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1096 RAV4 AWD 4-cylinder automatic with 170K shifts hard when first driven, then smooths out. Is this a problem? What can I do to correct it? Is it a sign of real trouble?
 

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It would probably be a good idea to go ahead and change the transmission fluid. Use Toyota ATF Type T-IV (pronounced "T-4"), part #00279-000T4. You should be able to get a case of 12 quarts at your Toyota dealer for about $55. Don't do any kind of "flush" service because you might make it worse. Just drain and refill a few times.

You will also need a new crush washer (90430-A0003), and you might decide to replace the drain plug if the head is worn. The drain plug is a hex-head, but I recommend to use a Torx because it works far better to get that plug free without stripping the head. I replace them if they start getting chewed-up looking.

Spray the plug with a little PB Blaster the night before you wish to work on it because it might be pretty snug. Don't re-use the old crush washer -- get a new one. I can post back with the torque spec later when I have my manual handy.

A simple drain and re-fill replaces about 3.5 quarts; the total capacity for your transmission (4wd) is I think about 7.5 quarts (I'll post the actual number later). If you don't have any history on the maintenance, you might not want to drop the pan just yet. Perhaps just drain and refill, which will replace a little under half of the transmission fluid, and see if that improves performance.

Drain and refill is very easy -- just warm up the fluid, crack open the drain plug, drain whatever comes out, close the drain plug with a new crush washer, and slowly refill through the dipstick opening. Before you drain it, use the procedure outlined in the owner's manual to check the fluid level, and top it off, if needed, so its right where it should be. Then, once you drain it, you can just measure the volume you drained and re-fill the same amount with new fluid. You can do this in about 20 minutes, taking your time.

If performance improves, then drain and refill again after a few weeks of driving (or sooner), etc, until you've done it at least three times. Three drain-and-refill cycles will remove a large percentage of the original fluid. If that solves your problem, you might decide to just leave it there.

If you do decide to remove the transmission fluid pan, you will be able to inspect (and replace, if necessary) the filter, which is easily accessed once the pan is removed. There are two different automatic transmissions for the Rav4.1 -- one for 2wd and one for 4wd. Be sure to get the correct gasket, because one has 17 bolt-holes and the other has 18 holes.

Also, those little bolts are SUPER easy to break: its a notorious issue with Toyota pans, and maybe trans pans in general. If you decide to open it, be prepared extract a broken bolt or two. Those bolts seal the gasket, so they are important. You could probably get away with breaking one, maybe two, but more than that and you will be faced with a leaky gasket unless you extract and replace the broken bolts.

One last thing -- that transmission pan gasket is a cork-and-rubber type. I recommend you buy it in person, so you can inspect it. It shouldn't be brittle and "dry", but rather fresh looking and flexible (its cork, or its not going to be super flexible, but you'll see what I mean when you have it in your hands). I ordered one online once and it must have been 25 years old! It was so dry and I couldn't use it. Since then, I get them in person. They cost about $15.

Good luck and let us know what you end up doing and what your results are.
 

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Great info on the transmission, thanks!

I test drove it again and paid better attention to the shifting and really put it through some accelerations (as much as the 4 can do, haha). It seemed to be better than the first drive, but in its defense, I've been driving newer cars.

This Rav4 I'm debating about purchasing for my daughter as her college car and I have quite a bit of experience and trust in Toyota in general. We ran a Sienna when the girls were little to 345K without any mechanical issues, just maintenance and sold it. We still have a '00 4Runner with 265K in the family now.

This car seems like a solid little ride and it has been well maintained. She's not real quiet and tight like our other Toyota experiences, but I think that 4 cylinder and AWD chassis should be the better for her light weight. It is really clean and tight inside and the body is great; paint isn't so hot on the roof, but it's all original.

It just had rear struts, timing belt, water pump, and tires... no oil leaks and all the rubber and gaskets seems to be in great shape.

What other things should I look for?
 

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(Just as a little note, our Ravs actually have shocks in the rear, and struts up front, just as an FYI)

Your daughter is lucky to maybe be getting a Rav4! If its in good condition, she'll love it -- they are fun cars! Here are some more items to check:

- Pull the plugs and look for oil on the threads or electrodes: you'll need a 5/8" spark plug socket and a 6" extension for your ratchet wrench: when you replace them, torque to just 13 ft-lbs.

- Check all the fluid levels -- power steering, brake, coolant, oil, transmission, and transfer case since its AWD (for the rear diff, just look and see that its not leaking)

- Take a good look at the coolant -- look for red coolant (that means they've used the correct coolant), and check to see that there's not oil in it or bits of black stuff. Look at the coolant in the radiator, not just the coolant in the reservoir.

