Piston Slap: Patience, Head Gaskets, Subaru Labor Rates

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap patience head gaskets subaru labor rates

Janet writes:

Please be patient. I know nothing about the internal workings of cars. Is there a difference between a head gasket and valve cover gasket or valve gasket cover? My mechanic tells me my head gasket is leaking slightly and needs to be watched: I was down 1/2 gallon of coolant since August. Back in 2008 a different mechanic replaced the valve cover gasket (or valve gasket cover?) because the car was hesitating and running rough: I had tried Dry Gas thinking it was a bad tank of gas but that did not alleviate the problem.

Are we talking about 2 different parts? Would you please explain the function(s)? Is it/are they visible when I open the hood of my car? Thank you.

Sajeev Answers:

Yes, they are two different gaskets: the head gasket is between the engine block and the cylinder head. That is a VERY important gasket because oil, coolant and engine compression (one of the cycles in a four stroke motor) are dependent on this gasket making a perfect seal.

The Valve cover gasket is just a gasket for the valve cover, which “covers” the top of the cylinder head. This rarely (never?) fixes problems pertaining to hesitations or rough running, it only keeps oil in the motor. So the mechanic is probably right, sounds like you have a bad head gasket. Now please tell me the make/model of the car, that determines it’s long-term value. If this is a Ford Taurus with the head gasket munching 3.8L V6, kiss it goodbye. A similar vintage Toyota Camry? Fix and love for years to come. Odds are you either need a new motor, new head gasket (a lot of labor, depending on vehicle) or its time to sell and buy something else.

Janet Replies:

Thank you so much for responding to me personally. I never expected such service. My car is a 2000 Subaru Outback Wagon with about 150,000 miles on it. I just put $1200 into it replacing power steering rack, tie rods, CV boot. What will happen if the car develops a blown head gasket? I drive 2 hours to Pennsylvania once a month. Am I in danger? It doesn’t sound like the car is safe.

Sajeev Answers:

When it comes to good service, remember you get what you pay for: I cannot fix a toasted head gasket from my laptop! Now that Piston Slap is occupying more of my spare time, I’ve seen a disturbing (non-scientific) number of engine failures in Subarus. Some are because of owner stupidity, others are a bad design.

Who knows (or cares) how your problem came to fruition. Because the fix is labor intensive, painful on your wallet considering a mechanic’s hourly shop rate. My advice is to dump it soon; most Subarus from the past 10 years are challenging, complicated money pits relative to a Honda/Toyota counterpart. Fine if you know how to fix it, rather expensive if you do not. Though this Subaru already blew the gasket (because it burns coolant) it isn’t bad enough to leave you stranded…yet. Read this older Piston Slap because the question posed is relevant to your situation.

Janet Replies:

I appreciate your honest, albeit painfully, blunt opinion. My car must be the exception. It hasn’t caused me problems over these past 10 years – except for routine maintenance. I will go talk to the mechanic about the car’s future. Buying another car right now doesn’t fit too well financially. Thank you for your help.

Sajeev Replies:

Head gasket repairs on boxer motors are tough on your wallet. And while I expect you’ll be happy with a fresh set of gaskets, a 10-year-old car is a money pit, no matter who makes it. I am more than okay with this, but only for mainstream cars, or for people who don’t shy away from turning a wrench. I am not sure this is a wise choice for you, Janet.

But I get it: you are vested in this machine. Plus, Subarus are fun and quirky. If the finances aren’t there right now, I’d fix it, enjoy, and sell when things look better. And maybe buy a car that’s more cost effective to service next time, even if it is a boring Camry.

Send your queries to mehta@ttac.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

Join the conversation
3 of 90 comments
  • Deaks2 Deaks2 on Dec 27, 2010

    For someone who always sees an opportunity for a LS-x swap, I am surprised that the author did not recommend an EJ25T swap! N/A Suby's with HG failure are perfect swap candidates for a turbo 2.5l from an 05+ Legacy, 04+ STI or 06+ WRX. I have a 06 LGT and I love it.

    • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Dec 28, 2010

      Janet seems too nice and real to give such a silly and irrelevant answer. I will scream up and down for LS1-FTW or anything else, provided its one of the regular TTAC-goofballs writing to me. But Janet needed real answers and is in a serious predicament, all things considered.

