Toyota Highlander: Transmission or Tires? - Toyota Nation Forum : Toyota Car and Truck Forums
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post #1 of 21 Old 05-19-2019, 10:37 PM Thread Starter
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Toyota Highlander: Transmission or Tires?

Hi everyone, so I recently bought a 2003 Highlander for a great deal. AWD, 150k miles, very clean and, for the most part, well-maintained. I was told before purchasing that it needed a new timing belt, so we were able to talk them down from $5 to 4k.

With almost zero mechanical know-how, I thought the timing belt was making humming noise I heard when I drove it home.

Well, I took it to my trusted mechanic to replace the timing belt, and he said the noise I heard was actually my transfer case, which would cost a small fortune to replace. I held off on the belt work. He was kind enough to take the car to his friend's shop for a second opinion, as he specializes in transfer case/transmission work. Unfortunately, he informed me the humming noise was neither timing belt nor transfer case, but bad gears in the transmission itself. I was quoted $3500 in repairs from this transmission shop, which I couldn't swing since they don't finance.

So I took it to another shop to get it rebuilt, and within 15 minutes of test driving and checking it on the rack, they told me the noise was due to poor cupping on the tires, not the transmission. They said the planetary gear was "showing its age" and making some noise in low gear, but the transmission and transfer case were okay for another 20—40k miles.

So I took the Highlander to a tire/auto shop to get the tires rotated and balanced in addition to some testing on the transmission. They informed me they were 90% sure the noise was due to tire cupping, not transmission.

At this point, I've heard two shops say the noise was due to a bad transmission, and two shops say the noise was due to tires. I'm apprehensive because the shop that thinks the transmission needs repair conducted a 2+ hour inspection. They took off the drive shaft and went inside the machinery with stethoscopes, listening to the noise. They're sure the problem is the transmission, NOT tires, which I called to confirm.

So who do I believe? I've always trusted my main mechanic and don't think he would intentionally misinform me, though he might be incorrect.

I'm planning on taking it to another Japanese auto shop tomorrow for a final, tiebreaker opinion before spending any more funds on this vehicle. I pray the transmission is okay and the tires just need replacement, because I LOVE the Highlander. To me, it's the perfect adventure SUV.

Please ask me any questions and I'll answer to the best of my ability in case I neglected to mention any details. Thanks in advance for any input and the add.
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post #2 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 01:24 AM
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How does it shift? Did they drain the fluids to see if there is a lot of metal? Did they tell you it is about to fail? If it is not bad enough to get a fairly consistent diagnosis from a couple of good shops the it is probably not bad enough to fix yet. Do you need to rely on for towing or long trips away from services? If not, then I would change the fluids and drive it.
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post #3 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 01:28 AM
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Change the gear oil in the transfer case

Change the ATF.

Find the tire with cupping and put the spare there

So many trolls so little time
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post #4 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 05:54 AM
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In the scheme of things tires are cheap. Go to a good tire shop like Discount Tires they're a good honest company. and get a set of these https://www.discounttire.com/buy-tir...er-htp/p/11858 they're VERY quiet and have EXCELLENT wet/snow/ice and dry performance. I have a set on our own Gen 1 Highlander LTD AWD. If the noise is still there than sadly odds are you're screwed with a bad front differential

A couple people here have posted being able to replace it in the car but most shops will not quote you that. If it's quiet get the other work done on the car i.e. timing belt, water pump and oil seals, change the trans and both differential fluids, go with a full coolant flush and Toyota Pink coolant, and whatever else is needed.

