Saturn VTi Transmission Failure

GM’s CVT Experiment Failed Ion and Vue Owners

GM debuted a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in some 2003 Saturn models. The transmission, branded VTi, presented an interesting technological gamble for the manufacturer, one that quickly spiraled out of control with numerous complaints about the transmission’s high rate of failure and exorbitant repair costs.


The VTi is Introduced

The VTi CVT made its debut in the 2003 Saturn Ion and 2002 Saturn Vue. It was GM’s first attempt at high-volume production of a CVT to be used in all-wheel drive vehicle. The goal was to increase fuel economy by as much as 8%. Because CVTs were notorious for belt problems, GM said they tested the transmission for 100,000 miles. Maybe they should have tested it for longer.

Why a CVT?

CVTs are a tool used by manufacturers in the ongoing battle to squeeze out a few extra MPGs, and give them an advantage over the competition.

CVTs generally change gears through the use of a belt (or chain) that runs through a series of moving pulleys. Because of how it’s designed, a CVT has an infinite number of gear ratios that constantly change unlike a traditional transmission that has a fixed number of gear ratios. The goal here is to use the CVT to closely match the engine’s output to the car’s speed, thus having the engine operate closer to optimum efficiency and improve fuel economy.


VTi Transmission Failure Reports

It didn’t take long for durability concerns of the CVT’s steel belt to pop up[1]. GM halted production of the VTi in January, 2004 and also stopped building the Ion and Vue. Debbie Frakes, a GM spokeswoman at the time, said they were worried about a small percentage of vehicles:

“In the field, we have seen very limited instances of belt failure, but we don’t know if the causes of those belt failures are related to the condition we discovered in the tests”

But as time passed it became clear that the problem was not limited to just a few of the transmissions. On CarComplaints.com, 2003 Ion owners started complaining about the transmission slipping while 2004 owners said the VTi failed entirely.

"I bought 2004 Saturn Ion in February, 2011. It had 114,000 miles, drove car very little, while making a left turn into my subdivision, transmission slipped out of gear as I was making left turn I applied the gas and transmission changed gears reved up several rpms car became difficult to steer and I lost control of my car and hit the concrete wall!’ – bcooper220, Sun City, CA

Vehicles Cursed with the VTi

Make Model Year Top Complaint
Saturn Ion 2003 Transmission slipping »
    2004 Transmission failure »
Saturn Vue 2002 Transmission failure »
    2003 Transmission failure »
    2004 Transmission failure »

Complaints Lead to an Extended Warranty

Due to increasing concerns about the VTi, GM extended the warranty on all 2002–2004 Saturn models with the VTi to 5 years / 75,000 miles[2], but that didn’t go far enough. The average reported mileage at failure was around 100,000 miles, but even those lucky enough to have their transmissions replaced under the warranty’s terms said it didn’t matter:

"This is exactly what happened to us. Our transmission has failed each time with no power at all. We are on our 3rd tranny. I bought it used with 66,000km (41,000 miles). The first original tranny went at 75,000 km (46,600 miles) under manufacture’s warranty, thank god. We just replaced it just on feb 24th 2011 at 112 879km (70,140 miles) and we had to pay half price due to the lawsuit (over $2,500). – Melissa B., Abbotsford, B.C

The Class-Action Lawsuit

General Motors eventually settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the owners of more thank 90,000 Saturn Ion and Vue vehicles equipped with the VTi transmission. The percentage of the settlement each owner received depended on the number of miles they had when their transmission failed. The period to sign up to receive a settlement payment has since passed.

GM discontinued the VTi CVT in 2005. Surprise, surprise.


Actions You Can Take

This step is crucial, don't just complain on forums! The sites below will actively manage your complaints and turn them into useful statistics. Both CarComplaints.com and the CAS will report dangerous trends to the authorities and are often called upon by law firms for help with Class Action lawsuits. Make sure to file your complaint on all three sites, we can't stress that enough.

  1. Step 1: File Your Complaint at CarComplaints.com

    CarComplaints.com is a free site dedicated to uncovering problem trends and informing owners about potential issues with their cars. Major class action law firms use this data when researching cases. Add a Complaint

  2. Step 2: Notify the Center for Auto Safety

    The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is a pro-consumer organization that researches auto safety issues & often compels the US government to do the right thing through lobbying & lawsuits. Notify the CAS

  3. Step 3: Report a Safety Concern to NHTSA

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the US agency with the authority to conduct vehicle defect investigations & force recalls. Their focus is on safety-related issues. Report to NHTSA

Share Your Complaint

Add Your Complaint

Join thousands of frustrated car owners who have voiced their opinion and notified other consumers of issues at CarComplaints.com.

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Click the links above for additional details and any pending class action lawsuit information.

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