Does This Vehicle Have A Transponder?

Oct. 2, 2012
Sooner or later you will run into a vehicle that either has a transponder system that you didn’t expect or doesn’t have one when you thought it would. The best way of keeping those surprises to a minimum is to pay attention to the details, use resources at your disposal, and learn as much about these systems as you can.

How can you tell if a vehicle is equipped with a working transponder system?  The easiest way is to try to start it with a non-transponder key and see what happens.  Unfortunately, what will often happen is that the transponder system will see this as a theft attempt, throw a theft code into the computer system and make your job a lot harder.  Obviously, you don’t want to do that on a regular basis so that is not what I recommend.  Besides, you need to know if the vehicle has a transponder before you quote the job to the customer.

For the vast majority of vehicles, the first place I check is one of the free vehicle references from Bianchi, Ilco, Jet or JMA. Many of these aftermarket key blank manufacturers offer an updated resource that is either available from your local distributor, the internet or by contacting the manufacturer.  While these books are not perfect, they are free.  Of course, when a company produces a book like this, and gives it away for free, you know that it is a form of advertising.  So don’t expect to see much information on vehicles that use keys that are not available from the manufacturer. 

Then there are the manuals that you have to pay for, such as “Steve Young’s Quick Reference Automotive Manual.” So far, I have yet to find a manual that is 100 perfect – including mine.  Everyone makes mistakes, and trying to keep track of which vehicles have which transponder system is like herding cats. 

As I tell locksmiths in the classes that I teach, “There is always an exception.”  There are very few hard and fast rules in the automotive locksmith business, but the fact that there are exceptions to every rule seems to be the only thing that you can truly count on.

As if the whole transponder business wasn’t confusing enough, you’ve got manufacturers who offer transponders as “Optional Equipment.”  This optional equipment is based on various factors such as engine size, trim level, or something else that probably made sense to somebody in the marketing department. But out on the street it doesn’t seem to make much sense at all. 

In some cases such as the 2003 – 2006 Toyota Camry, The manuals will simply tell you that the CE and LE versions are transponder equipped. So what happens when you run into the L version?  Well as it turns out, about the only way to know for certain is to go to the dealer with the VIN and see what key their system calls for.  Apparently, the date of construction and the engine type will determine if the vehicle actually uses a transponder or not. And unfortunately, the dealerships are not always right.

Sometimes even going to the dealer with the VIN won’t help you.  Recently, a friend of mine took the 2008 Nissan Titan, which he had bought for his son, to the dealership to have an extra key made.  He was quoted over $300 for the job.  After he recovered from sticker shock, he called me and I quoted him a “buddy price” that he could live with.  I made two copies of his original Nissan transponder key and then tried to program my keys into the truck with absolutely zero luck.  While scratching my head trying to figure out what was wrong, I noticed that the truck had old-fashioned hand-cranked windows.  With that in mind, I tried starting the truck with the unprogrammed keys and it started immediately.  Just out of curiosity, I checked his original key with a cloning device to make sure that it really had a chip in it, and it did.  So this entry level pick-up truck was delivered to the customer with transponder keys, but no transponder system.  And even the dealer was going to charge him the full price for a transponder key on a vehicle that they should have known did not have a transponder system.  So what in the world are we supposed to do when we can’t even get reliable information from the dealers?

Use Your Resources

When in doubt, I usually go first to the free references because they are always handy.   But, because nothing is perfect, I usually check with a couple of other trusted sources if I have any doubts.  The “Genericode” software that Gale Johnson and Framon Manufacturing produce is what I use for codes, but it also gives me key blank information as well.  I also use “Autosmart™” from Michael Hyde, and if the vehicle uses a high security lock system, I may also consult Determinator Tom’s “High Security Quick Reference Book” or his “Key Origination Manual.” 

If it’s a domestic vehicle that may have Strattec locks on it, I also check out the Strattec website at This website has a wealth of information on domestic vehicles and some imports like Mitsubishi as well.  Of course since it is a manufacturers website, don’t expect to find stuff there on vehicles that don’t use Strattec locks.

All of these resources also provide me with other information that I’ll need in order to quote the job properly.  While I’m checking to see if the vehicle is transponder equipped, I’m also looking at the bitting of the locks to determine how I’ll go about generating a new mechanical key.  I’ll check to see if I can expect to find a code on the vehicle as well.

There are transponder ring detecting devices on the market, but they are more of a diagnostic tool rather than a tool to be used in quoting a job.  To use one of those tools, you have to be at the vehicle and usually have a key that will turn the ignition.

Know Your Market

We all know that I’m an automotive geek and that I follow the automotive market a lot closer than most.  For that reason, I simply “know” in most cases whether a vehicle will be transponder equipped or not. Here are a few guidelines I use to decide if a particular vehicle is transponder equipped or not.  I’ve broken these down by manufacturer because that seems to be the easiest way for me to think about it.

Ford / Lincoln / Mercury

Ford was the first manufacturer in North America to embrace transponder technology.  Numerically, there are more Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles on the streets of North America equipped with transponders than any other single manufacturer.  That is because in the 2000 model year, Ford made the decision to make their transponder system, which Ford calls PATS (Passive Anti Theft System), standard equipment on all “passenger vehicles.”

