flexible hands too).

      Here’s how you do it:
      -Jack car up
      -Remove front wheels
      -Remove wheel-well liner clips on front edge
      -Peel back liner for full headlight access

      You can do one side at a time if you only need to do the indicators, just requiring turning to full-lock to peel the liner back enough for minimal access, but it’s far from ideal or comfortable.

      It makes me like our Mazda 3 a lot better in that respect: it has full access to all bulbs except the fogs via an open hood.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      and I was mad about removing the air cleaner box on one side and the battery on the other for headlights! I have a new perspective on the issue.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I believe the ultimate goal is to have transmission and engine oil for the life of the vehicle so that you will not keep the vehicle. The increase in leasing gives an incentive for not making vehicles that will last longer. BMW is another manufacturer that has gone this direction as well with no oil dipstick. The manufacturers want you to use the dealer service department and then after a while get rid of your vehicle since the maintenance schedules will end after a certain number of miles. Not a good trend for those of us who tend to hold onto a vehicle for a long time.

    • 0 avatar
      Marcin Laszuk

      It’s not a good trend for anybody other than the manufacturers themselves but who would care about that? As long as the car is more garish than anything that came before it and has an ever larger slab of transparent plastic inside that you can poke at or talk to, it’s all good. And the hamster wheel keeps on spinning.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      How do you square this theory with the fact that the actual service life of cars is increasing over time?

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Easy : failure to check the fluid level will cause failure sooner than later .
        .
        ? Isn’t there some other tranny pan you can get from a Junk Yard that will have a dip stick tube ? . you’ve said this tranny is widely used….
        .
        -Nate

      • 0 avatar
        Marcin Laszuk

        Increasing over time? Compared to the 1980s, it obviously does. Compared to the late 90s/mid 2000s (depending on manufacturer/market), I think factors other than the inherent quality of the cars play a role.
        In terms of durability/repairability/cost of maintenance I believe that most of the manufacturers have peaked somewhere within that period, with their cheaper models peaking later than expensive ones. For Mercedes and Volvo, for instance, it was the mid 90s (before W210 and 850, respectively). For (European) Ford, it was around 2007. For the French makes, it was between 1998 and 2005. I don’t know about the Japanese as I never had one but I guess gtem would know that one. Having driven only rented Mustangs and Fusions, I can’t say much about the domestics either.
        If I had to guess, the longer service life of vehicles might be connected with the stagnating wages necessitating longer usage of cars, or with the acceptance of soaring repair and maintenance costs.

        [Bear in mind that I base my observations of the situation on my domestic, European market. Regardless, I think that they may apply to the American market too since for quite some time you have continued to adopt European automotive trends, both the idiotic (tiny, direct injected, turbocharged engines; light-duty diesels; dual-clutch transmissions), the good (non-Playskool-quality interiors), and the neutral (smaller cars)].

    • 0 avatar
      paxman356

      BMW has a dipstick of sorts (and no, I’m not talking about the driver). It’s electronic, and can be checked on the dash with whatever computer it has.

  • avatar
    silverfin

    I thought the Vue was of Toyota design….ie rational. I changed the trans fluid on my 2005 Honda CR-V that we tow behind our RV and it was no harder than an typical oil change. It is these stories that make me avoid GM cars especially thinking back to a bulb upgrade I did on a Cavalier headlights so just maybe I could see the road at night (did not help much).

  • avatar

    Bozi,

    You are a brave man, attempting a transmission service on a car made in the last decade, and for attempting it on your wife’s vehicle!

    I wonder if the difficulty servicing transmissions was the reason manufactures came up with the idea of “lifetime” transmission fluid. Certainly as cars have gotten more reliable, they have reliably gotten more complex.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t mind working on modern vehicles but I hate dealing with this type of packaging and shortsightedness. In comparison, I was able to hack a Mercedes ECM in less time than it took me to do this fluid change: https://goo.gl/GHB3Ry

      Just about anything electronic is in my ballpark.

      Luckily, my wife is very understanding and informed. She made sure I had a great dinner waiting after having to deal with this job and knows enough about the car to be able to verify that it was not slipping or leaking when she drove it the next day.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    For most any car build in the last 20 years, an increasingly large portion of the servicing and repairs needs to be done from the underside of the vehicle. It almost makes a lift mandatory.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    Did an MTX fluid change on the S2000 this past weekend, as well as oil/filter and differential. Cake, all of them. That has to be the easiest modern car to work on.

