CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

1996 Subaru Legacy Randomly Will Not Start

We bought a 1996 Subaru Outback Legacy Wagon a year ago. It has a salvaged title with some back-end damage that doesn’t seem to effect the overall ride of the car. The car really seems to run fine, but the main problem is it randomly won’t start. We can drive it short or long distances. It will start just fine 5 to 10 times in a row and then - BAM - we go to leave somewhere and it won’t start. It makes a sound like it is trying to turn over, but it just doesn’t have that last spark to start…until you wait approximately 10 minutes, then it starts again like nothing happened. We changed the fuel filter thinking it might have a blockage, but to no avail. We live in Portland, Oregon, so we get all four seasons of weather. The temperature does not seem to be of any consequence.

Does anyone have any insight to what the problem might be? Thanks!

Apparently I’ve stumped the Car Talk community! We want to sell this car, but need to know what to fix before we sell it. Anyone…anyone…anyone?!

Is this vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission? If it is then shift to neutral and try starting the engine the next time it does not start in park. If it starts then replace the neutral safety switch. If it’s a standard shift transmission then the clutch safety switch is probably bad. To test it just pump the clutch pedal several times and see if it starts.

“” It makes a sound like it is trying to turn over, but it just doesn’t have that last spark to start…"" This is a bit confusing… Are you saying that you turn the key and the engine turns over/cranks…but will not “run/start”? OR are you saying that the engine cannot “Crank”

It goes like this…you turn your ignition key to the RUN position…then on to the spring loaded CRANK position…it turns over/cranks the engine…and THEN if youre lucky…it STARTS and RUNS for you…

SO…if the engine is turning over and will not start…then it is most COMMONLY ONE OF TWO THINGS…Either it is not getting fuel…or it is not getting spark…

NOW…if you try to turn it over…and it sounds TIRED…SLOW…like Rrrrrur Rrrrur rrrur…slowly cranking…like it doesnt have enough battery power to spin the engine fast enough…THEN THAT…would be a battery/charging issue…or not having enough voltage to crank the engine fast enough. This gets us to say make sure your batt connections are clean and tight…but I don’t think you are describing this issue

I THINK you are trying to say the first example…it turns over/cranks just fine…but is unable to start…and in that case it may be having a fueling problem…this condition can be caused by a Fuel Pump Relay not supplying power to the pump due to dirty contact points inside the relay…(THIS is actually quite common)…locate your Fuel Pump Relay under the hood in the fuse box found there…find the relay…and SWAP IT with an identical one that powers something else…if after you swap them the issue is resolved…you found it…

Another fueling issue can be that your fuel pump motor gets stuck…If this does the “no start” condition again…locate your fuel tank…and BANG ON IT…like with a 2x4 piece of wood what this does is Jar/vibrate the fuel pump in the tank and many x it will jog the fuel pump motor into spinning again…IF you do this experiment and the banging the tank trick works…then its your fuel pump getting “Tired”…

Either the fuel pump cant get power…or the fuel pump is getting stuck…THESE cover the issue IF it is a fueling problem. THE OTHER…and EQUALLY IMPORTANT cause could be that you aren’t getting spark to the plugs…that’s a whole other bag of tricks… IF she cranks over and doesn’t start…go back and actually SMELL your tailpipe…LOL…I know sounds silly…but if you smell unburnt fuel smell…then it is not getting SPARK…and we can go from there You have some homework to do…Let us know

Blackbird

Does it start if you floor the accelerator pedal?
Note: don’t pump it - just floor it. That disables the fuel injectors and doesn’t pump more fuel in. If you’re flooded, not being able to start would be an indicator.

Thanks for all the queries and information, Missleman, Blackbird & RemcoW, ! We really appreciate it.

  1. Yes, it is an automatic.
  2. When trying to start it, it cranks. but does not start. So, it’s not a battery issue I guess is my point. Sorry, that was a bit confusing. It does not sound slowed or tired.
  3. and…A HA! There is indeed an unburnt fuel smell occasionally from the exhaust. I’ve noticed this on and off many times. We thought maybe it was something to do with the carburetor, but have never gotten to the root of the problem. Perhaps this is a significant clue?

