Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Wife blew the Subaru's engine 5 states away in Ann Arbor, MI

My wife is 5 states away in Ann Arbor, MI and ran her mom’s low-miles 2005-ish Subaru Outback Wagon out of oil. Cringe, sigh, roll eyes. Details are sketchy. “Bad things” happened. She had it towed to a Subaru $tealership that was convenient. Before I cash out our kids’ college fund, I’d like to have it towed again, this time to an independent for a likely junk-yard engine swap.

(a) Good idea to let an independent do an engine swap?
(b) I’m 5 states away, wife knows nothing about cars (see sketchy details above). How do I pick an independent on the fly, from 5 states away?
( c) Does this mean I won the argument about the need to learn how to change tires and check oil?

Maybe your best investment is a bus or plane ticket. You need to be there, you need to be considerate, and you need to bring money.


Depends on the independent doing the swap. Just because it’s an independent doesn’t mean the guy turning the wrench is any good - it’s just more likely since he’ll probably go out of business if he screws up too many cars.

(b) I’m 5 states away, wife knows nothing about cars (see sketchy details above). How do I pick an independent on the fly, from 5 states away?

You don’t, unless you know someone there you can trust to evaluate them for you. What @wentwest said is the best answer - hop a bus and go out there yourself, or if you can’t do that, fire up Google and start researching shops in the area, and then just hope the reviews get it right.

( c) Does this mean I won the argument about the need to learn how to change tires and check oil?


I’ve used Yelp several times in (somewhat) similar situations. You’ll need to specify ‘Subaru repair’, and read the reviews carefully.

How many miles did she drive her moms car before it ran out of oil? Had her mom known it was using oil and told her? Assigning responsibility depends on what happened. Had your wife been driving it for a month or was it a trip to the store? Oil doesn’t usually disappear all at once, her mother may have been driving a long time with low oil. If the "bad thing " was your wife ripping the oil pan off, it is all on her.
This car is not worth a new engine at the Subaru dealer. Some wrecking yards here not only sell used engines but install them. Call wrecking yards in that area and see if they have a used engine they will guarantee it . Also ask if the labor would be guaranteed too.and who would install it for you

1 Like

Thanks OldTimer. The miles are pretty low, sub-100,00. Literally driven by a little old lady to the store and back. There are loads of issues to work through here. I skipped to the part about repairs b/c that’s the urgent part.

Oil doesn’t usually disappear all at once,

I totally agree. I’m getting information through a person it took 10 minutes to walk through verifying there was no oil on the dipstick. But here are the facts as I understand them.

My wife had it at the dealer 7 days earlier for a recalled airbag. They did a large courtesy inspection & ID’d problems. I have to assume they checked the oil. That may even be documentable. One problem identified was a leaking head gasket (ah, Subaru) that caused antifreeze to leak outside the engine, but definitely not into the oil. Could be relevant, maybe not. The car has been driven several days since then and the drain plug did not fall out. My wife/mother in law did not observe any leaking oil, no smoke out the tail pipe, and no pooling antifreeze. My wife says no idiot light went on until the “really bad” noise started and the check engine light came on simultaneously. A bit of information I am less confident in is my wife claims “they” (dealership?) were able put 5 quarts of oil into the engine after she had it towed in. Assuming we didn’t just violate the Law of Conservation of Mass, I’m at a loss to explain what happened to 5 quarts of oil in 1 week.

I agree, the bottom line is we need a new/used engine. And given the age of the car they have to be a dime a dozen, relatively speaking.

5 quarts in a week is pretty hard to swallow unless there were giant black clouds or big puddles of oil under it everywhere it parked.

I would be interested to know what the inspection entailed. It is not guaranteed that they checked the oil at that time, unless it was part of the checklist (it often isn’t because such “courtesy inspections” are often carried out during oil changes and so it’s kind of assumed that the oil is being dealt with).

Find a reputable independent shop to verify the damage and offer a price to repair the problem. The dealer’s best option is to sell your MIL a new car.

And unless the car was driven at outrageously high speeds or operated at high rpms in lower gear ranges or operated with warning lights on the person behind the wheel at the time of failure is not responsible for the failure.


Car Talk has a Mechanics section which you can look in to find an independent garage that was reported by a Car Talk user as reliable. A dealer rebuild will be more expensive but get a quote from the dealer and from and independents. I personally would go with a rebuild from the dealer or an independent if a low mileage (less than 50,000 miles) engine cannot be found. Also, check out the difference in labor rates where you live and where the car blew-up. If labor rates are significantly cheaper where you live it may pay to have the car shipped back or you can rent a tow bar from U-Haul or whoever and tow it back yourself. 100,000 miles is not a lot of miles for an engine these day - most cars should be able to go 150,000 with no major problems - but other costly and somewhat costly issues can surface, so if you did not maintain the car, it might make sense just to sell it as-is for parts rather than to put money into it. .

