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What's Wrong With My 1997 Subaru Outback?

My local, independent, trustworthy mechanic says he’s never heard of a Subaru under 100k miles, let alone under 200k miles, having so many mechanical and electrical problems as mine has had in the last year! Differential, transfer case, code creating necessity to add fuse to disconnect AWD, leaks, radiator, power steering fluid, door locks not working, cruise control intermittently working, and now, suddenly, a huge noise in the transmission and refusal to budge! That’s the current state, but it’s the tip of the iceberg! My dear Outback (I’m its first and only owner) has less than 98,000 miles and I’ve always treated it with care! HELP!!! I haven’t explained the problems well, as I’m not a mechanic and it’s late at night, but if you have an idea what I should do, please tell me! Right now, it’s at the mechanic’s and I’m asked to decide whether to put in a use or a rebuilt transmission. Each costs TOO MUCH but the used has only a 90-day warranty! Fix it with one of those and then sell it? What to do? Thanks.

If you are the first and only owner, you should be able to provide information on the car’s maintenance history, which is crucial to understanding the car’s current problems–yet you have given us no clue regarding its maintenance. “I’ve always treated it with care” does not really tell us anything specific regarding the maintenance of this car, unfortunately.

However, in the absence of that information, I will give you my thoughts on the problems that you relate:

>“Differential, transfer case, code creating necessity to add fuse to disconnect AWD”–The most likely cause of all of those problems is having failed to rotate the tires on a consistent basis (every 5k or every 7.5k miles), or having run the car with mismatched tires (different brands, different sizes, buying less than 4 tires at a time). AWD vehicles must have their tires rotated on a consistent basis and must have tires that are very closely matched. Are any of those “mis-matching” scenarios applicable to your situation?

>“radiator…power steering…a huge noise in the transmission and refusal to budge”–All of these problems (despite failure to explain exactly what is going on with the radiator and PS system) are almost always due to lack of maintenance. The coolant/antifreeze and the trans fluid should have been changed every 3 years or 30k miles–whichever comes first. Failure to do those things on schedule can and will leak to corrosion, leaks, and clogging of the radiator and early failure of the transmission. In other words, despite the car’s relatively low odometer mileage, the cooling system and the transmission should have been serviced ~5 times already. Were they?

I change my power steering fluid every 6 years or 60k miles, so I have to wonder whether your PS system has been serviced at least twice already. Additionally, the previously-mentioned problem of mis-matched tires can be a factor in transmission damage to an AWD vehicle.

>“cruise control intermittently working”–From afar, this is hard to diagnose, but, if the engine is not running at its optimum level of efficiency, the cruise control can shut down. Is the Check Engine Light lit up when the cruise control does not function? When was the last time that the spark plugs and plug wires were replaced?

As to “leaks” (from what source??), that most likely relates to gaskets, which can certainly be leaking on a 15 year old car. Minor gasket leaks are not something to be overly concerned about. Can you give us some insight regarding these leaks?

Please post back with the car’s maintenance history (in detail), clarification of the history of its tires, and also whether there is a Check Engine Light lit up. Only with those details can we hope to provide help more substantive than educated guesses.

Your car is 15 years old. Old stuff breaks. Your car is a low use per year car, 6500 miles per year which puts it in the “severe” category as far as maintenance required for most cars.

Well cared for leaves a lot of info missing. Oil changes is good, but this car has lots of fluids to change. Transmission, differential, transfer case, coolant, brakes, all have fluids that deteriorate over time. If all these fluids were changed every 5 years you’d be changing them at 100K for the 3rd time. If you have changed these fluids less often than that then that’s why a lot of this stuff is breaking down now.

I think your car is old and tired and will cost a lot of money for repairs in the future. You have gotten your money’s worth from it with 15 years of use. Let it go, time for a new car.

The value of a 15 year old car is very low. You might do best to not put anymore money into it. Ask the mechanic if he would like to buy it from you as is? He can fix it and perhaps make a profit or drive it himself. The money you spend on the car to fix it, could be less than its trade in value. Start shopping for a new car. Trade your current car, or sell it “as is”.

Sticking to the transmission issue only, I might make an assumption that this is an automatic and will pose the following questions.
Was there any whining prior to this big transmission noise?
Any recent oil change history not long before this happened?
Has the transmission final drive gear oil been checked to make sure that it’s full? (Gear oil, NOT the ATF)

The point here is that at times the gear oil is inadvertently drained during an engine oil change when someone is not paying attention. This can lead to a subtle, or not so subtle, gear whine followed by a bang which is then followed by the car not going anywhere. This usually means a catastrophic, not repairable transmission failure.

My opinion is that it would be foolish to spend a substantial sum of money installing a used or remanfactured transmission and then sell or trade the car. If you want to be rid of it then just sell it as is.

ok4450 makes an excellent point.
If the OP’s “trustworthy” mechanic–or anyone else–recently changed the oil, it is very possible that they mistakenly drained the gear oil from the final drive mechanism. On Subarus of that vintage, the two drain plugs look identical, and are placed only inches from each other.

I very much appreciate all your comments (all 3 posters and 4 comments as of this writing), even the light scolding! I will print your responses and take them to my mechanic whom I will ask to inform me on these. I have done a lot of the maintenance you’ve suggested, and aimed to keep the tires as well matched as possible. What mistakes the mechanics may have made over time, I wouldn’t be able to determine.

Thanks again. After I get more info for you, I will post it

BTW, I had to make a quick decision, due to not having transportation while my car is at the mechanic’s, so I’ve pretty much decided to fix it up to a bit more sellable state and then sell it. I will ask the mechanic if he’d like to buy it though, before he gets too far in what I asked him to start today: install a used transmission instead of a rebuilt one.

If I could have waited longer, I would have. People love the Subaru Outback, so I believe I may have a chance of getting my money back and a little more. Will come back soon to follow up.