Subaru 1999 Forester Timing Belt/Tensioner

Hello everyone!

I have a 1999 Subaru Forester that had it’s head gaskets for the intake manifold replaced back in 2008. While the dealer did this, they also replaced the timing belt, considering that the car was past 105,000. While driving home last week, the car broke down on the freeway. I am now facing about $4000 worth of repairs to fix bent valves, new timing belt, tensioner, idler, water pump, etc.

So my question here is: Obviously these timing belts should not be breaking before <10,000 miles. It seems to me like it broke because the dealer did not replace the tensioner alongside the timing belt, and from previous forums it seems like they should be held responsible for the repairs that I’m facing.

I would appreciate any advice on what I should do, because otherwise this car is ending up in the junkyard!

I just spoke with the dealer, and they said that there was nothing wrong with the tensioner when they looked at it, and that they do not arbitrarily replace tensioners with timing belts unless they notice a problem. I might just be SOL.

First of all, a failed timing belt does not automatically mean that the valves were damaged. Since you were driving the car when the second belt failed, the likelihood that some valve damage occurred is much higher than if you just went out to start the car up and it failed to start because the belt broke either at shutdown or when you tried to start the car. But by no means is valve damage definite.
I notice the new quote includes changing the water pump and the timing belt tensioner as well as the idler.
The water pump should be replaced at your next scheduled timing belt replacement, @ 210,000 miles. The idler should be replaced only if it is making any kind of noise. The timing belt’s failure did not damage either part. So why replace them?

The condition of the valves can only be known if the timing belt is replaced, or if the heads are removed and inspected. The timing belt and pulley transfers power from the combustion part of the engine to the camshafts and valves, all of which will just sit still without a timing belt to drive the pulley. It’s impossible to tell what the condition of the heads are if they are just sitting still in the engine.

Lastly, the fact that the quote includes replacement of the tensioner is no surprise.
The belt should not have failed within 10,000 miles of replacement. Since the dealer NOW wants to replace the tensioner, clearly the dealer believes that the tensioner is part of the problem.
Your options still are pretty bad - junk the car, sue the dealer, or what I would do, just replace the timing belt and tensioner and see what happens. If the car doesn’t start, at least you can decide whether or not to rebuild the valves, and replace the lifters and rods. But I would ask around and get the car towed to a more honest shop than this dealership first thing.
There is no reason to pay a premium price for substandard service that is not backed up.
The dealer should eat the cost of your repairs in this case. The choice is theirs, however.

What the dealer is telling you may be their policy but from a mechanical standpoint they’re 100% dead wrong. One ALWAYS replaces the tensioners and water pump on a job like this.

The tech who performed this job is not trustworthy and keep in mind that the person you dealt with (the service writer or manager) is usually not mechanically inclined at all. Many can’t even do anything other than change their own oil and even that’s a toss-up.

The metal in tensioner bearings is hard coated. With age and the degradation of the grease in the bearing the hard coating starts to fail. Once this happens the bearing will not last long. This is why one replaces the tensioners at the same time as the belt. The tensioner may feel fine to someone who spins it with their fingers but that does not mean for one second that it’s not on the way out. Apparently the people there know nothing of grease degradation and hard coatings.

One does not have to replace a belt to determine if valve damage exists or not. There are several ways of doing this but since it’s an interference engine the odds of damage are as close to certain as one can get.

Bottom line, they screwed up big time. You may be SOL on this but I’d put up a fight over this one. Contact the regional office of Subaru of America and see if it’s possible to get a straight answer out of them about tensioner replacement intervals.
If they back you up then go into the dealer and talk to the owner, not the general manager or the service manager.
This may get you nowhere but it’s worth a shot.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve worked for 3 Subaru dealers as a tech and shop foreman and attended many of the corporate Subaru service schools. At one of the schools they referred to always changing the tensioners and water pump…)

Thanks for the responses.

We already know that valve damage was caused when the timing belt broke. None of the cylinders have any compression, and the current estimate was for partial or complete valve replacements on all four cylinders. After replacing the timing belt and tensioner, the engine still did not run.

It sounds like my main point of argument here would be that my dealer replaced the timing belt without replacing the tensioner, which from a mechanical standpoint, is not acceptable and led to a broken timing belt and more problems because of the interference engine. It also sounds like you cannot visually see the degradation of a tensioner.

I’ll call Subaru’s regional office tomorrow and try to talk to my dealership’s owner. Any other advice on talking to the dealer and/or regional office? Does this work very often?

Normally a dealer warranty’s their work 1yr/12,000 miles. You are well past this mark. Maybe Subaru will cut out a deal of some sort given you already paid an excessive amount of money back in 2008.

I am simply amazed with the major problems people face with Subaru. I have two and they are problem free.

I agree. Getting to the parts is most of the cost. You’d think at least the option would be given to replace parts that had to be removed anyway. The dealer might be concerned enough about reputation to work something out.

Just that this problem does not seem to be uncommom:

  • From a very cursory search for similar problems involving your vehicle. There seems to be early problems with the tensioner in general. Do some research. Take what you find to the dealer or manufacturer’s offices.

In this particular case the car itself is not at fault. The car was ruined because of what I suppose one could call “uninformed carelessness”.

When conversing with the regional office keep this in mind. Be firmly polite but not rude because the regional office really does not have anything to do with this error and they really don’t have that much clout over the dealer. In other words, they won’t yank the franchise away because of this. If it was common enough and serious enough, they could.

What you’re looking for from regional is someone to say yea or nay in plain English about whether the tensioners/water pump should have been replaced. It’s possible they could tap dance around this issue a bit.

The same goes for dealing with the dealership owner. This person has plenty on the plate so they are likely unaware of this problem or in fact, most problems that occur in the shop.

Gates is one of the worlds largest belt/tensioner manufacturers and provide OEM belts/tensioners to many car makers. Subaru may even be one of them but that is something I do not know for sure. However, the principles are the same no matter who makes them. Read the following in the link below.

Hope that helps.

And if you need a little more ammo consider this link from NAPA.

Other automotive areas to use as an analogy would be:
Changing a fuel pump without changing the strainer or fuel filter can kill any warranty along with the new pump.

Install a new engine without installing a new oil pump and the warranty is dead.

See where this leads?