Thursday, February 18, 2010

PSA - 2001-2003 RAV4 ECM Problems

My wife and I have owned a RAV4 from the first year they were built (1996) until the present day, and in general they have been good vehicles. However, this week we learned that our current model from 2002 has a design flaw that Toyota has avoided publicizing that will almost certainly affect every RAV4 from that vintage (2001-2003). I did a huge amount of research on this, and I thought I'd pass on what I'd learned to those who read this blog in the hopes that I'll save you some time and money and trouble down the road. Ha ha.

The problem starts when the car starts to have a "rough" or "harsh" shift. In our case, it was one "thunk" in the morning followed by no problems for the rest of the day, then another thunk or two the next day. If you continue to drive the car under these conditions, you are asking to have your transmission replaced or rebuilt, which if replaced can cost up to $5000 or more.

When you take it to a dealer or a shop, they will be very confused, as the diagnostics may not indicate any problem at all, or perhaps a transmission issue. The thing is, this isn't specifically a tranny issue, it has to do with the Engine Control Module, or ECM, the computer that controls the shift points in your automatic transmission. I should note here that manual transmissions do not have this problem. From my research, it appears that the problem has to do with electrolytic capacitors in the ECM that can't stand up to heat over time, and the ECM is placed within the car (behind your glove box) so that they will eventually fail.

Toyota issued a Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, in 2006 on this issue, TC002-06, wherein they are authorized to replace the ECM in your car so long as it is within the "emissions" warranty period, which is 8 years or 80,000 miles from the initial date of purchase. Unfortunately, our car was five days out of this period, although we are under 80k miles by quite a bit. If you need to replace the ECM out of warranty, Toyota will charge you about $1700. There are sites online that sell the ECM for about half of that cost, and your mechanic should be able to replace it very easily (or you, if you are so inclined).

However, my research showed that this works some of the time. Toyota did issue a recall to "reflash" these ECMs (which was done to our car back in 2007, although I have no recollection of them doing it or telling us about it), but since the problem is in the hardware rather than the software, this is unlikely to do much more than fix the problem long enough so that your car will be out of warranty when it *does* happen. To make matters worse, Toyota won't replace the ECM unless your car exhibits the problem, so no preventative solution there unless you have a spare $1700 laying around.

Interestingly, the solution that I've chosen to go with initially is to pull the ECM and send it off to a garage in Brooklyn ( that has studied the problem and has a fix - replace the caps. In fact, if you ship it overnight and they get it by noon the next day, they will express ship it back to you for receipt the day after that. The cost - $250 plus your initial shipping cost. While $250 is still a pretty penny for many in this economic climate, it's much cheaper than even the $800 for a brand new ECM that may or may not have the problem fixed. I also plan to have the tranny fluid flushed and replaced on the off chance that some loose metal might be rattling around in there, and I'm paying the mechanic we've gone to for years to remove and reinstall the ECM so that they're happy - they spent considerable time on the phone with me, much of it saying that they were "positive" that it was the transmission. Not surprisingly, almost everyone who has had this problem reports a similar experience with their mechanic, as the diagnostics to measure the problem are also faulty.

They are pulling the ECM as we speak, and we should know if the fix worked or not when we get it back on Monday or Tuesday. Total cost for this "experiment" will be about $370 once the fluid is flushed.

This is a very dangerous situation even if you haven't had the problem yet but own one of these cars. Like hard drive failure, it will happen but it's only a matter of when. People are reporting sudden acceleration when the car suddenly downshifts, or the tranny stalling out on the freeway. That Toyota hasn't addressed this issue *despite* an article in the New York Times as well as a couple of class action lawsuits in various states (great for the lawyers, mediocre at best for the consumers, terrible for Toyota).  Had I been aware of the issue and my car was out of warranty, I'd have considered doing this (and avoided the tranny flush), but Toyota has kept it as a "secret" warranty for four years. Given their ongoing quality issues, I have a sinking feeling that this is a brand that, if it survives, will take a good decade to get back to the level of consumer perception it had even two years ago, if ever.

A couple of notes: I have no connection whatsoever with the company doing the fixes, and while I have not had time yet to see if it works as well as the dozens of people in various RAV4 forums say, I consider this a logical first step if you are out of warranty. Also, there are apparently a few other mechanics around the country who are also doing work, but I keep seeing posts from people who have gone to them and *not* seen the problem fixed, which I don't see about the Brooklyn folks. Finally, their website lists the fix as a $400 job, which is an old price. I spoke with them this morning and they charge $250, which includes return express postage.

