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1999 Subaru trouble: need second opinion

While driving at 60mph on a highway, the heat in my 1999 Subaru Legacy Outback suddenly turned off and started blowing cold air. As I continued to drive, the temperature gauge flew past H and the car started to sputter like it was running out of gas (I had a full tank). I decreased my speed to 40, then to 30, and then finally pulled over because the shaking was so alarming. The car has 118,000 miles.

I let the car sit for 5 minutes and then checked the fluid levels. All clear, but there was a small amount of smoke around the radiator and coolant vessel. I tried to start the car again and it barely turned over; at that point, the “check engine light” and “at oil temp” light turned on. I waited 10 minutes, and then tried to start it again. Nothing.

I had the car towed to the same mechanic that had replaced my timing belt a week before, but he has yet to diagnose the problem. At first it was the water pump, then it was the head gasket, and now they are talking about a cracked head.

My father-in-law wants to take it to a Subaru dealer for a second opinion because he suspects that their timing belt work caused the problem.

1. Did the timing belt cause the damage?

2. What is wrong with my car? Why can’t the mechanic find the problem?

It is customary to put in a new coolant pump when the timing belt is changed. Also tensioners. If the job was done wrong, a leaking pump gasket could cause the symptoms you describe. If the pump was not changed, and then failed, ditto. The results of the loss of coolant can bee seen in your post. the worst case is that the rings are now fried, and you will need a new engine. You need a thourough diagnosis to determine just what went wrong and when and why before you contact a lawyer. It was probably a mistake to take it back to the same guy who worked on it before you got that diagnosis. Contact your insurance agent to see what to do next.

When the timing belt was replaced, the mechanic mentioned that changing the water pump at the same time was a good idea, but only to save on labor costs. I decided against having the water pump changed at that time. Six days later, the car breaks down.

I should also mention that when the mechanic cruised the car for 20 minutes, a wire melted. I don’t know whether the tensioners were changed or not.

The reason I took it back to the first mechanic was because if the timing belt work caused the problem, the mechanic would pay for the towing.

looks more like your choice to save a few bucks cost you dear. A penny saved is a penny earned for sure, but, a stitch in time saves nine.

But why would the water pump just break down all of a sudden, when I had never had any problems with it before? It seems like a heck of a coincidence.

And why won’t/can’t the mechanic give me a straight answer?

Did your timing belt recently get replaced? Did they not also replace the water pump? It’s connected to the timing belt and usually replaced at the same time… this is recommended because to replace the pump you need to take the belt off so why pay for the labor to do it again.

If your heat went off (To cold)… You have issues related to coolant / flow… I’d say it’s a pretty high chance your thermostat failed, or your water pump failed.

In terms of what is wrong now…
How long did you drive the car with it overheating? 5min 10min 30min? You probably did destroy the head gasket. And it’s possible that you at least warped the head depending on the time driving… That sputtering was probably due to coolant entering the cylinders, preventing the gas from igniting correctly.
If they pulled the head to replace the gasket its’ very possible that the head has been cracked… Ask them to see the head if you don’t believe them.

Did the shop cause this when they did the timing belt? MAYBE if they damaged the water pump by warping or bending the pully. Did you ask them for the old part? Can you prove it… Maybe. If they replaced the pump as well as the timing belt then I’d point the finger at them.

(Fatherly speach time)
If your temp gauge went to H (Warning!!!) why did you keep driving? When the car started to shake… why did you keep driving? These are both indications that somethign is VERY wrong with your car. If you started eating something and your stomach started to turn a little would you keep one eating it?

OP says he told the mechanic not to change the pump when the belt was done. Please read the message thread before you post.

see my repsonse below and add.
Maybe ask around on subaru forums like and others to see if members have had Water pump die and when.

The mechanic can’t give a straight answer on what’s wrong becuase it’s hard to tell 100% the extent of the damage until parts start comign off (Labor charges)
Obviously the WP was shot… next was to look at the damage of driving the car an extended period of time while it was overheating.

My post was being typed as all the other conversations were being done wtih the OP… thanks for caring.

  1. I did not stop driving when the needle passed H because there was no safe place to pull over on the highway.

  2. Please see above posts for information related to the water pump.

  3. I drove maybe 10 minutes, trying to find a place to pull off and figure out what to do. I was alarmed and attempted to make a quick decision. I was not driving around town enjoying myself and burning gas. In fact, there was no indication that the car was overheating (to me) until I happened to see the needle pass the H. The only indication that something was wrong was when the heat stopped working.

  4. My main concern now is whether to take the car to a Subaru-specific service for a second opinion. I am trying to determine whether I am being told the whole truth about the car’s situation, and I am also wondering why the same mechanic who replaced the timing belt cannot find the problem. Does anyone have any suggestions on this matter?

Since you did not listen to the mechanic when he told you to change the pump, he may be not wanting to tell you anything now for fear you will hold it against him in court.
the pump could have been on the verge of failure, and when the new tensioner put a little more tension on the bearing and seal, it when kablooy. You also kept driving once it was leaking and overheating, so you kind of blew it there too. I think you eat this one, cause the problems were caused not by your mechanic who dealt with you in good faith, but because you ignored professional advice, and now you are looking for someone else to blame. sorry, but thats just the way it sounds to me.

It doesn’t sound like they are stabbing… everythign that they are talking about is related.

  1. the water pump 100% needed to be replaced.
  2. The head gasket at a minimum was damaged and needs/ed to be replaced
  3. when they pulled the head they now see that it’s more than just a gasket problem… it’s been cracked (Ask to see it to be sure).
    The reason they didn’t say everything at once may be 1. they didn’t want you to junk the car and say no to the laundyr list of repairs. (25% likely)

They didn’t want you to have to spend more money on un-necessary replacements if it wasn’t needed. (75% likely)

If this is a place you know and trust then the only thing you’ll experience

If they said.
1 you fuel pump needs to be replaced
2. your clutch needs to be replaced
3. Your air filter nees to be replaced
then it sounds like they are stabbing at the issue and don’t know.

When you checked coolant level, I am guessing you looked at the coolant jug. The jug can have adequate supply, but low coolant level in the radiator explains all your initial symptoms. The time driving while hot would explain all the later diagnosis. A second opinion would not hurt, make sure they check coolant level in the engine first, and get an exact problem not a possible problem if possible.

IMHO nobody did anything wrong here. When you realized the engine was overheating, safety took priority over the engine, and that is the absolute best thing. I’ve often said “get safe first, then worry about the car”.

The mechanic did the right thing in suggesting replacing the water pump. Perhaps he was reluctant to emphasize the risk because he didn’t want you to feel like he was “upselling” you. Unfortunately, declining the pump manifested itself in the worst possible way.

And I agree with Tater’s description of the diagnostic events.

Sometimes bad thing happen to good people. I don’t think anyone is to blame here, it just happened.

It’s possible this problem was caused by a sticking thermostat. A thermostat is a maintance item in my opinion and should be changed very 3 or 4 years, faulty or not.
Thermostats are cheap and engines are not. The former is very often the cause of a roasted engine and a new thermostat should be part of every water pump, radiator, head gasket, or engine rebuild job.

Water pumps can and do fail quickly. It’s not that rare at all and the pump is always replaced with a timing belt job. You opted out so this is on you.

In your case, since you continued to operate the engine with the temp into the H, a compression test should be run to determine whether or not it’s time to dump the car or sink money into it.
You reference sputtering and the engine barely turning over. That could be signs of engine seizure, at least in the top end.

Run the compression test. You should see numbers in the 180ish PSI range. If they’re much lower and/or all over the map then it’s serious engine work time.