Eurovan Automatic Transaxles: The Whole Story

The following article answers three very good questions customers often ask regarding our Eurovan tranaxles.

What is the life expectancy of any Eurovan automatic transaxle?

Simple question, not a simple answer. All years of the Eurovan automatic transmission have proven to be potentially problematic. Almost all automatic transmissions, foreign and domestic, became electronically controlled after about 1990, and the Eurovan is no exception. The term “electronically controlled” means there is a computer (aka "controller,"  "control module," "electronic control unit (ECU)", or "transmission control unit (TCU)"), wiring, and electric solenoids involved telling the transmission when to shift, and into which gear. Because of their complicated design, quality control is extremely critical. It is pitifully common to have the AT on a Eurovan completely fail in the first 50k miles. The lowest mileage failure we have experienced occurred at only 16,341 miles! These early failures were typically quality control and/or computer related. A bad connection, a loose roll pin, or something seemingly inconsequential "brings the whole house down." 

The design of the Eurovan AT is basically very solid. We have taken Eurovan automatic transmissions apart with over 100k miles that were working fine as a preemptive measure, only to find they were less than 50% worn! We have a "loaner" 1997 EVC that went 235K miles on the original transaxle. A complete transmission failure (no forward motion at all) is almost always preceded by it going into "limp mode," a mode into which the computer tells the transaxle to go to avoid any further damage and get you home safely. When this happens, the check engine light (CEL) comes on, and the transaxle shifts into 3rd gear—and stays in 3rd. If this happens, it is important to get the vehicle to a shop ASAP. Even a transaxle that has not gone into limp mode can be on its way out. Checking for debris in the oil pan is a good idea, which is clearly evident during an oil change. VW does not recommend that the transaxle be serviced EVER. GoWesty disagrees, and we recommend a transmission oil change every 15K miles until past the "danger zone," and then every 30K miles thereafter.   

So, if my transaxle starts acting up, how can I tell if it is an internal problem or just a computer issue?
Good question. The automatic transaxle in your Eurovan is controlled by a separate computer. We know from experience that it is impossible to tell if a transaxle shifting problem or failure is due to a problem in and of itself (the transaxle), or rather due to a faulty control unit. We have experienced situations where a fresh transaxle either does not work properly upon install, or is ruined in short order by a faulty control unit. Indeed, we have seen people go through three transaxles in 100k miles when all that may have been needed in the first place was a new computer. You might say, “Why not just down load the fault code from the on-board diagnostic system, and let it tell you what is wrong”. That would be nice, but the reality is that if the control unit is at fault, it may not be able to tell you it is bad. It is like a schizophrenic person saying he (and his friend) is feeling OK that day… What most VW dealers do these days, to cover their ass, is sell you a rebuilt transaxle first. After all, it is not shifting correctly, you know that, so it is an easy sell. Then when you are all done, you get hit with the need for a control unit AFTER the fact. Psychologically it is an easier sell since you are already in for a $6000 repair, so “What’s another grand?” At GoWesty, we got your back; we are not going to do that to you. It is critical that a known good, correct control unit is absolutely for-sure present before you spend another penny. So, these are the steps you need to take:

a. It is CRITICAL to get the exact right trans code for the particular vehicle/control and visa/versa.

     i. Make sure the transaxle in the vehicle is the correct one for the vehicle, DO NOT assume it is correct.

     ii. Make sure the control unit in the vehicle is the correct one for the vehicle, DO NOT assume it is correct.

     iii. Get your vehicle's VIN number.

     iv. Call your local VW dealer and find out which control unit and transaxle is correct for that VIN number.

b. Always try a NEW control unit to correct a transaxle problem BEFORE replacing the transaxle.

     i. Prices vary from around $600 to $1200, but some are no longer available from VW

     ii. It may not fix the problem, and it is not returnable, but

     iii. It plugs in a few minutes and can save you thousands of dollars, and

     iv. It is a logical first step to always use a new control unit with freshly rebuilt transaxle anyway, because

     v. An incorrect or faulty control unit can cause transaxle performance problems and eventually its demise, and

     vi. It is REQUIRED if you want GoWesty to warranty the transaxle for 48 months or 48,000 miles.