The distinction of “passenger vehicles” is an important one and it has changed through the years.  In the beginning, “passenger vehicle” meant that the larger trucks and vans like the F-250, F-350, E-250, etc. did not have transponders, but today even most of those vehicles have transponders.

Early Ford Transponder vehicles (1996 – 1999)

The first Ford transponders were introduced in the 1996 model year.  From then until the 2000 model year, transponders were optional equipment on a limited number of models.  Chart 1 specifies the transponder equipped Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles from 1996 – 1999.

Later Ford Transponder vehicles (2000 - 2012)

When you talk about which Ford vehicles made after 2000, are or are not, equipped with transponders, it’s easiest to list the exceptions that do not have transponders since almost everything from the 2000 model year up is transponder equipped. 

Ford Escort & Escort ZX1 – This vehicle used Mazda locks and never had a transponder system.  It was discontinued after the 2003 model year.

Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique – The four-cylinder versions of these vehicles never had a transponder system and the line was discontinued after the 2000 model year.

Ford Ranger Pick-Up, 2000 - 2006 – Transponder systems were optional on these vehicles.  However, after 2001 ALL rangers were shipped with transponder keys regardless of whether they were equipped with a transponder system or not.  When in doubt, try starting it with a mechanical key - the Ford system is very forgiving.

Ford F-Series Trucks and E-Series Vans, 1999 – 2003 – Transponders are standard equipment on the F-150, but optional on the F-250.  As a general rule, if the truck or van looks like a base level vehicle with few if any options, it will probably not have a transponder system.  If it is a high-end vehicle with leather seats and power windows, it probably will have a transponder system.

Chrysler Products

When it came to transponders, the Chrysler Corporation was late to the party, and slow to begin using transponders as standard equipment.   Even though they introduced transponders on several vehicles in the 1998 model year, it wasn’t until 2007 that you could pretty much count on any Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep vehicle to have a transponder system.  Some vehicles did use a transponder system as standard equipment as early as 1998, but on the whole, most Chrysler products made before 2007 could go either way.  Below is a list of the early Chrysler vehicles that used a transponder system as standard equipment.

  • Chrysler LHS – 1999 and up
  • Dodge Neon – 2000 and up
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee – 1998 and up
  • Plymouth Grand Voyager – 2001 and up
  • Plymouth Neon – 2000 and up

The remaining Chrysler products had transponder systems as optional equipment.  The early Chrysler system was called “Sentry Key” and all of the transponder keys had a distinctive grey colored rubber head.  You would think that you could ask the owner what color the key was before they lost it to help determine if it was a transponder vehicle or not.  However, it has been my experience that most people simply don’t pay enough attention to their keys to make this very reliable.  (Maybe people who do pay attention also care enough to not lose their keys?)

When quoting a price on older Chrysler vehicles I’ll generally quote the price for a transponder vehicle and then if it turns out not to be a transponder system, I’ll make the customer very happy by charging them less than I quoted.  This is a LOT easier to do than the other way around.

Of course, the Chrysler system has an “Immobilizer Code” (PIN Code) that you will also need in order to program the vehicle.  Most people get the code from a friendly dealer or from a code-broker, but there are also machines that “pull” the immobilizer code directly from the vehicle.  One would think that non-transponder vehicles would not have an immobilizer code on file with the manufacturer.  That however is not the case.  I’ve gotten immobilizer codes on many non-transponder vehicles directly from the dealer.

As a general rule, if you have the equipment to program the vehicle, it won’t hurt to try to start the vehicle with a mechanical key.  If the car starts, your work is done.  If it does not start, and the security light comes on, you can go ahead and program the vehicle without a problem.  If the car does not start, and the security light does not come on, you have a whole new problem on your hands.  It’s always good to remember that there are thousands of things other than a transponder system that can keep a vehicle from starting.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Chrysler transponder system:

  • No Dodge van was ever equipped with a transponder system until the Sprinter came out in 2003.
  • No Dodge pick-up made before 2001 had a transponder system.
  • The Viper never had a transponder system.
  • The Chrysler Sebring Coupe and Dodge Stratus Coupe were joint ventures with Mitsubishi and both vehicles used a Mitsubishi lock mechanism and transponder system as standard equipment.
  • The Jeep Wrangler got transponders as optional equipment in 1998, but only on the high-end models.  Transponders did not become standard on the Wrangler until 2007.
  • The Chrysler Crossfire was a joint venture with Mercedes and it uses a Mercedes transponder system, so it is essentially a dealer-only system.

GM Systems

The GM fleet of vehicles tends to either have a transponder system as standard equipment, or not at all.  The first GM vehicle equipped with transponders was the 1997 Buick Park Avenue, and it had transponders as standard equipment.  As long as you check your resources in advance you will find few surprises on most GM vehicles.  However, several GM vehicles were joint ventures with other manufacturers and use a transponder system that is not a standard GM system.  Below is a list of those vehicles.