- Look for rust around the windshield by slightly peeking behind the windshield molding -- look for "rust bubbles", especially on the top part. If it has a moonroof, look for rust around the exterior trim

- Drive it in circles in each direction with the windows down and listen for knocking or chirping from the rear that would indicate an issue with the AWD or rear-diff.

- Standing still, turn the wheel from lock to lock and listen to the power steering pump (you'd shouldn't really hear it at all, and you certainly shouldn't hear hissing or chirping or squealing and the wheel shouldn't give you shaky feedback)

- Look real well at the back door -- our Rav4's get rear ended a LOT! Remove the spare and inspect the panel. The spare should sit almost perfectly perpendicular to the road: if its "leaning" out, then its been rear-ended. Look at the hinge when you open it -- are the pins bent? (Its not bad necessarily if its been rear-ended, but you want to know because maybe you can get the price lower!) Check the underside for exhaust details that would give you clues that's its been rear-ended (ie, exhaust is hanging on wire)

- Look for leaks in the power steering rack, especially from the highest point on that rack, which is just below where the intermediate shaft ends (there's a seal there that is known to be a leaker)

- On the inside, make sure all the electrical works (locks, windows, lights, etc), then pull up the carpet on the driver's and passenger's side and check out the pad under it to be sure it wasn't a flood victim -- if its discolored, that usually means flood

- Scan it with a code-reader that will confirm that all the reset thresholds have been met (a lot of codes will "clear" if you just disconnect the battery, so the OBD records that; there are then several different thresholds that must be completed before you know whether or not the code will re-appear, especially for emissions and catalyst stuff. A scanner will tell you if those thresholds have been met. If they haven't, then you don't know if things are "clear" or not and the seller could just be disconnecting the battery everyday to hide a check engine light)

Overall, I love my Rav4 and recommend them! I have 185K miles on mine, and I plan to get 250K miles or more...I don't see myself ever selling it, honestly. The 3S-FE engine isn't exactly a powerhouse, but it is very economical and high reliable. The issue I'd be thinking about the most would be the transmission shifting you mentioned: see if you can find another automatic Rav to test drive to compare them if you're not sure if you're just too used to newer builds to be able to tell!
 

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(Just as a little note, our Ravs actually have shocks in the rear, and struts up front, just as an FYI)

Your daughter is lucky to maybe be getting a Rav4! If its in good condition, she'll love it -- they are fun cars! Hear are some more things to check:

- Pull the plugs and look for oil on the threads or electrodes.

- Check all the fluid levels -- power steering, brake, coolant, oil, transmission, and transfer case since its AWD (for the rear diff, just look and see that its not leaking)

- Take a good look at the coolant -- look for red coolant (that means they've used the correct coolant), and check to see that there's not oil in it or bits of black stuff.

- Look for rust around the windshield by slightly peeking behind the windshield molding -- look for "rust bubbles", especially on the top part. If it has a moonroof, look for rust around the exterior trim

- Drive it in circles in each direction with the windows down and listen for knocking or chirping from the rear that would indicate an issue with the AWD or rear-diff.

- Standing still, turn the wheel from lock to lock and listen to the power steering pump (you'd really hear it at all, and you certainly shouldn't hear hissing or chirping or squealing and the wheel shouldn't give you shaky feedback)

- Look real well at the back door -- our Rav4's get rear ended a LOT! Remove the spare and inspect the panel. The spare should sit almost perfectly perpendicular to the road: if its "leaning" out, then its been rear-ended. Look at the hinge when you open it -- are the pins bent? (Its not bad necessarily if its been rear-ended, but you want to know because maybe you can get the price lower!) Check the underside for exhaust details that would give you clues that's its been rear-ended (ie, exhaust is hanging on wire)

- Look for leaks in the power steering rack, especially from the highest point on that rack, which is just below where the intermediate shaft ends (there's a seal there that is known to be a leaker)

- On the inside, make sure all the electrical works (locks, windows, lights, etc), then pull up the carpet on the driver's and passenger's side and check out the pad under it to be sure it wasn't a flood victim -- if its discolored, that usually means flood

- Scan it with a code-reader that will confirm that all the reset thresholds have been met (a lot of codes will "clear" if you just disconnect the battery, so the OBD records that; there are then several different thresholds that must be completed before you know whether or not the code will re-appear, especially for emissions and catalyst stuff. A scanner will tell you if those thresholds have been met. If they haven't, then you don't know if things are "clear" or not and the seller could just be disconnecting the battery everyday to hide a check engine light)

Overall, I love my Rav4 and recommend them! I have 185K miles on mine, and I plan to get 250K miles or more...I don't see myself ever selling it, honestly. The 3S-FE engine isn't exactly a powerhouse, but it is very economical and high reliable. The issue I'd be thinking about the most would be the transmission shifting you mentioned: see if you can find another automatic Rav to test drive to compare them if you're not sure if you're just too used to newer builds to be able to tell!
 
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