1998 Subaru Head Gasket Issue

Dear Admired Car Talk Community–

I recently purchased a 1998 Subaru Legacy Outback and have just been told that it needs a new head gasket. I know that Subarus are infamous for head gasket issues, but it seems like it’s a pretty reliable car beyond that. I’m a first year law student (i.e., I’m broke and will be for the next three years) and need a car to pull me through the rest of school. If I replace the head gasket, do you think this car will make it to 200K?

That depends on why and where the gasket is leaking. If it’s leaking internally or blown because of overheating it’s anyone’s guess how long the car will make it. If the engine oil has been diluted with coolant the engine life can be seriously shortened.

If the leak is a coolant or oil weepage externally then you could have the head bolts retorqued. That’s a fairly simple procedure and it may, or may not, stop the weepage.

Also, when head gaskets on a Subaru are replaced one always replaces both of them; not just one. This also means inspecting and surfacing the heads if necessary along with replacing the valve seals. Oftentimes these procedures are neglected.

Just how bad is the head gasket leaking? What are the symptoms? Have you checked the oil and have you checked the coolant?

I know what boat you are in. I am in it with you. I am a 1st year medical student and I need my Camry to pull me through the next 4 years. Look on the bright side, you’ll definitely be gaining a lot of valuable experience in how to maintain and fix cars.


If you maintain the car properly, it should be able to make it to 200k with–of course–some repairs along the way. That is just something that you have to accept in a vehicle that is at least 12 years old.

In addition to ok4450’s good advice, I want to emphasize the issue of maintenance:

If the car has an automatic transmission, the fluid needs to be changed every 3 yrs/30k miles. If you don’t do that, you will almost surely be looking at trans failure well before you get to 200k. Trust me–you need to do this, even if it is not mentioned in the factory maintenance schedule.

Unless you know through documentation that the timing belt was replaced within the last 7 years/105k miles, you also need to have this done a.s.a.p. This car’s “interference design” engine will incur very expensive internal damage when an over-aged timing belt snaps, so this is also something that cannot be ignored. When the timing belt is replaced, you should also replace the water pump, serpentine belt, and all belt tensioners.

If you experience either transmission failure or engine damage from a snapped timing belt, the repair costs will very likely exceed the book value of the car, so this is another case where proper maintenance saves you money in the long run.

How many miles on it now? Timing belt and water pump been changed?

Right now it has 103K miles. Not much for a Subaru. Timing belt and water pump will be changed when the head gasket is replaced. My mechanic is also going to change the oil and I’ll have him check the coolant.

Thanks to you all for your excellent maintenance suggestions. I haven’t owned a car in 7 years and this is my first Subaru, so it’s incredibly helpful to hear this all.

Also–All 4 tires must be very closely matched in terms of tread wear, and they need to be the same size all around. If this cardinal rule is not followed, the result will be replacement of the center viscous coupling/clutch pack, to the tune of ~$700.

If you are in doubt about the condition of the tires, have all 4 replaced.
And, be sure to rotate your tires every 5k or 7.5k miles in order to maintain even tread wear.

103,000 miles, a new timing belt, water pump, and new head gasket. This car will EASILY make it to 200,000. Just go ahead and replace the ATF yourself since it’s used. You never know. Best of luck!


I reiterate; you’re using the word “gasket” in the singular. You always use the plural when dealing with Subaru head gasket. Make sure not only that both gaskets are replaced but that both cylinder heads are checked for flatness.
In theory a short cylinder head should not be prone to warping. In the real world most are warped.

Head gaskets should also be coated with CopperCoat or a similar product before installing them. (seldom done though)

Something else that should be done (and likewise is seldom done) is that about 1000 miles after the repair the cylinder head bolts should be retorqued and the valve lash inspected/adjusted as necessary.