626 Transmission FAQ

Despite Mazda's recurring efforts to create a sports-sedan image for the 626, which would seem to demand a stick shift, most of them went out the door with automatic transmissions, and judging by message boards, mailing lists, and my personal correspondence, a lot of them are coming back in the door with transmission problems. A few of the common questions are answered here.

Which automatic transmission do I have in my 626?

Assuming you're driving a North American-spec 626 other models may vary substantially here's the scoop:

Can I expect problems?

Early versions of the CD4E piled up a fairly terrible repair record, some of it the transmission's fault, and some of it Mazda's implementation of it. In the '94 626 specifically, there appears to be a quirk in the speedometer gear set, and since the transmission's shift points are determined at least partially by reported vehicle speed, this can result in erratic shifting and the flashing of the infamous Hold or O/D Off light without the transmission being necessarily at fault at all. The transmission has had other problems as well: early versions are prone to blowing out the pump gasket, the failure rate of the original forward-clutch assembly is high, and line pressure occasionally goes off the scale. (For more detail on these problems, see Gears magazine, January 2000; it's nowhere on line, but your trans shop may have a copy.) Mazda had an informal recall um, a "Special Service Program" of the '94s (and only the '94s) to correct the speedometer gear set, though it's since expired. And Ford made running changes to the CD4E, revising the pump plate and gasket in November 1996 and redesigning the coast/forward clutch assembly in January 1998. Cooling capacity, another weak point, has been improved, though many owners are installing auxiliary transmission coolers to be on the safe side.

This is not to say, of course, that you can't get a lemon in the G/GF4A-EL line either, but during the middle Nineties, the GF4A-EL was somewhat more reliable than the CD4E. When ZF acquired 51 percent of the Batavia facility in 1999, one of the announced goals was to beef up the CD4E for use in the Tribute/Escape; the 626 version also benefited.

What are Mazda's service recommendations for automatic transmissions?

Mostly nonexistent. The manual is silent on the question of when to change the fluid. And what's more, the old drop-the-pan method won't work at all on the CD4E, since it has no bottom pan to drop. There's a side cover over the valve bodies, but that's it. Still, either transmission can be serviced using the new fluid-replacement systems, and most of the Mazda techs I've talked to in recent years believe that the old two-year/30,000-mile interval that used to be considered the norm for transmission service is good for the 626.

Are Ford's service recommendations for the CD4E the same?

I turned this up in a Contour/Mystique owner's manual:

"Under normal vehicle operating conditions, transmission service (transmission model CD4E) is not required unless 5,000 mile fluid inspections reveal either contamination or discoloration of fluid, or transmission exhibits functional concerns."

Definitely sounds like you ought to look at the fluid every 5,000 miles.

What does the Hold function do?

"Hold" is a switch that changes the shift patterns of the transmission. Not all 626 models have it. Where Hold is offered, the normal shift pattern with Hold off is:

D: 1, 2, 3, 4
S: 1, 2, 3
L: 1, 2

With Hold engaged, the shift pattern becomes:

D: 2 (briefly), 3
S: 2
L: 1

The typical shift pattern for a 626 without Hold is:

D: 1, 2, 3, 4
2: 2
1: 1

These cars will generally have an O/D Off switch on the shifter, which changes D to 1, 2, 3.

What does it mean when the Hold (or O/D Off) light is blinking?

According to Mazda, it is an indication of an electrical problem in the transmission. Actually, it could also be an indication of bad sensor data reaching the transmission. This light and the Malfunction Indicator ("Check Engine") light are rather closely connected; since this transmission is computer-controlled, you could be getting signals from either. If this is happening to you and you're not up to reading codes, as I'm not, you should probably go to the dealership or to a garage that speaks fluent Mazda and get the codes pulled. The pertinent ones you're most likely to encounter, on a pre-OBD II vehicle, are:

Mazda switched the automatic 626 to OBD II around the 1996 model year, so if you have a '96 or later, you'll need a full-fledged OBD II-compatible scan tool. The '94 and '95 models reportedly come with Ford's EEC-IV diagnostics.

A Technical Service Bulletin exists for some 1999-2001 models. TSB 05-005/02 deals with one specific circumstance: after extended highway driving, the O/D off light is blinking and code P1783 is set (excessive ATF temperature). Occasionally there will be overflow through the dipstick tube and harsh shifting. Mazda's recommended fix is to replace the radiator and to install an auxiliary cooler for the transmission. Note that this is not an extension to the standard factory warranty.

So it doesn't mean the transmission is about to melt down?

Not necessarily. It is a legitimate cause for concern, but real transmission breakdowns tend to manifest themselves in a manner far more dramatic than mere flashing dash lights.

When problems do occur, the transmission has a perhaps-misnamed "fail-safe" mode, in which it seems to act like a worn-out three-speed with jerky shifting action. Mostly, it's cutting the computer out of the circuit and relying solely upon the hydraulics to do the dirty work.

What does it cost to have a transmission rebuilt?

It depends on your local conditions, though $1500 to $2500 is probably fairly typical. It is Mazda North American Operations policy that Mazda dealers do not do rebuilds; if the repair is something more complicated than seals and gaskets, or the pump, they will swap the transmission for a previously-rebuilt model, at a price on the high side of $2500. Expect a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty on transmission work.

If there are so many of these failing, shouldn't Mazda be picking up the tab?

The last of them came off the production line eight years ago; the chances that you're going to get a free transmission out of this, or even a free rebuild, are next to nil. Feel free to complain to Mazda North American Operations if you're so inclined, however, and drop a line to the National Highway Traffic Safety Organization if you experience a failure.

Is there a chance that it's not the transmission at all?

There is. Remember that the more recent transmissions are totally under computer control. Partial or complete failure of the computer is rather uncommon, but computer problems can manifest themselves as transmission problems. When my previous 626 (a '93 with the GF4A-EL) went into a phase when it would start off in third gear and sometimes, even fourth gear the dealer ran extensive diagnostics and pronounced the transmission just fine: the problem was in the little electronic brain. I was skeptical, but they were right. The computer was sent out for regrooving, or something, and everything returned to normal. I can't help but wonder how many "transmission problems" on these cars are actually computer problems. Before you sign the check for a rebuild, make sure that a rebuild is really what you need, and get a second (or even third) opinion.

Recently I heard from a chap who was not only enduring the HOLD light, but his car wouldn't start either. I suggested a few things, the dealership suggested a few others, and eventually the problem was traced to the engine relay in the fuse box, which was reporting to the computer that the car was in gear; the computer duly disabled the starter. Sometimes it's the longest of long shots.

For further exploration:

Performance buffs will find a Ford Probe/Mazda MX-6 & 626 ATX Message Board up and running; the A-Team knows more about these transmissions than almost anyone.

Mazda626.net covers all aspects of these cars, tranny included, and mirrors this page.

Dan Knous, as we recall, wasn't too happy with his '87.

Updated 5 October 2011

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