The little subaru that could...
April 15, 2011 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Car is acting funky. I know there is a transmission issue, but...

OK, so, a recent check at the shop, the mechanic showed me a picture snapped that he said was melted metal from inside the transmission running along the axle, most likely from a bad bearing. He said this is the source of a clicking sound I complained about. He said that as long as I treat her with kid gloves (no hard accelerations, etc), she should be fine.

I've noticed a slip when moving from reverse to drive, figure this is where the trans problem is.

However, the main issue I'm trying to figure out is that at times, going from a near stop or full stop, and pressing the gas, the car acts like it is about to stall out. It's never actually stalled, and after a few put put puts/stuttering, catches and goes. Happens more often on going up hills when I've been sitting in traffic or at a light.

I don't think this is related to the trans, though.

It's a 99 Subaru Legacy wagon, 170k miles on it. I drive about 175 miles a day due to my current assignment, so am not feeling the love of getting a new car and putting it through that kind of punishment for the next 6months - year. Had a new head gasket around 125k. No other major mechanical problems. It's actually been a solid car otherwise, and a great investment.

Bought in 2001 used for $12k off ebay motors, and figure have averaged about $1000 year in maintenance (the head gasket hit me for about $3500, so spread that out), including things like CV joints and tires. So about 3 car payments worth a year, which I think is pretty good.

Oh, and as an aside - windshield has multiple pits about the size of a sharpened pencil point.. any thoughts on an easy way to fill them in all at once for cheap?

So -
1. dangers of driving with the transmission as described?
2. what's with the stuttering starts?
3. windshield advice?
posted by rich to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
1. I can't tell you how serious your transmission problem is, but the 'melted metal' comment sets off my BS detector.

3. According to the Car Talk guys, some car insurance covers replacement of old, worn-out windshields even when they aren't broken, because sun glare makes those pits and scratches into a safety hazard.
posted by jon1270 at 8:35 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) I drove my 99 Impreza Outback until the transmission died completely (then put another 100,000m after the transmission was replaced). I was told that it wouldn't be any more expensive to replace a partially dead transmission than it would to replace a completely dead transmission. But, my problem was going from park to 1st, so my car died quietly in a safe parking spot. A transmission dying between reverse to drive could leave you in the middle of street or parking lot. (FWIW, no mechanic ever said a thing about melted melted leaking from the transmission. I would get a second opinion on the transmission.)

2) Regarding the stuttering, any time my Subaru stuttered as you described, the culprit was spark plugs and spark plug wires. When was the last time those were changed?
posted by wg at 8:44 AM on April 15, 2011

My old Subaru would have a sputtery moment now and then. The problem was the idle air control (IAC) valve. They are expensive to replace but easy to free up with something like Berrymans and five minutes' time.

Ditto the skepticism on "melted metal".
posted by jet_silver at 9:02 AM on April 15, 2011

Yea, the 'melted metal' thing is bs. You were most likely seeing metal shavings in grease from a busted cv joint. These 'click' a lot when you accelerate when turning. This is not a transmission issue. They usually last quite a while before catastrophic failure and when they do go you just stop moving, it is rare for them to do anymore damage.

The stalling issue is a tune up issue. As wg said I would start with the plugs, wire and distributor if you haven't done that in the last 50k miles. A lot can be told about how the engine is running by the color and condition of the spark plugs. But i think it is more likely a fuel delivery problem. It could well be the iac valve or carbon/gunk build up in the throttle body. This is extremely likely in a car with 170k and it can give the symptons you describe. If that doesn't do it you will probably need new fuel injectors. If you are really lucky fuel injector cleaner will do it but in a car with 170k fuel injectors probably need replacing. New O2 sensor(s) may also be called for. I have found in a lot of used cars I have bought, replacing O2 sensors improve driveability and fuel mileage. Even if they aren't coming up bad. I generally replace them every couple of years now in any car I own that long.

