Subaru forester needs major repairs, to fix or get a new car?

I drive a 98 Subaru Forester which I bought 3 years ago at 135k miles and have since put another 45k miles on it. I’ve put about $3000 worth of repairs and new stuff on it - nothing major: CV boots, O2 sensors brakes, tires, etc. I love doing road trips and I’ve driven cross country in many directions in this car. I love that a year ago when I moved from NC to CA I could put all my belongings in the back and drive over.

Last week it overheated for no reason and the coolant disappeared. I was able to limp over to a mechanic driving gently but they were not able to find anything wrong with it after a pressure test. They flushed the radiator and told me to keep an eye on it. This week it overheated again. Sounds like the classic head gasket problem flaring up.

In addition to this, for 3-4 months now there has been a slight delay when shifting that I have not been able to find a satisfactory explanation for. It is not really a problem right now but could be a symptom of worse things to come. The transmission fluid has been replaced since the problem started. The only fix I’ve been able to find for this problem is to replace the transmission.

So it looks like with the head gasket my car is headed for some serious repairs. This car is otherwise really solid and has treated me really well.

So here’s my question: I’m wondering if I should put the money down to repair a car that should probably work after the repairs (at least for the 4-5 years it will take me to finish grad school), or if I should go shopping with the same amount of cash for a new car with less mileage but with unknown other problems. My price range somewhat limits my options for this latter choice. People have recommended Ford or Hyundai on these forums - I’m probably looking at 2000-2002. What problems should I expect on these cars?

Thoughts? I don’t have a lot of experience with cars, coming from one of those Asian cities with excellent public transport and horrible traffic. I’ve only had to get one after moving to the US to be able to get around and it has been a rather painful learning experience so far.

In the long run it is almost always cheaper to keep the car you own.  Getting another new car is going to be expensive.  Buying another used car ?.  well consider that someone will end up with your old car.  You will end up with someone's old car which could have even more problems. 

It is a tough question. Good Luck

Don’t bother looking for a used car in the same price range as the cost to repair your Subaru, you’re just going to have a headache in the long run. At least with this car you know what you have.

Fix it and keep rocking on.

Thanks guys, that’s what I’m leaning towards and it’s nice to have some corroboration. Now all I have to do is find an honest, competent mechanic to do the repairs here in Los Angeles. I’ve been to 2 mechanics so far for regular maintenance since moving here. One of them was honest but I’m worried about competence because the head gasket (which seems so glaringly obvious after just a little Googling) didn’t occur to them and there are a bunch of other small problems (minor leaks etc that will need work down the road) on my car that they didn’t detect. Perhaps they didn’t look beyond what I told them needed fixing but they should have.

I don’t necessarily see this as a head gasket problem at this point. A head gasket is only going to be an overheating problem if:
the gasket is breached from the combustion chamber into another combustion chamber.
the gasket has an external breach from the combustion chamber into a coolant port, oil return valley, or externally.
It will not be a hit and miss thing.

As to why it’s overheating sporadically that could be caused by a faulty thermostat, radiator cooling fan acting up, or a weak radiator cap that is causing loss of coolant.
(Thermostats are a maintenance item in my opinion. Change them every 3-4 years whether they’re bad or not. They’re cheap insurance and many an engine has been roasted due to a 5 dollar part.)

Head gaskets are not a guessing game. They’re easily verifiable with tests; compression, cooling system pressure test, hydrocarbon test, vacuum test, etc.

As to the transmission fault (or alleged trans fault) you might get the car scanned if this has not been done. A delay in shifting may not necessarily be the transmission causing it.

Thanks for weighing in. It is possible that the thermostat is at fault. That is the next thing we will try to eliminate. I hope it is this simple. Not to be a pessimist but the head gasket is a known issue with 96-03 Foresters and my symptoms fit exactly with what others have described. I will probably verify with a hydrocarbon test before launching into any expensive repairs. I read somewhere (unverified) that the pressure test does not usually produce enough pressure to cause the symptoms.

