The Volvo Parts, Accessories &
Performance Specialists Since 1963

Volvo Transmission Issues (Shift Flare, Hard Down Shifts, Etc.)

2015-05-14 - Kevin Rutledge

This article was originally written in relation to the AW TF-80SC transmission on P2 XC90 & S60R/V70R models but this same information applies to the TF-81SC, AF33, AWF21, AW55-50SN, AW50-51SN & AW55-50LE transmissions on P80 S70 V70 C70 & P2 S60 S80 V70 XC70 models.

See update at the bottom of this article for latest information.

A few months ago, I bought a very nice 2007 XC90 V8 Sport.  Soon after buying it, I started having transmission shift flare issues which ultimately led me on a quest for knowledge.  

I found lots of people on forums having issues with the transmissions in these cars but the opinions on the problem and solution were varied.

The TF80 is a 6 speed automatic transmission manufactured by Aisin Warner. It appeared on many Volvo models but only seems to have issues on P2 models. Later models seem to have less issues with this transmission.

Variations of this transmission are used by a lot of different car manufacturers, but Volvo seems to have more problems with it than other manufacturers.

The forums were full of plenty of theories about the failures. Many people speculating that the TF80 is not strong enough for the V8 equipped models and “Volvo should have known better.”  While it is true that these transmissions do have plenty of problems, it’s not due to lack of strength.  It is rare for these transmissions to have any sort of real mechanical damage/breakage or to actually be worn out (with the exception of the torque converter. See update at bottom of article.) 

I spoke with some of the Volvo specialty and transmission shops in the Portland area and discussed issues they see with the TF80.  Most of the shops confirm that they rarely see a TF80 actually fail to the point of needed to be rebuilt.  Many of the problems with these transmissions can be solved without removing the transmission from the car. 

If you are having shifting issues with your Volvo, your first steps should be:

  • Visit a Volvo VIDA equipped repair shop and make sure the Transmission Control Module has the latest Volvo software.  Please don't discount this important step, it can solve many shifting issues.
  • Make sure the transmission fluid is clean. Flush if in doubt.  Flush if you don't know or can't remember the last time it was done. This should probably should be done every 45,000 miles or less since there is no filter on these transmissions.

The most common issues with these transmissions is shift flare, hard (clunky) downshifts and gear engagement delays when from Reverse to Drive.

Shift flare is a condition that occurs on up shifts between a lower gear and a higher gear.  The transmission will simply shift out of the lower gear and have a delay before engaging in the next higher gear.  This will result in the engine RPMs “flaring” (revving high) prior to the next gear engagement. It seems to be more common with lower gears but can happen with any of the shifts.  Typically, the transmission will start exhibiting the symptom between the same two gears.  Early on, this may only happen randomly once in a while when the transmission is warmed up but as it gets worse, it may happen more consistently at any temperature.  

Hard down shifts are basically the same problem in reverse.  There isn’t an engine flare associated with it since your foot isn’t on the throttle.  They are most noticeable when coasting to a stop. You’ll notice the transmission “thunking” in to lower gears.  Sometimes when applying the throttle after almost coming to a stop, you will get a harsh gear engagement but without significant engine RPM flare. 

The most common shift flare is between 2nd and 3rd gear but the issue can occur between any gears.  The flare may not occur consistently but will be between the same two gears.  In other words, you may intermittently get a flare but it will always be between 2nd and 3rd.   I have yet to see a transmission that has flare between multiple gears but it is certainly possible.

A shift flare followed by very hard gear engagement while under heavy engine load can actually break clutch packs.  Sometimes this "crash" in to gear can be extreme and should definitely be avoided.  A quote from a transmission tech: “You only get to do that a couple times then we have to rebuild it.”  

So what causes these shifting issues?   The answer is worn out solenoid bores in the valve body.  Think of these as little steel piston valves moving in an aluminum cylinder bore. Any wear can cause them to stick occasionally or for fluid pressure to leak around them.

A low fluid condition could also cause weird shifting issues but you checked that when you flushed the transmission fluid right???

The valve body is a complex looking component with an internal maze of oil passages and a handful of moving parts.  There are a series of piston valves connected to electronic solenoids that control where the fluid pressure is directed within the transmission.  The primary failure point is that the steel pistons eventually wear out the aluminum piston bore and let fluid leak around the piston.  In some cases, they don’t wear out but get sticky or sluggish from dirty transmission fluid.  These pistons are controlled by the transmission Control Module and duty cycle pulsed to control the pressure.  The pulsing action causes wear and tear on the piston bore. Dirty transmission fluid will make this wear happen much faster.

