Shop says car engine seized, with no warning signs. Need advice.
November 28, 2011 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Catastrophefilter. Auto shop just called, say Subaru has seized engine. Baffling, because no warning signs. ~$5,000 for new one. Options?

My finances may be about to take a devastating hit. Here's the situation.

I have a 2000 Subaru "Outback Wagon Sport" (the Outback version of the Impreza) w/just over 100K miles. It's been a while since the oil was changed, but not incredibly long (I can't say exactly when, as I'm at work right now and the car is in the shop).

There have been no warning signs whatsoever. No overheating, no engine lights, no oil leakage. Last week I drove to work fine. When I went to go home, the engine cranked over a couple of times, there was an audible "clunk" from the engine compartment, and it stopped turning over. It would only click after that.

I towed it to the shop on Thursday. They just called, and said the engine was SEIZED. Said it would be about 5K for a new engine, maybe less if they could find a used one.

So, I'm trying to wrap my mind around this.

(A) The guy I talked to was a desk guy, not the tech, who had gone home by the time the desk guy called. Is there any chance there's been a mistake? How does a car seize with no warning signs? If there was no oil, wouldn't it have been overheating? How could it have turned over at all before suddenly going "clunk" and dying?

(B) What options should I be looking at in terms of new engines? Craigslist? eBay? Junkyards? I just have no idea where to begin.

Sorry to ramble -- obviously this has really blindsided me. Any guidance gratefully appreciated.
posted by Alaska Jack to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like it would just be simpler (and cheaper) to buy a new car if the engine is truly seized.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:02 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ditto KokuRyu - my '99 Outback wagon would fetch maybe $1500, if I'm lucky, and it's still running like a champ. So you could probably replace your whole car for less. I can't imagine putting $5K into a car that age, not even a Subaru.

Hope your service department can give you more of an answer tomorrow, though.
posted by hms71 at 6:11 PM on November 28, 2011

Yeah, just buy another one of about the same age. You might see whether your shop (or other shops in the area) wants the vehicle for parts, which might defray some of the cost.
posted by kindall at 6:18 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: You absolutely need to get a second opinion here. It should cost you less than $100 to get it towed to different shop. That's less than 2% of the estimate. I'd call that a good investment.
posted by two lights above the sea at 6:23 PM on November 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

My Ford needed a new engine (with no warning signs) a few years back. The quoted me about the same price as you but the mechanic was able to find a rebuilt engine which cost me about $2400 for parts and labor. I wouldn't try to track down an engine on your own, that's what the mechanic is for. Your car obviously isn't worth $5000 but what about half that if they can get you something used?
posted by jabes at 6:26 PM on November 28, 2011

What you described is actually a seized engine. You don't need to tow it elsewhere; just call around and get estimates.

Probably though, it will be cheaper to go buy a replica of it.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:26 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: Yeah, like two lights says, get that second opinion.

Once you have that, you'll have to make a judgement call, on which is more cost-efficient: an eleven-year-old car with 100K+ miles needing $$$$ repairs vs. using the Subaru plus that same $$$$ towards a replacement car. (You may love your Subaru, but you'll have to be hardheaded and practical about this & leave sentiment completely out of the equation!)
posted by easily confused at 6:41 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wasn't actually suggesting you tow it to some rando mechanic and THEN get an opinion! Don't do that.
posted by two lights above the sea at 6:43 PM on November 28, 2011

Based on the description, I question whether a second opinion would be worth the cost. If there was a clunk, after which the starter motor could no-longer even turn the engine... I'm no engine expert, but I'm having trouble imagining a non-major problem that causes those symptoms.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:48 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: Subaru are pretty reliable cars overall, a few in this age range have headgasket failures but it is highly unlikely that is the cause of this seized engines. If you have been routinely overheating the car it could be, but what you described doesn't sound like that.

You probably broke a cam belt and the piston came up and smacked a valve, broke it and this froze up the engine. This is why owners manual you proactively change these belts at about 60 to 90K miles in most cars with an overhead cam engine (which is virtually every passenger car in the US these days). That sounds kinda high, but not impossibly so for an engine replacement. I would vote for junking it also and just buying a whole replacement car. Transplanted engines rarely work as well as the factory original unless the transplant is done with a very high level of skill.

