96 Subaru Legacy Shudders, Dies Going Uphill or even Slight Grade

We have a '96 Subaru Legacy Wagon with about 175K on it. Bought used. Ran OK for 2 years and suddenly we get this: going up a hill, even a slight, steady grade for more than a block or two, the car starts shuddering…power ebbs…car slows…check engine light flashes madly…it turns into a cartoon car with tongue dragging out, then dies if you don’t pull over and let it pant like a dog. If it dies,one can restart it in half a minute or so.

Our excellent mechanic cleaned engine, valves, checked fuel-related stuff, replaced things, even worked on it for free because he was so stumped. Consulted w/worldwide Subaru experts. Conclusion: some cylinder/valve or something has sort of carved itself a new notch and so doesn’t seat properly, evinces itself under pressure of grade or hill, would cost 2-3K to fix…an amount we simply don’t have.

I’m doomed to drive this thing for the next 2-3 years, finding grade-less routes in my hilly Northwest city–not an easy task, but got to keep it chugging. Works beautifully on the flat (should I move to Kansas?). Will happily charge up a one-block hill as long as you then go sideways on the flat for a block or two. Big Sigh Here. Any ideas on whether it could be some other problem? One website yaks about catalytic converters breaking up and blocking lines.

I wish I still had my old 1981 Volvo wagon now. We sold it cuz it needed 2K of radiator work…sounds like a bargain now. At least it would have still gone uphill! THANKS for any help or advice…

Sounds like your problem is an engine miss. Did he check wires & plugs? Coils?

I would have to guess catalytic converter. You can have it tested for back pressure. I would take it some where else and have them check it over.

Thank you for your comments. Yes, he did check wires and plugs and even replaced some plugs. I’d have to check the paperwork (or with my husband) about the coils, don’t know on that. I will probably pursue the catalytic converter angle–maybe indeed taking it somewhere else for a fresh look is a good idea. I hope none of this had anything to do with the fact that a rat was living in the engine in the winter, at least for some part of it…

What everyone here would need are the details. For instance, no one replaces “some” plugs. (Ok they do but its odd). Plugs are a maintenance item. If anyone thinks they should be replaced then they all get replaced. “Fuel related things” is vague. Was a fuel pressure gauge put on it? Was it put on it while someone drove it up a hill (or at least put it under load in some other way). Was the fuel filter changed? Did anyone do anything at all to find out whether or not there is an exhaust blockage? (There are various methods).

Did the shop check the engine’s compression and if so what were the exact numbers in psi? (There would be 6 of them). If there is a mechanical engine issue then compression results should show it.

Is the shop aware of the very common issues with Subaru head gaskets and has a head gasket issue been ruled out?

Sorry for lack of details. If I were my brother, who can ID any car at a quarter-mile’s distance, I would’ve provided them. But I’m not, I’m just an overtired mom taking care of her own kid and her own mom on a tight budget, asking for advice in a lame way more like I called the Car Talk show than posting to a maintenance board. I appreciate the information that’s been provided and won’t waste anyone’s time further but am glad to have gotten the input that y’all have so kindly provided. Thanks.

I doubt very much an expensive repair is needed to fix this trouble. The car runs great on a level surface. Since the engine light is flashing it would be good to know what the codes are. It may provide a hint to the trouble.

In my opinion I think the trouble may be due to an electrical problem somewhere. Mechanical engine problems usually don’t just disappear by restarting the engine. There may be a relay causing the trouble or a bad connection to power or ground possibly. Check the Main Relay which ties to the ECU and engine components and fuel pump relay by tapping on them slightly with a screwdriver handle while the car is running to see if anything shows up doing that. The connection to the MAF sensor would be a good thing to check out. Tap on it also and anything else you suspect may be the trouble.

There’s not nearly enough info known about the car for me to even make a half-educated guess but you should forget that valve seating theory completely.

Offhand, I’d say there’s a MAF sensor problem, clogged catalytic converter problem, or possibly a fuel pump getting weak.

Drop by a chain type auto parts store (AutoZone, Checkers, etc) and have them scan the car for codes. There should be something in memory seeing as how the CEL was flashing. Post any results for discussion. The parts houses will also perform this service for you free of charge and it only takes a few minutes.
Their job is to scan the car and provide a code to you; it is NOT to diagnose a problem.

@stupidcar, you’re not wasting anyone’s time. People are asking for more info so they can try to help.

You call the mechanic: “Our excellent mechanic…” Unless that was sarcasm, then it sounds to me like this is someone that you know and trust. Just ask them if they can tell you everything that they’ve done and checked out - i.e. get the details from them - and post as much of it as you can get.

Then people can provide suggestions regarding what they might have overlooked.