Piston Slap: Beaten by a Winter Beater?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap beaten by a winter beater

Mo writes:


I’m hoping to get advice from you and/or the B&B regarding my new-to-me 2004 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport (soon to be superleggera due to rust). Included is a link to pictures I took of the underside of my car and brakes with descriptions. [Thanks for those! – SM]


– First and most important: Is it even worth fixing/preventing the rust from getting worse or should I just take it out back and put it down?

– If not euthanasia worthy, can I hack and scrape away the rust and use a rust neutralizer and sealer or should I physically replace as many parts as budget allows?

– Are said rust treatments liquid enough to get between seams or do they just reach areas that are visible?

– Regarding the brakes: I just changed the front rotors and pads (not shown). The pads removed from the vehicle still had maybe 3/4 life left and were wearing evenly (no tapering, gouging, etc.). Why was the rotor still rough?

– Should you feel a what I can describe as a grittiness when I move the front caliper sliding pins? (Dust covers are present and not torn.)

– Should you be able to move the caliper by hand once tightened? (With sliding and mounting bolts tightened, I can still move the caliper slightly at the sliding pin area in and out and side to side. I will say that I hadn’t pumped the brakes at the time I checked it.)

I had bought the car with the intention to use it as a winter car. That doesn’t mean if salvageable I won’t try and keep it running. So, should I walk away or roll up my sleeves?

Sajeev answers:

Maaaaan, forget all your questions! That thing is toast unless you want to strip it down to try the rust treatments in all the corners, crevices and sheetmetal folds. That much work for a winter beater? No thank you!

I’d rather buy one with a blown motor/theft recovery/insurance write off from a southern state and put all your Subie’s guts into that. And maybe put rust inhibitor on that southern car if you’re gonna go to the trouble. But again, not for a winter car!

Mo responds:

Ugh. I was worrying about that. I’d never seen axles flake before. I guess buyer beware and all that. As I said, I’d gotten it as a beater, and at least from a quick visual inspection at the lot (not on lift) it looked alright. But, I guess it being from VT didn’t do it any good.

At least from what I saw once I put it on the lift, it hasn’t fallen apart (yet). My plan was to scrape and poke and pound as much out as I could and spray that rust stuff — then cross my fingers.

Sigh. Honestly, besides that (and the diesel tractor engine knock), I’d fallen in love with the way it handles and rides.

Thanks for the advice. Now I just don’t know if I should try selling it, part it out or do the underbody on my nice car instead.

Sajeev concludes:

Engine knock?

Part it out and claw back some of your money! If the interior is clean and you work eBay, the Subie forums and Craigslist hard (from the comfort of your warm abode) you might make money on the deal. I’d much rather disassemble to cash out than make any attempt at rust repair.

What say you, Best and Brightest?

[Image courtesy of the reader]

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.
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2 of 89 comments
  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Jan 15, 2016

    Most Subaru's that look like this underneath in Upstate, NY harsh Winters are generally ready for the scrap yards. We get them in all the time at our repair shop and the frames, brake lines, gas tank etc plus just about every bushing are usually toast. We just sent a 20 year old college student away with his 2004 Forrester that not only had all the above issues but also a rotted out exhaust manifold to catalytic converter pipe that would have cost over $700 bucks to replace plus around 400 bucks for new brake lines, a new gas tank and the frame had holes in it. Also bad were the rear sway bar bushings causing a racket every time a bump was hit and the smell of raw gas. It would have cost over $2000 bucks to fix a 1500 car that not only had rusted out underpinnings but rusted rear quarters and door bottoms to go along with it. I would run away from any Subarus from the salt belt that are 10 years old or more, especially ones that haven't clearly been taken care of. Then there are the usual Subaru issues that we see all the time. Head gasket leaks, power steering issues, wheel bearings, suspension parts failing and noisy loud leaky engines. These cars seem to have a mythical reputation as being so rugged and long lasting. Well in some cases they may very well be. But older rust belt examples with average to little care are best avoided unless you like pouring money into a constant money pit.

  • SOneThreeCoupe SOneThreeCoupe on Jan 15, 2016

    Rust creates pits. Pits become stress risers. Stress risers lead to part failure. We have 356s at the shop with less rust. Some of them are 60 years old now. We have 911s at the shop with less rust. Some of them are 50 years old now. We have a tow truck bought from the East Coast at the shop with similar rust. It's a 1999 or 2000. California may have ridiculous smog laws and no safety testing, but it doesn't have much rust. The worst cars I've seen by the ocean were still much, much better than this deathtrap. The comments I'm reading just reinforce my notion that the East Coast in winter is not a place I'll ever go willingly.

  • Theflyersfan There are times in the comments section where I think either some meds really need to be increased, or meds need to be started...Guys, man, this sort of crap is the new normal. Yes, in 2019, a VW project car would have been in very low four digits, but "in these difficult and trying times," I think the only used cars that exist in that price range are stripped and on concrete blocks in a burned out part of town, or are being used as taxis in less wealthy parts of the world. And all that being said, to the wannabe tuners out there who envision themselves croaking about "family," sucking down product-placed Corona beers, and launching Fieros into space or outrunning submarines on ice in Siberia, I don't think there are enough suckers out there who want to pick up the pieces of your bombed-out Fast and Furious fantasies. Watching YouTube videos and having some help from your cousin fresh out of rehab doesn't turn anyone into an expert under the hood, especially on a quality nightmare called the 2003 VW GTI.
  • Azfelix From certain angles the bonnet appears oversized with respect to the rest of the car - like a skinny teenager wearing a bulky sweater nicked from her older sister's wardrobe.
  • Tassos This is way too god damned OLD, 21 years old to have all the necessary options you need TODAY. You need a 10 year old or less car. AND if you give us THIS POS, a 21 year old model, that is not even a LUXURY car, whoever pays $10k for a Golf, And I Do NOT care what anniversary it is (they are all UTTERLY INSIGNIFICANT) deserves to get this MOST UNRELIABLE AND COSTLY TO REPAIR OF ALL LOUSY ECONOBOXES< EVEN THE DOMESTICS AND THE KOREANS.
  • Tassos As you say, Toyota confirmed this on TUESDAY. Today is WEDNESDAY. Why is everything on TTAC held back one or more days before you tell us the NEWS when it is NO MORE THE NEWS?
  • MRF 95 T-Bird You can find a decent and far more stylish Audi TT or an S4 of a similar vintage for under $10k.