Subaru buyer needs help

I’m looking to buy a used Subaru Outback and can only afford to spend $4,000 to $5,000 or so on the car. This means I’ve been looking at the cars years 1995-2001 give or take a year or two. I’ve heard rumor of various problems with the cars from these years–especially those that have reached 100,000 miles. I’m looking for advice on what to be cautious of and how to best avoid buying a fairly inexpensive used car without facing high repair and maintenance costs in the next two years.

Thank you for your shared wisdom!

Can’t say that I would buy a Subaru in that price range, unless I knew of 100% of the maintenance and repair history. A Subaru drive train can be expensive to get repaired. Many of these issues don’t show up immediately, nor can be detected in a pre-purchase mechanic’s inspection, but can bexpensive down the line if you are unlucky.

Things to look for and ask:

  1. Timing belt replacement at 105K miles
  2. Any head gasket replacements? If so, when?
  3. Has the vehicle had four matched tires on it for all the miles?
  4. Standard maintenace services done at 30/60/90K miles and all items done?

In the big picture, the Subaru 2.2L engine had fewer problems and issues than the newer 2.5L engine. We have owned a 99 and an 03 Legacy, and loved them both. It takes a while to understand all the do’s and don’ts for a Subaru AWD drive train, and that is why you need to proceed cautiously as you look at them. Far better values in that price range used car market would be a Ford Focus or some other brand/model.

I’ve owned two Subarus and have enjoyed both. But as a used car with that low a price they will be beaters. The best buy in my opinion for a high mileage “chance” in awd for something even close to reliable, is a use CRV. The motor is tougher, the drive train less capable but simpler, and overall, Honda products have a better chance getting a few trouble free years for that price. Realistically, for $4K, I wouldn’t even look at 4wd/awd but would stay with 2wd if you have a choice.
Best of luck.

Thanks for the advice! What do you think I should be willing to pay for a Subaru and what year range would be the best bet? I’m also looking for this car in Connecticut so I have the effects of salted roads on a car to consider…

Thanks! I think I’m going to need AWD/4WD for driving in snow so I may need to consider waiting until I can afford a better car. What year Subaru and what price range would be more realistic for a used car? I’ve considered CRVs but would prefer a Subaru.

I would look for a low mileage Legacy and not necessarily an Outback. Our 99 Legacy Brighton had the 2.2L engine and is considered near bullet proof.

That particular car met an early end when our daughter was involved in a wreck and it was totalled. Try as we may, we could not find a decent Subaru replacement for her with the insurance money provided. She ended up with a small sedan instead. This illustrates part of the issue you may have.

Look at price guides like, and edmunds to get an idea of used car prices.

Also, pose your question at
This is a very helpful forum for Subaru owners. You will get a wide range of informed recommendations.

Four good snow tires and wheels on a FWD car like a Focus, Corolla, or Cobalt should do well in Connecticut’s snow.

Enter the word “Subaru” in the search box of this board and broaden your horizons. There are far better cars for the money…AWD vehicles do NOT age gracefully…

The huge exceptions that are nearly trouble free compared to other 2wd cars are CRV and RAV4s.

I’m not a Subaru hater (owned 3 or 4 of them) and speaking as a Subaru tech they’ve always been my favorite car to service; warranty issues aside.

Q. Why is that?
A. Conducive to a fatter paycheck.

Casey I’m Curious, Why Do You “Think” You’ll Need AWD/4WD ?


In 6 months I’m going to be moving to live in an area that ranges from 4000-6000ft where it usually snows a great deal during the winter months. I’ve had better driving experiences in snow in 4WD/AWD than 2WD vehicles. Even if it isn’t snowing in front of my house, I’ll be driving in it so that I can ski 2-4 days per week. Subaru is the most common vehicle in the area I’ll be moving to and I heard on an episode of Car Talk that this was a good way to gauge what kind of car to buy. The car in question in that episode actually ended up being a Subaru too. I’m not totally married to the Subaru Outback as the only car to get, but it has space for bikes and skis for two people with room for more which is also something I’m looking for in a vehicle.

