2004 Subaru. Sell, Fix, or Drive

My girlfriend has a 2004 Subaru Outback. To put it lightly, it’s her baby. Her pride and joy, and for good reason. That car is a trooper. It holds more gear than you can fathom, handles well, and rides well. And it has done all of these things for the last 196,000 miles. The car is a champ and keeps on going. Recently, we both started to smell something when the car started running hot. I thought it smelled like gear oil, and she decided to take it to the mechanic. The mechanic is a guy that I trust and he has done great work on my Toyota pickup. At the end of the inspection he said the Outback needed new head gaskets (as these ones are cracked and leaking oil, I also hear this is common among these Outbacks), a new O2 sensor and catalytic converter, a new knock sensor, and a new tie bar. The total costs were something around $3,500. The question is, to all of those out there brave enough to help us, what would you do? Do we sell the outback and buy a newer one? If we do that, do we take the repair costs into consideration when selling the car? Do we fix the Outback and get the most we can out of it? Or do we just let it go, keep driving it until it blows and buy a newer vehicle then? I am in need of some answers and guidance, thanks so much.

Personally, I would not sink that much money into a vehicle that is approaching 200k miles, as there will inevitably be more repair issues even after these repairs were done.

As to, “driving it until it blows”, you have to consider the possibility of the car suffering a catastrophic breakdown in some situations where it might not be good for your health, such as…

while passing a bunch of 18-wheelers at high speed…
during a snowstorm…
while driving through a dodgy section of town…
while crossing RR tracks…
while on the way to the ER, or to a job interview, or to something else that is very important.

My advice is to post the car for sale, with the proviso, “as-is”, and to be very honest with prospective buyers. Let prospective buyers know that you will sell to the highest bidder over a period of 7 days or so, and let them decide how much it is worth. When all is said and done, it is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay, and in this case, that amount is likely to be fairly low.

I would fix at this time and drive to the next major repair or two years. Then sell. It’s worth nothing if not repaired and is on it’s last hurrah. Run the last lap with it. Expect nothing if it breaks again or in two years, recover your $3500. Start saving up now for new car.
VDC makes excellent points too . It’s a crap shoot.

I’m with dagosa. Fix it, then start saving immediately for a new vehicle when this one craps out in a year or two or three.

Need input.
The O2 sensor, cat converter, and knock sensor should each have triggered fault codes. Was the Check Engine Light (Malfunction Indicator Light) illuminated?

Re: the head gaskets; is the engine drawing oil into the cylinders or was the indication that oil was weeping past the head gaskets to the outside world? Or was it the valve cover gaskets?

Normally I’d assume the head gasket was blown, drawing oil into the cylinders, and that along with age contaminated the oxygen sensor and the cat converter, but I’d just like clarification. I’m also wondering about the CEL light.

Bottom line, I’m with Dag, but I am curious.

6 of one, half dozen of the other. Provided the diagnosis is correct, and the work is done skillfully, a $3500 one time expense should get the Subie-beastie back on the road again for 2 or 3 more years at least. I think I’d probably first ask for an assessment of the lower half of the engine before deciding, the pistons, rings, crank bearings, but me, if the routine maintenance has all been done on schedule and the car has been treated well all these years, I’d be inclined to fix it. You can always sell it later. There isn’t really much to decide, it is just a personal choice.

Does it really need a new catalytic converter, or would the o2 sensor replacement fix it? You’d save over a grand by not getting a new one.

Mountainbike I am not totally sure. They said there was oil in the cylinders along with metal shavings, but he also said it was just cracked not totally blown yet. The CEL has been on for a while. The mechanic said that was on because of the o2 sensor being out.

Bscar they said the o2 sensor would be all that was necessary on it. A new converter wouldn’t hurt though, according the mechanic. Is this guy just giving me the run around?

And a big thanks to you all who posted. I appreciate it.

Your mechanic sounds honest, since he said the O2 sensor was necessary but not a new cat. Often the mechanic will replace the cat even if not necessary, and the customer is no wiser but much poorer.

Since this car may last only a few more years, I wouldn’t replace the cat unless absolutely necessary. Try new O2 sensors first (both of them).

Believe I would sale it,try to find a Crown Vic with less then a 100K on it(you would at least get your space back and the mileage on these cars isnt that bad either)dont think that Ford will make the same mistake again they made with the Crown Vics(made em too durable,just like the 8N Ford farm tractor{they finally had to obselete the parts and design policy, so they could sale new ones}-Kevin

“Oil in the cylinders as well as metal shavings”? That changes things. Time to start shopping.

If that assessment was a totally honest one, this vehicle’s days are numbered, and those numbers are probably single digits.

As I stated previously, I don’t think that it is in the OP’s best interests to sink this much money into a vehicle that is approaching 200k miles and which seems to have one foot in the grave, and the other foot on a banana peel.

Metal shavings changes my mind, too. That engine is toast. Move on.

Start looking for a new vehicle, but don’t let on that you’re in a hurry to buy; salesmen are trained to spot this and will take advantage of you.
With the number of miles on the car, it’ll likely go to the budget lot or auction, so let them think you’re gonna sell your old car yourself until you’re ready to sign for the new vehicle, THEN give them the keys and say you’d like to see how much they’d give you for it. This way you’ll have a good idea of the out the door price of the new car and less chance of them fudging numbers to make it look like you’re getting a good deal on your trade-in when they actually raise the cost of the new car by X amount.

I hate to come between anyone and their good mechanic, but I am curious as to how he determined that there were metal shavings in the cylinders. Did he boroscope the engine? If he saw shavings on the threads and ends of the spark plugs, that could just be the anti-seize plating coming off, no big deal.

Here is my recommendation, replace the O2 sensor and the tie bar? (tie rod?) and drive it. If you get an engine code for the knock sensor, or get a lot of engine knock, then replace that too. Put the remainder of the $3500 in the bank and add to that the equivalent of a monthly car payment.

Keep driving the Outback as long as possible. Then if the engine blows, but the rest of the car is still in good shape and she still wants it, put in a quality reman engine. You might have enough money in the bank to cover it by then, maybe even enough to buy a new vehicle if you want.

My experience with putting new head gaskets in an engine with 200k on it is that the increase in compression causes them to become oil burners, so I would recommend against a head gasket job. If the oil leak is actually from the valve covers, then surely get them replaced, that is not much money, usually.