Matthew Veno spotted an opening in the early-morning rush-hour traffic and stabbed the accelerator. His year-old Acura TL Type-S surged forward, hitting close to 80 mph on Boston's Route 3. Then, with no warning, the five-speed automatic transmission slipped from fifth to second, pulling the car up as sharply as if he had slammed on the brakes.
"Fortunately, the people behind me were able to swerve, so there wasn't an accident," the 23-year-old computer engineer recalled. "But it could have been pretty bad."
When Veno's $34,000 Acura spontaneously downshifted, the engine kept racing and the crankshaft revolutions, or RPMs, went through the roof, kicking in a limiter that cuts off the engine to avoid damage.
"That caused even more jerkiness, and at 80 it started the car swerving from side to side on a two-lane highway. I almost slammed into a construction barrier," Veno said. "It was the scariest time I've ever had in a car. If the traction control hadn't been on, I would have lost it."
Veno's dealer arranged for the car to be towed and replaced the faulty transmission under warranty and without argument.
It is one of almost 16,000 Honda and Acura automatic transmissions American Honda Motor Co. has replaced in the last two years, leading some owners to begin questioning the company's reputation for building bulletproof cars.
Others, such as Kathy Lammens, say American Honda should order an immediate recall.
"They need to do it for the people's sake," said the 38-year-old Placentia resident, whose 2001 Acura CL's automatic transmission failed completely the day after it slipped into second gear at 65 mph on the Costa Mesa Freeway late last month.
When the downshift occurred, Lammens said, she was heading home from work on a fairly empty freeway.
"It felt like I'd suddenly slammed on the brakes," she said, "but the engine was straining.... And there was no one behind me, which is good because the brake lights don't go on when that happens, so there's no warning to anyone following."
Lammens said her Acura dealer agreed immediately to replace the transmission but told her he could not give her a completion date.
"I asked why, and I was stunned," she said. Lammens was told she was 27th on a regional waiting list for replacement of five-speed automatic transmissions for late-model Acura CLs.
Mike Spencer, a spokesman for Acura, Honda's sport-luxury division, confirmed that there has been a "higher than normal incidence" of problems with two Honda-built automatic transmissions. Although many involve high-performance models such as the 260-horsepower Acura Type-S, others afflict 200-horsepower V-6 Honda Accords and 240-horsepower Odyssey minivans not usually associated with racing and speeding abuses.
The two transmissions are the five-speed used in V-6-equipped Acuras since the 2000 model year and in Honda Odysseys since the 2002 model year; and the four-speed automatic used in V-6 Honda Accords since 2000 and in 2000 and 2001 Odysseys.
Of 1 million vehicles sold in the U.S. with those transmissions, Spencer said, Honda has replaced the transmissions in about 16,000, or 1.6%.
No accidents or injuries have been reported, and a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that though the agency has received a number of Honda and Acura transmission failure complaints, the screening staff that checks reports for safety issues has not recommended that an investigation be opened. Reports to the agency can be filed online at www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
Spencer said the number and severity of transmission problems, though exceeding Honda's tolerance, are not enough to warrant a recall.
Nor has Honda issued a service bulletin to alert dealers to the potential for trouble, he said.
Company policy prohibits dealers from opening transmission cases--"If there's a problem under warranty, the whole transmission is replaced," Spencer said--and the problem transmissions cannot be identified until the problem occurs.
So a bulletin, which typically provides instructions for repairing a problem when the customer takes in a vehicle for service, would do no good.
Spencer said Honda engineers identified the root of the problems a few months ago and have redesigned the transmissions.
The four-speed models were afflicted with a bad bearing that could break apart, scattering fragments of metal that clogged fluid passageways in the transmission, causing it to shift erratically, he said.
The five-speed models typically were damaged by premature wear of the third-gear clutch pack. As the clutch friction material abraded, it scattered bits inside the transmission case, clogging fluid lines and causing erratic shifting.
Honda and Acura dealers are replacing affected transmissions under warranty--typically with factory rebuilt transmissions, a standard industry practice, Spencer said. He said customers such as Lammens have been caught in an unusual situation because Honda has never had a run of bad transmissions and thus has never had to stockpile replacement parts. When the four-and five-speed automatics started breaking, he said, a backlog quickly developed.
"But we are trying to get parts into the system, and in the meantime we are providing loaners at no cost so our customers won't be without transportation," he said.
That has come in especially handy for a few Acura owners whose cars were out of service several times before Honda engineers found the cause of the problem.
Several on an Internet forum for Acura owners have complained of having to replace transmissions several times before getting one that did not self-destruct. Not all own older vehicles either.
Jim Mincy, a Michigan real estate broker, said in an e-mail interview that his 7-month-old 2003 Acura TL Type-S is headed back to the dealer for its second replacement transmission.
Most of those interviewed had no complaints about how Honda and its dealers have treated them. But many echoed Veno, who said his problem transmission will haunt him--and Acura--for a long time.
"I bought this car because of the company's reputation for quality. I was going to buy a Honda product and drive it for 250,000 miles," he said. "But now I can guarantee you that when the warranty is up, the car is gone. And this will probably be in my mind when I go looking for a replacement."
Spencer said Honda is confident the problems have been solved.
He said Honda owners with transmission concerns should call the company's customer service hotline at (800) 999-1009; Acura owners should call (800) 382-2238.
"We are definitely keeping an eye on this, and if it looks like the issue is growing, we'll take other steps" that could include extending warranties for replacement transmissions that now are covered only by the remainder of the original new-car powertrain warranty of five years or 50,000 miles, Spencer said.
That's good, said Joshua Pai, a 23-year-old electronics engineer from Anaheim who worries about his Acura TL's longevity after its recent transmission failure.
"But I wish they'd do more," he said. "There's bound to be someone in an accident because of this, and that will be terrible. They really should recall them all."
John O'Dell covers the auto industry for Highway 1 and the Business Section. He can be reached at john .email@example.com.