  • avatar
    Frank Galvin

    Bozi – try pouring some room tempature Coca-Cola on the stain and let it sit overnight. Then wash it off. If that does not work, try some Muriatic acid – which will strip anything, but if not mixed right, will leave a larger stain.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I applaud you doing this work.

    At 100k miles, this would have been the 4th fluid change on my automatic, and lately I’ve taken to doing a ‘double change’ each time, so that I can get more of the residual fluid out. Since yours holds a total of 10.6 quarts, 30% of the remaining fluid in your transmission still has 100k miles on it.

    Three important differences on Hyundai/Kia transmissions:

    1. They don’t have a serviceable filter, unless you rebuild the transmission. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it is because the transmission has less fluid logic (tiny passages) since it is electronically shifted.
    2. They’re fitted with a drain plug; no pan removal is required.
    3. Checking fluid level is done with the engine off.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks. I usually like to follow the same method and try to a find a pan with a drain plug if I can so that I can dump some of the fluid a few days later and get more clean fluid in there but this whole process was a pain and I don’t plan on repeating so I am happy with the 70%.

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    DUDE…In a previous life I worked for chrysler. I released transmission fill tubes and dipsticks (amongst other things) for the Grand Cherokee WK and other Jeep vehicles. One of our goals was always an “MCM” to save money. I got rid of the trans dipsticks to save about $2.50 per car, which was HUGE. To check fluid level you needed a Mercedes Benz universal dipsick which you stuck in the fill tube, and it was supposed to bottom out on the pan and read fluid level. Somehow my chrysler number was released to the internet, and angry Jeep owners were calling me directly and cussing me out.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I don’t do transmission oil changes but I have a set of Rhino ramps for oil changes and other required maintenance. They work well and I always remember to set the emergency brake.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Obligatory: F*** GM.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    Wow, am I glad that we own the Honda-sourced V6 Vue instead. It has a nifty ATF dipstick for starters…

  • avatar
    AlexMcD

    Seems like the appropriate time to ask if anyone has tried using remote transmission filters on modern cars? I’m looking at the Honda automatic with non-servicable filter and wondering if it would be an option.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    I was going to help my neighbor change the transmission fluid on his 2000 Pontiac Grand Am, which has this same transmission in it.

    Access to the cap is far worse on the Grand Am, due to the exhaust crossover pipe which is about 1″ above the cap. The airbox is going to have to come off, that I know for sure.

    My now-gone 2001 Lesabre will be the last GM car that I’ll own. Call me crazy, but I’m still driving late 1990s VWs and Volvos (with my eyes wide open with respect to everything that will fail).

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      My FIL’s 2000 LeSabre ate its first transmission at 34k miles, and now I noticed that at 100k miles it no longer shifts into 4th gear. Since his driving days are nearing an end, I’m not telling him. His mental clarity is fading, and a 3-spd car is the least of his concerns.

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    I’m not shocked…Changing the thermostat on my Vue V6 required removal of the intake manifold. I didn’t have time and I was shipping off to the Army in 2 weeks so when the dealer wanted 800 bucks my wife was surprised with a new Hyundai Tucson.

  • avatar
    ravenchris

    BT,
    Good job and thanks for sharing.
    I was changing/refreshing ATF and I used an evacuator pump with good results.
    Good luck on your next car project.

  • avatar
    9Exponent

    I just want to applaud TTAC for really expanding the content as of late. Rare Rides, Retro Reviews, and articles such as this, have all been great additions to the site.

  • avatar
    gyrfalcon

    “Failure to reinstall the check plug before shutting the car down would have caused a loss of about 2 quarts of fluid since the pump would be shut off, letting the fluid settle back down.”

    This article is a bit old but if @Bozi Tatarevic or anyone could reply it would be appreciated.

    From my experience the car must be in drive or reverse for the fluid pump to be operating. So do you need to have the transmission operating to get the level right? Putting the car in park disengages the transmission fluid pump on a 2005 Chevy Classic.

    The ATSG guide for the 4T40E says to let car run for a bit, cycle through the gears and then check the level in Park. The transmission I worked on had about 1.5quarts come out of the check plug when it was cold.

    It seems like the ATSG guide is perhaps wrong, and the pump does need to be operating while fluid levels are checked?

    I ran the vehicle in reverse with the check plug out, and added fluid till it came out. Then re-installed the check plug while it was in reverse.

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