  • Cadillac Catera – uses the European Opel system and requires an immobilizer code
  • Pontiac Vibe – uses a Toyota system and Toyota programming procedures
  • Pontiac GTO – uses the Australian Holden system, but has GM on-board programming
  • Pontiac G8 - uses the Australian Holden system, but has GM on-board programming
  • Saturn Astra - uses the Australian Holden system, but has GM on-board programming

The Pontiac Grand Prix, made from 2004 – 2008, uses a more or less standard GM system except for one very important feature.  If you attempt to start one of these vehicles with a non-transponder key, it will usually throw a “theft code” into the computer that will require dealer equipment to clear.  If you need to test your mechanical key in the ignition, disconnect the battery before you try the key.  Then, before you re-connect the battery, insert your transponder key into the ignition, but don’t turn it on.  That way, as soon as the system “wakes up” it will see a transponder key and not throw a theft code.

Nissan Vehicles

As I mentioned earlier, the Nissan Titan has transponders as optional equipment depending on the trim level and options found on the vehicle.  Old-fashioned manual wind-up windows are usually a dead give-away that the vehicle is not transponder equipped.  This is also true of the Nissan Xterra, made from 2000 – 2004, but most other Nissans that have a transponder system use it as standard equipment.  Even though these “entry level” vehicles are not equipped with a transponder system, they are shipped with transponder keys because that is more cost effective than having special keys for the non-transponder vehicles.  For this reason, you really can’t be sure about these vehicles until you are on the job.

The first Nissan product to be equipped with transponders was the 1997 Infiniti Q45.  In 1999, the Nissan Maxima got essentially the same system.  The Nissan Pathfinder got the same system as the Maxima mid-year in the 1999 model year.  All three of these vehicles used a proprietary Nissan programming port instead of the OBD port for programming.  This means that you MUST have a special cable or adapter in order to program these vehicles with most diagnostic tools.  Other than these exceptions, the entire Nissan fleet since 2001 has been transponder equipped.

Toyota Vehicles

Early Toyota transponder systems seem to have been designed for maximum inconvenience for both the owner and the technician.  The Engine Control Unit (ECU) that contains the immobilizer system was designed in such a way that if the keys were lost or stolen, the ECU would have to be replaced at a minimum cost of about $1,200.  As you can imagine, this did not go over well with Toyota / Lexus owners since initially the ECU replacement was not covered under warranty in a lost key situation.

A few enterprising technicians came up with ways to manually reset the ECU, with a process now known as “re-flashing.”  Eventually, Toyota adopted a system that could be reprogrammed without such extreme measures, but they never seemed to be in a hurry to implement it. 

The following Toyota and Lexus vehicles have the older system that must be re-flashed if there is no “master key” available.

  • Toyota 4Runner: 1999-2002
  • Toyota Avalon: 1998-2004
  • Toyota Camry: 1998-2002
  • Toyota Highlander: 2001-2003
  • Toyota Land Cruiser: 1999-2002
  • Toyota Prius: 2001-2003
  • Toyota Sequoia: 2003-2007
  • Toyota Sienna: 1998-2003
  • Toyota Solara: 1999-2003
  • Lexus ES Series: 1998-2003
  • Lexus GS Series: 1998-2005
  • Lexus IS Series: 2001-2005
  • Lexus LS Series: 1997-2000
  • Lexus LX Series: 1998-2002
  • Lexus RX Series: 1999-2003
  • Lexus SC Series: 1998-2000

On these systems, new keys could be programmed with a complicated on-board procedure that involved opening and closing doors and / or stepping on the brake or gas pedal in a specific sequence as long as at least one “Master” key was available.  The real difference between the “Master” key and the “Valet” key is an electronic difference rather than a mechanical difference.  The OEM Valet keys have a charcoal grey rubber head and the OEM master key has a black rubber head.  However, over time they all begin to look black, and aftermarket keys can be any color.

The best way to determine if you have a master or a valet key is to insert it into the ignition and observe the security light.  When a master key is inserted (it’s not necessary to turn the key), the security light will either not come on at all, or it will go out instantly.  When a valet key is inserted into the ignition, the security light will hesitate for just a second before it goes out.

Other Systems

The systems used by Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and other Asian manufacturers are usually standard equipment on particular models.  Your reference materials will usually spell these out in detail.  As a general rule, transponder systems are rare on Hyundai and Kia vehicles made before 2006.

The early system used by Honda and Acura is similar to the Toyota system in that no programming is possible without a special key.  In this case though, the special key is a red key that was packed in the glove box along with the owner’s manual.  If this key is missing, or if the owner has tried to start the car with the key, the immobilizer module will have to be replaced or re-flashed.  In most cases, replacing the immobilizer module is the most cost effective option, because of the relatively low cost of the module.  Only the following vehicles were equipped with this system:

  • Acura NSX 1997 – 2005
  • Acura RL 1996 – 2004
  • Honda Prelude 1997 – 2002

The bottom line is that sooner or later you will run into a vehicle that either has a transponder system that you didn’t expect or doesn’t have one when you thought it would.  The best way of keeping those surprises to a minimum is to pay very close attention to the details, use the resources at your disposal, and to learn as much about these systems as you can.