On Eurovan Transmissions or How Eurovans Got a Bad Rap

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The reputation of the Eurovan usually preceeds it for potential owners. Just as quickly as someone starts to think the Eurovan might be everything they wanted someone tells them that the transmission is a ticking time bomb. Potential owners worry they’ll get stranded. Long-time owners worry that the next weird shift will mean a $8,000 repair. This is no way to enjoy a vehicle! Okay, maybe the bum rap was deserved 10 years ago when nearly new vans were having transmissions failures. But the Eurovans in the US are approaching their 20th birthday. It’s time to re-evaluate.

As far as I can tell the persistantly bad reputation stems from three main arguments:

First, “the transmission is too small for the Eurovan” and because of this it is prone to failure.

Second, servicing “the transmission is uniquely complicated” and very expensive.

Third, Go Westy labeled the transmission the “Achilles’ Heel” of the Eurovan.

Let me go over each point:

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“The Transmission is Too Small”

The argument that the transmission is too small and thus overheats is often substantiated by pointing to the fact that the same transmission is in many smaller/lighter Volkswagens. The fact is, however, it’s also in much heavier vehicles. The Winnebago camper and Rialta versions of the Eurovan are much heavier than a Weekender yet shipped with the same transmission and there are exampes of long working lives. Clearly the transmission can handle more than a VW Golf.

The heat exchanger for the Eurovan transmission is perhaps a more accurate culprit. This exchange is where the engine coolant is supposed to keep the transmission fluid at a constant and safe temperature. Unfortunately the hardworking transmission can sometimes be underserved by this heat exchanger causing the transmission fluid to get too hot.

To make matters worse, even though there is a transmission temperature sensor it’s not connected to anything useful for the driver*. An overheating transmission won’t trigger a warning light. So without a laptop and special software or a 3rd party temperature gauge you’ll never know when your transmission is dangerously hot.

A common solution is to install an external transmission cooler. (A whole different topic, for another time.)* This isn’t completely accurate; at high enough temperatures the computer should put the transmission into emergency mode which locks the torque convertor where much of the heat is generated. Unfortunately (but understandably) the threashold for this is quite high and there is room for the fluid to be hot enough to do damage but not hot enough for the van to respond in a helpful way.

“Transmission Service is Expensive”

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While this is true on the surface I think people erroneously conclude that there is something especially complicated about Eurovan transmission that justifies this.

I believe the service cost is influenced more by two factors: first, that these vans and transmissions are getting older meaning technicians experienced or interested in working on them are increasingly hard to find. And, second, when people are spending $20,000+ on a used van it’s pretty clear that these are vanity projects. In other words, people aren’t buying Eurovans in the US because they are the thrifty choice. Transmission shops know they can charge a premium and often do. Go Westy is a clear (but not lone) example of this approach to market by vendors.The Eurovan transmission isn’t especially complicated or difficult to service.

The fact is the transmission on the Eurovan isn’t especially complicated or difficult to service. It’s the same (or nearly the same) transmission that’s in the Jetta, Golf, Beetle, GTI of the same age. Add the nearly identical 096 it is even more common.

Once one thinks of the transmission as being, actually, rather common and having a rather unexceptional service life (positive or negative) I believe the way one thinks about them can change. For example, if one believes there is something mysteriously special justifying a premium cost it’s easy to understand avoidance of service when there are early signs of problems. If the thought of servicing is less frightening perhaps more people would seek help earlier and there would be fewer instances of full failure. Fewer cases of failure would lower anxiety and more people would not assume the worst when early problems manifest themselves. It’s a theory anyway.

“Achilles’ Heel”

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My argument against this isn’t so much to dispute GoWesty’s claim but rather that their influence with this article has outlived its usefulness and has actually caused bigger problems. As the fleet of available Eurovans in the US ages the reality is that transmissions that shipped with QA faults have all been replaced. Yet the influence of this article seems to be growing and is frequently mentioned by Eurovan owners or potential owners.

I believe that the key to avoiding complicated transmission problems is early detection followed by service with someone competent and willing to do diagnosis work instead of being predisposed towards transmission replacement.Early detection and quick rememdy of issues will help avoid replacement.

Failure on these transmission will increasingly be due to relatively minor issues in electrical connectors or valve body wear and not QA issues from the factory. The valve body and transmission wiring are remarkably easy to inspect and service and don’t require the transmission to be removed. You can even replace all of these parts for less than a 5th of the typical cost of a transmission alone. The key here is fixing any issue with these less expensive parts before their malfunction causes serious damage to the entire transmission. That is: don’t drive a malfunctioning transmission!

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Here are some early warning signs. If you pay attention to them and have the van serviced by someone who’s not selling transmissions you are likely to avoid a transmission replacement:

  • Check engine light on that is due to a transmission related code
  • Loss of cruise control function (persistant or intermittent)
  • Soft shifting (engine revs up before or between shifts)
  • Hard shifting (transmission drops harshly into gear)
  • Transmission stuck in 3rd gear (this is called “limp mode” and is designed to help save the transmission from catastrophic failure — it’s a good thing and a key early warning.)

Finally, here are some practical tips for dealing with the Eurovan transmission:

  • Avoid driving it if you’re experiencing any early warning signs
  • If you do any driving besides highways consider installing a transmission cooler
  • Be aware of extreme conditions like extended mountain climbs

Before even considering replacement ensure that:

  • Transmission fluid & filter have been checked and/or replaced and insist that the filter be inspected inside and out for any signs of internal failure.
  • All cable connections to the TCU and the transmission are corrosion free,
  • Valve body, cable, and all solenoids have been tested
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2 replies »

  1. After the explanation ,I am even more nervous to spend $30-40K + for a 20 year old VW Van w/ 100K+ miles w/ a tired transmission!

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  2. I have a Weekender with 210k and recently experienced one of those warning signs, it would not shift into 4th. I found Jim and Son’s (a high quality) transmission shop in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. They told me they could rebuild just the valve body and wiring harness (what they thought was the most likely problem) for about $1000 or do a complete rebuild for about $4000. With that number of miles I elected for the total rebuild. I saw the entire unit torn down, including the torque converter. There was no visible wear on the internals except some of the friction material inside of the torque converter. They will also install a upgraded wiring harness to the solenoids which should reduce the potential of the brittle failures associated with the OEM ribbon type of harness. This investment will give me the piece of mind to take this where ever we want to go.
    When I got my Eurovan I knew it was old and had high miles so, of course it would require some maintenance. But I’ve been around cars twice that age and do not hesitate to drive them because they have been maintained. AND I didn’t pay $30 to $40k so I am still ahead of the game.
    Oh yes, finding a good shop is hard and most VW dealerships won’t do anything other than diagnosis.

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