While I haven't had a positive ending to this story just yet, I felt that this was something that should be mentioned on the off chance that it would save someone money. One of the folks in my game group had this happen three weeks ago and paid for the ECM replacement from Toyota. I suspect he'd have done what I'm doing in the hope that it would be a better fix at a better price.

My opinion of the Toyota brand has dropped considerably. I do know that if this fix does *not* work, that I will be looking to have Toyota fix it, and if they are unwilling to do so under warranty, especially after reflashing the ECM to push out the problem past the warranty date, I will get the cars fixed, sell both the RAV and my Lexus, and never purchase Toyota or rebadged Toyotas ever again, much less buy from their dealers. I am not naive enough to think that other companies don't do the same thing, but the important thing is that they haven't done it to *me*. Toyota has, and I'll think three or four times before I buy from them again even if they do honor the warranty.

We now return you to gaming related posts.


Dug said...

As a side note, the fixed ECM (done by the Serbs in Brooklyn, my apologies to them if they are Croats or someone who hates Serbs, I just can't keep these ethnic frictions straight) got to my mechanic today, and they are planning to install it and see if everything works like it's supposed to. Here's hoping, as if true the total cost will be under $400. Considering that our Dish Network receiver went out on Thursday night too, it would be nice to get the flow of blood staunched somewhat.

Dug said...

Update: The Serbs returned the ECM on Monday, and our mechanic got the unit reinstalled that day, then spent a good part of Tuesday trying to get the shifting problems to reappear. They did not (yay!) and I asked them to flush the differential just to be safe in case there were any metal pieces from the handful of times the problem occurred. We pick it up Wednesday morning and my wife will drive it to work as the final test.

Interestingly, it appears that the current crop of Toyota problems have the same unit as their cause, rather than mechanical issues as the company has claimed. I am not in the least surprised, and I have to say that at this point Toyota has lost me as a customer because of their behavior in this matter. The very fact that I would prefer to spend a few hundred dollars than trust their service centers to fix any problems pretty much says it all.

Now if only there was some corporate entity that I felt I *could* trust.

jules said...

Toyota will now do this ecm service under a special service campaingn, call toyota and have the order put into your dealer they are replacing mine FREE...of course they found other things to fix LOL ain't happening..

Michael said...

Jules, do you have any info on the special service campaign? I found this blog through google and am having the same problem, dealer refuses to replace ecm. The car was purchased certified preowned several months ago, but say ecm is not covered in the powertrain/preowned warranty. (Currently 82k miles, 2k over federal warranty). Thanks for your help.

Dug said...

Michael, to the best of my knowledge the warranty was covered under emissions, not powertrain. It was still 80k for miles (can't remember the mileage, it was in the original post).

For what it's worth, the Serbians did good. My wife's RAV has run flawlessly since we had them do whatever they did (which I'm fairly certain means they replaced the capacitors). At three or four (or six) months, I think we can say that their fix worked. It certainly made sense from an engineering standpoint.

Reading your post, I'm glad I took the route I did. While Toyota should be on the hook for this stuff (they seem to have successfully waited for the late 2000's models brouhaha to die down), I'm not surprised they wouldn't fix your car.

By the way, the dealership I contacted told me that it was up to corporate as to whether they would honor the warranty that I was a few days out from. If the dealership isn't doing the right thing, you might try corporate. I chose to go a way that wouldn't allow two parties to claim each was the reason I wasn't getting satisfaction, and the more I read about this, the happier I am that I did. $300 was worth avoiding all the frustration, and it *worked*.

I wish you the best in getting the situation rectified.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone I found a article in the nytimes about rav4 problems and it states that toyota has extended the warranty to 150000 and 10 years Dennis

2001rav4 said...

Yes I also received a recall that extended the warranty to 10yrs or 150,000 mls. Of course most 2001s will be over the mileage that is what my problem is now on 9/10/10.
They waited too long until we are over milage, when the NY Times first reported the problem, they wouldn't even talk to me that was last year and I was under 150,000.
Toyota used to think they are too good to deal with customer problems now they are paying for it. I will never buy from Toyota agian.

John Padilla said...

Well yes, Toyota is replacing the units before 150,000 miles, but they are subject to some letter in the VIN number. So mine was not accepted. I did not know about all this buzz about the guys from NY. I instead sent it to repair shop at PR (a friend recommended it to me) (

They offered me either the repair or a replacement, since they have new ecms, but since it was $700 then, I just sent mine for repair.

They charged $197 at that time. I was worried for not buying the new one, but finally I got back my repaired ecm and fortunately it was working perfect. It felt like slipping on third gear, but they told me that it should go away in a few uses and it did. I later found the same information on the website of the NY guys ( So I guess it was a good desertion to opt for the repair.