Piston Slap: Time to Take the Outback, Out Back?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap time to take the outback out back
TTAC commentator markholli writes:

Hi Sajeev,

First, a big “thank you” to you and all of the contributors and commenters on TTAC for hours of free entertainment. Keep up the good work! Now that I’m done buttering everybody up I’ll get to the matter at-hand. I have a 2005 Subaru Outback 2.5i (base) which has been my wife’s daily driver. (pictured above, literally – SM)

It is paid for (no loan) and has 108,000 miles. We planned to keep it at least 3 more years until we have a third child, then “upgrade” to a minivan. Because we thought we’d hang on to it for a while we just dumped about 1000 bucks into a timing belt, water pump, new belts and pulleys, and a new front wheel hub assembly. Good to go, right? Wrong.

A few days ago I noticed that the car had been quietly weeping black tears onto the garage floor. After determining that it was not a loose oil filter or drain plug, I took it in to a mechanic to have it checked out. The astute among you (and Subaru owners) have already figured it out and will not be surprised by this: head gasket failure ($1700). Oh, and while they were under there they noticed a bad axle with a torn boot ($300).

One more thing, that annoying torque binding at low speeds: transfer case clutch pack ($650). And because it is a material matter to this discussion, the car will also need new tires this year, which will be another $600, at least. Almost forgot: the cruise control doesn’t work, and I have no idea what that will cost to repair.

So here’s the question: trade, sell, or fix?

Option A: Trade. Clean trade-in according to NADA is $7000. This car has some issues, so they’d probably only give us $4500…if that. I suppose if I didn’t disclose the issues they may give me closer to $6000. A good CPO Outback (yes, we’re looking at another Outback…my wife loves the car and is not ready for a minivan yet) can be had for $21-26k. We would have a warranty, a more powerful flat-six, new-car smell, and be problem free for a few years until we need a bigger car. But then again, we’d have a payment.

Option B: Sell. List it locally as a “mechanic’s special.” Clean, problem free cars like mine with similar mileage are selling for about $9k. Maybe I could get $7000 from somebody who is willing to do the work on their own and save some money? Then I would use that cash as a down payment on the new car.

Option C: Fix. Let’s assume I deplete my savings account to the tune of $3250 to keep this thing: do I have any guarantee that another expensive problem won’t emerge 5,000 miles later? No. And experience has taught me that Subarus are, unfortunately, not on par with Toyotas and Hondas for reliability. Although the car has never left us stranded, it seems like it always needs something. Death by a thousand paper cuts.

I’m turning it over to you, best and brightest. What would a smart person do in my situation? We need to figure it out relatively soon because the car is leaving big oil stains wherever we go, and we don’t feel comfortable taking it too far from home, which limits our summer plans.

Sajeev answers:

It’s not every day you hear about an 8-year-old car with 108,000 miles falling apart like this. In the words of the Great Ron Burgundy, “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast!”

Option A or B are the most logical, since you can afford a monthly payment and probably want another car. Plus, your household cash flow sounds like it could be a concern, if something else happens with this car. Or anything else, like an unplanned family expense: option C is a non starter for me, literally.

So do you trade it in or sell private party? Poking around Edmunds.com for a Subie like yours needing significant repair, I seriously doubt you’ll get $7000 if you go at it alone. Unless you don’t tell anyone about the problems, at the risk of detriment to your karma. The cosmos prefers truthful acts, and if you get lucky those will net about $4500.

Which could be an easy $1000 more than you’ll get on trade, unless you somehow manage to get a great deal on your replacement vehicle and then hammer them on the trade. And not get hosed on your financing, depending on your credit rating. Good luck with all that.

So my advice is simple: buy another Subie** and sell this one by yourself…honestly!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

**Obviously not another Subie, but since you are adamant about burning money when you could save so much coin with a normal family sedan from Honda, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, GM, etc…who am I to judge after all the Panther Chassis talk?

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2 of 116 comments
  • Burgersandbeer Burgersandbeer on Jul 16, 2013

    I would trade if possible. I recently sold a much older car in need of $$$ work with an unknown potential for more work, and trust me, the pool of DIY buyers is not as big as you would like to think. This doesn't sound like easy suspension work you have lined up either. Even if you find someone willing and able to do that work, what they offer probably won't be far off trade value. Not worth dealing with craigslist to find that person, IMO.

  • Conslaw Conslaw on Jul 17, 2013

    There is another way to look at this. That is that this car is middle-aged, and needs its middle-age fix up. It could be that if you put $3,000 work into it, that you'll get three more years out of it with minimal expense. Even if you can't count on getting that lucky, the car with three grand worth of work done to it is much more saleable than one pushed to the auction. So you put the work into it and start seriously car shopping. You ride the Subie until you find the replacement that you REALLY want versus the one that you settle for because you are in a hurry. I recently had to buy a car under a time deadline because I was driving an insurance-paid rental. I think I could have done better if I would have had more time and less pressure. (By the way, many of you have read my posts know I drive a C-Max, I'm not talking about the C-Max, it's great. I'm talking about our other car.)

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