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2001 Subaru Forester - $3k - in or out?

A little more than a year ago I bought a 2001 Subaru Forester for my son to drive around campus. He is attending college in Idaho. We needed an economical car, that was in our limited price range and that had 4 wheel or all wheel drive.
I had done some research and was really looking for a Honda CRV but there just were none available in my price range (somewhere between penny pincher and cheapskate…I have a kid in college after all). I got desperate and found this Subaru, which met all my other demanding requirements (except it wasn’t a Honda CRV). I had ruled out Subaru’s because the ones I could afford were notorious for having head gasket problems. This is where my cleaver thinking got me into trouble. All the research I did (on the internet … because that’s the most reliable source right?) said if the head gasket was going to fail, it would do so between 90,000 and 120,000 miles. This car I bought had 148,000 miles. So, either the head gasket had been replaced, or it was not going to need to be replaced … right?

Fast-forward 16 months. My son takes the car to college (300 miles away) and it starts making a horrible noise, which is obviously an exhaust leak. I do a little more research and find a shop in this little college town that will look at it and give me a quote for an exhaust system repair. Based on the volume and location of the noise I assume it is the exhaust pipe in front of the muffler. So I am thinking maybe a grand to fix this at most if they have to replace everything from the header to the tail pipe. When the mechanic called me back, he doesn’t even mention the exhaust, he said the head gasket is shot and it will take $3,000 to fix…and I still have the exhaust issue to deal with.
Here is the dilemma:
Spend $4,000 on a car that is only worth $3,000 or donate it to the local NPR station and spend the 4 grand on another beater that may have the same problem. Of course its not that simple…because I am A CPA my glass is always half empty…so if I do spend the money to fix this car and some yahoo rends me I have a totaled car with a $3,000 engine and a $1,000 exhaust…or worse yet I spend the bucks and then the transmission goes….

As I see it, I have one of three options:

  1. Donate the jalopy to the local NPR station and start over (Ouch)
  2. Pay the shop to fix it and pray
  3. Buy a replacement car and drag this one back home try replacing the head gasket myself.

So, Ray, what do you recommend?
Sincerely – paralyzed by analysis.

Unlikely Ray will answer. I’d say pick 2, ONLY if the rest of the car is in good nick which you would know if you had a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic. By good nick, I mean decent paint, interior, most all stuff works and the trans fluid doesn’t smell like someone died in it.

If it isn’t in good nick, the #1 is my choice.


We don’t know if Ray ever answers posts from this site because I have never seen him do so.
Good grief , your a CPA so you should be able to crunch numbers and decide if you want to spend money on a 18 year old vehicle.

The car is a loser at this point anyway I look at it from an investment standpoint…the issue is dealing with the unknown (i.e. will someone total the car before I get 2 or 3 years of use out of it). If someone can answer that then they could also pick the correct lottery numbers too. Just looking for a little insight :wink:

The body is sound, no dents or rust. The interior is good too, no tears in the upholstery glass is all good. Your comment gave me a thought though…I could take it to a mechanic and have them look for obvious drive train issues (i.e. CV joins, transmission, trans axle, etc) before going too much further. Thanks.

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That could happen to ANY car, that’s not something to even worry about.

If that’s your biggest concern, Don’t buy another car or fix this car, Buy him a pair of walking shoes.

I say donate it and here is why. That vehicle has a value in average condition according to Edmunds of under $1000. So you can buy three of them for the price you are about to pay to fix it.


4000.00 will pay for a lot of Uber rides plus no insurance or registration costs . Even have money left over for a rental vehicle for trips home.

Agree, and you get a tax write off.

We’ve done that, and it was really easy

I’m not entirely sure why you absolutely insist on awd or 4x4 . . . I would think with decent snow tires, a Corolla, Civic or something similar would be sufficient

As a matter of fact, because you insist on awd or 4x4, you’re really limiting yourself

By the way, I have somewhat of a problem with that mechanic’s approach. You brought it to him for what you thought was an exhaust leak and he doesn’t even get into that, instead focusing on an even bigger and more expensive repair which you were unaware of. For that matter, did the car even have any kind of symptoms of a head gasket in need of replacement?

Some kind of head gasket issues can be put off for a long time. For example, if the head gasket isn’t actually breached . . . by breach I mean coolant finding its way into the combustion chamber . . . it isn’t necessarily threatening the engine’s health. There have been several head gasket designs over the years which have had external coolant and/or oil leaks, but no actual internal breaches. These engines have lived a long life, because the drivers regularly checked and topped off fluids as needed

Cut to the chase . . . get a second opinion on that head gasket and exhaust

But let’s be realistic about something . . . even if you buy something much newer and with no known issues for your son, he’ll still have to pop the hood, check fluid levels, check tires pressures and so forth.

Exactly. If the engine isn’t overheating, and isn’t misfiring badly, and the oil and coolant aren’t mixing, then I wouldn’t spend money replacing head gaskets. Some engines are known for external oil or coolant leaks from the head gasket(s), and keeping the fluids topped off is a lot cheaper than paying a shop to disassemble the engine and replace the head gasket(s). Also, for external coolant leaks, sealant products such as Bars Leaks or Steel Seal work well.

If the car runs fine, and the only noticeable symptom is an obvious exhaust leak, I’m struggling to see how the shop diagnosed that as a head gasket problem. I would look for a second opinion, from a shop that you’ve used before if possible.

Front exhaust. $94. What pipe is broke? Cat itself?

That’s 200. Still don’t see huge bill so far

I would be tempted to say get another opinion or two. I don’t see how a head gasket could make any substantial noise and 3 grand for HGs seems way high to me. I live in OK where the cost of living is much lower than other places but still that seems a bit much to me.

I would also want to know exactly how they arrived at the head gasket conclusion. A failed HG is something that is quite often misdiagnosed.
I used to work with a guy who thought that any car that came in with an overheating problem automatically needed HGs. Way more often that not HGs were not the problem.