Baja Madness

I have recently purchased a 2003 Subaru Baja Sport, the car of my dreams! I purchased the car in NC and drove it where I live in SC which is over 250 miles. The car smelled of petroleum based fluid and/or cleaner. I just thought the dealership cleaned the engine or oil may have been spilled during maintenance. A few weeks later, I had it in the dealership and they checked out. The head gaskets were replaced and the problem was to be solved…Nope!

Every time the car is driven on a long trip and the engine/transmission gets hot the smell returns and there are other problems as well. The car will shutter from start through the gear change to 2nd (it’s a manual 5-speed). It also has a “bumping” sound coming from the from the front wheel area during a sharp turn at low speeds, again only after a long trip.

I am clueless to what the issue could be and my dealership/mechanic cannot determine the cause either because of the necessary drive time to get the car to present the issues.

Well, you have more than one issue.

How many miles are on the Baja and did it come with past service records? Or are the first 10 years or so a blank slate?

As for the smell, you probably have something that weeps some oil and ends up on the exhaust manifold. It would be a relatively small weep and probably only weeping with the engine running, so you have to drive it a long while before it starts getting to the exhaust manifold. Frequent culprits are things like valve cover gaskets (should have been new with the head gasket job) and oil pressure sensors. But I don’t know this engine so there may be other things.

The shudder on the 1-2 shift is probably a clutch problem - glazed clutch disk, weak springs, or flywheel that needs attention. Is it the original clutch?

The bumping sound is yet a third issue, and that requires thorough front end inspection - strut mounts, control arm and bushings, ball joint, etc. Engine and transmission mounts should also be checked.

I have no past information on the car. It had 135000 when I bought it and now has 137000.

Dealership shop time is expensive, they cover a lot of overhead, and they often prefer not to work on cars that will tie up their shop for a long time. Allow me to suggest that you look for an independent shop that specializes in Subies.

As to the problems, Cig has given you good guidance. The only point I have to add is that thunking sounds when turning tightly are often inner CV joints. But, as Cig has pointed out, it needs a hands-on look-see. There’s a great deal that can be looked at without having to get the vehicle to act up.

If you bought from a dealer and the sate has a 30 day money back warranty, return it, It has way too many issues.
Check the state you bought the car for this stated provissio
"Every used car sold by a dealer in the State of (Blank ) for personal (not
business) use has an ìimplied warranty of merchantabilityî under RCW 62A.2-314. This
means that the dealer promises the used car will be fit for ordinary driving purposes,
reasonably safe, without major defects, and of the average quality of similar cars which
are generally available for sale in the same price range.
A car can be sold without the implied warranty of merchantability (ìas isî), if the
consumer waives or gives up, the warranty. Courts have ruled that the implied warranty
is legally waived only if: 1) the consumer explicitly negotiates
and agrees to the fact that
the car does not have an implied warranty, and 2) the dealer gives the consumer a
statement of the particular characteristics or parts of the car which are not

Have the shop check for any fluids dripping on to the exhaust system. Also check to see if the CAT is over heating.

Re the smell: Two possibilities come to mind, as they both happened to me - and my 2003 Baja - at different times:
Some time ago, I went to (trusted) shop with a smell of fuel that showed up on very short trips - e.g. from the driveway to park on the side of the road. Turns out that the Baja, as well as other Subies have some fuel lines (or possibly connections - I don’t recall) that lose flexibility and start to leak after a while. This happened to mine I think somewhere between 90k and 105k miles.

More recently, the garage fixed a new smell. I thought it was fuel again (and they replaced those same fuel lines again, at no charge) and they also found coolant was leaking from the engine block onto the exhaust, so the fumes were coming in through the fresh air vent. So they fixed that leak, and replaced a couple of exhaust gaskets (and stopped my heat shield from rattling, and, and…) so now the smell is gone…

Now if only my mpg was back to where it used to be…

Re: the shudder in shifting (mine’s a 5-speed also). Have you tried shifting at different RPMs? I typically shift early and often. Getting started in first, I often let the RPMs drop to 750 or less as the clutch disengages. When it doesn’t stall (less often than it used to be) if I gave it too much gas, there’d be a lurching effect. If I consciously disengage the clutch at 1500-1800 RPM, I don’t get that effect. I just have a mental stumbling block of thinking this is wearing the clutch out too much.
My father used to keep engines between 2-3000 RPM. I’m bent on being more efficient, so I accelerate much more gently and keep my engine about 2000 most all the time.

re: the ‘bumping’ noise… when you next go to the garage, it might be helpful to them if you can tell them that the bumping is, for example, worse turning right, and not there when you turn left - or something like that. See if it changes depending on speed, turning radius, or some other driving condition. Also whether it’s a dull ‘whump, whump, whump’ or a sharp ‘bang bang’. Is the sound related to wheel rotation or engine speed? (Go around a curve stepping on the clutch pedal to find out.) Driving with the windows open near tall walls/buildings/barriers can help you determine which side it’s on. I’ve heard (many years ago) that many Toyotas will acquire a banging noise on sharp turns, which turns out to be a fairly harmless annoyance, but I have no idea if it’s similar to yours.

Good luck.

  • K

When you say it stutters from start to the gear change to 2nd, do mean as you accelerate after engaging first gear from a stop (like at a stop sign) the engine seems to be misfiring while in first gear? Then once you get into 2nd that problem goes away? Or do you mean the stuttering only occurs as you shift into 2nd? If the former, make sure to have the diagnostic trouble codes read with a scan tool. That could be a fuel/air mixture problem or an ignition problem, and the car’s diagnostic software might already have a clue what the culprit is, you just need to ask it (using the scan tool) what it has determined. I’m assuming the check engine light isn’t on and all the routine engine maintenance is up to date. But still check for DTCs, and DTCs can be stored without turning on the CEL. Best of luck.

I concur with the above comment that the low speed bumping noise from the front is likely from a CV joint. It would require confirmation at a shop though, as there are other possibilities.

Tires all the same size and properly inflated? If the assumption is made that the CV joints are fine and there’s no tire issue then maybe there’s a transmission differential issue.

I might add that sometimes it can be impossible to properly check a CV joint in the car unless it is catastrophically bad. Sometimes the only real way of knowing is to have the shaft removed and physically check the joint movement by hand.
Of course that brings up the Catch 22 situation of mechanic time meaning money and if the shaft is out then it may be prudent to go ahead and swap the shaft seeing as how it’s out already.
That is a bit distasteful.