Definitely get a second opinion but if you haven't changed the cam belts chances are the car is done.
posted by bartonlong at 6:49 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

What bartonlong describes above is exactly what happened with us (a different make and model of car, and I am too embarrassed to admit exactly what kind of car it was). A belt slipped, and every piston/valve combo was wrecked, instantly destroying the engine.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:53 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: It sounds like your timing belt went. If that's true, then it's an expensive repair, though it doesn't necessarily mean an entire new motor. Another mechanic might be able to do it for less. I'd recommend a second opinion.
posted by thebigdeadwaltz at 6:58 PM on November 28, 2011

Our 2001 Forester blew a headgasket a few years back - rebuilt engine was $3000 - and the replacement engine had 60,000 fewer miles on it than the one that blew. That said - I think the car was 7 or 8 at the time. I'm still driving it, expect to drive it until it falls apart. Not sure I'd do it with an 11 year old car. See what your mechanic says about finding a used engine - but since you're in Alaska according to your profile that might be a deal breaker - dunno. Good luck - it's a major bummer to be dealing with that kind of surprise.
posted by leslies at 6:59 PM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. I will seek a second opinion tomorrow. I have to confess I keep hoping this is some kind of horrible mistake.
posted by Alaska Jack at 7:02 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: If you just had a piston/cam collision without the engine actually running (just being turned by the starter motor) it is possible that you haven't destroyed anything. If the pistons look OK with a borescope, you might be able to get away with just replacing the cylinder heads or maybe just the timing belt.

Or maybe your starter motor is plenty strong to pretzelify a lot of things that need to be very very straight and you need a new engine.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:02 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: We just spent some time shopping Subaru wagons this age or slightly newer, in the $3-5000 range (in Toronto). It's known that the headgaskets are a rather legendary problem with these, so we were looking at ones that had been rebuilt. If you love it, the body's in good shape and all else is pretty great otherwise, consider that plenty of people are willing to spend close to that for a rebuilt one. Wait and talk to the mechanic, I guess.
posted by peagood at 7:18 PM on November 28, 2011

We had on older Subaru, the timing belt broke (it should have been replaced earlier), destroyed the valves, and were recommended to get a new engine. We wound up getting a new car. Took us a while to come around to the decision, but the old one was basically toast.
posted by carter at 7:44 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: I don't think a broken timing belt would seize the engine, the starter would keep turning the crank, and keep ruining your valves.

What you described is very common for engines seizing. Sudden, unexpected, and with little warning. Sometimes you might get a low oil pressure warning, but if you stretch out your oil changes too long for an extended period of time, you drastically increase the wear rate on the bearings. You really need to keep on top of your oil changes, especially if you live in cold climates.
posted by hwyengr at 8:19 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: I had an Integra whose engine had worn rings (from the previous owner driving it too hard - not suggesting this is what happened to yours). To make a long story short, it blew up, and I needed to replace it. I learned some interesting things in this process.

For reasons that I'm not quite clear on, car engines in Japan often need to be replaced before they are really worn out - like around 50-60k miles. I was told this has something to do with very, very strict emissions laws but I've never gotten a concrete explanation. The upshot is that a cottage industry sprang up which collects these engines in Japan, tests and finds the good ones, imports them by the containerload to the US, tests them, and then sells them here with a warranty.

The Honda dealer I took my car to when the engine was fried quoted me $5k to install a new one. I was able to buy a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) imported replacement for $1200 (expensive Honda sports car engine). I had the car towed to a shop that specializes in performance car mods, and had the engine sent to them. They replaced it in 24 hours for $700. I was then able to sell the old engine on Craigslist to someone who wanted to modify it for racing, for $900. Total cost to me for the new engine: $1k.

I got my engine from Attarco. You need a Subaru EZ60 engine, and Attarco has one for $975, but it looks like you live in Alaska and I don't think they ship there.

If I were you, I would call around to some performance car mod shops that work on Subarus (WRX, etc). Maybe these are a rarity in your area, I don't know. If you find one, I suspect that they will be able to source a JDM engine for you and put it in for a lot less than a regular shop. You should get a 6-12 month warranty on the engine itself, and a 12 month warranty on the replacement work. This may sound like a lot of hassle, but if you end up spending under $2k to get the car running again, and it lasts you another 5+ years, it may beat spending $10k+ on a replacement car now. Economically, it usually makes more sense to repair a car than replace it, sometimes even in extreme cases like this.

