Subaru Lemon?

It’s now July, and since January I have replaced the head gasket (leaky seal), clutch (not sure it was bad, but recommended by my mechanic), transmission (was barely drivable when I picked it up after getting the clutch replaced, but my mechanic didn’t do transmission work and broke down completely on my way to another garage!), and radiator on my 2001 Surbaru Outback. Now, after all that, my engine overheated again this morning in 50-degree weather. Thank goodness it didn’t expire on our 800-mile weekend trip for the 4th of July holiday! What could it possibly be now? Steam came out, but no leak, clouded up my windshield and stank like antifreeze.

I should mention the check engine light habitually goes on and off depending upon the gas I buy. The car has a reasonable 125,000 miles. Any thoughts? Time to get a new car?!

A lemon is a new car that comes from the factory with defects that show up within the first few months of ownership, so I really don’t think that a 9 year old car with 125k miles could legitimately be called a “lemon”.
On the other hand, you do have a car with some problems that need to be addressed a.s.a.p., as few things are as damaging to an aluminum engine as overheating.

It might be time to get a new car, but before you do that, I respectfully suggest that you get a new mechanic.

You tell us that you replaced the clutch on his advice, even though you did not think that the clutch was worn out, and that after he replaced the clutch the car was barely driveable. I certainly hope that he picked up the tab for the transmission repair that was done by another garage.

You also tell us that he replaced your radiator, and that the car subsequently overheated (again??). Are you sure that your mechanic filled the cooling system completely with the correct ratio of coolant and water, and that he purged it of trapped air?

If the engine overheated and you smelled antifreeze, that is not good! I strongly suggest that you take the car to a different mechanic to determine the cause of the overheating. It is possible that the cooling fans or the sensors that cause them to run are bad. It is also possible that you have a thermostat stuck in the closed position. Did your mechanic change the thermostat when he replaced the radiator? If not, he erred seriously.

You imply that the engine has overheated on more than one occasion. Did your mechanic check for warped cylinder heads after the first overheating incident? If not, that could be the source of subsequent overheating problems as well as driveability problems.

You also tell us that you have intermittent Check Engine Light occurrences.
Has your mechanic told you what trouble codes he found when he scanned the OBD system?

Is this car up to date with things like spark plugs, air filter, fuel filter?
Has the timing belt been replaced? If not, you are in store for even bigger problems.

There is just so much here that we are not privy to, but at this point I feel strongly that you need a new mechanic. You may also need a new car as a result of repeated overheating incidents, but start with a new mechanic before you buy a new car.

Write down your VIN and call Subaru. This vintage Subaru is known to have head gasket problems, and I’m not sure if there was a recall or not, but a call to the local Subaru dealership will give you an idea.

The car is not a Lemon at all. It’s 10 years old with well over a 100k miles on it. Things break and wear out.

The gasoline grade is not what’s causing the CEL to illuminate. You have a problem elsewhere that has not been diagnosed and repaired. The EGR system maybe.

A Subaru does not tolerate overheating very well. When the car overheat you must always stop immediately rather than allowing the temp gauge to peg out.

I would like to hear the story about why a Subaru manual transmission would make this car barely driveable. There has got to be a whale of a tale behind that one.

Thank you all for your suggestions.
Okay, so maybe not a lemon from the dealer. It is an older car, but I’ve never had problems like this with any other vehicle.

What is the EGR system?
Filters are up to date.
Spark plugs should be good – wouldn’t they have been replaced at a 120,000-mile check up?
Just to answer some questions and to see if I missed something:

December 2009 – complete 120,000-mile/$800 tune up by my usual mechanic (#1) (a subaru specialist, he’s the one who told me the CEL was just indicating a misfire, his diagnosis – bad gas – buy Valero mid-grade he said, which I do most of the time – but the light still comes on and since then that has still been his reply when I’ve taken it in – probably three times including for the clutch)

January 2010 – leaky seal on the headgasket. However, mechanic #1 does not “do” head gaskets. So I took it to the mechanic (#2) recommended 20 miles away on the other side of Denver. #2 replaced the head gasket and “smoothed” the drive shaft (does that make sense?) It cost about $1500, but I’m not sure what else he might have done, nothing else was noted on the receipt.

April 2010 – began having a grinding sound when shifting and took the car to mechanic #1 immediately. He drove it around the block with me and said, “sounds like the clutch”. So, he replaced the clutch $900.
When I picked it up, it was barely driveable with a horrendous sound every time I shifted and while driving – an order of magnitude worse than when I dropped it off for the clutch – he did give me a 10% discount on the clutch! I was driving up a hill on the way to another mechanic (#3) to get the transmission checked, the driver in front of me going about 10 mph forced me to downshift and I was left with no gears! I got to the side of the road, but barely. I could not even get it into neutral to coast and steer it onto a smaller side street. Needless to say, I had to get a tow. Paid mechanic #3 $2200 for a rebuilt transmission, that seems to be running fine. He did get a check engine light and said it was a sparkplug misfire, but weren’t those replaced by mechanic #1 when I had my tuneup in December?!

May 24, 2010 – overheated (though no steam, but definitely some antifreeze leaking) on the way home from work, limped home, stopping frequently to allow the engine to cool and went to my neighborhood mechanic (#4) where we take our Suburban and Maxima. He replaced the radiator which had cracked. I don’t know if he replaced the thermostat, but I’ll ask. It’s been a month and about 1,000 miles since that was done. Seemed to be running fine at this point, no CEL indications.

July 2010 – drove 800 miles round trip to Nebraska, my husband bought gas at a “discount station” and the check engine light came on and the car began idling roughly. When I filled up with better gas the rough idle stopped, but the check engine light stayed on. We got home last night without incident, no overheating or any other issues but the CEL. Now after overheating this morning, my car is back with mechanic #4, who replaced the radiator wondering what it could be…he said maybe the headgasket!! My husband thinks it could be the water pump.