What is the life expectancy of a GoWesty rebuilt Eurovan automatic transaxle?
Since the design of the transaxles we offer is not changed in any significant way, one could at least infer that our transaxles should last as long as the original design was intended to last, about 200k miles WITHOUT maintenance (the factory transaxle is supposed to be "sealed and non-serviceable"... yeah, right!). GoWesty REQUIRES that the ATF, ATF filter, and differential oil be changed every 30,000 miles to maintain our warranty, and we strongly recommend it every 15K. (Use only the best full synthetic, VW OEM and regular ATF-compatible fluid). We also recommended this same service interval throughout the life of the transaxle. Also, the transaxles we offer have a drain hole added for the differential section so the diff oil can be changed with the ATF and filter every 30k miles. If anything, the ability to do inexpensive 30k services should EXTEND the life expectancy. We will have to wait and see for sure, but I would put MY money on it!

Is a GoWesty rebuilt Eurovan automatic transaxle as likely or less likely to be susceptible to the typical unpredictable and premature failure rate as the original, factory built and installed transaxle?
As stated on the GoWesty web site, the failures we have seen are typically computer or quality control related, not design related. We always replace the computer with the latest version offered by VW, so that is all we can do there. As for quality control, it would seem that when built one at a time by one properly trained person with the proper tools and with great care, the likelihood of a quality control issue should be reduced. On top of that, ALL the switches, ALL the sensors, oil cooler, torque converter, the COMPLETE valve body, AND the internal wiring harness are ALWAYS replaced. And on top of that, EVERY transaxle is actually tested on a transaxle dynamiter specifically set up for Eurovan transaxles before it ships out. Everything that is humanly possible to insure quality and long life is done. And we know this: Our failure rate on these transaxles is very, very low.

What is the warranty on Eurovan transaxles?
Our rebuilt transaxles come with a 48,000 mile, 4 year limited warranty in writing (requires a new control unit—without one, the warranty is 12 months/12,000 miles). Unfortunately, the only way you can exercise the warranty is have the vehicle shipped to GoWesty, or have the transaxle removed and sent back here. So, if you are on the other side of the continent, that's a problem for sure. So you say, "Well, that is a good reason to go with a factory transaxle installed by a VW dealer, so I can have it replaced at any VW dealer anywhere in the country." That would be true IF VW had any transaxles to offer. But the fact is that they are typically not in stock at the dealers. In fact, VW has started to phase out Eurovan transaxles entirely for some models, and they may not be able to help you at all. And, there is no guarantee the replacement unit will be any less susceptible to a quality control related failure.

What else can I do to keep my Eurovan transaxle alive and well?
The main reason manufacturers went to computer-controlled transaxles was to help them meet the ever-increasing fuel economy standards. The programming in the TCU is designed specifically with that purpose in mind. The TCU software is programmed such that the transaxle is always in the highest possible gear for the present driving conditions. However, the TCU does not have eyes and ears like the driver. The driver can see what is ahead, and is therefore in a pretty good position to intervene when appropriate.

When driving along on a flat road at a constant speed, there is no need to intervene. It is best to simply let the TCU decide for you. But when driving in situations where speed and/or throttle demand varies constantly, you will find that your transaxle is constantly shifting to the highest gear possible in an effort to save fuel. Situations like stop and go traffic, changing terrain, and/or towing passes are good examples of when it might be a good idea to intervene. 

For example, when driving along a highway and coming up on a heavy grade where you begin to climb and apply more throttle, the transaxle may down-shift from 4th to 3rd. As traffic and terrain changes, you may find the transaxle shifting back to 4th, back to 3rd, back to 4th, over and over. If the driver can plainly see that conditions are not going to change soon, it is best to shift into 3rd manually and keep it there until holding 3rd is no longer necessary. On steeper, slower mountain driving and/or when towing a trailer, you may want to manually select 2nd gear. By selecting a given gear manually, the transaxle will not shift higher than the gear you have selected. The result will be the engine speed remains elevated and, as long as you remain in the safe zone according to the tachometer, every is fine. Doing this will cost you pennies in fuel, but could save you thousands in transaxle repair bills.

Important notes:
• In order to shift from any gear other than P, N, or D, the button on the gear shift lever has to be depressed half way. Pressing the button all the way will not allow you to move the lever past D. This is by design to avoid inadvertent down-shifting at high speeds.
• Be very, very careful NOT to inadvertently down-shift to a gear that is too low! If you doubt your ability to do this safely, simply bring the vehicle to a complete stop, select the highest gear you think you will need, and start driving again. The TCU will control the transaxle up to the gear you have selected and not shift beyond that gear.
• Operating your vehicle is "manual mode" takes concentration and effort! Do not get distracted and forget that you are in a lower gear, or severe engine damage can occur!

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