      For the record, the guy who wanted a bigger gas tank to improve his BMW M3's cruising range really does need an LS1-T56 swap to accomplish that task...aside from the obvious benefits of the swap. But no EJ25T swap this time 'round.

  • Wmba Wmba on Dec 28, 2010

    I've owned three Subarus and had extremely good luck with them, especially as compared to my prior two decades with Audis. The only relevant technical information in either the article or the comments is by "horseflesh" citing: http://allwheeldriveauto.com/subaru-head-gasket-problems-explained/ That's the real scoop. My Subie mechanic for ten years, before he ran off to tend to a herd of Panthers for the local city police force at a damn good salary, was also my Audi mechanic. Same store. He pointed out time and again how much better Subies were designed compared to VW/Audi in myriads of little ways. He also won the Canadian Subaru mechanic of the year competition three separate times and was sent to Japan for the finals where he came third or fourth. The head gasket problem is just as detailed in the link above. Since most people wander about lost and in a reverie, even original owners contacted by Subaru about the head gasket problems, particularly of the Phase 2 SOHC engine (the subject here) forgot about it and went on as if nothing had happened. Then got all excited when their engines failed. I was shown literally piles of engines where people overheated them, took no notice and hoped it would all go away. Stuck rings in pistons where not even a chisel would free them up. Scuffed cylinder walls from said pistons, etc. Now, obviously Subaru designed a bad head gasket, twice (DOHC first, then SOHC). 1999 to 2003 were the real problem. For some reason the 2.2 Phase 2 engine didn't ever seem to exhibit the problem, but it is identical in layout to the 2.5. Had one of those, only thing that went wrong with the car was a knock sensor and the fuel filler pipe in ten years. The exhaust recirc comes in on the driver's side bank where the leak usually starts, probably because it made the area hotter. Getting the head gaskets fixed, if the engine hasn't been overtaxed, is a good repair to do, if you trust the mechanic. If, like me, you no longer see any half decent mechanics at your Subaru store, prayer for a long and trouble-free life is all you have. The current mechanics cannot even adjust the parking brake properly, and lubing the door hinges must be an arcane art, as mine haven't been lubed in three years despite me mentioning it to the sevice writer, whereupon he pointed out the door stay as the hinge. He refused to lubricate the actual hinges, because "we don't have any problems with them." Where do they find these people? (Steele Subaru Halifax NS) So, my recommendation for such an old vehicle is to repair or sell strictly on whether you have a decent mechanic locally, and I would say the same for any make.

  • Charles I had one and loved it . Seated 7 people . Easy to park , great van
  • Jay Mason Your outdoor space will get better every year with a pergola. A horizontal, pole-supported framework for climbing plants is called a pergola. It creates a closed off area. pergola builder denton texas by Denton Custom Decks provide cover for outdoor gatherings. They would be more than happy to assist you with the pergola's framework.
  • Alan I would think Ford would beef up the drive line considering the torque increase, horse power isn't a factor here. I looked at a Harrop supercharger for my vehicle. Harrop offered two stages of performance. The first was a paltry 100hp to the wheels (12 000AUD)and the second was 250hp to the wheels ($20 000 (engine didn't rev harder so torque was significantly increased)). The Stage One had no drive line changes, but the Stage Two had drive line modifications. My vehicle weighs roughly the same as a full size pickup and the 400'ish hp I have is sufficient, I had little use for another 100 let alone 250hp. I couldn't see much difference in the actual supercharger setup other than a ratio change for the drive of the supercharger, so that extra $8 000 went into the drive line.
  • ToolGuy Question: F-150 FP700 ( Bronze or Black) supercharger kit is legal in 50 states, while the Mustang supercharger kit is banned in California -- why??
  • ToolGuy Last picture: Labeling the accelerator as "play" and the brake pedal as "pause" might be cute, but it feels wrong. It feels wrong because it is wrong, and it is wrong because Calculus.Sidebar: I have some in-laws who engage the accelerator and brake on a binary on/off all-in basis. So annoying as a passenger.Drive smoothly out there. 🙂