Subaru Outback Lemon?

Help. I have a 2003 Subaru Outback. I bought it new from the dealer. The check engine light goes on frequently and I take it to the dealership. Each time they replace the catalytic converter. I have had it replaced four times. The last time they even sent the car’s computer back to the dealer to be reprogramed. However, it just happened again and it appears I will need yet another catalytic converter. What would you do? I have been in cotact with Subaru and they have record of all these rapaies and know it is an issue.

Can we assume that they are doing all this work under waranty?

Waranty or not that CEL (check engine light) is just a kid in class waving her hand trying to get you attention because she has the answer. You need to have the codes read. Some places will read them for FREE. Try Autozone or Advanced Auto Parts. Get the exact code not just their translation into English and post it back here.

Thnaks for your reply. The exact code is P0420 every time.

And yes, all the repairs thus far have been under warranty. They say the warranty on a catalytic converter is is 80,000 miles. My car has about 69,000 miles on it now. Thank you.

From the factory shop manual for my 02 Sonata & yours should be similiar:

Code P0420 “Main catalyst efficiency deterioration”


If any codes relating to H02s sensor, MAF sensor, injectors, a P0171 or a P0173 are present, do all repairs associated with them before proceeding with this trouble area.

Is the P0420 the ONLY code?

I like Josephs idea of getting the codes pulled at an Autozone etc.

I have had the codes done at Napa, my local mechanic (Bruneel Tire factory) and at the dealer. The only code is P0420 every time no matter who does the diagnostic. Subaru can’t seem to fix the problem and it is frustrating for me because the nearest dealer is 250 miles away…

Thank you for your ideas. Please let me know if you have any more.

The question the mechanic should be asking him/her/self is “What tells the computer that the cat is bad?” Is it a temp sensor, or an after catalytic O2 sensor…what? It may be a bad sesor or the wiring to same that is giving false alarms to the computer. They can’t take a code as an answer, only a direction. Make them dig deeper.

  1. The computer thinks the converter is bad.
  2. Apparently it’s not.
  3. What’s telling the computer it’s bad?

I totally agree! The last mechanic to look at it (there have been three different Subaru mechanics who have worked on this) finally did a little bit of this. It resulted in him replaceing hte O2 sensor even though the diagnostic code was ok for it, and sending the car’s computer back to Subaru for “reprogramming” (whatever that means?). And then, today I have the smae CEL problem and the same error code. If there are any other things you know of, let me know and I will specifically ask them to look at them. Thanks!

Or should I give up and try to get Subaru to buy the car back from me and get another one?

Just a thought, I had the same issue with my 2004 Legacy. They changed the catalytic. The light still came on. Went to local garage, told them the problem, they put a new gas cap on. No more issue. The car has over 105,000 miles and the “check engine light” is history.

Thank you! I laugh hysterically if this is it!!! Certainly worth a try.

Go to a local AutoZone and have the codes pulled. Post them back here exactly as given for further discussion.

There is really no way on earth your car has legitimately gone through 4 converters and now needing number 5.

I’ll add something to this. I assume here that Federal emissions warranty is paying for this and you are not out one red cent, as it should be.

Here’s the glitch. Any warranty repair is paid for by Subaru of America, the overseer of the dealer.
There is absolutely NO WAY under the sun that SOA is paying for multiple converter replacements.
After the second go around even, they’re going to be breathing down someone’s neck at the dealership wanting to know what is going on. This makes no difference even if multiple dealers are involved as it’s all on computer files.

Coolant leaking into the exhaust system (head gasket) or excessively rich running (rough running/Check Engine light on) could kill a converter, but it still falls back on the fact SOA is going to DEMAND an answer. They are NOT going to pay repeatedly for converter failure without knowing what killed them.

I’m leaning toward the fact the converter may have never been replaced at all or may be once at the most.
What you need to do is call the Subaru of America regional office and inquire about this as the regional office is the one giving the yay or nay on these repairs.
If SOA does not have any record of this…you’ve been BS’ed, and badly. And repeatedly.

Bad grammarin’ agin. Yay - yea.

Since I forgot the last line in your OP do you mean the regional office when you refer to Subaru or the corporate headquarters?

If so, something still stinks. SOA does not cough up warranty money very easily and certainly not on the same repair over and over again.

Those “defective” converters should also be on hand for inspection by the district rep when he makes his rounds. Wonder if the dealers can physically show you all of those converters?

What baffles me about this situation is the apparent utter lack of diagnosis.

OBDII code P0420 = Catalyst inefficiency

There are two types of situation that will cause this.

