Subaru Transmission

Hi, I’m thinking of buying a 1996 Subaru Outback with about 190,000 miles on it, but the dealer just told me that there is an issue with the car going into 4th gear. He said there’s no problem with any other gear, third/fifth, etc, but it “doesn’t go in easily” on 4th gear. How significant is the problem; should I just avoid the whole thing?


Stay away from that one. Any transmisson problem may have an up to $3500 price tag.


Used cars are like commuter buses.
If you don’t take one, another one will be along shortly.
Wait for a car with no apparent issues, but then have your mechanic check it anyway.

In the past when I looked at buying cars with a bad tranny, I would call around, find local independent transmission specialists, tell them everything about it, ask how much a new (remanufactured probably) transmission for that vehicle would be, including all labor and tax. You want the out the door price, so that you can add that number to whatever the price of the car is and decide if you think that is a good deal. Every single time I did that math, it was not a good deal, if I couldn’t get the price down from the seller, I walked away. I suggest you do the same.

It’s major and the problem is likely in the 3/4 synchronizer hub assembly. This would require removal of the transmission, disassembly, and the purchase of some pretty expensive dealer-only parts.

A 15 year old Subaru with almost 200k miles is not worth much anyway. Being curious of course, how much do they want for this peach?

Right at $2000. How are Subaru’s in general? There’s another one I’m looking at, a 1994 Legacy, 217000 highway miles, dealer serviced, for $1650. Decent find, or keep looking?

The prices on either could be acceptable anyway if the cars are clean, straight, and run good.
However, the '96 has a trans problem that would probably cost around 1000-1500 to fix and that’s not even a complete overhaul.

The '94 could be viable but like the '96 there is a huge issue and that is the timing belt/water pump/tensioner replacement. This would be a high 3 figure repair and MUST be done if it is not known to have been done in recent memory. If it is claimed to have been done then ask for the receipt to prove it. NEVER take anyone’s word on this repair as a broken belt can damage an engine.

In general Subarus are decent cars but do have issues. Head gaskets are one of the more common major problems. The manual transmissions used to be problematic but that’s been pretty much ironed out. The automatic transmissions can be a bit iffy at times.
(As to the comment about ironing out the manual transmissions, odds are the problem with the '96 was caused by the previous owner who had abusive shifting and driving habits. It would not likely be a design flaw.)
Hope that helps.

The Legacy has a very reliable 2.2L engine devoid of expensive head gasket problems. The Outback(all) and more recent Subaru’s use a 2.5L(non-turbo) that has expensive head gasket failures.

Is $2000 your upper limit? If yes I would consider buying a smaller older economy car.

The owner of the '94 told me that she had it serviced regularly at the local dealer, and they replaced the timing belt at 80000 miles, and she would check if it had been done after that. All this information has been very helpful; I am not very experienced at buying used cars. Thanks!

$2000 is around my limit. I’ve looked at cheaper, older cars (1990 Honda Accord - $1500 & similar), but we’re looking at moving into the CA mountains and having AWD is what we’re looking for. That, and my wife loves Subaru’s; happened when she lived in Alaska.

I thought the head gasket issues were limited to Phase II 2.5Ls, which limits them to 99-02… 03s and newer seem to have these issues cleared up…

The timing belt and water pump should have also been replaced along with the timing belt.
No matter, it’s due again after 137k miles and these things need to be replaced now or again depending on whether or not it was done previously.

At this point I’d pass on both and continue looking unless the owner of the '94 is willing to sharply discount the price to offset the timing belt job.

No, that is not correct.
My '97 Outback developed a head gasket problem at ~120k miles.

And, there have been reports of some head gasket problems with '03 & '04 models–albeit not as many.

I would avoid the whole thing, but if it is cheap enough ?..

Automatic or manual transmission? Has the fluid ever been changed? What does the fluid look and smell like?

That '96 Outback has a manual trans.
Subaru did not adopt a 5-speed automatic until sometime in the last few years.