1 Like

Ah, the Mechanics Section. I’m on it. Car was pretty well maintained. My inlaws drove me nuts taking it to the $tealership with a blank check at any sign of trouble. Curioiusly, I’m not sure that extended to ‘non-trouble’ issues such as oil changes.

That’s interesting that the inspections usually don’t check the oil. The appearance of the oil on the dipstick, not just the level, is on my own periodic inspection. Especially when I’m diagnosing a head gasket leak.

I just talked to my wife, confirmed the no significant leak/no smoke facts I’ve given above and have some more information. She says we don’t have a paper record of the dealership checking the oil but they verbally told her when she picked up the car that the technician topped up all fluids. 7 days later, boom. It turns out a family friend was first on the scene and was able to put 5 (FIVE) quarts of oil in the car. So the drain plug did not fall out and the car was basically out of oil. When my wife, impressing me here, had it towed back to the dealer she asked the service department if they topped up the oil the week before. She was told that is part of their typical inspection. She even asked if they could explain where 5 quarts of oil could go in 1 week. The person at the service department front desk could not, but offered to check on it.

Possibility #1: a very slow leak/smoke, almost imperceptible + never checking the oil + dealership not checking the oil = gradual loss of 5 quarts of oil. Then kaboom.

Possibility #2: ???

1 Like

Nobody on the planet cares as much about your car as you do. It’s never surprising when someone’s inspection checklist on their personal vehicle is more detailed than a dealership mechanic who has no vested interest in the car.

At any rate, the dealership is admitting that they did futz with the oil on inspection. Depending on what the cause is determined to be, they might be on the blame list. For instance if the cause is a bad drain plug that’s letting oil drip out, but not at a rate that would dump 5 quarts in a week, then they clearly did not top off the oil, and therefore would bear some responsibility.

1 Like

I just had a conversation w/ the Dealership Service Department that had to be awkward for them. They basically conceded exactly what Shadowfax concluded. That they said they topped off the fluids but didn’t.

So if (big if) they have some blame, what does that mean? Do we have grounds for anything beyond a scathing online review? The dealership manager is calling me tomorrow for a chat.

1 Like

If you are lucky they may eat the labor and do it for the cost of parts, which would be a nice deal, I would not think my personal presence could add much to what can be done over the phone.

I don;t have much to add. I ended up putting a Goodwrench engine in 200 miles away that the wife had problems with. Hardest part was getting the engine shipped from Minneapolis to podunk center and then trying to get a ride out there, but it went fine and no problems. When we would drive a high mileage car to Florida from MN, I used to carry enough cash and bonds to cover a trans or engine or even trading cars. Always figured I’d just fly the family home and I’d baby sit the car. I think you’re going to have to go out there sooner or later to deal with it. You can do that in a hard day. My concern would be why it ran out of oil in the first place. Even if they didn’t check the oil it should not have used more than a quart or two at the most unless something was seriously wrong or the oil hadn’t been changed for a long time. Checking fluids is not changing them. Normally you’d do an oil change before the trip. I dunno. Tough spot. I don’t like borrowing stuff.

dealer did quick inspection. but there is no write up?
dealer admitted futzing with oil? which means what?
if oil is low will dealer say so? add oil cuz they are nice?
why no low oil sensors? wife drove car 1 day prior to this
starts car next day and no warning of low oil?

Depends on whether or not they accept the blame and what they’re willing to do about it. The free labor/ you pay parts sounds pretty fair to me. Some dealerships would offer that straight away because they’re honest. Others would try to buy you off with a free oil change or a 20% off tire rotation or some BS like that.

Keep in mind you’re on somewhat shaky ground because I assume you don’t want to conduct a lawsuit from 5 states away. Neither would I, especially since prevailing is far from guaranteed. So make sure not to be too aggressive, at least at first, lest you irritate them and make them less willing to make you happy.

ok, wife drove moms car.
If title is in moms name than who has insurance on car?
My homeowners ins pays for damage to others property.
But Homeowners does not cover damage to autos.

Insurance does not generally cover mechanical breakdowns.

I was going to jump right up and say, “YES!”

However, I took the time to read through the comments and I think I’ll hold off a while.

I hope the dealership comes through with an amicable settlement.

I’m glad you have been patient with your wife (more so than I would be?). Hopefully, upon her return you’ll be treating her to a candle light dinner :slight_smile:

Absolutely. I’m not out to get anyone. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, my father in law passed a couple years back and I’m starting to think my mother in law just never had the oil changed. For 3 years/20-30k miles. In that scenario I have to wonder if the engine was already pretty severely damaged and an emergency oil top-off would have really helped anything. The dealer could (maybe) have saved the day and didn’t. Ah, it is what it is, we’ll see if the dealership comes through this morning when I talk to the manager.

I talked to an old car buddy of mine in the area and got an independent mechanic recommendation, and another 'don’t go to that guy. The shop checks out on the mechanic section, 4.9/5, 16 reviews, 3 specialties listed including engine rebuilds. I called them and they said $5400 sounds cheap for that job, very cheap. I told them my buddy’s name and they knew him well. He’s going there tomorrow in fact.