If you are inclined at all replacing the plugs, wires and distributor is really easy and there is most likely a step by step guide online for how to do it. The injectors are more tricky and if you get a fuel leak your car and catch on fire so approach that with caution. Ditto the IAC and cleanign the throttle body. The O2 sensors usually require special tools and can be stubborn if they have been in for 170k. Stubborn to the point of requiring special techniques like cutting torches...

Good luck and these subarus are pretty good cars. Your maintenance expenses seem pretty high to me, but might be right, in any case way cheaper than a new car.
posted by bartonlong at 9:29 AM on April 15, 2011

Thanks for all the information, Hive. I've definitely had CV joint issues in the past - on my second set in 5 years, and that was my thought about the clicking, but the one on that side just got replaced a couple months ago. And it's not when turning, so perhaps there is just a loose panel or splash guard.

The full-on tuneup has been in the back of my mind. I haven't replaced the plugs in awhile, and smack myself in the head for not thinking about it. Around 100k, I was on a steady diet of fuel injector cleaning every few months, but haven't done it recently, so I suppose I should start that again.

On the windshield - insurance covers it, but with a deductible, so I'd have to foot $320 myself, anyway, for a new windshield, but most likely will just deal with it.

I am probably a little high on my maintenance estimate.. it's 10 years now, so probably more in line with $500-$700 a year averaging out the big hits like CV's, tires, exhaust system and the head gasket. And most of that in the past 4 years.

Glad to hear the consensus at this point is not a transmission issue. But welcome any more advice!
posted by rich at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2011

Just a couple things that haven't come up, from my own limited experience:

However, the main issue I'm trying to figure out is that at times, going from a near stop or full stop, and pressing the gas, the car acts like it is about to stall out. It's never actually stalled, and after a few put put puts/stuttering, catches and goes. Happens more often on going up hills when I've been sitting in traffic or at a light.

Could also be water/ice crystals in your fuel. Depending on where you are and what the weather's like, but if it's below freezing try adding gasline antifreeze and see if that helps. A new fuel filter is cheap too, and easy to swap.

I've noticed a slip when moving from reverse to drive, figure this is where the trans problem is.

This may be a stupid question, but are you low in transmission fluid? :) Because that'll cause what you're describing under some circumstances.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:21 AM on April 15, 2011

Might want to have a better mechanic or a dealer do the transmission flush-and-fill. Most other fluid changes are good for DIY, but the tranny can be a little tricky - and you'll really mess things up if you overfill it.
posted by Citrus at 10:36 AM on April 15, 2011

I have started using Lucas Oil gas additive in my 10yo car. It has made a difference in the way it runs, likely keeping the fuel injection system cleaner. The Service Engine Light used to come on if I floored it, and since I started using this product, it doesn't.

YMMV, of course.
posted by Danf at 11:20 AM on April 15, 2011

I'd replace that mechanic and shop immediately. They sound defective.
A diagnosis of "molten metal from the transmission" is a symptom of
dangerous dishonesty or irreparable stupidity, and once it has failed like that,
you can't really trust it again.

It's a front wheel drive, right?

Does that clicking sound get worse when you are turning? You could actually
have a failing CV joint, and the mechanic was trying to sell you a transmission.
Check the boot on the CV joint. If it's torn, and if you see the "molten metal",
try to figure it out. Your CV joints are old enough to need replacement.

If it fails catastrophically, you will suddenly lose all power (unless you have some
kind of limited slip or 4 wheel drive capability), and you car will no longer be

It's fuel injected, right?

An idle air control or air bypass valve is open or operating when the engine is
idling, and a problem there will generally be a stumbling or stalling idle while
stopped, that gets better immediately when you press the throttle.

I suspect the throttle position sensor. It's a potentiometer that translates the
gas pedal position to an electrical signal that is then processed by the fuel
injection computer. The engine will stumble at the throttle positions where the
potentiometer is open-circuit or shorted. The connector to the throttle position
sensor can also be a point of intermittent contact.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:40 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The car talk guys offer the mechanix files- a listing of possibly reputable and honest car mechanics from their listeners. It may be worth getting a second opinion from a more trustworthy source.
posted by jenkinsEar at 1:04 PM on April 15, 2011

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