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This question concerns a 2004 Subaru Outback with ~167,000 miles. All major and minor maintenance was performed (original owner car). Nonetheless, it has suffered rapid demise. How much of the following are age-related coincidences — or possible consequences of the car overheating due to a cracked radiator and a simultaneous head gasket failure?

As of this year:

Valve cover gasket (slight oil leak) Radiator cracks (plastic content cracked) Head gasket fails (belatedly appreciated as a known issue on some Subaru models) Car overheats and dies at a stop.

Repair: Replaced inoperable accessory fan, valve cover gasket, machined valves; head gaskets replaced, thermostat replaced, radiator replaced, motor mounts replaced, transmission mount replaced.

Less than 24 hours after receiving the car from repair, car fails at highway speed stranding spouse and myself on a freeway.

Repair: Six bent valves replaced. Shredded timing belt replaced. Stripped out bolt that holds the timing belt tensioner and a pulley repaired. Car passes compression test. Mechanic insists that tensioner, pulley, water pump and other components do not need to be replaced (car had had the belts, water pump, tensioner and the like replaced less than three years prior).

On day of pickup, the car began making a high pitch whine or whistle on acceleration to highway speed and seemed to be lagging when attempting to reach highway speed (RPM spikes). Upon exiting the car, burning odor and smoke was observed from the engine area. Car was again left with mechanic.

Diagnosis: Rack-and-pinion is leaking fluid onto the exhaust. Requires replacement. The high-pitch sound is emanating from the muffler, but shop says they don't know what's causing it.

One week later informed by shop that there is another noise upon acceleration. Drive shaft recommended for replacement. (Too much play causes a stutter sensation when accelerating from a stop.) Indeed, when we come back to test drive the car, there is a new problem present. (In addition, muffler noise is still present but not diagnosed.)

Current status: Muffler shop is performing a compression test. Concern is that the catalytic converter, which is less than three years old — because it was replaced under an unrelated Subaru recall! — is failing. Likely culprit from what we have read for why the car doesn't accelerate as well and emits a high pitch whistle is a failing cat (probable overheat consequence). Subaru says that the cat they installed was warrantied for only one year — so we are SOL on having them service it under any kind of CA emissions warranty.

In summary how much of the above is or is not related to the overheating that occurred with the radiator and head gasket failure — or the fact that the timing belt failed at highway speed immediately thereafter?

Given that we have had access to the car for less than one 24 hour period over the past seven weeks and numerous new problems have appeared, should we suspect any mishandling on the part of the mechanic — or chalk it up to bad luck?

Lastly, what other "shoe" may drop as a result of the overheat and belt breakage that we need to be on the lookout for? At issue is that we are over $2,000 into these repairs — having not yet completed the rack-and-pinion and drive-shaft replacement — and we'd like to know if we've seen the worst that can happen after the major failures indicated above. Is it likely we've seen the worst — or could it go from bad to worse?

  • Welcome to Motor Vehicle Maintenance & Repair! – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jun 19 at 22:28
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    Sounds like you're being taken for a ride. The mechanic botched the valve job and refused to take responsibility. The driveshaft diagnosis is suspicious - unless the shaft in your car is unusual, play in the "driveshaft" means new u-joints, which generally isn't a huge repair. I can't think of any probable scenario which calls for driveshaft replacement except in the case that you landed on a rock offroading. – user2647513 Jun 20 at 17:57
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    What mechanic did the original repairs? Was it a Subaru dealership or the shop that sold you the car trying to cover it? – nvuono Jun 20 at 18:00
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    We had to find a new mechanic after moving to the area not long ago. Before that, we had the same (independent) mechanic for 15 years. He didn't always do things perfectly but he always took responsibility when things didn't go well. We relied on Yelp reviews (5 stars) to find the independent shop that has done this work. They are a Honda/Toyota/Acura specialist but said they also service Subarus. (Couldn't find an independent Subaru specialist in our area.) The car has been dealer serviced when our old mechanic recommended it (replacing failed sensors, airbag recall and the like). – LYNND Jun 20 at 19:17
  • This story is about as old as sin, if not older. – Juan Jimenez Jun 22 at 8:05
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Sorry for your situation, but this is one of those times when it's best to put the car out to grass. The car is 15 years old. I kept a Subaru running until 300,000, but there was always 'just one more thing' to repair on it.

For your car, the main issue is that the head gasket repair was bodged. They didn't get the timing correct - if your car was a DOHC model, that can be a pain to do (even with lots of experience, I sometimes have to reset and start again). A new timing belt should have been used, and all the ancillaries on the front of the engine should have been replaced. A stripped out tensioner pulley bolt is another indicator of a bodged job by (what @john meyers correctly calls) a parts-installer. "But they were only done 3 years ago!" - at the 105,000 mile service. Yes. However, if you're taking the front of the engine off, it's cheap insurance.