@RemcoW: We’ve never thought to try that. Being that it only happens every so often, we will give it a go next time she decides to fail us!

Thanks again. We look forward to more of your thoughts.

Your 96 surely has fuel injection, not a carburetor?
You could have a leaky injector or something like that. It wouldn’t hurt to put some good injector cleaner in your next full tank.
Report back when it happens again.

I am thinking along the same lines as Remco, and I am quite sure that this engine is fuel-injected, rather than carbureted.

I guess that it wouldn’t hurt to use a good fuel injector cleaner in the next tank (I recommend Chevron’s Techron), but if–as I am beginning to theorize–it is a leaking fuel injector, replacing the bad injector(s) is probably the only solution.

Yeah, that’s what I was thinking as well, a leaky injector flooding the engine.
+1 on the Chevron stuff. That has worked well for me as well.

Sure Fuel injector cleaner is all fine and good…but if you don’t have spark to light it all off…they wont get anywhere. When you have that no start condition is it after a long drive…what I’m getting at is it running long enough to FULLY heat up the engine and all of its components? Reason being…if an ignition component such as a coil pack or distributor cap is “on its way out” the symptoms usually arise when they are FULLY heated up…

Here is an example of a distributor cap… The cap (which you don’t have) has a microscopic crack in it it functions fine when cold and the crack is the smallest…then when its fully heated up the crack opens just enough (because of the heat) that it actually lets the high voltage (that would normally shoot down the spark plug wire and to the plugs)…leaks out to ground and NOT down to spark the plugs… This is how heat affects ignition components like coils and distributor caps…this could be a situation that your Subie suffers from…

Blackbird…

@ Blackbird: It doesn’t matter if the car has been driven a couple miles or a hundred. It is very random as to when it won’t start. I would say that the last time it happened, it was driven approximately 2 miles on a day that it snowed. But I’d driven it over a hundred miles once, stopped for a burger, and it wouldn’t start. Does driving it only a couple of miles in freezing temperatures allow the engine to actually heat up fully? So, are we thinking that it may be the coil pack or distributor cap on its way out?

You all are being really, super, amazingly helpful and it is appreciated :slight_smile:

It can be yes, but it can also be no fuel being pumped also…which can be the fuel pump relay not making contact each time you turn the key to “on”… I don’t know what is occurring AT your no start condition…that only you or another mechanic can tell me. If its no spark…we go down that road…if its no fuel…another…get me?

You stated that you get an unburned gas smell (but I don’t know if this is WHEN you get the no start…which is where my two scenarios come from)…is that at the no start instance? If so…its spark… IF NOT then we can be on fuel…the relay…the pump…YOU need to tell ME…PLEASE…LOL. When she doesn’t start immediately again…STOP and PAY ATTENTION… Smell your tailpipe for raw fuel smell…let us know… If you do have raw fuel smell pull a spark plug wire and ground it out and see if you have spark when cranking the engine…I know this sounds like a lot…but these are the things I would be doing at that time…and I can guarantee you…I will discover whats what in no time…Just trying to give you the “mindset” if you will

Another item instead of the coil pack is the crank/cam angle sensor…these devices tell the coil pack where the engine is in its rotation and which spark plug to fire and when…if it isn’t getting a signal from either sensor it wont know which plug to fire from the coil pack…although this issue if it were either sensor…will almost always be accompanied by a CEL (check engine light) the vehicle is very aware whether or not the cam or crank angle sensors are working or not…so…IF you have no CEL’s to go on then is can be that fuel pump relay again as this is NOT monitored by the ECU…so no CEL’s can be thrown when this happens

I REALLY need to know if you have an unburned fuel smell at the tailpipe when she doesn’t start…I know its kinda funny to go sniffing your own tailpipe…LOL…but these things need to be done sometimes…so you can help yourself figure out the issue…Again just let us know…so you can help us help you…were here for ya

Blackbird

It is very interesting that you bring the CEL into play. We had a problem with it always coming on, to the point that we had our mechanic disconnect it. He couldn’t figure out while it wouldn’t go off. Because our car was at one time rear-ended, we thought that maybe it had to do with the hatch back being damaged. ANYWAY…maybe this has to do with the underlying problem. This is our spare car so we don’t drive it consistently for the problem to appear often. I think I may start driving it and park the Jeep, though. That way I can put all these clues into action and give you all some definite answers.

