With great power comes great owner responsibility. Toyota 4runners are notorious for making it to high mileages, but with that comes a lot of transmission issues, especially once you surpass 100,000 miles.
Unfortunately, some of us (including yours truly) have had to learn the hard way that hitting the 100k-mile mark means upping the ante on scheduled maintenance. Wear-and-tear is the biggest owner complaint for 4-runners, especially regarding the automatic transmissions.
Bad shift solenoids are one of the most common culprits behind gearshift issues in a 4runner, followed by problems with the transfer case (in particular, worn-down gears or linkage breaks).
What Problems do Toyota 4runners have?
Bad shift solenoids can be behind gear-shifting problems, but so can problems in the transfer case or the shift lever seat. 4runners have transmissions that tend to conk-out with wear-and-tear after hitting the 100,000-mile mark, and they’re one of the biggest problems facing 4runner owners. In most cases, though, the transmission doesn’t need to be entirely overhauled.
But that isn’t all you need to know about the problems Toyota 4runners can have. You should also know about some of these commonly-asked questions.
What are Some Common 4runner Transmission Problems?
A bad gear shift solenoid is one of the first things you should look for when you notice your transmission starting to act funky. They wear out over time, but when it happens, your mechanic needs to address it straight away. If this is a problem, the engine’s computer will turn the Check Engine light on.
You might feel the gears slipping, or the transmission might just not shift gears at all. If the TCM thinks that you have a shift solenoid problem while you’re out and about, it will send you into limp-home mode, and trust me, driving in that mode is no fun.
Another common problem – which, of course, is transmission-related – on the 4runner is the transfer case. You might end up changing the filter and the transmission fluid only to finally discover that what you are actually dealing with is a worn gear or a broken linkage. If you know what you are doing, you can buy a repair kit on the cheap and replace the bushing on the interior end of the cable that is found at the base of the gear shifter.
Some of the other common transmission-related problems and symptoms that can happen to the Toyota 4runner are:
- Transmission fluid leaks
- Low transmission fluid
- Transmission fails to respond
- A burning smell
- Grinding or shaking
- Clunking or humming noises
- Gear slippage
- Torque converter issues
- No 1st or 2nd gear
- No 3rd or 4th gear
- Valve body issues
Is it Safe to Drive with a Transmission Problem?
“Safe” is a sketchy term to use here. The thing is, if you don’t know for sure that you have a transmission problem, you might just keep on going until one day – ker-plunk! – your transmission gives out on you at a busy intersection. (Hey, it happens to the best of us.)
Waiting to get a transmission problem fixed – even if you only suspect that it might be a transmission problem – could be dangerous. It really depends on what the 4runner’s symptoms are and how badly they are damaged or malfunctioning.
Also, bear in mind that the 4runner’s transmission is made up of numerous (and quite expensive) parts that have to work together to keep the whole system up and running. When one component breaks, it could take out something else close by. And that’s how a small repair bill spirals into you spending $2500 or more on replacing your 4runner’s transmission.
How Often do Transmissions Need to be Replaced in a 4runner?
The Toyota 4Runner can have a long transmission life depending on a few factors. We have seen them reach into lifespans well over 180,000 miles, but even 130k-150k is a long life for a transmission. As we already mentioned, once a transmission hits the 100k-mile mark, things tend to go south just due to wear-and-tear. That’s normal.
However, there are some factory design flaws in certain 4runner transmissions that could lessen the system’s lifespan. The 2010 and 2011 Toyota 4Runners, for example, have shift levers that are difficult to shift out of gears, and the Traction Control and Check Engine Lights go on when this happens.
This is a report multiple consumers have made, and the issue seems to be linked to a design flaw from this particular generation of 4Runner transmissions. Given these circumstances, it is hard to predict when a transmission might need to be replaced.
How can a 4runner Transmission Issue be Diagnosed?
If you know a thing or two about the transmission in your 4Runner, then you might be able to make the diagnosis yourself, but we still recommend that you take your vehicle to a skilled mechanic for an assessment.
With a bit of basic knowledge, you can attempt a diagnosis on a 4Runner’s transmission. Here are a few steps we recommend that you take in order to make a proper diagnosis on your own before taking the vehicle to your trusted mechanic.
How Do I Know if My Transmission Fluid Levels are Low?
You can check to see if your transmission fluid levels are low before bringing your 4Runner in to your mechanic. Since transmission fluid needs to be able to cycle through the system, a leak in the transmission is a common issue that can cause a lot of problems for the 4Runner. It is more common for automatics but can be problematic for manuals too.
Low levels of fluid pretty much guarantee a leak. Why? Because the fluid does not get vaporized or worked off, so there is no good reason for it to drain.
Follow these simple steps to check if you have a leak prior to taking your 4Runner to a mechanic:
- Put one slab of cardboard under the 4Runner’s transmission while you have it parked on a flat surface.
- Check the fluids. Bleached cardboard is ideal for checking fluid colors, although most any cardboard will do the trick. It works a lot better than concrete or gravel.
- At first, transmission fluid is a medium red tone, but over time, it turns dark red to brown. It should have a sweet smell unless there has been a burning smell (which, as we’ve already mentioned, is a bad sign). If the fluid doesn’t smell sweet or is too dark, it is time to get a transmission fluid flush.
- Can you spot a leak? If so, get your 4Runner to your mechanic as soon as possible; drive as short of a distance as you can.
- Top off your transmission fluid before you head to your mechanic if you have any extra.
Make sure you pay attention to that Check Engine light. If it stays on every time you start up and drive while your 4Runner is having symptoms, it is probably time your mechanic take a look at your transmission. A CE light being on all the time doesn’t exactly mean you have a problem with the transmission, but combined with anything else we’ve mentioned, it could spell ‘chaos’ down the road.
How Much Do 4runner Transmission Replacements Cost?
Here’s the burning question. Minor part replacements (like bushings) can be cheaply bought and installed with minimal effort, but a full transmission rebuild or replacement is going to take a lot of time and money.
Many mechanics don’t have transmission specialists on-hand, so you might need to go to a shop that has one or that fully specializes in transmission repairs.
Time-wise, on the low end, you might have to wait a week to get your 4Runner back from the mechanic. Some people have had to wait three weeks or more due to their transmission specialists being in such high demand.
Financially, a transmission repair or rebuild will hit you where it hurts. According to AutoZone, the average person pays about $2,500 to buy a new transmission. However, a 4Runner might run you higher than average. For example, a new automatic transmission for a 2011 4Runner (far from being a great year for transmissions on this vehicle) runs you around $3,200. And, with transmissions, ‘used’ isn’t always your best option despite it shaving potentially hundreds of dollars off.
For the most part, The Toyota 4Runner is a solid vehicle. But, as is the case with any vehicle, wear-and-tear will take its toll. The 100k-mile mark is a crucial one, and transmission issues become extremely common in 4Runners around that milestone. Stay vigilant and keep the number of a good transmission specialist handy just in case.