1997 Subaru Legacy Outback

Hi Everyone-

I have a neighbor and friend (also happens to be a mechanic and has owned his own garage for years) who wants to sell me a 1997 Subaru Legacy Outback with 190K Miles on it…for $2000. It’s a standard, the interior is absolutely flawless, the exterior has a little rust around the back wheels, but otherwise is very clean. It hasn’t been used in around a year.

I really like Outbacks in general, which is why I’ve been considering it.

I took it for a 40-ish mile drive the other day, and it seemed to do really well…it’s got quite a bit of power for a 4-cylinder, the clutch grabs nicely and doesn’t feel worn, and I LOVE the all wheel drive. The tires on it aren’t great (really need to be replaced), but I went through a closed dirt road with steep hills and 4-6 inches of snow with no problems whatsoever…that impressed me.

The only negative is that the brakes went…I took it again today (he’s been eager to let me drive it a lot) and I stopped just fine, but felt the brake pedal sink to the floor once I came to a complete stop. I drove the five miles back to his garage with some brakes (from the feel of it, I had just fronts, and they only worked in the last 1/2 inch or so of the pedal). He says he’ll get the brakes working fine again…he said the pads and rotors are fine, so it must be a line or something (and I believe that, because before they went, the brakes seemed perfect).

In general, do you think this is a good buy? Were the brakes bound to go after sitting for a year without use? Should I be afraid of the 190K miles? On most makes, that is quite a daunting number, but I know Subarus are known for their long lives (my father had an old GL wagon that was pushing 300K without any issues at one point).

Any feedback would be great!

With that number of miles on it, the key questions are:

Have the head gaskets been replaced? If so, how long ago?
Can you verify that there is currently no need to replace the head gaskets?
When was the timing belt last replaced? It needs to be replaced every 105k miles or 7.5 years, whichever comes first, meaning that the “sitting time” counts toward that elapsed time total.
How diligently has it been maintained? Can you verify its maintenance through documentation?
Has the car ever been run with mis-matched tires?

Yes, Subarus will give reliable service for many, many years.
However, if their maintenance has been less-than-stellar, Subarus can rapidly turn into money pits.
Problems relating to bad head gaskets, or a broken timing belt, or driving the car with mis-matched tires (all of which are the Achilles Heel of this model) will result in repairs exceeding the book value of the car.

Yes, you should be VERY afraid of the 190k miles unless the answers to all of my above questions are in your favor.

Thanks for the feedback!

The current set of tires match (but has to be replaced, like I said–so we know about around 20K miles probably, but that’s only a small fraction)…as for in the past, I have no idea…I’ll have to ask him what he knows about that.

The other concerns seem to be the timing belt and the head gaskets? I’ll see if he has a record of that as well. I remember my father had to replace timing belts in his GL and later in his Loyal…seemed to be the only thing that ever went in those.

As far as maintenance…the overall condition of the car seems to be in the favor of a good maintenance history…plus, it drives like it’s much newer than it is–no noises, everything feels tight, etc. Of course, that can’t tell everything! I’ll also see what he has for records of maintenance.

Again, thanks for the input! I’ll keep you posted.

I agree with VDCdriver as to the potential pitfalls. On the other hand, for $2000 you’re probably not going to find another AWD vehicle with as good a body/interior and that was owned/maintained by a mechanic.

So, yeah, the head gasket could blow tomorrow, or you could get another 50-100k miles out of it. If you do the checks that VDCdriver recommended and it still looks good, I’d go for it.

Thanks for the input!

Out of curiosity how expensive is a head gasket to replace in one of these? Is it akin to a failed tranny or engine–not worth replacing?

I know that he hasn’t owned it for its entire life–his daily driver is a 200X F-250 Diesel. When he heard I was interested in an Outback, drove it from his house to his garage, changed the oil, cleaned it up a little, and let me drive it. He has a lot of different vehicles that he uses for different occasions…and sells enough vehicles to qualify for dealer plates, so he can literally alternate what he’s driving in seconds. I’d say that while he certainly has used it himself, he’s probably got a half-dozen vehicles that he uses on and off.

That’s a little more risky then, because if he hasn’t owned it long, you don’t know the maintenance history. You’d have to check the condition of the timing belt and possibly replace it from the get-go just to be safe.

Don’t know the cost of a head gasket job, but this might give you an estimate:

I’ve performed a lot of car inspections over the years and I’ve never seen a 200k miles vehicle yet that did not need at least a short laundry list of needed fixes.

It’s anybody’s guess about this car and some of the biggest potential issues are the timing belt and head gasket issues. The former is pricy, the latter is much pricier and can be a car deal killer.

As to your father’s old GL wagon that could be a different thing altogether depending on the year model because the older GLs were not as prone to head gasket problems and used a gear driven camshaft instead of a timing belt.

A thorough inspection by someone else would be helpful but even the best of inspections by the most competent of mechanics does not guarantee a problem-free car.