On that budget you should not buy a car as complicated as a used Outback. A newer 2 wheel drive compact can be bought for that and still have a lot of reliable life left in it.

If you buy the Outback, budget $1500-$2000 for possible repairs and replacements per year. If you can’t manage that, stay away from it.

If you’re dead-set on getting a Subaru, jayhawkroy offers alot of excellent info and suggestions, especially about the repair history, headgasket replacement (mainly on the 2.5) and the advantage of the 2.2 engine. The problem is that you can never be sure if you’re getting all of the repair history on a car, so proceed with caution. With regard to the “rumor of various problems” you’ve heard about, they’re probably not rumors. Well-known is the head gasket issue, but that doesn’t mean that you will face this problem or that it hasn’t already been addressed on a car you’re considering. Again, knowing the complete and accurate repair history is invaluable. Having reached that magical 100,000 mile mark isn’t necessarily a cause for concern; Subarus are renowned for consistently going well over 100,000 miles without issue. You might want to check out the website for more help with assessing buying an older Subaru. They’re located in your part of the country.

To make a blanket statement that you’ll definitely need to expect repairs or have to buy an inferior vehicle if you pay $4-5k for a 10- or 15-year-old car is a bit unfair, but for that price you will need to be careful (take your time) and expect that the vehicle could have higher mileage. That isn’t necessarily an indication of bad things to come but – again --it would all depend on how well the car was taken care of. I have a '94 Legacy wagon with 170k and a '99 Legacy Outback wagon with 280k, and I’ve had only one issue with either of them (the head gasket problem on the '99 @ 130k) other than normal maintenance. So you can get alot of “trouble-free” miles on Subarus.

Admittedly, I’m a Subaru fan – I’ve bought 6 used, none new, and had very little trouble with them, even got to 325k miles on my '84 before finally selling it in '04 to get the '94 – and I’m confident in buying them used. But you may not feel that confident in buying an older car and feeling good about being able to assess what you’re looking at. I don’t know much about the CRVs and RAV4s that the others here are recommending, but they may in fact be some models that you might want to consider if only to get a better feeling for what all is out there that might fit your needs and budget.

Good luck in your search!

Thank you everyone!!! This has been very helpful. Based on all of the above information, I’m starting to reconsider using what I would pay on a less expensive car and making a down payment on a newer Subaru Outback. In a couple months, I think I could afford to do this depending on the kind of loan I get.

In looking at cars from 2003 on, what should I pay attention to? What kind of questions do I need to be sure to ask?

Thanks again!!

“what should I pay attention to?”

DO NOT buy a used car that does not come with maintenance records!

As much as I like Subarus (currently driving my second one), if the previous owner(s) did not maintain them properly, then YOU will be the one to pay big bucks for repairs necessitated by lax maintenance.

In addition to maintenance records, you should look at the tires to see if they are all of the same brand, same size, and same amount of tread wear. If there is any discrepancy in any of those details, then you will likely have to spend several hundred $$ to replace the viscous coupler, as Subarus do not take kindly to mis-matched tires.

In those maintenance records, be sure that the timing belt was replaced by the 105k mile/7 year point (whichever comes first) if the engine is the common 4-cylinder model. Otherwise, you can look forward to the engine self-destructing any time after you purchase the car. If the car has the somewhat rare 6-cylinder engine, you can rest more easily, as that engine uses a timing chain, rather than a belt.

But, no matter which engine the car has, anyone who buys a used car without access to its maintenance records is putting himself/herself in a position of having to pay for major repairs in the near future. And, even with maintenance records in hand, you should have the car inspected by a Subaru specialist prior to purchase in order to find lurking problems.

Make a Subaru owner happy. Give them 5 large for the problem in their driveway…