Thanks again…

We had a problem with it always coming on, to the point that we had our mechanic disconnect it. He couldn’t figure out while it wouldn’t go off.

Holy cow. Get a new mechanic.

Have someone scan the computer for error codes. The codes have the format “P1234” - get the exact codes and report them. It only might help, but you still need to know what it is.

If your only goal is to sell the car then I’d just sell it as is while disclosing the occasional no start. The thing isn’t worth a hoot anyway. Salvage title + owner that would rather disconnect warning lights than fix issues + occasional no start = mostly worthless due to being more potential trouble than its worth.

I totally mis-wrote that last part in error according to my other half. Disconnecting the CEL had nothing to do with the back end damage. Nor is the CEL disconnected. I was totally remembering something different. Why I thought a CEL would have to do with the back hatch is even beyond me. There obviously is no engine back there! This car is the bane of our existence and getting to my brain! SO—>The CEL is always on.

I apologize for not getting the facts right…which is obviously important to the whole fixing issue. My girlfriend feels that the car is completely worthless and has even mentioned selling it for scrap! The only thing I really see as being wrong with the car is the starting issue. Other than that, it seems to be just fine (especially for a new driver or someone going to the mountain for snowboarding/skiing). She is more of the prominent driver than I and I just want to get to the bottom of this problem and help her get her money’s worth out of the car, even though she will be taking a huge loss.

RIGHT NOW—JAN 30, 2012: THE CAR IS NOT STARTING!
This is what we’ve tried:

  1. She got out and smelled the tail pipe. There is no odd smell coming from the exhaust. It doesn’t smell like anything.
  2. She did what RemcoW advised and floored the gas while trying to start it TO NO AVAIL. Still no starting.
  3. It seems like it is taking longer to start now. It used to be: wait 5 or so minutes and it will start. Then wait 10 minutes…now we’re looking at 15 (although I am still waiting to see if it has started…she is across town).
  4. Blackbird: Unfortunately it is too dark for her to find the Fuel Pump Relay and try and switch the fuses. Nor can she locate the fuel tank. We should have looked for those before she left so she would know what to look for when it happened. Bad oversight on our part.

I will leave you all with this for now. She may have put it in neutral and pushed it off a cliff by the next time I write. Sorry I haven’t been more precise or correct in my descriptions. Next time I write, I will have the other half here to help me get my facts correct.

Thanks again, all. Really appreciate it.

You can at least cut to problem in half & find out if its spark or fuel.

Get to an auto parts store and buy 1) a spark tester, and 2) a can of starting fluid. (If you don’t know how to use one maybe check the spark tester for instructions & if you don’t see any ask the parts clerk. Its a no-brainer really). This will put you maybe $8-10 in the hole. No big deal & handy to keep around anyway.

If you shoot some starting fluid into the intake and that makes it run - even for a few seconds then its a fuel delivery problem.

If you hook up the spark tester and find no spark then its a spark problem.

If it starts, drive it straight to an auto parts store - many will read the error codes from the computer for free. Write down the exact codes - format: “P1234” - and post them.

Some parts stores will “loan” them out if the car isn’t starting.

Thanks for the advice, cigroller. I will try and get this done sometime within the next 3 days and report back with the info. :slight_smile:

Hi Salvez

Did you ever get a solution to your Subaru issue?

For anyone else that comes across this thread…

I had pretty much exactly the same symptoms with this car and was struggling until the CEL came on. I checked the code and it was a P0335 - Crankshaft Position Sensor Malfunction.

Took the sensor out and it was black on the bottom so cleaned it up and it seems to be working fine for now. If it plays up again I’ll replace the sensor as it’s pretty cheap.

Here’s how to take it out:


(Not my video, and yes that’s a different model, but it’s the same for the Legacy)

I’ll post again if the problem comes back…

Hope this can help someone!