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How I Stupidly Drained my 2013 Crosstrek's Transmission by Mistake
and
How I Refilled it again.
A story of stupidity and redemption by
John Fuhring
Engineer Emeritus and Backyard Mechanic









     I have been a "backyard mechanic" since I was old enough to hold a wrench and fix my own tricycle.  Genuinely having "The Knack," I have an intuitive knowledge of all things electrical and mechanical (and utter social ineptitude).  I pride myself in knowing how things work and I have always been compelled to understand the scientific principles behind the phenomena we see around us and to apply it.  When I was in high school I became a member of the Science Club and it was there I was introduced to the Scientific Method as our "holy scripture" and to recognize it as the foundation of our modern technological world.  Part of our membership was to promise to apply the Scientific Method to our every day life almost as one promises to practice religious rituals only we were "commanded" to reject things that are proved wrong or have been updated by later findings (unlike things set for all time in some "holy" book).

     OK, so having established my credentials as a hopeless Nerd, it does not require any explanation to also inform you, gentle reader, that I have always (since my first car), changed my own oil and other engine fluids.   It is a matter of pride for me to do my own work and besides that, I am just about the cheapest person I know and if I can save a dollar or two by doing it myself, I'll do it.  OK, I am not "just about," I AM the cheapest person I know and as I have once been described, "Tighter than the skin on a monkey's ass."  By doing things myself wherever I can, I not save a lot of money, but I get things done quickly and if anything is wrong, I can quickly fix it.  No waiting for an "appointment" or hanging around for hours at a shop, no I go right to work and in a few minutes the job is done.  You know, there is an Old Saying: "If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself."  That's a wonderful motto for me, but I came up with an even better Old Saying: "If you want it done at all, you have to do it yourself."

     I've been changing my own engine fluids for 45 years now and I have never made a mistake (besides spilling a little used oil now and again).  I always prided myself on how quickly and efficient I could do the job and then take the old oil down for recycling.  I never once drained the wrong fluid and knowing that others had drained the transmission when they meant to drain the crankcase, I was doubly proofed against making such a stupid mistake.  Oh, how does "pride goeth before a defeat and a haughty spirit before a fall?"  After all these years and oil changes beyond count, I finally did it.  I too joined the disgraced who drained the transmission instead of the crankcase.  I am so ashamed, I am so very ashamed.  Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.  Oh lord, I thought that I had "lost the Knack" and for an engineer, there is nothing more devastating that loosing the Knack!!  At first I panicked because the Crosstrek's transmission should never have its oil drained and there is no (obvious) way to fill the transmission.  Going online to find a solution only added to my anxiety.  The first sites I visited convinced me that refilling the transmission was deep, dark, black magic that only the wizards at the dealership had the right spells and right magic amulets blessed by the spirits.  I called up the dealership, but they were 35 miles away and I would have to have my car towed all the way up there AFTER making an appointment for sometime next week (if they could fit me in at all).

     Later that evening, I calmed down and I started to think like an engineer once again and to realize that there is noting in this world that is magic and there is no automotive mechanical system that is so precise to be without a lot of leeway and isn't designed for all kinds of conditions found in "The Real World."  I mean, I wasn't exactly a "Rocket Scientist" (I was a rocket engineer) and even on hand made rocket booster engine systems, nothing is impossibly precise.  Thinking that I had lost the Knack really rattled me, but then I thought that perhaps I had just been confused by doing something "out of sequence" such as always caused the best engineers to create a really embarrassing "incident" with a space vehicle.  I slowly got my confidence back and did some more research and decided that I still had the Knack and I would charge ahead.

     I discovered that my Subaru's Continuously Variable Transmission and its "magic" fluid is not at all unique and the fluid can be bought at any automotive store.  At $10 a bottle and requiring seven bottles, it is a bit expensive ($70), but not terribly and noting like having my car towed 35 miles and paying the dealer for what I could do myself.  So, I bought seven bottles and a little fluid transfer device and a set of hex wrenches.

     The filler port of my Crosstrek (2013) is located on the driver's side (left side) and is the lower of the two similar looking ports.  The upper port IS NOT for the transmission, so for goodness' sake, don't fool with it.  The lower port requires a 8 MM wrench while the upper one requires a 10 MM.  The port is on pretty tightly, so you will need a long extension on your wrench or you can use a hex socket with a long (long) ratchet (I used a hex wrench with a long snipe).  One magic thing you are supposed to do is use a torque wrench to close the port to  + or - .000001 foot pounds (I'm exaggerating, of course), but that is absurd.  This port is only a port after all and if it is screwed in tightly so it doesn't leak or can't come out on its own, what do you need a torque wrench for??  Nothing.

     The instructions are to make sure the car is "level" to within + or -  0.0000001 degree (I'm exaggerating, of course), but that too is absurd as there is no place where precision leveling can be measured.  If the car LOOKS level, it is level.  The oil is supposed to be 35 C + or -  .00001 degree (I'm exaggerating, of course) and that too is absurd because in actual operation it will run both colder and hotter than that.  No indeed the only reason the car is supposed to be level and the oil is supposed to be around your body's temperature is so that you have more or less the right amount in the case without either underfilling or overfilling it.  This is the way I look at it from my engineer's eye, but I could be wrong.  I really, really doubt I'm wrong, but I'll let you know in a couple of weeks or months or years if I'm wrong.  Don't hold your breath, you could hurt yourself.

