Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

Repair or Replace?

I’m a bit stumped. I have a 2002 Subaru Outback wagon with about 125k miles on it. I love this car. For this semi-anonymous discussion, I’ll call it Spiderman. Spiderman gets regular maintenance from our very trusty local mechanic, Fred. He last had his hands on Spiderman about 10 days ago to change the oil. The oil pressure sensor was coming on intermittently but that’s because I (for the first time ever) accidentally went over the oil change limit because of some very long drives. It drove a lot - so it was down a quart. Neither Fred nor I thought this was an issue. Changed the oil, all seems well. (He drove it before and after the oil change.) No performance issues, all the gears operate as they should, all seems well.

Fred refers me to the dealer for emissions systems issues because it saves him a headache and a parts run, so when my “check engine” light came on I made an appointment with the dealer. Drove car 30 miles to dealer. Got THE CALL. The check engine light is on because of an air injector - $215. Sure, totally expected to pay $200-$300 to fix whatever it was. Then the service rep goes on to tell me that my head gaskets are leaking oil and gas. Then he says I also need new front and rear brake pads and rotors. Total, just over $5k. When I questioned the service rep regarding the head gaskets, he quickly said that I wouldn’t have noticed anything on my garage floor, but it’s leaking. I was too shocked to ask how he knew such a thing and what tests they had done.

Now I adore Fred the Mechanic and I really do trust him (for good reasons) so I told dealer man to just fix the air injector. Spiderman will go back to Fred next week for a look-see. The brakes are a maybe - maybe they need a hug, maybe not. Fred admits he didn’t see anything obvious when he last worked on Spiderman (and he has seen brake things before on oil changes) but he’s perfectly willing to take a second look. To Fred and me, the head gasket is downright strange. Fred will take a look and if he says there is seepage or a leak, I’ll probably follow his recommendation.

However, cost-wise, and repair now/future repair-wise, if I really do need $4k+ of repair now, should I do it? Has Spiderman hit some invisible wall where it’ll be thousands a year to keep him on the road? His body has started to show some small rust spots under the paint and a little on some random undercarriage parts. I was thinking of taking Spiderman to a body shop this Spring and having the little bits of rust cleaned up/repaired/repainted. I expect the body stuff to cost $2k.

I’d appreciate some advice as to whether I should keep repairing Spiderman or if that call was actually the death knell.

The oil pressure light should not come on if the level is one quart low. I assume the light has not come back on since the oil change. At least I hope not.

Wait and see what Fred says about the brakes and head gasket. Dealers are always suggesting expensive repairs based on “leaks” that no one but them can detect. It’s a nice way to generate some profit.

If the head gaskets are leaking externally, I’d leave them alone and monitor the fluid levels. If it turns out the head gaskets are leaking internally (a known problem with Subarus) you’ll have to replace them. It’s expensive.

Brakes are brakes. They either need to be replaced or they don’t. Again, the dealer will try to sell you brake parts even though yours may have many miles left.

There is no invisible wall at 125K miles. My Legacy has more miles than that and continues to run well, although it has cost some money in the past.

Vehicles are expensive, and Subarus sometimes cost more than other brands to maintain/repair.

I’d trust Fred and stay away from the Subaru dealer.

I think you’re doing the right thing. If conditions warrant work that Your man can’t do, it looks like he’ll refer you. The rust may be worse than you think. I don;t want to scare you, but rust at the bottom of body panels that start from the inside is the tip of the iceberg. Do a little Googling on how to treat rust with motor oil applications from the inside with sprayer from antique car enthusiasts. You’ll never see the rust again if done right. You’ll find out very quickly, that the body repair cost more than mechanics. Stop it now after the work…you can do it for 20 minutes of easy work per year.

Don’t hit the panic button yet. See what Fred says when he gives the car a good look. Sometimes you can retorque the heads, but a bit of seepage of oil isn’t a big deal. The brake pads are easy to check so Fred won’t have to take long to get back to you.

Sounds like a service dept. looking to meet their monthly quota. It is a good move on your part not to be intimidated into spending a boat load of money.

Head gaskets are fairly common and expensive item on your model year Subaru with the non turbo 4 cylinder engine, sadly. They can be repaired for half of $4000 typically.

If you decide to move on and still like Subaru(loyal owners) the 2005 to present car has eliminated the head gasket and is a far superior car in so many ways.

My opinion is if Fred turns away emissions repairs that he is not qualified as you think to look this problem over. Are there any Subaru independents in the area?

I agree to let Fred check you engine for head gasket leaks and for the brakes. Whether you want to spend $4k is up to you. If you do have a head gasket leak, you won’t be driving the car for long. If you love the car and adore Fred, get it fixed and hang onto it for a few more years. See what Fred says; whether it’s worth keeping or not.

Thanks a lot folks for your advice. When I wrote, I was in a bit of a panic over hearing that Spiderman might be so ill. Having had its air injector repaired by the dealer, but nothing else, Spiderman went to Fred the Mechanic this morning. Here is today’s update. As a refresher, I had three things that had been identified by Dealer Man: head gasket, front brakes, and rear brakes.

Fred has said that he absolutely can’t find a head gasket leak. Can’t find any evidence of coolant in the still freshly changed oil (which is still at its proper level). Can’t see any seepage on the engine indicating an external leak. No rough running, no odd pressures, no funny smells, no exhaust color changes. We’ll both be keeping an eye out, monitor fluid levels and performance. Right now this seems to have been a claim that can’t be verified.

With the brakes, he does agree that the front brakes could use new pads and rotors. Since he turned the rotors last time, they aren’t good for another go. (They just don’t make rotors like they used to.)

The rear brakes are good for another 5,000-10,000 miles. With me driving, that’s a year.

I’m going to happily spend about $400 to give Spiderman some nice shiny front brakes.

Separately, I when surveyed by the service department of the dealer, I spoke with the service manager about my unpleasant telephone call as well as some other unpleasantness that happened when I picked the car up. He did agree that the head gasket was fishy and that my other unpleasantness was uncalled for. It doesn’t unmake what happened, but an apology is nice.

I continue to be very thankful for Fred the Mechanic.