  1. A false code meaning the catalyst efficiency is not low the computer just thinks that it is. The ECM determines efficiency by monitoring the readings from the front O2 sensor and the rear 02 sensor. When the ECM does not detect enough difference between the two readings it trips the P0420 code.
    This can be caused by a failing front 02 sensor, a failing rear 02 sensor, an exhaust leak allowing fresh oxygenated air to contact either 02 sensor, a bad ECM, or a bad catalytic converter. The ECM will not throw a 02 sensor code unless the 02 sensor readings are outside of preset parameters.

  2. If the catalytic converter is actually bad there is a reason for it. A catalytic converter can fail due to excessive oil consumption, to much unburned fuel, or coolant in the exhaust.

It seems to me that if the dealer is just changing the converter without correcting the underlying problem you need to find a new shop. I personally am shocked that Subaru is continuing to pay the dealership for these repairs with no explanation.

In my honest opinion you do not have a converter problem. I would suspect it is an electrical problem. Either too much resistance in the 02 wires causing faulty readings or a programming error in the ECM. Either of these situations is easily correctible if the technician working on the car would take the time to properly diagnose the issue.

Just a bit of added information for others reading this post. This is the reason why we tell you to get your code read at places like Autozone and bring the exact code back to us. Not there interpretation. Just because the code says a sensor or emission component is faulty does not mean that sensor is the problem.


Michael, I used to work for several Subaru dealers, both as tech and service manager, and this whole thing about a truckful of converters being replaced under warranty sounds very, very strange.

Dealing with SOA is the main reason I have such a case of the xxx at them. Say this, promise that, and then deny liability later. I could write a small book full of examples about this, both minor and major ones.

Subaru is notoriously chintzy about their warranty, both when the car is repaired under warranty and when the warranty repair amount is budgeted into the new car price. When I quit working for Subaru somewhat over 10 years ago, they budgeted a measly 100 bucks for the warranty repair period; both parts and labor.
See how far that is going to go.

I just cannot believe that Subaru of America is reimbursing the dealers for repeated converter replacements. Jeez, we used to have to fight them over every 20 bucks and often had to eat that because they would not pay up. They always had a reason for denial of the claim and this was something the car owner was unaware of. The car was repaired and they were sent on their way free of charge on a warrantable repair. The ruckus was always later when filing the claim.

Those dealers are required to hang onto every part that is replaced under warranty. It must be tagged and coded to the warranty claim. It may be disposed of after inspection by the regional service rep when he makes his rounds; usually on a monthly basis.

I keep thinking the OP is being fed a serious line of BS.

I worked at a local Ford garage for many years as a tech and I understand what you are saying. Vehicle comes in is fixed and the customer is sent away happy. Warranty paperwork is filed with FoMoCo and it was either denied or the labor was cut to almost nothing.
They were just as bad on recalls. I swear I have done hundreds of recalls that I never got paid for. The one that sticks out is the Ranger hose clamp recall.
It was determined that the upper hose clamp at the radiator on 99 Rangers was faulty. FoMoCo gave us .1 hours to replace the clamp. Problem was when you went to squeeze the clamp to release it the tab would break off. Talk about a B**CH getting off then.

I think the OP is getting the shaft as well. I think they are simply clearing the code and sending the car out the door.


.1 hours? Wow. That just about covers the time it takes to go out in the lot, get the vehicle, and drive it into a stall.

You would also love Subaru labor on a complete air conditioning reseal under warranty. .2 hours for a complete reseal and they allow .5 for evacuation, recharge, and leak check.

One area that really grated on me with Subaru is that their warranty manuals only cover about 25-30% of the repairs. Most are not listed.
They ask you to call and get “pre-approval”. They pre-approve, you repair the car, and THEN they deny the pre-approval they previously gave.

You’ll love this one. Many years ago a guy came in with a Subaru that he was using to run oil leases with. 85k miles in the first year and a half; most in the dirt and mud. He bragged about never doing maintenance and finally trashed the tranny out in the boondocks. This guy even BRAGGED about trashing the transmission.

He had a Subaru backed extended warranty and when told that warranty was not going to pay for abuse he went ballistic and sicced SOA on us. You should have seen this vehicle. Looked 20 years old with a million miles and was solid rust and mud.

SOA gave their pre-approval even though I argued that it was going to get complicated and would probably involve a torch to even get the trans out. They said do it even though I pleaded with them to hold off until the regional rep could examine this heap.

I personally went out and removed that trans and had to hack the exhaust, cross-member, sway bar mounts, and even the rear driveshaft yoke clean off with a torch.

Ordered this mountain of parts and THEN Subaru calls and says “NO WAY is SOA going to pay for anything other than the one particular item that is faulty in the transmission”, while forgetting (again) every last word I told them 2 days before about the vehicle condition and the owners actions.
Weasels is about the best word to describe them.