If the noise is still there than make the best worst case scenario decision you can. Most likely trying to unload the car

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post #5 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 02:35 PM
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Do you hear the noise when the car is in park? Does it change when you rev the engine? Do you hear it when stopped in drive? Do you hear it At all speeds or only in a certain speed range? Does it change with speed of the engine when the transmission shifts? Does it change only with the speed of the car and get worse as you increase speed?
I have 3 good mechanics that I work with depending upon the issue including one at the dealer, and each one of them has made a big mistake on my car at one time or another. I find they tend to err on the side of a worst case. I am cautious spending much money if I don’t get a definitive diagnosis.
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post #6 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 05:22 PM
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A point about spare tires- I was told that the early Highlander AWD systems 2001 to 2003 use a viscous coupling in the transfer case. These can overheat if the tires are not almost identical in diameter- including tread wear and air pressure. If you buy new tires, then buy all four. Don’t put an unused spare on if the other tires are worn. It is the advantage of the 5-tire rotation pattern for AWD. You should be able to get the details from the Toyota Information System (TIS) website. It will cost a few dollars for a short subscription but there is a wealth of information.
If I am wrong about the viscous coupling I imagine others will correct me. I have a 2005 AWD which has open differentials with traction control, so I don’t have personal experience with the early models
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post #7 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 05:48 PM Thread Starter
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How does it shift? Did they drain the fluids to see if there is a lot of metal? Did they tell you it is about to fail?...Do you need to rely on for towing or long trips away from services?
It shifts fine, just whines when first accelerating. I was told that's the planetary gear (gears?), and it only lasts briefly. Unfortunately, I would guess no fluids were drained at all—they would have told me otherwise, right?

And no, I don't rely on it for towing yet, but plan to use it to pull music gear for out-of-state shows and take it up to the mountains for several trips per year. However, most of the driving I do is city, with several a few short highway trips a month.

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Originally Posted by Greasymechtech View Post
Find the tire with cupping and put the spare there
From what I was told, they're all cupped badly. I had them rotated, which didn't seem to affect noise much.

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Originally Posted by underthehood51 View Post
In the scheme of things tires are cheap. ...
Thanks for the recommendation on the tires. In my last Highlander, I just bought an aggressive set from Big O, but I'm more than willing to get a good set from Discount. In fact, one of the auto shops recommended them to me to get rid of the noise.

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Do you hear the noise when the car is in park? Does it change when you rev the engine? Do you hear it when stopped in drive? Do you hear it At all speeds or only in a certain speed range? Does it change with speed of the engine when the transmission shifts? Does it change only with the speed of the car and get worse as you increase speed?
No noise when in Park, or at a stop light. Revving the engine doesn't seem to produce the same effect as driving, but I think I could at least hear that whiny noise mentioned above. So really, there are two distinct noises: a whine in low gear when first accelerating, and a wah/hum when driving, particularly around 40mph. The noise is certainly still there past 40mph, but doesn't seem to get much louder.

Additionally, I did take the Highlander to a Lexus/Toyota/Subaru shop, but they weren't able to get it in today. However, one of the mechanics did drive it around the block, saying the tire cupping is causing the noise, besides the whine in the beginning, which he said is fine. But they'll do a more complete inspection tomorrow on the rack, so I'm not 100% certain the problem is the tires just yet. Though, I am starting to believe this is the case.

On another note, my buddy said the cupping could be caused by poor shocks, but my first mechanic said they looked good. Looks like I'll have a hefty checklist for the shop tomorrow.

Thanks for the input so far, everyone!
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post #8 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 06:03 PM
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If all tires are cupped, you have a problem.

Most cupped tires that I've seen were caused by extremely low tire PSI habits. Otherwise, there is an alignment issue or suspension wear.

I would get 4 new/used tires and go from there. Tire cupping on vehicles can be very noisy. You can't troubleshoot any other noise until that noise is removed from the equation.

So, quit wasting your time, and the time of mechanics, and replace the tires.

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post #9 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 06:12 PM
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Hi,
I have an '03 AWD V6 Limited. About 210K miles - I bought it from original owner @ 184K.

Since I bought it there is a transmission noise that GOES AWAY if I use the ECT/Snow button, which forces the trans to start in 2nd gear.
Try this - for grins and giggles.

I don't know the correct terminology, but I'd guess it's like a 'transmission flare' except it doesn't slip; just makes the noise in 1st/Low gear. It is less noticeable as the engine/trans warms up to operating temp.

