Fix or buy another car

I have an 06 Subaru outback with 98,000 miles. The catalytic converter is shot and our emissions test is coming up soon. The car is valued between 9 and 10 grand. The cat converter fix will cost about 1500.
I love my Subaru, but I’m wondering if I should get a new used car. The catch is I can’t afford much over 11,000 and I have a kid so it needs to be safe and reliable. I tend toward Toyotas, Hondas and Subarus.

The question… Is there anything out there that will fit my criteria or should I fix and keep the outback?

If this car has been terrible to you, needing boatloads of parts and money to keep it on the road since you’ve bought it, you have a reason to want something else. If this is all the car needs and has otherwise been good to you, there’s no sense in abandoning ship in favor of a different used car with the potential to be a genuine money pit. The other reason to get rid of it is if you are simply sick of this car and want something else. Any used car is a gamble, and you may end up far worse off than you are right now. If you like this car and it’s been good to you, fix it and keep it. If you can’t stand to look at or drive this car anymore and/or it’s not been good to you, get something else.

My dad always said buying a used car is just buying someone else’s headache. Maybe your current used car is giving you a little headache right now, but what makes you thing another used car will not? If you have taken care of this car, and you love it, and it is otherwise in good shape, then spending $1500 on this car is nothing.

But first you should back up a little bit. I have a car with over 300,000 miles on the same catalytic converter. Converters generally don’t go bad unless there is some other issue. So first, what exactly has a shop telling you that you need a new one? Be as specific as possible. If there are computer error codes involved (which I’m sure there are), then report those (format: “P1234”). What kind of shop is this? And second, if they can determine for a fact that you need a new one, have they tried to figure out why? There is usually a reason.

I agree with cigroller. Let’s face it, you are just trading cars, both of which have been problems. Few people sell good cars, they sell or trade the cars they are having problems with.

You choice is to buy new (can be expensive) or check out what you are buying carefully and plan on making some repairs.

I’ve always been of the opinion that late model used cars are back on the market for a reason. In many cases that reason is that they need some expensive work, have an insolvable problem, or have been in a wreck.

$11,000 is one heck of a lot more money than $1,500. If the car has otherwise been good to you, IMHO you’d be foolish to spend many thousands of dollars replacing this one rather than spending $1500 repairing it. $11,000 vs. $1,500. Compare.

As extremely unusual as this is, I can’t totally agree with Cig. Some engines do tend to use more oil than others, and it’s deposition onto the catalyst that causes deterioration in efficiency. In short, some engines will use up a cat converter over time. In other engines cat converters last forever. I personally would not consider a cat converter at 98,000 miles to necessarily be a sign of any internal problem. If you’re also using excessive oil, more than a quart every 1,000 miles, or you have other signs such as an oil-soaked sparkplug, then I’d get serious.

“As extremely unusual as this is, I can’t totally agree with Cig”

Well, mountainbike, I’m just willing to admit that you have more wisdom & experience than I do so I’d say your counterpoint is well taken & I give on it, except that one must still entertain the possibility (but not necessity, as you correctly point out) that something else is wrong.

But I’m actually more concerned about the question of whether this cat is bad at all. I’m willing to bet that the only thing that has occurred so far is that a check engine light appeared and someone pulled one of the many “catalyst efficiency below threshold” codes out of the PCM…and pretty much left it at that. In other words, as is so often the case, I doubt that anyone actually spent any time eliminating alternative sources of the code(s). 98K is a pretty good number for new O2 sensors, for example.

“I’m just willing to admit that you have more wisdom & experience than I do”

Naw. Just a slightly different perspective on this one issue. I agree wholeheartedly, however, that if there’s any question as to whether it’s normal “wear & tear” of has some other root cause, any signs of an anomolie hat might be relevant, the prudent thing to do is check it out further. I also agree that checking the sensors out is the better first step before replacing the converter.

I agree that you need a second opinion to make sure this converter is bad. If it really is, you need to find out why so that you don’t kill the new one for the same reason. I assume the check-engine light is on now. Was it on for a long time before you had this checked, by any chance?

