2001 Subaru Outback Electrical Freak Out

I drive a 2001 Subaru Outback LLBean edition (6-cylinder). I recently replaced the battery after needing to jump start it a few times. A few weeks later, the car wouldn’t start. There was no crank, no nothing. This happened sporadically over a month and a half (sometimes twice in a week, sometimes two weeks without incident). I’d jump it as needed and go on my way. Two weeks ago, the car died completely while I was on the freeway. I had just changed lanes, and went I went to accelerate, nothing happened. The car was dead, but restarted within seconds, and continued operating without incident for another two weeks. Today, it died again on a busy street and would not restart. I was at a stop light, and had it been an older car, I’m sure it would have made a ku-lunk ku-lunk sound as it died. I could feel it the light jerking. I had it towed home.

Here’s some extra info:

  • I live in Vancouver, WA where it’s been very wet recently, though today was dry.
  • Three days ago both the battery and alternator were in great condition (alternator was 14.0?) per the team that did my regular oil change.
  • There was a lot of corrosion around the positive terminal when I replaced my battery a few months back.
  • I tried to accelerate while in neutral yesterday, trying to reverse. The battery and brake lights both came on, and did not turn off even after a restart. Regardless, the car drove well.
  • The car has had two electrical freakouts previously: both after really intense acceleration. The lights all flashed and then the car lost power on both occasions. These were both two years ago, and may be unrelated.
  • The right blinker light clicks in double-time from time to time (when the car is working). I noticed this happening more frequently, as the battery issues began.
  • Today while driving, just before it died, the radio turned off and then on again repeatedly, the other dash lights flashed on and off, and the speedometer stopped working. It ran for about five minutes after that.
  • The key is currently stuck in the ignition, and I can’t get the car out of park without a manual override. I have tried jiggling the steering wheel. A lot.

Any thoughts on what might be going on?

Has the car been in a collision or a flood?

Some, but not all, of these symptoms suggest a bad ignition switch.

Obviously you have a problem with the ignition switch. Aside from that, my guess would be bad grounds or bad cable somewhere. I’d start with the battery cables, clean the connections at both ends, and check the cables for voltage drop, they could be corroded internally. Then check the grounds for the dashboard.

A voltmeter like this:


can be very useful in diagnosing electrical problems.

Since you say that the battery and brake warning lights came on that is an indication that the alternator is having trouble. I suggest you replace it. Then have the charging system checked out to make sure that things are normal. Also check the current draw on the battery while the car is parked to make sure there isn’t an excessive current drain on the battery. Normal current draw should be less than 25 milliamps after things have gone into the sleep mode.

The electrical cut out issue could be due to a problem with the ignition switch but the trouble could be before or after the switch. Power from the battery ties to the main panel under the hood. That panel supplies fused power to the ignition switch and other basic areas that need constant power. Most of the power in the dash fuse panel is supplied through the ignition switch.
If all power cuts off to things, including the emergency flashers, then the trouble is before the ignition switch.

Dont do anything until you either replace the battery cables and connections or verify their integrity etc…I cannot stress the importance of this enough…but I will try… LOL.

If you have a lot of corrosion…that corrosion can really play tricks on you… even if the external evidence of corrosion is removed sometims the corrosion is actually between the end connector and the factory wire…UNSEEN and ignored. These weird things will wreak HAVOC on you and the vehicle until you make absolutely CERTAIN that the connections are solid…Or go insane…or sell the car…or all of the above. The main connections (esp after any kind of damage or noticeable corrosion etc) must be Solidly doing their jobs… there are ways to root this out…but it is time consuming and takes a “Good Mechanic” to repair sometimes. The connects need to be clean and tight not just shiny and clean looking but absolutely certain they are doing their collective jobs… I cannot stress this enough.

NOTHING will work properly if the connections are suspect…NOTHING. You will be given a never ending list of Possible suspects…and know what? Most of the ideas people throw at you will “In a way” be correct… When you have questionable connects to the battery and ground…Every single electrical component in the vehicle can present you with a symptom that seems completely logical…Electricity can be VERY Mischievous when you allow it to be.

The connections at the battery BOTH of them… Absolutely Positively…and Negatively need to be Unquestionable in their integrity before you try to find any kind of other culprit.

I repair a lot of vehicles that dealerships and small shops declare a total loss and Un-Repairable… Not because I am “The Man”… But because I will and am able to go deeper than most shops would ever consider… These are dangerous waters for sure… but when someone declares that “NO ONE can figure out the problem of my car”. They usually wind up in my hands if they speak to the right people. See its not profitable for shops to try to diagnose and repair some types of issues…it simply isn’t feasible sometimes. But my “Clients” are usually friends or friends or family of people who know me personally…so they know that when it gets to me that the issue will be identified Simply out of sheer Tenacity, Enthusiasm, Curiosity, Logic and a little Pride in my work as well.

I’m not Boasting…I’m basically saying that some or rather MANY shops do not want to even take on certain types of jobs. This issue can be one of those types of problems…for shops…they will throw parts at it and basically guess at the culprit when it is a rather simple electrical connection issue that will manifest in very Complex and strange ways. I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH…how important the integrity of your electrical connections are at the Battery and Alternator…all the way to the starter…which along with the Alternator has a “HOT” line to it at all times. The Ground connections are equally important… Neither takes president over the other…those two are always equal and rely on each other…quite literally. So don’t focus on just one side of the battery…(Me speaking to a mechanic)

So…basically since I can type very fast…I wrote all of the above… Just to say… Make CERTAIN of the integrity of your battery connections and grounds… I could tell crazy bed time stories for a solid month on some of the things I’ve seen that were a direct result of the Main electrical connections… REALLY funny stories too Not only what happens in the car but even more funny are the Superstitions the owners start to adopt to “Make it work when I do this” type of thing… Some of these stories will make you HOWL with laughter.

One last clue… Check the Main connections…and BE CERTAIN of their integrity…Literally buy new factory cables if need be…(salvage yards come to mind). Battery Cables and Connections…as well as the Alternator and Starter (Both HOT at all times). Look for any kind of physical wire damage (which includes corrosion) The wires that split off of the Main Positive cable to feed the under hood Fuse box also will be affected when corrosion makes its prescense known. Sometimes the HOOD hits the top posts of the battery when batt not screwed down…or incorrect batt installed… My Goodness…I have seen so many things it really is crazy… Sorry this is so long…but I tend to ramble…sorry… LOL