To answer your question about what other shoe will drop;

The engine has had a timing failure. It will never be the same again. It sounds like your mechanic isn't a Subaru specialist, and he isn't up to the job. The cheaper solution would have been a replacement engine - but we're past that now. You'll never fully get rid of the oil leaks; if a Subaru that old doesn't leak oil, your car is out of oil. You have a bad driveshaft - that's one out of three. The others are the same age and mileage, so will follow the first in a year or so. You'll lose the passenger side rear wheel bearing (which is a pig to replace. Your mechanic will break something else while in there). The rubber bushings in the suspension arms will be going out - they last about as long as the engine mounts. You've probably already found out that all four tires need to be replaced at the same time.

Old Subarus are great cars if you want to work on them yourself and learn about car mechanics. You'll learn a LOT (just because you'll be working on it a lot). But if you pay someone else to do the work, they're money pits. Drop the car and move on.

Oh, your mysterious rattle. It's the thin metal heat-shields on the exhaust. Put a clamp around them to stop the noise. Don't remove them - they stop the car from causing fires if you park on grass.

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    The oil leak was something that occurred relatively recently (knock on wood). A noisy heat shield was repaired 4yrs ago. We also had bushings replaced at that time. Last year it was a power steering pump, rack-and-pinion boot, axle and an alternator. My spouse's previous Subaru (also original owner) didn't get past 130,000 before the manual transmission went out (got rid of car). So we're two-for-two on cars that didn't make the 200K mark. We've heard these cars can reach 300K but we've never come anywhere close. – LYNND Jun 20 at 15:40
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    @PeteCon after reading that description of problem, I had to look over my should to make sure you weren't watching me. Hit my '04 Subaru spot on. – Underminer Jun 20 at 19:55
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    Just wanted to add that we initially received a quote for a rebuilt engine from another mechanic who said that was the only option he was willing to give us — and that was going to set us back nearly $5K with only 24K mile warranty. Had we done that, we might still be looking at a bad cat and the suspension problems (leaking rack-and-pinion, new drive shaft). Still waiting to hear from the muffler shop, which is apparently checking the car as a favor to the mechanic who has been doing the work. – LYNND Jun 20 at 20:05
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    @LYNND no offence intended, but after reading your original question, and then reading Petes answer, and subsequently your comments, it sounds like you are in denial - I would no longer be trusting that mechanic, or any third party shop they suggest. Time to either get a truly independent opinion or just call it a day (and save yourself lots of money). – Moo Jun 20 at 22:55
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    This answer is spot-on. I have replaced Subaru head gaskets, and the exact issues mentioned all came up, including the stripped tensioner bolt. If that happens you have to buy a replacement tensioner bracket with good threads (a cheap part but can be hard to find), not just put it on stripped and hope for the best. The mechanic did an atrociously bad job and you should find someone who knows what they're doing for future work. – R.. Jun 21 at 14:13
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I concur with user9181; I would add a suggestion of having a non-dealership mechanic render a second opinion. As noted, redecking the heads requires removal of the timing belt, and on reassembly it is easy for an inexperienced parts-changer (oops, I meant “mechanic”) to install it incorrectly. a new timing belt should always be used. if the alignment of the teeth is off by even one, the valves and pistons will be out of sync. if lucky, the engine will make noises and run poorly, but more typically you will damage valves and pistons (the piston head will make contact with the valves).

It is also possible that your catalytic converter was damaged by coolant escaping into the exhaust by way of the leaking head gasket.

New drive shaft? I’m skeptical. From a practical standpoint, I wouldn’t sink a lot more money into this vehicle.

  • Thanks for the input. Coolant into the catalytic converter is one I hadn't considered. Sadly, before the belt broke, it felt very solid — better than it had in years. Now it feels off. Hard to believe they may have misaligned the timing belt they installed — but that's consistent with the feel. Still, the (independent) shop claims to not have fully removed the original belt to access the valves and head gasket. (They want us to believe the bolt that stripped/failed was not removed in the original HG/valve repair — and said there was an "anchor" or "tap" in place that they didn't know about.) – LYNND Jun 20 at 15:07
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    @LYNND Wow. I don't know the engine in question, but I have a strong suspicion that 100% of what you're being told is absolute BS. – DonBoitnott Jun 21 at 12:16
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    @DonBoitnott Your BS detector is working perfectly. There is NO WAY to fix a Subaru head gasket without removing the heads. The timing belt runs from the main crankshaft to both heads - the heads have the valves in them. Subaru heads are also pretty soft - it's very easy to strip bolts. – PeteCon Jun 21 at 23:48
  • Update: A nearby (same lot) muffler shop recommended the mechanic replace "gaskets" in the muffler, but doing so didn't eliminate the high-pitch noise on acceleration. They're saying the catalytic converter is solid (passed their test) and a new muffler will take care of the high pitch acceleration noise. To replace the original muffler — which apparently the mechanic cut off the car! — it's a choice between ~$400 Subaru part — or hope they can locate an OEM-equivalent muffler that won't impact performance or trip a CEL. On top of the muffler cost, the quote is $1800 to fix the other problems. – LYNND Jun 22 at 21:38
  • The all-in cost for the HG repair, belts and additional repairs puts it into the $5K range. The whole reason the car was repaired vs. replaced is because the HG repair cost was less than a down payment on a new car. As an original owner car, confidence in repair vs. replacement was based on having done the work to maintain/repair it every time it was needed. So it wasn't a neglected car. Even if we have been scammed by the mechanic, much of what he found forces us to fix it to get it to a place where we can drive it off the lot and get it the 25+ miles back home (we live outside the city). – LYNND Jun 22 at 21:48
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The head gaskets on these engine are known failure items even without an overheat condition. The valve cover gasket leak is a given on Subaru boxer engines. They all need this. I'm suspicious of the job they did on the head gasket repair. They had to remove the timing belt to do the heads. If the belt was in good condition, it should not have shredded if they job was done properly. At this point, if the shop determines the engine is bad, put a bullet in it and cut your losses.