The car has been scanned. As far as the shifting issue goes everyone who’s sat in my car has a different opinion about what could be causing it. I guess for that one I will wait and see how things deteriorate.

A head gasket fault does not always cause overheating. It depends on where the problem lies. If a head gasket is leaking externally or in an area not related to the combustion chambers it should not overheat at all if the coolant level is kept up.

If it does have a breach into the combustion chambers then the cooling system will pressure up every time you run the car and this usually means some white smoke out the tailpipe.

Try this with a stone cold car that has not been run. Loosen the radiator cap to relieve any possible pressure that may exist in the cooling system.
Tighten the cap, start the car, and allow it to run for about 20 seconds or so.
Shut it off and quickly loosen the radiator cap. If there is a gasket breach into one of the combustion chambers you should hear a faint hiss. If not, likely no problem.

Many of the gasket problems were due to external leaks and some of these could be cured by retightening the cylinder head bolts.
Subaru used to recommend this procedure but in the interest of looking at things through rose colored glasses this procedure was eliminated. A mistake in my opinion.

My take is that you’re in a gambling situation either way you go. Even if you fix it, given that it’s older, you might not even have collision on it. A minor hit will total it due to its value.

If it were me, I’d fix it.

This is the latest update: with all the tests it looks like an internal head gasket leak. My mechanic does not want to replace the head gasket, and thinks it would be better to replace the engine. They have replaced the head gasket in the past, but he claims that with parts from China, usually the engine starts knocking after 3 months. This seems odd because from what others who’ve had this problem have posted online, replacing the entire engine seems rather excessive. I don’t want to replace the engine because obviously the gasket on the new engine may fail too.

I have been quoted $3000 to replace the engine, and the guy has sidestepped giving me a quotation for just the head gasket repair. I will have someone else look at the car but what do you guys think?

It sounds to me like the mechanic is BSing you because he either does not know how to do this job or does not want to do it.
Chinese parts are garbage for the most part but that’s not why the engine knocks. What causes an engine to knock is driving around on coolant diluted engine oil for a time before doing the head gasket repair.
If he has a concern about Chinese parts then why doesn’t he buy Fel-Pro gaskets. Available everywhere on Earth.

Let me ask this. Does the engine oil look clean? (no sour milk look, etc.)
Does the car run well other than the times when it abruptly overheats?
Any coolant loss other than when the overheating occurs?

At this point the jury is still out as to whether this car needs head gaskets in my opinion. Did they happen to lay out the test results as to how they determined this?

Well when I went back to pick up the car later he actually suggested I drive the car until it can’t run anymore and trade in for a new one because replacing both the engine and the transmission would run me >$5k.

The car runs great apart from the slight delay in shifting described in the original post. And there is no coolant loss otherwise. They did a hydrocarbon test, and already ruled out the radiator/thermostat. Anyway my radiator is only a year old. Apart from tearing apart the car for a more extensive diagnosis, and coupled with the fact that lots of Subarus have this problem, unless you can suggest some other cause for the sporadic overheating that we have not already eliminated I think internal head gasket failure is the most parsimonious explanation.

I will have a look at the engine oil when I get home later, and try the test you suggested before. Though am I going to see the radiator overflow pressurize if the overheating problem only happens sporadically?

Subarus have been prone to head gasket problems, no doubt about that. I’ve replaced more of them than I could ever start to remember. It’s just that based on what you’ve related it doesn’t sound like a head gasket problem at this point unless the hydrocarbon test showed combustion gasses in the coolant.

There are several things that could cause a sporadic overheating. A thermostat can be a good one minute/bad the next thing and it’s unclear to me as to how this was ruled out.

Erratic cooling fan operation due to engine temp or A/C operation is another. (leading to overheating which may then cause a weak radiator cap to overflow, etc.)
Hopefully if they pressure tested the cooling system they tested the cap also. The latter generally gets overlooked.

Anyhoo, that’s my opinion for what it’s worth and hope it helps.