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Old Car with low miles: Good buy? Or money pit? (97 Subaru Impreza)

I’m considering buying a 1997 Subaru Impreza Brighton Coupe. It has under 33,000 total miles (grocery getter for an old woman).

The price seems reasonable (about $5500), but I’m a little worried.

I drive to and from Boston each day (stop and go traffic). I also put about 12K to 15K miles on my car each year.

I’m not super handy/mechanically inclined either.

Hoping this car will be a tank, but worried that I may drive it harder than it’s been driven…and due to the age…I’d kill it. :slight_smile: But I have heard great things about this vehicle and the Subaru 2.2 Litre engine.

Any thoughts/comments from someone who owns one of these cars? Or perhaps has had an experience buying a used old car with low miles?


First, ask when/if 30K service was done. Based on age, a timing belt change is in order, in addition to the 30K service if not done already. Do all four tires match (same brand, same tread depth)? Important on AWD. Check all the underhood fluids for proper fill and visual condition. How does it drive on a long test drive?

“Little old ladies” don’t always have the same view or priority of car maintenance as I do, so I would tread lightly and check things out very carefully. The economic consequences of an AWD system on this vehicle if something is maintained properly (like tires) would make me a bit extra cautious. On the other hand, it could be a good deal.

Agree, you need to see the maintenance history, including oil changes. They should have been done regularly, preferably twice a year.

Car Fax shows general maintenance, but not detailed. I’ll have to ask if they have the detailed files.

I’ve been driving Subarus for about 6 years now, so I’m familiar with the AWD system (and love it!)

The test drive I did was about 10 minutes (not that long), but it felt good for a 97.

I hear you on the “little old lady” car maintenance priority :slight_smile: And good point about the 30K service. Thanks!

Sounds like a nice car to me.

It will need a timing belt regardless of the mileage, because the belt is 12 years old. I seriously doubt it’s been replaced. I’d also plan to replace ALL fluids shortly after buying this car. Condensation could have allowed water to mix with just about every fluid in the car. Replacing all fluids will be cheap insurance.

The 2.2 is a good engine, and not prone to head gasket problems like the 2.5. These cars are not hard to maintain, and in some ways simpler to work on than other makes.

$5,500 is absolute top dollar for a car this old, regardless of mileage. I’d factor the cost of a timing belt, water pump, etc, into my offer.

The problem with older, low-mileage cars is they’ve spent lots of time sitting around. Seals and gaskets can dry out and start leaking when you put the car in everyday use.

The Subaru engine can leak oil from an unbelievable number of places, and fixing all the leaks can be expensive. I know because I paid to have the 2.2 engine in my '96 Legacy re-sealed. The car had sat for about a year after the owner’s death. Since all the leaks were fixed, however, it’s been fine and is running well at 120K plus miles.

Mcparadise has summed it up very well, but I just want to reiterate the point about the timing belt and the 30k service. When that belt snaps (not if it snaps), the vehicle will have very little value.

Right now, I would suggest that you offer $4,500., and be prepared to go up slightly in price if necessary. You will need the difference between the current asking price and my suggested price to pay for the timing belt, 30k service, and the repair items that will inevitably turn up in a car that is already 12-13 years old.

The Impreza, with its solid 2.2 liter engine is a very reliable car, but after more than a decade of use (and unknown maintenance) you have to be prepared to pay for some repairs periodically.

If I’m not imposing too much, may I ask how much the re-sealing cost? Where did you have it done?

Thanks - this posting was very helpful!

My major concern only is the high price. Someone thinks they have a gem with low mileage.

The problem is age. It is worth likely $2000-$2500 in excellent condition. The $5500 is a nut putting a price to a 12 year old car.

My sister in law a similar car/age and little issue with it except some rust. Hers has over 150k of VT roads on it.

I thought $5500 sounded high, but KBB lists it at $5300. It sounded in the ball park. And it is a dealer, not a private sale or an auction or anything.

Anyone else care to comment? Looking for all the feedback I can get. Thanks!

In 2003 I bought a '96 Legacy AWD wagon with the 2.2 engine, automatic, and 77K miles. Maintenance history mostly unknown (my mistake). Car was a little rough around the edges but ran and drove well. Hadn’t been driven much for about a year after its owner died. I bought it from her estate. Paid $5,500 for the car.

Changed oil and filter immediately, installed new spark plugs, and then drove it for about a month with no problems. Noticed a few minor oil leaks, but nothing major.

I assumed, correctly, that the timing belt was original, so I purchased and installed a new one with the help of a Haynes manual. The job was not too difficult. Took about 5 hours in my garage. Hardest part was preventing the crankshaft pulley from turning while removing its bolt. Cost of timing belt and accessory drive belts: $70.

As I used the car the oil leaks became more numerous and worse. Biggest culprit was the vapor separator, at the rear of the engine block, but the oil pump seal had also started to leak, and some other things. The engine sort of became a sieve, and dropped oil everywhere, including onto the exhaust system, which smoked and stank. This was after I had put about 2,000 miles on the car.

I’m lucky enough to have an independent Subaru specialist nearby (Tim, The Subaru Guru), and he explained all the things that leaked, why they leaked, and how he would fix them all. Actually, he said, “I’ve seen much worse than this,” and he showed me a car on his lift that was undergoing pretty much the same resealing that my car needed. This guy is not cheap, but he’s very good.

