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 (www.rav4ecm.net) 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.