Keeping Your Minivan’s Transmission In Gear

For many buyers, minivans offer the perfect mix of utility, versatility and comfort. Unfortunately, many models have gotten a bad rap for their relatively fragile transmissions. Stories of transmission failures for a wide variety of well-respected brands abound all over the Internet, scaring potential buyers away from what they perceive to be an expensive repair bill waiting to happen.

However, there's nothing to be afraid of. Avoiding these problems only takes preventative action and an understanding of what makes minivan transmissions stumble in the first place.

Why Do Minivan Transmissions Get a Bad Rap?

There are a few good reasons why minivans tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to transmission failures:

  • The average minivan can be a heavy beast, especially when loaded down with passengers and gear. Most mainstream minivans have a curb weight north of 4,000 pounds while empty. When you factor in 6 or 7 passengers and their luggage, what you have is a vehicle whose transmission has to cope with the extra weight for hundreds or even thousands of miles at a time.
  • Most minivan transmissions were designed for light-duty tasks. This makes sense, considering how minivans are often based on passenger car platforms. The relatively light-duty internals may stand up to ordinary passenger car use, but these parts wear quickly when installed inside of the average minivan.
  • Most minivans only have their standard transmission coolers, which are often integrated into the radiator. Unfortunately, this isn't enough to disperse the tremendous heat produced by the transmission. With heat as the transmission's primary enemy, it's little wonder why minivan transmissions often live short lives.
  • Some transmissions may have mechanical defects that greatly contribute to service issues and outright failures many miles later.
  • Lax upkeep also factors into a significant number of transmission failures. Forgoing a regularly scheduled tune-up could prove to be your minivan's undoing.

What You Can Do to Prolong Your Transmission's Life

While transmission woes come with the territory for many minivan owners, it's not an inevitable part of ownership. There's plenty you can do to protect your transmission and keep your vehicle rolling for many years to come. It all boils down to preventative maintenance and precautionary additions:

  • Make regular fluid changes a priority. Find out how often your minivan needs to change its transmission fluid and adhere to that transmission repair schedule religiously. Don't be fooled by "lifetime" transmission fluids, as any fluid will break down if given enough time and wear.
  • Consider adding an external transmission cooler. A secondary transmission cooler helps dissipate excess heat, bringing your transmission fluid temperatures down to safer levels. External coolers are ideal for long-distance trips and a must for towing trailers.
  • Respect your minivan's tow rating. A common problem encountered by most minivan owners involves towing trailers that are loaded in excess of the vehicle's tow rating. This places extra stress on the transmission, reducing its service life while upping the chance of catastrophic failure.
  • Evaluate your own driving style. There are many things that drivers do that inadvertently add wear and tear to a transmission, such as allowing the transmission to "hold" the vehicle in place while stopped on an incline. These habits can hurt your transmission more than you realize.

When All Else Fails

Although the above tips can help you keep your vehicle on the road, there are many cases where even the most religiously-adhered to service schedule won't prevent a catastrophic failure. It's for this reason that you want to find out about your vehicle's warranty.

If you've purchased a new minivan, transmission failures will likely be covered under the vehicle's powertrain warranty. Just as long as the damage isn't caused by neglect, there's a good chance you won't have to pay out-of-pocket for repairs or replacement.

If you bought a used minivan, then expect to purchase a third-party warranty. Most dealer-based used car warranties have shorter and stricter coverage options, especially when it comes to transmission issues. A third-party warranty is likely to offer broader repair and replacement coverage, although this usually depends on the company offering the warranty.