For what it's worth, I put over 40k more miles on the replacement engine, never had a single problem with it, and sold the car confidently about 18 months ago. Good luck, and let us know what you decide to do.
posted by autojack at 8:58 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Not to derail, but this subject is of interest to me. Did you use OEM Subaru oil filters or aftermarket ones "that fit"? There is a growing body of evidence that Subaru filters, with a much-higher-than-normal bypass pressure, explain the difference between happy and unhappy Subie engines.
posted by jet_silver at 9:53 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: the starter would keep turning the crank, and keep ruining your valves.

It ruins the valves by driving your pistons into them (and bending the hell out of your valve stems and possibly your cam shaft, connecting rods and/or crank shaft depending on how things play out). Normally your crank is driven by 10-20 explosions every second and can power through quite a bit, like a valve that didn't get out of the way. A starter motor (or a guy with a breaker bar trying to turn the damper pulley) might be powerful enough to damage things but is probably not strong enough to bend a valve stem so nothing moves.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:13 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: Five grand seems like a lot of money to replace an engine. Here for example are rebuilt engines for ~2000 and you could turn a lot of wrenches removing and replacing for the remaining $3000. A good used engine should be significantly cheaper than a rebuild.

bartonlong writes "This is why owners manual you proactively change these belts at about 60 to 90K miles in most cars with an overhead cam engine (which is virtually every passenger car in the US these days)"

Plenty of OHC cam engines are of a non-interference design and nothing bad happens to the engine (besides the belt being broken) when the belt breaks. In many cases the owners manual will still specify a replacement interval but one can significantly delay that sometimes costly repair if one doesn't mind a semi unpredictable failure.
posted by Mitheral at 8:57 PM on November 29, 2011

Best answer: Used car prices are quite high right now. Is your car worth 5,000 to you if repaired? Can you replace it affordably? Do some research on your car's value, and the cost of potential replacements.
posted by theora55 at 9:14 PM on November 29, 2011

Best answer: Definitely recommend a second opinion. It's pretty hard to actually seize an engine. But there are a number of things that can act like a seized engine. Especially to a mechanic who might rather not do the job at all. So "yep, it will cost 2x the value of your car to fix" and he's done.
posted by gjc at 9:24 PM on November 29, 2011

Response by poster: OK, OP here. First let me apologize -- in ADDITION to being told my car's engine was seized, I was hit with a sudden business obligation that required me to spend a couple of weeks in rural Alaska, with no real internet access. So I had to kind of backburner this thing for a while.

But I thought that, if anyone cares, I would let you know what the resolution was.

I had the Subaru at the shop for more than a week, and they kept calling me, asking me to fish or cut bait as far as the car was concerned (I should note they were polite and friendly; they just didn't want to be saddled with an abandoned car). So on the one day I was in town, I towed it over to a different shop, nearby, and dropped it off with a note. This was to (a) get a second opinion, and (b) to stall for a little more time, until my business trip was over and I could give this matter the attention it deserved.

A couple of days later, shop #2 called:


Evidently, a part had broken off inside the starter motor. The part had then wedged itself into the rest of the moving parts, like a stick in a bicycle wheel.

Repair was still pretty steep: About $580. But that's a lot different than sinking $3,800 into an 11-year-old car!

I drove it to work today, and can positively testify that the engine was not, in fact, seized.

So first, let me say THANK YOU to all the awesome people that wrote in with informative answers, above. THANK YOU!!! Second, with the crisis mostly averted, this has reminded me that I do need to pay a bit more attention to auto maintenance.


- aj
posted by Alaska Jack at 3:14 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: jet_silver - Aftermarket ones. Interesting. I wonder if I could secure a supply of Subaru OEM filters at a cheaper price than the dealer would charge.
posted by Alaska Jack at 3:19 PM on December 19, 2011

Response by poster: gjc, you are a wise, wise man (or woman). - aj
posted by Alaska Jack at 3:21 PM on December 19, 2011

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