The engine had to come out to replace the vapor separator and rear crankshaft seal, which I’m sure explains some of the cost.

I had not replaced the water pump with the timing belt (I know, I know), and since the mechanic would be removing the timing belt anyway I decided to have it done then, and let him service the car fully.

Here’s a list of what was done:

Replace crankshaft seals, vapor separator, camshaft seals, valve cover gaskets, oil pump seals, and other leaking gaskets. Replace ATF and differential oil. New water pump, thermostat, hose, radiator cap, and coolant. Replace Brake Fluid, fuel filter, PCV valve.

Rounded off, the bill was $1,000.

The car now has 121,000 miles, continues to run well, and has not leaked a drop of oil since the work was done.

The car you’re looking at may not develop these leaks, but it’s not uncommon, according to Tim. You will have to replace the timing belt, however. The sooner the better, since it’s 12 years old. The good news is; the 2.2 is not an interference engine.

An Impreza with 33K miles could be a great buy. Just factor all of this into the offer you make.

One more thing. If you should find yourself in a situation like this, find someone with a really good understanding of Subarus.

Hope this helps. Good luck.

What I can comment on (I am not a “Subie” I have done one early Subaru overhaul) Suraru’s and Subaru problems are not porportionally represented on this Forum,what I mean is we get A LOT of Subaru questions,failure descriptions,puzzeling conditions,maybe Subaru people like to write about their cars,what it does for me is make me very leery about owning a Subaru.

Owning a Subaru is an education, believe me, but I don’t think there’s anything better for getting around in the snow.

Other than some issues already mentioned, I think the car is way overpriced.
Low mileage does not mean the car is worth more and Car Fax seldom shows any maintenance records. Car Fax is frequently short of information or incorrect.
Many people who own an extremely low miles for the years type of car think this means the vehicle is worth a premium price when it’s not.

JMHO here, but as an ex-Subaru Master Tech I have some issues with the brand. Mostly irritating and chronic problems that can be pricy to fix.
And I’m not anti-Subaru either as I’ve owned 3 of them myself.

VERY helpful, McParadise - thanks! I’m finding this forum very helpful/educational.

ok4450, tell me more - I am a loyal Subaru guy, but have never owned one very long (I typically trade in before too long).

This will be the first time I’m considering a car older than 10 years old, so I want to go in with my eyes open. Sounds like you’re feeling this vehicle, despite the low miles, is overpriced. In addition, your experience with Subarus (as an ex-master tech) isn’t great. How so? I’d be interested to learn more, if you’re willing to share.


I should ask your opinion on a fair price for this vehicle as well, if you care to share. Thanks!

Pardon the delay in responding; was out of town most of the weekend to see if a problem with an anonymous person was going to occur and just got home late. (not car related)

Understand this is just my personal opinion here, but I don’t see the car as being worth more than 3-3500 and even that comes with some “ifs”.
Original tires? At 12 years old they’re likely dry rotted and you need 4 of them.
Timing belt situation? If never changed it’s an accident waiting to happen. This also means tensioners, water pump, and considering the age of the car; new cam and crankshaft seals.
Same goes for a number of minor things. Cooling system flush, brake fluid change, new thermostat, air/fuel filters if they’ve never been changed, etc.

The problem with an aged car is that any number of engine/transaxle seals are subject to failure at any time. Same goes for steering rack, struts, etc.
Low miles is a great thiing on a rare/collectible car or a very late model (3-4 years old) but may not be so great on a dozen year old vehicle. The vehicle as a whole is low miles, but rubber is rubber and with age/heat rubber always dry rots or hardens no matter what car it’s attached to.

A few major chronic problems have been head gasket leaks and seal leakage on models with an automatic transmission. In the case of the latter, final drive oil leaks internally into the automatic transmission (you’ll never see this) and some vehicle owners become acclimated to a faint whine. Eventually this whine makes a catastrophic bang and the final drive (part of the transaxle) is now scrap metal.
I’m not saying every auto trans will suffer this fate but a certain percentage of them have. Much depends on how closely the owner monitors the gear oil in the final drive.
Since I assume this is an automatic, I won’t get into manual transaxles or clutches.

Other lesser, common problems have been oil leaks and worn inner tie rods. Normally this is not what I consider major but it’s still an expense.

I could give a dissertation on the head gasket problems but will save that for now. :slight_smile:
The car may be worth the asking price to you or someone else but to me it would not be; especially considering the tires, timing belt situation, etc, etc.
My opinion could change a bit if all or most of those items I mentioned has been recently done, but I would want to see some dated receipts on it.
Hope some of that helps in your decision and good luck.

By the time SubaruDave reads all this advice and makes up his mind someone else will have bought the car.

Unless the seller sticks to his/her price, in which case NO ONE will buy the car.

While a lot is written here about Subaru head gasket failures, it should be noted that these problems are much more common with the 2.5L engine. The 2.2L does not have a reputation for head gasket problems.

Now my car’s head gaskets will fail.

ok4450, the 2.2L escaped the head gasket problems as did the turbo engines(2.0L and 2.5L).

The 2.5L is another story.