I really have no desire to go back to mechanic #1, though I am extremely disappointed in his service. Mechanic #2 was curt, but not very helpful overall. Mechanic #3 was very pleasant and responsible and responsive, but he’s farther away and specializes in transmissions. #4 has been very good and reasonable with our other vehicles, so I guess we’ll stick with him for a bit at least.

Any particular questions I should be asking him?

Thank you.

First, thank you for details. That’s something we seldom get here.
Second, it may be very tough to get through all of this.
The EGR system is what controls NOX emissions and lowers combustion chamber temperatures. An inoperative EGR system can cause clattering on acceleration and any alleged bad gas diagnosis should always be taken with a grain of salt. “Bad gas” is one of those things tossed out (in most cases) when someone doesn’t have any idea what the problem is or they’re trying to brush someone off.
If a code is set based on an engine rattle, etc. this may be more of an EGR fault than a bad gas problem.

If a mechanic only replaced one head gasket then he has erred already. On a Subaru one always does both of them at the same time and while it’s seldom ever done, about a 1000 miles later the head bolts should be retorqued and the valve lash inspected.

A slight grinding sound when shifting can be caused by a worn clutch. No problem there. The issue I have is that this problem was apparently worse after the clutch job and you were left with no means of propulsion at all. This would be highly unusual on a Subaru manual transmission and in my opinion something sounds very suspect here.

As to a misfire that can be caused by any one of a number of things; including the valve lash that I mentioned previously. Spark plugs should be changed about every 50k miles at most and many times the act of removing and installing the plug wires may ruin them. At some point new plug wires are a necessity.

Subarus do NOT take overheating well as the engines are all aluminum and have a shaky history of head gasket problems anyway.

There’s really not near enough info known to nail down what has transpired in all of this in spite of the detailed information that you have given.
At this point I think you should get someone like AutoZone, Checkers, etc. to scan the car for any codes that may exist. They will do this for you free and it only takes a few minutes. Post any results back for discussion.

Granted, I don’t have all of the tiny details behind these problems but a gut feeling tells me that you’ve been yanked around a bit on your car as to causes and the fixes allegedly needed. I think the different grades of gas are conincidental more than anything else.
Bad gas, a Subaru manual transmission going dead at once, etc. has a bit of stench to it. If you had said a Subaru automatic went bellyup I could see that.
Hope some of this helps and post the codes back if you get this done.

Your car is too old to be a lemon, it is just old. 2001 models are now 10 years old. Your latest problem is a leak in the “heater core” which is in effect another radiator (a small one) that provides heat for the cabin of the car.

Stuff gets old and breaks on cars after lots of years and miles. Your car is just showing its age. Unfortunately a lot of parts have broken down on you in a short amount of time. The bad news is there still a lot of old parts that could break in the future, alternator, steering rack, brakes, etc.

Like ok4450, I am very skeptical of both the diagnoses and the “fixes” from your mechanics.
At this point, despite the added details, none of us have total insight into the situation(s), but I think that it is fair to say that you are the victim of both an old, tired car and mechanics who are either inept, or lazy, or outright dishonest.

Just as “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”, a diagnosis of “bad gas” is the last refuge of mechanics who have no clue. As ok4450 suggested, getting the exact trouble code(s)–there could be many stored by the car’s OBD system at this point–is a good starting point for resolving the rough idle/illuminated CEL situation.

However, the overheating problem is the really sticky issue. Yes, it could be the water pump, but that should have been replaced about 2 years ago, along with the timing belt. If your mechanic did not replace the water pump along with the timing belt, then he has really not done his job properly. Was the timing belt replaced at around 7 years/105k miles? If so, was the water pump replaced at the same time?

Overall, the most troubling issue is the continued overheating. Because an aluminum engine does not do well with one incidence of overheating, I strongly suspect that your engine is toast after repeated overheating issues. Personally, I would get rid of this car, but if you want to even consider keeping it, you need new eyes and new hands looking and working on the car’s problems. The mechanics to whom you have gone in the past should not be used again, simply because there have been too many probable screw-ups or outright incidents of cheating you.

A Subaru driver in Denver!
Never would have guessed!

To anyone who doesn’t know, you can’t go 20 feet here in Denver, and the surrounding areas, without getting run over by a Subaru.

Anyway, as to your list of problems, the misfire is probably going to be the tell tale sign of the issue with overheating. I would be willing to bet that if you ran a compression test on the cylinder that is misfiring, that would be the cylinder head that hasn’t been replaced, and is in need of being done.

Misfires are pretty straight forward items to diagnose.
If the spark plugs are suspected of being the cause, switch them between cylinders, and see if the misfire follows the spark plug to its new location. If it doesn’t, then spark plugs are ruled out.

If the spark plug wires are suspected, swap out two of the same, or similar length, and see if the misfire follows the wire. Again, if the misfire stays put, that rules out the wire as being the cause.

Finally, you need to check the valve clearance on that cylinder, and perform a compression test, and a leak down test after it’s been set properly. If compression is low, then there’s a problem in that cylinder’s combustion chamber, and during the leak down test, you can use a stethoscope to see if its leaking past the intake valves, the exhaust valves, or into the engine block or cooling system.

Pressure testing the cooling system is also a great idea.
And at this point, draining the engine oil to see if its been contaminated with coolant might also be a really great idea.

You live in Denver.
There are hundreds of Subaru mechanics here.
Find a better one.


Yep, and if she decides to keep the car yet needs a rebuilt engine, she’s not far from CCR in Commerce City.