Replacing the valve body will usally solve the shifting issues that weren't fixed by a software update.

A skilled Volvo technician (or an experienced Transmission Tech) can replace the valve body without removing the transmission from the car but it’s still an expensive repair.

From my research, good rebuilt or aftermarket valve bodies do not exist. Sure there are a bunch of companies offering them but to actually rebuild one of these correctly will cost nearly as much as a new unit from Volvo. In fact, the shops in our area all buy new valve bodies straight from Volvo dealerships.  New seems to be a much better option at this point.

I’m told by local shops that it is not uncommon for an XC90 primarily doing city driving to wear out a valve body in less than 80,000 miles.  All that shifting works those valve body pistons that much more.

So basically, if you have a Volvo with a TF80 transmission, chances are that you will probably need a valve body if you own it for more than a few years.

It becomes very obvious that transmission servicing (fluid flush) is very important for extending the life of the valve body in these transmissions.  How much longer really is the $1000 question.   Removing the abrasives in the fluid will certainly slow down the wear on the valve body solenoid pistons.

I’m also told that worn out torque converters are possible on the TF80 (which does require transmission removal.)   The local shops all blame Volvo’s aggressive software and lack of fluid servicing for this issue but this may not be the whole story.  Volvo designed the software for fuel mileage, not transmission longevity so the lock up function in the torque converter is being used far more than might be expected in lower gears.  They just want less slippage since it adversely affects fuel economy.  This issue is more apparent with vehicles that are primarily used for city driving or used to tow a trailer.

2023 Update: Possible Antifreeze Contamination?

Volvo could have saved a lot of warranty costs and made us all a lot happier by simply having a externally replaceable oil filter on the transmission.  So why didn't they do this?  The most likely explanation is that they wanted to reduce the cost forecast for the first 3 years of ownership.  If you put a filter on there, then it would imply that needs to be serviced at some interval right?

The real question is why are valve bodies wearing out faster than they logically should? 

There is nothing really wrong with the design.  It is not new technology and they don't experience the same frequency of failure on all Volvo models or even other Makes of car (these transmissions are not exclusive to Volvo.)

The lack of a transmission fluid filter is a big factor but is really just the first indication that there is excessive particulate in the fluid.

So where is this particulate coming from?  The consensus is that it is torque converter friction material.

There is some strong evidence that torque converters are wearing out faster than they should because of a very small amount of antifreeze (specifically Glycol) contamination in the transmission fluid.  Even a small amount of antifreeze can dramatically change (reduce) the lubricating properties of the transmission fluid which could be speeding up the wear on the torque converter material.  Apparently, Glycol also reacts chemically with the transmission fluid and lowers the pH making it more acidic.  This could potentially speed up the wear by damaging the bonding of the torque converter material.

Well then, how is the antifreeze getting in to the transmission fluid?

There is only one potential fluid exchange point in the system: the transmission heat exchanger (usually called a cooler but it also helps to warm up cold transmission fluid.)

Earlier Volvo platforms (P80 & P2) have dramatically higher instances of transmission failures than later platforms eventhough they use the same transmission models/families. P1, P3 & newer platforms have far lower instances of valve body and torque converter failures than P80/P2 models.  

One of the key differences between these models is that earlier platforms (P80 & P2) have a transmission cooler inside the radiator while later platforms (P1 & P3) have a separate external heat exchanger.  Maybe there is a flaw in the Behr manufacturing process for their radiator based heat exchangers?  Not sure but there is definitely a connection between the style of transmission cooler and transmission failures.  Is this why Volvo changed the design? Maybe the goal was actually to warm up cold fluid faster, or some engineer just liked the design better or maybe it was related to these failures. We will probably never know.

It doesn't seem logical that there is antifreeze contamination in the transmission fluid since the transmission pump operates at higher pressures than the cooling system but what happens when you turn off the engine?  The hot cooling system stays pressurized while the transmission pump stops generating pressure.  It seems logical that the transfer of fluids is through a VERY small hole and that there has to be contamination both ways but at such a small level that you don't notice.  What color is coolant?  What happens when you mix red with blue or green?  What color is old coolant? Maybe it's not just rust in there? 

One thing to note is that if the transmission had a decent filter, it could reduce the valve body wear but if the fluid is contaminated then it wouldn't stop the torque converter wear since particulate doesn't seem to be the primary factor there.

Someone needs to get some lab based fluid analysis done to know for sure that Glycol contamination is the issue but the circumstantial evidence seems to indicate it is likely the cause.