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Under The Hood: High-tech transmission still needs maintenance

By Brad Bergholdt, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

QUESTION: I have a 2007 Ford Freestyle SEL AWD with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. I don’t know much about the CVT other than it has no traditional gears and it is supposed to get better mileage. My question relates to maintenance. Does the CVT fluid ever need to be drained and new fluid added? How about the CVT filter? I am getting different opinions about the transmission’s care and feeding. Some say maintenance is not needed, but that concerns me, given the complexity and cost of the transmission. I know you have the right answers.

—P.H.

ANSWER: Your CVT uses two variators, or variable-diameter pulleys, and a chain to provide an infinite number of drive ratios instead of the four or five fixed ratios found in a typical automatic transmission. This allows the engine to run at its most efficient speed for a variety of driving conditions, without power interruptions from shifts, improving fuel economy. Sophisticated electronic controls direct hydraulic pressure to adjust the variators and a single planetary gear set provides reverse gear.

Ford recommends renewing the special CVT fluid, called Motorcraft Continuously Variable Chain Type Transmission Fluid, every 60,000 miles along with the high-pressure case filter. This filter is located within a small housing attached to the outside of the transmission, supplementing another filter in the oil pan; there’s no interval mentioned for the latter. A drain plug allows five quarts of fluid to be drained. Another five are captive within the torque converter and various passages. Checking or adjusting fluid level must be done at a specified temperature as the CVT fluid expands differently than conventional fluid — 194F to check and 114F to adjust, idling in park. Fluid color is blue-green and darkens with age to brown.

Q: I love reading your column and trying to troubleshoot odd problems. Mine is with my daughter’s 2003 Oldsmobile Alero. Sometimes when she starts the car in the morning, there is no power to any dashboard lights or gauges, radio, or heater blower and defroster. After a few minutes, sometimes 10 or 20, everything comes back on.

I have never observed the problem, so I tried pulling every relay and fuse that I could find in both the driver’s-side fuse box and the under-hood fuse box one at a time, but none of them would disable all of the functions mentioned above. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. My daughter is going to school 300 miles away, so I don’t get a chance to work on the car very often.

—John

A: John, I did my best to scour the power distribution diagrams for the Alero, looking for a common element but ended up with a bunch of possibly unnoticed additional symptoms for your daughter to check for. As great as her description was, the complexity of the Alero’s electrical system calls for a more detailed check of what does and doesn’t work at the time the gremlins play their trick.

As time-consuming as this may be, she should check stoplights, hazard lights, the complete function of the heating and ventilation controls, headlight dimming, and various body system functions, such as windows, door locks, mirrors — basically, everything she can think of. With a comprehensive list of what’s working and what isn’t, it should be possible to pin down the cause to a particular connector, junction bar or conductor within the right or left side instrument panel or under-hood fuse box.

It sounds odd, but knowing what does work is just as helpful as what doesn’t.

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