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Subaru Outback Wagon - Best model years and what to look for/avoid 2000-2005?

I?m hot on the trail to purchase a used Subaru Outback in very good condition, which has had a solid maintenance record. I?ve been gathering information on Edmunds, CarTalk forums and USMB (Subaru enthusiast forum). I?ve got a little extra work to do as I?m searching for a car in Silicon Valley a few weeks before relocating for the summer from New York ? I?d like to have any necessary maintenance done before arriving in a few weeks. This means I have to evaluate the car by having it inspected by 1-2 reliable garages, and maybe even hiring a local Subaru enthusiast with good experience to take a quick look after inspection.

I’m just looking for the best value in a highly reliable vehicle. I don’t mind doing some repairs and will do all recommended maintenance upon purchase, but would like to avoid any problems that can be avoided from the beginning.

1) Which model years from 2000-2005 would you look for/avoid, based on known issues with certain model years?

2) I read in another forum that pre-2005 Subaru Outbacks were prone to head gasket leaking.

a. Is this problem confined to pre-2005 Subaru Outbacks? Is the cutoff a different model year?

b. How prevalent was this problem? Should I avoid purchasing a pre-2005 vehicle? I?m looking for quality + value combination, and of course newer means more expensive.

c. If you purchase a pre-2005 Subaru Outback, should you replace the head gasket even if there?s no visible problem yet?

d. How much does replacing the head gasket cost at most good garages on average?

e. Will replacing the head gasket solve the problem, or is the origin of the problem in engine design and it will simply happen again?

3) What are the advantages of the VDC Subaru Outback? I’m noticing that VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) Outbacks seems to be commanding serious premiums on Craigslist and KBB.

a. What advantages does this model offer?

b. How much of a premium is it worth?

c. Which model years was it available?

Thanks again to all for the great advice I?ve been getting here.

Someone on the USMB Subaru enthusiast forum recommended the 1996 and 2002 model years - I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable going back to 1996, but 02 is promising - said that the 2000-2001 model years were a transition, and that head gasket issues affecting those models were corrected/improved in the 2002 model.

If you are considering a 4-cylinder Outback, I would recommend that you not look at anything prior to the 2002 model year. After 2002, the engines appear to not suffer from the head gasket problems that were typical of the '96-'01 models once they got past ~ 110k.

On the other hand, I can strongly recommend all model years ('01 to present) of the 6-cylinder Outbacks. The 6 is an incredibly powerful engine, has a timing CHAIN (rather than the timing belt that has to be replaced on the 4-cylinder model at 105k), and has proven to be essentially trouble-free.

Comparing my '97 4 cylinder Outback with my '02 6 cylinder Outback, I can tell you that I have only given up ~1 mpg with the 6, and I enjoy the much lower noise levels and the safety factor of the VERY strong acceleration when it is needed. The acceleration of a 4-cylinder Outback is best described as “adequate”, while the 6 borders on awesome.

As to VDC, I do have that feature on my Outback, and it is very effective at preventing skidding and sliding of the rear end on slippery turns. And, if any Outback that you are considering is still equipped with the original Bridgestone Potenza RE-92 tires, I can tell you that you need every advantage that you can get on a slippery surface. Those Potenza RE-92s are the absolute worst tires on a winter road surface that I have ever experienced.

On my '02 Outback, the VDC feature only came on the 6-cylinder model that I drive. While it has lately become available as an option on the 4 cylinder model, it is possible that VDC continued to be available only with the 6 cylinder model for a few years after '02, and that might account for the large price differential that you are seeing for VDC-equipped Outbacks. On the brand new models, VDC only costs something like $400. as an option, but on earlier models, it likely cost more, or was only available in combination with the 6 cylinder engine.


That was super helpful - thanks very much. Are you sure a 6 cylinder loses you only 1 mpg? I thought the difference was much greater.

Because VDC is a computerized system, do you worry about failure during use? Has it proven very reliable? Have you ever had to repair it?

Which all-season tires do you recommend for the best all-around performance on dry roads, wet roads and sometimes some snow and ice? Bridgestone Turanza Serenity 225/60R16 $126 H speed rated (replaced Turanza LS which was highest rated tire on tiretrack), Yokohama Avid TRZ 225/60R16 $94 T speed rated 4, Potenza G019 Grid (replaces G009), the GoodYear Triple Tread, or another?

VDC driver, what do you think would be a good price for a 2002 6 cylinder without VDC, and with VDC?

You’ve got me very interested in the 6 cylinder 2002.

I am really not familiar with the current selling prices, so I can’t help out in that regard. Sorry!

As to the gas mileage–yes, the 6-cylinder does impose only about ~1 mpg “penalty” vs. the 4-cylinder engine. My all-around average mileage on my 6-cylinder is now 23-24 mpg, with 27-28 mpg on long trips being typical. On my older 4-cylinder model, my averages were typically only 1 mpg better. Look at it this way–even though the six is a bigger engine, it is not working anywhere near as hard when accelerating as the four is. In order to get onto an interstate highway, you have to get the four up to perhaps 4,000 rpm on the entrance ramp, while the six can safely get you up to highway speed at ~3,000 rpm.

The difference at lower speeds might not be as pronounced, but in general, the six is turning over more slowly at any given speed than the four is, so that helps to even out the disparity in gas mileage. And, it gives you a much lower noise level in the car.

The only reason for the six to get much worse mileage is if you succumb to some “stop-light drag races”, as I did on a number of occasions. It was very satisfying to see the amazed expressions on the faces of BMW drivers when I left them in my wake! Luckily, I have matured a bit in the past few years, and I have stopped doing this childish sort of thing. (Well, I usually don’t do it.)

So, if you drive with economy in mind, and if the engine has been properly maintained, I can assure you that the gas mileage of the six is only about 1 mpg less than that of the four cylinder model. And, as you probably know, the six has a timing chain, rather than a timing belt, so that gives you one less thing to deal with in terms of expensive maintenance.

Addendum: No, the VDC system has never needed to be repaired.

As to tires, I use Michelin X-Ice tires in the winter, as winter tires are just so superior to any all-season tire on slippery surfaces. Yes, I know that this sounds like over-kill to use winter tires in addition to the VDC, traction control, ABS, and VTD, but since the car came with those ridiculous Bridgestone Potenza RE-92 tires, I found that I really HAD to put winter tires on the car in place of those Bridgestones.

Now that I use BF Goodrich all-season tires on the car, my winter traction is good, but since I already have the Michelins, I do mount them in the winter since it would be silly to just let them sit in the garage.

While I can’t comment on the other tires that you listed, I have heard good things about the Goodyear Fortera Triple Tread in terms of winter traction, but I would advise going to to see consumer ratings on all of these tires.

Hi VDCdriver,
I’ve been researching Subarus - time for a “new” used car. And your comments here and on another topic string have me curious.

Do you still feel the same way about the low repair needs of your H6 outback? I have what appears to be a very clean, 2003 w/ 50k on it. It’s an LLBean but I haven’t checked if it has VDC. I’ve scheduled a used car check with our local highly rated Subaru mech. shop and your comments of 2 years ago had me wondering…

…Do you still feel this convinced of it’s mechanical stability? Because folks in my area are Subie fanatics and I’ve been trying to educate myself. A 4cyl would clearly give better mpg but your -1 loss of mpg is doable.

We had a tremendous winter 2yrs ago and while I grew up w/ 4x4’s and deep snow driving, my city govn’t was ill prepared. As was my FWD city car and I don’t want to go thru it again.

Many thanks for your help and any updated opinions on your 6cyl Outback would be appreciated.