I've replaced ALL the ATF (including what's in the torque converter - not just the pan) w/the Toyota ATF and it made no difference. And hasn't gotten better or worse.

So, I just keep driving it.


Tangent P.s. Be ready to replace the wheel bearings. They don't catastrophically fail but will get noisy. On mine, the original owner replaced all 4 by 150K and I've replaced two more in the last 10K. FWIW, I replaced the entire hub w/a low-mile used part for <$100 each. Remember the RX300 should also be a direct swap. I have the RX part on the back wheel. :-)

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07 AWD V6 RAV4 >> Traded for '18 CR-V
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post #10 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 06:28 PM Thread Starter
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I would get 4 new/used tires and go from there. Tire cupping on vehicles can be very noisy. You can't troubleshoot any other noise until that noise is removed from the equation.

So, quit wasting your time, and the time of mechanics, and replace the tires.
I'll stop "wasting their time" when I get a consistent diagnosis. Besides, it wasn't until I got a third shop's opinion that I was even aware of the cupping noise possibility, so clearly shopping around is a worthwhile approach.

But yes, I do plan to replace the tires pending conclusive findings on the transmission, which I imagine can be diagnosed when they get the SUV on the rack. I know what you're saying about needing to weed out the tire noise, but why would I spend $600 on tires if the transmission will need $2k, $3k, or more? Not that I think it will, but the two shops telling me the gears are bad is enough to make me cautious going forward.
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post #11 of 21 Old 05-20-2019, 06:42 PM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by wtdash View Post
Hi,
I have an '03 AWD V6 Limited. About 210K miles - I bought it from original owner @ 184K.

Since I bought it there is a transmission noise that GOES AWAY if I use the ECT/Snow button, which forces the trans to start in 2nd gear.
Try this - for grins and giggles.
Thanks for the suggestion! I just followed your advice, taking it around the block and stopping/accelerating several times. The noise went away.
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post #12 of 21 Old 05-21-2019, 06:15 AM
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Until you get some good tires on it you will never get a "consistent' diagnosis because that noise is so over whelming. So yes in a way you really are wasting a lot of time. BTW if ALL tires are cupped most likely causes are poor tire maintenance and or poor strut/shock condition.

So bottom line. Put tires on it than determine if there is even any noise left to diagnose

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post #13 of 21 Old 05-21-2019, 11:53 AM Thread Starter
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So I'm going to do new tires and perform the rest of services. The most recent shop verdict before doing this work is the planetary gear in the transmission is getting worn and will need to be replaced eventually. They said anywhere from 3 months to 5 years.

This prompts two questions. First, can you replace the planetary gear alone, or do you need to replace/rebuild the whole transmission? And second, does anyone have an idea of how long I might have before the planetary goes out?

Seems like you can relate wtdash, since I think I hear the same flare you mentioned.
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post #14 of 21 Old 05-21-2019, 12:03 PM
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You need to decide how deep you want to be in this car. Planetary gear sets typically do not ever wear out. I have seen broken ones occasionally but ONLY in GM transmissions. So the odds are of yours being "bad" are either A pretty slim or B indicative of extreme abuse of the vehicle. So again it begs the question...................Do I want this car bad enough for this amount of trouble?
I would hold off on all other services until you get rubber on it. Than drive it, live with it for a bit. If no bad noises or behavior then go forward with maintenance like TBelt, water pump, oil seals, coolant flush and so on. Do multiple transmission fluid changes as well but, even BEFORE doing these other things...................Drop the trans pan. If you have big pieces of debris in there button it back up and maybe even dump the car for a better one

2001 Toyota Highlander Limited AWD
2011 Toyota Highlander SE AWD
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post #15 of 21 Old 05-21-2019, 12:22 PM
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PM'd....

'03 AWD V6 HL
07 AWD V6 RAV4 >> Traded for '18 CR-V
Plz don't quote my post...wasted space.
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