     So here's what I did,  With my car jacked up on the left side so that it was tilted and I could get under it, I took the fill port cap off with a loud crack.  I then put a clear plastic tube in the hole and proceeded to fill the thing up.  When it was full and it started to drip out (into a catch pan), I stopped, started the engine and then ran through drive, neutral, reverse, park two or three times.  I left the engine running and then proceeded to pump some more oil into the fill port.  It took quite a bit more and when it was full I went up and worked the transmission selector again.  This time it took very little more fluid and the stuff that dripped out was quite warm.  I judged the oil that was dripping out to be at blood temperature or a tad higher which would have been correct.

     After I had all the fluid in the transmission it could hold, I left the fill port open and then I lowered the left side of the car and raised the right side until the car LOOKED level.  Of course, fluid came dripping out (and into a pan) and so I simply let the engine run with the excess fluid dripping out. As the transmission and its fluid heated up, more fluid would trickle out and I would test its temperature with my fingers.  Sure, I wasted a lot of fluid doing it this way -- perhaps a whole quart, but it is quick and easy and precise enough for any automotive system and waisting up to $10 in fluid is way, way, way cheaper than having a garage or the dealer do it.  When the fluid felt a little hotter than a hot shower water, and was down to a tiny trickle, I lowered the right side and raised the left side, screwed in the port plug and tightened it with a lot of torque, but not enough to break the wrench or strip the aluminum threads of the case.  In other words, reasonably tight as you'd expect a fill port to be.  As far as I was concerned, my transmission was filled with the correct fluid to the correct level.

     I then addressed all the warning lights on the dash.  The first thing I did was to check all the systems with my scanner.  By the way, the OBD2 electrical connector is located on the extreme left side of the driver's side under the dash and next to the door opening.  Only one trouble code was set and so I canceled it.   There were several other lights lit relating to the ABS and traction control that didn't show up on my scanner (probably unique to Subaru) so I took the car on a short drive and into a muddy field to practice panic stops and loss of traction.  Even with the lights still on, everything worked perfectly, the ABS performed flawlessly and I motored right through the thickest mud.  I was somewhat upset that the lights stayed on, but I figured I could find somebody with a Subaru scanner who could reset them for a few bucks.  I drove home and parked the car in the driveway and finished working on my GMC 3/4 ton 4wd pickup (love that truck) to get it ready to haul horses to Tejon Ranch the next day.  When I was done with the GMC I needed to move the Subaru so I could put the truck behind my fence.  When I started up the Subaru, all the warning lights were out.  Oh joy, oh joy!!  The system had run tests on itself and found that everything was working perfectly and so shut off all the lights.

     By doing something as stupid as draining the transmission, I caused myself a lot of anxiety, less than $100 and hours of extra work, but I got it all done without being late for the departure to Tejon Ranch later that afternoon.  

     Yesterday by late afternoon I returned from my trip.  When I got to my house a bit later, I took the Subaru on a moderately long drive just to see if the transmission was working properly.  It might be my imagination, but I seriously believe that the transmission shifts noticeably smoother even if the feeling is very subtle.  The old transmission fluid was pretty clean, but it was dark and so perhaps changing the fluid wasn't a completely bad idea.   Of all the automotive disasters one can have, this is pretty minor and if you have "The Knack" you too can save yourself days of waiting without the use of your car and hundreds of dollars in shop costs if you simply do it yourself and realize that there is nothing "magical" about these CV transmissions, the fluid they use or steps to refill them properly.  Golly, I wish all my stupid mistakes throughout my life would have been this easy to fix or even  fixable at all.

     The question that has not been answered yet is this:  if I'm so good, why did I make this obvious and really stupid mistake.  Well, I was trying to get ready for a long trip, both vehicles came up needing an oil change at the same time (never happened before), the truck was in the driveway where I normally change my oil.  I did not jack up the front end of my Subaru to get to the oil drain bolt as I have always done, but approached it from the rear.  From the rear, there was this super-easy to get to drain plug that I mistook for the crankcase.  Why they make it so very, very easy to drain the transmission by mistake by having the plug out there in plain sight while the crankcase plug is hidden is, in my opinion, irresponsible of Subaru.  In fact, there should NOT be a drain plug at all.  My GMC does not have a transmission drain plug nor has any other car I've ever owned had a transmission drain plug.  In short, I was rushed, I was not thinking and I was doing something in a way that was bound to confuse me and there it was, a drain plug out in plain sight, just begging to be opened.  I paid the price for my stupidity, but the price was affordable, but perhaps it wouldn't have been so if I wasn't able to revive my Knack and fix the problem myself.

     Good luck and if you too drain the wrong oil, it isn't the end of the world and there is nothing magical about replacing it.

THE END