Need help deciding between a few used subarus

I am in the market for a used, all wheel drive car. My small budget of $4000 has led my car search to subarus. I know very little about subarus and cars in general other than the research I have done on the internet. I have found a few in my price range and although I realize all of the cars in my price range will have something wrong with them I would like some direction between a few.

The first is a 1998 Outback with 98,000 miles on it that the seller will sell for $4000. The mechanic I brought it to found the valve covers leaking, cam seals leaking, power steering pump leaking and suggested a new timing belt kit, water pump and power steering pump. The estimate he gave me on the repairs was $2000.

I have found two other subarus that drive well but haven’t taken them to a mechanic yet.

The first is a 1996 Outback legacy wagon with 165,000 miles on it that had a new timing belt and water pump installed at 135,000 miles which the owner can prove. The owner is asking for $3900.

The second is a 1999 legacy sedan 30th anniversary edition with a 2.2 L engine with 121,000 miles on it. The owner is asking $3500. Of the three I’m pretty sure that it is the only one with the 2.2 L engine which I think is the one that doesn’t have the history of head gasket problems?

My main question is whether to buy the car with much lower mileage? Also whether the work that that apparently needs to be done is routine for the 100k mile mark? And is the cost a reasonable estimate?


IMO, if I were to consider cars with just $4K to spend, it would not be awd. Many are as reliable as 2wd but because the are near the end of their useful life, repairs will be more expensive. If you insist on awd, I would look at the simpler system of a used CRV. Other wise, it’s truck based 4wd as the problems are more obvious to detect before buying. Realistically, any safety savings for that money in awd will be less than the reliability safety of a newer fwd car.
Rethink the plan.

On all of those engines, the timing belt is supposed to be replaced every 7 years or 105k miles, whichever comes first. Thus, the '98 Outback is grossly overdue for this vital procedure and is risky until the timing belt is replaced. Replacing the water pump at the same time is definitely recommended. The necessity for a new power steering pump is something that would bother me. The supposedly bad power steering pump is bad enough, but since the owner of this car was so negligent as to be 4 years late for replacing the timing belt, I would have to question how well maintained the car was in general. I would suggest that you pass on this car.

The '96 Outback sounds like a better possibility, but it–as well as the '98 Outback–does have the spectre of a probable head gasket replacement in the future hovering over it.

Even though the '99 Legacy sedan is also overdue for timing belt replacement, the absence of probable head gasket problems would make me lean toward this car, rather than the other two. If you buy it, just be sure to drive it straight to your mechanic for replacement of the timing belt, water pump, serpentine belt, and all belt tensioners.

However, one additional proviso:
If this car (or any other Subaru that you are considering) has tires that are mismatched in any way–brand, size, amount of tread wear–walk away. The presence of mismatched tires is an indicator that the center viscous clutch is going to need to be replaced very soon, to the tune of…probably about $600. The tires on a Subaru, like most AWD vehicles, have to be very closely matched in terms of tread wear. If the tires are not all the same size, that is equally bad.

Is your mechanic an independent Subaru specialist? If not, find one who is for pre-purchase inspections and ask him/her which of the cars you are considering is the best deal. No one on this forum could provide any meaningful information to help you make the right choice. The cars need to be driven and inspected to provide a worthwhile opinion.


First of all thank you so much for the quick, thorough and helpful reply. I live in Colorado Springs where it snows a great deal and would prefer a car to an suv and have used friend’s Subarus which seem to handle well in all weather, which is why I am leaning towards this particular brand.

I haven’t gotten the '99 legacy checked out by a mechanic and so don’t know about the timing belt but I assume you lean toward this option because of the 2.2 L engine, right? Regarding the tire issue, the owner claims the only real issue with the car is that it is on snow tires. If all tires appear to be the same brand, tread and size should I be worried about the center viscous clutch problem? How much is a reasonable estimate for parts and labor for the replacement of the timing belt, water pump, serpentine belt and tensioners?

Thanks again

Yes, the 2.2 liter is preferable, due to the lack of apparent head gasket issues with that engine.

Even if the current tires are matched, the unanswered and unanswerable question is–Have the tires always been properly matched? That is the type of problem that underlies the purchase of a used car, and even a careful mechanical inspection is unlikely to be able to predict if the center viscous clutch is on its last legs. But, as Twotone suggests, having the car checked out by a Subaru specialized mechanic is strongly recommended.

The cost for the timing belt, water pump, serp belt and tensioners varies from place to place, but I would suggest that you anticipate spending about $600-$800 for this work. That way, if you can get the work done for less, you will be delighted.

Incidentally, if any of these cars has an automatic transmission, you should have the trans fluid changed also. When trans fluid is not changed every 3 yrs/30k miles, trans failure can happen any time after ~90k, and is probable by 150k. If you need a trans rebuild in the near future, expect to pay at least $2k.

Mileage means nothing. Maintenance means everything.

I’d lean towards the 2.2 engine for several reasons, not just the head-gasket issue. It’s a rock-solid engine, and maintenance is alot easier (and a little cheaper). Timing belt is due at 60k on this engine, so hopefully it was done recently (for the 2nd time). Otherwise expect to have it done. I had the complete replacement (incl. water pump) on my 2.5 done, and it was about $830.

Incidentally, I also live in the Springs and had it done at a shop here. So, if you need any local help/advice before buying, let me know. I may be able to help you out, and I would at least highly recommend the shop I use.

I own a '96 Legacy wagon with the 2.2 liter engine and an automatic transmission. At 133K miles it continues to run well and has been very reliable, although it’s not the cheapest-to-maintain vehicle I’ve ever owned.

The '98 Outback has too many issues, and if the head gaskets aren’t leaking yet they will be soon. The '96 has too many miles for the money. The price is way out of line.

I’d take the 99 with the 2.2 engine, because it is not prone to head gasket problems.

At 121K miles, it, too, should have had a new timing belt by now (maybe two). If not, you will have to replace it soon. The good news is, it’s not an interference engine, so even if the belt breaks the engine won’t be damaged.

If the owner can verify a new timing belt and water pump, and the car checks out otherwise, go for it. If the owner can’t prove the timing belt was replaced, knock $500 off the asking price.

By the way, the timing belt on the 2.2 engine is not terribly difficult to replace. A shade tree mechanic with a service manual and some decent tools could do this at home.

As others have suggested, if you buy a Subaru you should find and patronize a shop that specializes in the brand or at least has significant experience with Subaru vehicles. And you must follow the recommended maintenance schedule. Subarus don’t take kindly to neglect.