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Subaru Forester head gaskets

After smelling a bit of a “hot oil smell” on and off for several weeks and culminating in a getting smoke from the engine at the end of a mountain road, we took our 2004 Subaru Forrester (147,500) to the trusted mechanic. We were told that it needs head gaskets in both banks.

He doesn’t do that job. The three dealers in the area (rural central NH) charge between $1,650 and $1,700 for this job.

Is this in line with what others have experienced? Anything else in particular that we should be looking out for?


Have the heads straightedged
You may want to consider having a valve job done while the heads are off.
I’ll assume your engine has a timing belt and that it needs to come off anyway.
Here’s the other things I’d add:
timing belt
any and all timing belt tensioners
and and all timing belt idler pulleys
and and all camshaft seals
crankshaft seal
any oil pump seals that are easily accessible with the cover off
water pump

Are the head gaskets blown, or just leaking oil externally?
Are you absolutely sure it’s not just the valve covers leaking oil onto the hot exhaust?

I was told by my local Subaru dealer (Performance Subaru) that my covers were leaking in my 2003 Forester (80000 miles). He said that job will be about 1200 but that I should do those and my timing belt at 90000 at about $1350 total. Timing is normally at 120,000 but 90,000 would be fine with me. Another year - it is taking about 1/2 to 2 quarts between changes due to this leak (the higher number if pressed into long trips at constant high speed). I can live with that to wait for the 90,000 mark in another year. The smell is minimal and i have no smoke at all right now. Things could change! [I edited this by adding this question): I thought that with head gasket failure you get steam in the exhaust. Do you not have that?

@mtkoren - while you said ‘covers’ I’m guessing it’s actually ‘head gaskets’. Both/either oil and coolant can leak, either out of the engine or into the combustion chamber (steam in the exhaust), depending on where the leak is. See @db4690 's post for more info.

I have a Forester 2006 with 87K miles. Head gasket is leaking, losing about a quart every 1000 miles. My mechanic quoted me $2,100 for the repair which would include a new timing belt and water pump. Diagnosis was confirmed by Subaru dealer, and they came up with a very similar estimate. I asked them if Subaru would help pay for the repair given the history of “bad” gaskets on Subarus but they said “no” since the car is not under warranty anymore. They are other issues with car such as water in the headlights and bulbs burning out. Transmission is starting to be jerky and worries me. This car has been a huge disappointment. We are ready to trade it in.

Head gasket problems on Suburus seems like it is not an uncommon thing talked about here. I don’t see as many complaints about this on other makes it seems to me anyway. Is this a known issue on Subarus I wonder? If so, anybody want to speculate what it is about the Subaru engine design that contributes?

Head gaskets on these cars is not an unusual failure. Around here, a complete head gasket job with new water pump, timing belt and components, and other related items would run $1800-$2000.

@GeorgeSanJose from what I understand, Subaru had head gasket issues because of the material they used to use from about 99-02. They have since redesigned the gasket. It should be in good shape, after you replace it.
It is more prevalent on their 2.5 and 2.2 liter engines. DOHC especially are more suspect.
The SOHC seems to have a lesser number of incidents than the DOHC.
The 1.8 engine tends to not have head gasket issues.

@DaveJ, the dreaded head gasket issues with Subarus usually leak coolant or have a breach so that coolant gets in the oil passages or cylinder head. That’s usually a really bad problem: The car usually overheats at best or totally ruins the engine at worst. When it overheats, the heads usually warp and need to be remachined.
In your case, since the car has not overheated and is just leaking oil, you may be able to get away with just changing the head gaskets without having to have the heads machined. Remachining the heads usually does buy you longer life because they usually also do other good things to like like the valve seats, etc - it depends on what you want out of that car. Some people snug the head bolts down in an effort to stop the leak. It may work for you/it may not. I’d replace it to make sure.
I’d still get the timing belt, water pump, thermostat, seals, idler, etc replaced because they are there anyway. The parts cost is relatively low and labor is negligible, when they have that thing half apart anyway.

I would do it soon, before the rest of the gasket fails.