Even if you need a new one, there’s no way I’d dump a 2006 car because of a $1,500 repair, assuming the rest of the car is in good shape.

“Even if you need a new one, there’s no way I’d dump a 2006 car because of a $1,500 repair.” My sentiments exactly.

Well, mountainbike - you’ve been crawling around machinery for longer than I’ve been alive. I was just trying to, you know, respect that that without seeming like I was calling you an old fossil! (Oops, too late :wink:

Your Subaru may be covered by this recall/campaign. Check with your dealer.

DATE: October 2009 (Revised 03/23/11)


2006-2009MY CA PZEV Spec. Subaru
Legacy / Outback and 2008-2010MY
CA PZEV Spec. Forester

Engine Control Module (ECM)


Subaru of America, Inc. (SOA) has determined that vehicles affected by this Service Program require ECM reprogramming.

Under certain severe driving patterns, such as high speed highway/uphill driving and/or accelerating with high engine revolutions, the efficiency of an affected vehicle’s catalytic converter may begin to degrade beyond design parameters. (The “Check Engine” light will illuminate to alert the driver if the catalytic converter efficiency has degraded beyond an acceptable level and if the vehicle may be releasing air pollutants that exceed Federal or California emission standards.)

To prevent this condition, a modification to the Engine Control Module software logic has been developed that will improve management of the catalytic converter.

This condition is a software issue and has no impact on vehicle drivability.


^ 2006-2009 MY Subaru Legacy and Outback with CAPZEV Spec Emission System

^ 2008-2010 MY Forester with CAPZEV Spec Emission System

Cig, I’ve grown old enough that it no longer matters. And I’m proud to have made it this far with MOST of my sanity intact.

I will check with Subaru on the engine control module issue and get a second opinion on the cat converter.
I do love my car.
Note: The car is paid off. If I were to get a new one I would sell this one for around 10 grand and use that to go toward a new car.
It’s a good point that I might be trading one headache for another if I buy used. Plus I couldn’t get anything with as many features (like AWD) for my price range.

Thanks for your help everyone!

I seriously doubt that you will get $10K for it. That is especially so if it has this converter issue. There’s what you can find about a car’s value via NADA and KBB and Edmunds and stuff. And then there’s the reality of selling a used car - especially if it has an expensive problem.


My Outback does indeed need the ECM reprogramming. I have an appointment on Wednesday.
If this fixes the problem I owe you a nice bottle of scotch!

Your welcome. The campaign instructions state that they will replace the catalytic convertor(s) if fault P0420 is in the computer so don’t clear the codes before you take the car to the dealer.

A previous mechanic may have done that. We’ll see.

Update: I took the Subaru into the dealer and the ECM update was done. They told me that it didn’t fix the catalitic converter problem, although I’m not sure how they know that. They also told me that there was no oil on the dipstick. They said the oil pressure switch is leaking. Also an axle boot is torn. Two control arm bushings are torn. They also said the timing belt is worn and the drive belts are cracking.

They quoted around $2000.
I have an appointment with a mechanic I have a good relationship with. He said he thought he could do this stuff for probably 60% of the dealer price. I have an appointment with him this wednesday to confirm.

So with this new info should we buy another car or do the repairs?
CarMax offered $9000 for it a couple weeks ago.

Don’t ask a mechanic if s/he can do it for less. Ask the mechanic for an independent assessment of the various “issues.” All it sounds like to me is that you ended up at a dealer’s service department. I’m not saying none of this is possible. Its just the kind of thing you tend to see from a shop trying to drum up business.

But can you clarify about the no oil on the dipstick part? Do you check your oil - at least every once in a while, if not regularly? Do you ever have to add oil? How much oil was added to bring it up to where it should be?

Other then the oil, if we assume the leak is the cause of excessive oil consumption, you have fairly routine fix items. $2000 sounds like a good deal to get a car you will have to pay $11000 for otherwise. If you fix it, you saved $9000. You still like the car ? What do you think your chances are getting a car you like that does as much for 11k…slim and none. Fix it ! In this day and age, you can spend $1000 for routine maintenance from a dealer.