  • I, too, was under the impression that the timing belt had to come completely off to do the job. They say an unknown-to-them prior bolt repair failed, causing the timing belt to shred. They said they found helicoil on one bolt and an anchor or tap on the other. It's the "tap" they say they didn't know about (hadn't removed that part during the original HG/valve repair). Before moving to the area, we had the same (independent) mechanic for over 15 years. They're speculating that when we had our belt/water pump replaced ~2.5yrs back, an impact wrench must have been used. (I doubt that, however.) – LYNND Jun 20 at 15:26
  • +1 on putting a bullet in it, sending a car to the big junkyard in the sky is one of the hardest things a fella can do. Just sent a xc70 with perfect tranny and engine to the junker:( it was literally totaled from what it needed in suspension parts(not even including labor) – DatsunZ1 Jun 20 at 17:13
  • It's a tough call due to the money already spent. The original job was $2300 because engine mounts and the transmission mount was replaced along with the radiator/HG/valves. Then they charged $600 more after the belts broke. Only then did we learn the drive shaft and the rack-and-pinion need to be replaced (beyond whatever is causing the exhaust noise). It's hard to believe so many new issues would arise when we only had the car out of the shop one day in 7 weeks. Before the radiator/HG/belts failed, it never left us stranded a single day. Never seen a car go downhill so fast. Crazy situation. – LYNND Jun 20 at 19:31
  • @LYNND: The timing belt always has to come off to replace a head gasket, because the heads have to come off, and the camshafts (and thus cam pulleys the belt operates) are on the heads. – R.. Jun 21 at 14:16
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I had head gasket failure on my 2003 Subaru Forester and the head got warped. I sent it off for redecking and there was a section of the head that wasn't redecked. Subaru doesn't give much extra material for future redeckings and it made for a very small seal. I had owned the car since it rolled off the dealer's lot, but after getting the engine back in the car and replacing all the necessary parts, I sold it. I'd suggest you sell this and get a car with less issues.

  • That was another concern I had, too: It's been to the machine shop 2x in a row. I also questioned if there was enough material there to work with, and your answer seems to validate my concern that there's only so much redecking that can be done. – LYNND Jun 20 at 15:31
  • The machine shop said there were only a couple thousands they had to work with. Most heads have several thousands. – Matt Anderson Jun 20 at 19:40
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This is a 15-year-old car that Kelly Blue Book values at about $500 as a trade-in, even if it was running well. At some point you have to realize that although it was a fine vehicle in the past it is no longer a fine vehicle. This vehicle is past the point of diminishing returns. Just say bye-bye, find a local charity that takes old cars and donate it, and get yourself another vehicle that'll be reliable.

I just went through this with a Toyota Sienna - had a head gasket job done, then the tranny went south a couple months later. I'm slowly (I'm 62 :-) learning that as soon as a car needs major repairs (i.e. serious engine or tranny issues) it's time to say bye-bye to the formerly nice car and get a better one.

  • Trade-in value is not a worthwhile figure from KBB. At the values it gives you might as well just sell it for scrap or way under value to a private party. Always go by the private party value for actual value of the vehicle, which should be around $2500-3000 if it's in decent shape (which OP's clearly is not). Source of estimate: when I bought a 98 Outback in 2013, the KBB for good condition was around $3000. – R.. Jun 21 at 20:17
  • Contacted Subaru America in the hope as a two-time owner they would at least agree to check it over (customer loyalty thing). But they refused. Offered only a trade-in ($500) on a new car. Subaru America has lost our business. This is two for two on cars that didn't make 200K. Supposedly they can go to 300K! Both cars were driven in CA (not even road salt corrosion!). The cars were maintained and then some (more than one alternator, new power steering pump, a half dozen bushings, catalytic converter, several sensor repairs, A/C clutch repair and condenser — even replacement seat belts!) – LYNND Jun 22 at 23:43
  • Yeah, so, screw 'em. I'm kind of in the same position with Nissan - had one that left me and a baby sitting on the side of the road twice when the car was less than two years old, so Nissan won't be seeing me in their showroom anytime this side of the grave. – Bob Jarvis Jun 23 at 4:14

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