The Mystery of the Always-Backward-Funky-Forward Subaru
June 14, 2012 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Our wagon has a quirky automatic transmission—the same problem with little change for six years: Sometimes it won’t shift into drive, but it will always always engage in reverse. The go-to fix? Drive backward to a slope that enables a rolling start forward, shift into drive and tap-tap the gas until, eventually, *clunk* it engages. Diagnosis?

This happens perhaps once every dozen times we shift into drive, stranding us over the years for typically a minute or two at a time, on occasion up to 20 minutes—at times in inconvenient, maddening and sometimes unsafe conditions. The reversing-to-roll-down-a-slope trick usually works and requires strategic parking at all times (worst case, we have to give the slope multiple tries and mutter things like, “I guess this is finally it”). But it ultimately always engages, and we feel something shift into place, sometimes with a big jerking clunk, other times much gentler.

Mechanics have told us for years this car will die at any moment without $5,000 of work for any number of things. So we wait. We’ve tried transmission fluid flushes, which seems like it might diminish the frequency of the problem for a little while, but it’s hard to tell. We’ve been told to replace the transmission ($everal thousand) or the duty solenoid (~$600). Nobody is certain.

Other deets:
2000 Subaru Legacy, purchased used (with this problem) in 2006;
180k miles, with original engine and transmission;
No other significant problems;
Never pulls a trailer;
Regular oil changes and fuel filter changes; premium gas; a couple of tune ups and a knock sensor replacement; occasional use of HEET (in winter) and Sea Foam in the fuel.

Would love to unravel the mystery and fix the problem if it turns out to be prudent...and affordable (e.g. not a new transmission).
posted by AnOrigamiLife to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
With that many miles I doubt it is worth it to fix anything on the car. Even if the problem is a small inexpensive part, it will be probably be inside the transmission, which will necessitate hours of labor.
posted by twblalock at 2:55 PM on June 14, 2012

Have you replaced the filter?
posted by fshgrl at 2:57 PM on June 14, 2012

Hit post too soon: this is a pretty common problem in Subarus and I know a few people who've dealt with it. I think in each case it was not the transmission but was related to the torque converter or else was electrical. Is it worse in the rain? But my ex "fixed" his by replacing the filter and fluid so its worth a shot.
posted by fshgrl at 3:06 PM on June 14, 2012

You might try a bottle of Trans-X.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:28 PM on June 14, 2012

I knew this was going to be a Subaru before reading the title or the more inside. This used to happen to my Forester of similar vintage. It was really annoying, but fortunately I was never in a go-forward-or-die situation when it happened. That being said, we never resolved it. I don't have a solution for you but you should consider that it could happen sometime when you're backing out into a high traffic situation.
posted by ellenaim at 4:05 PM on June 14, 2012

With that many miles I doubt it is worth it to fix anything on the car. Even if the problem is a small inexpensive part, it will be probably be inside the transmission, which will necessitate hours of labor.

Nonsense, Subarus will last forever if you treat them right. 160k is considered the break-in period for us Subie-lovers. Also, the car has lasted with this problem for 6 years, no need to be hyperbolic about it. A quick Googling reveals some answers ranging from a problem with the torque converter to a trans filter needing to be changed. Not too mention that it's almost always worth putting money into an older car rather than buying a new one, putting money into an old Subaru is almost never a losing battle. They will last almost literally, forever.

Have you taken the car to a Subaru specialist? Not every mechanic knows their way around one, and they can be tricky to diagnose if you're not familiar with the car. I've even had places when I'm out-of-town turn down working on my Forester. It may be worth finding a Subaru dealer and having them look at it. They may be familiar with the problem, as it sounds like you do not have the only 2000 Subaru Legacy with the issue.
posted by InsanePenguin at 4:08 PM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, 160k is nothing for a Subie. My '81 GL wagon had 395k miles on it when I finally sold it. It's still on the road today.

Much of the cost of transmission service is in the labor removing and reinstalling the transmission. If you are handy or have a handy friend, talk with your local tranny shop and ask for a price if you brought the transmission in yourself.

You can breathe a lot of new life into an automatic transmission with a complete fluid and filter change. I'm not a fan of the "flushes" that the quickie-lube places offer, as they are often performed by inexperienced staff, and if done improperly these flushes can bring previously settled grit and debris that was sitting quietly in the bottom of your pan back into circulation. Some shadetree mechanics insist that the only "real" way to change transmission fluid is to drop the pan and do it that way. I'd say a mix of the two. Let your trusted local mechanic (not a quickie-lube place) do it; they will generally do a little of both. Drop the pan first and clean out any settled grit, and then follow up with a good flush which, when done properly, will change all the fluid including that in your torque converter, transmission cooler, etc.

Around here it costs about $150~$180 for a transmission flush at a quality mechanic. Done properly, it will probably help quite a bit, and it can't hurt. Chances are good enough that you'll probably wind up with, if not a total fix, a much more driveable car, which will give you some breathing room to consider a rebuild or other options.
posted by xedrik at 7:32 PM on June 14, 2012

I don't have a legacy, but you may want to try searching/posting on to see what others have done with the same problem. Some of the posters on the impreza sites have been very helpful to me - there's also a legacy subform on NASIOC, which I think is one of the largest car forums around.
posted by ccalgreen at 8:08 PM on June 14, 2012

From the UKlegacy forum:

"This is a known problem with the later autos. It's actually down to the oil pump seals in the gearbox. I've had the joy of replacing a couple a few years back. Unfortunately the costs of the seals as a kit (as that's how Subaru will sell them) are around £450 ish as they come with the gearbox pump."

General opinion is; get another gearbox. This might not be as expensive as you think; there should be a ready supply of reconditioned or secondhand boxes and Subarus are well engineered and fairly easy to work on. Try speaking to a local garage who know Subarus, it sounds like the mechanics you've spoken to have not really known these cars.
posted by BadMiker at 4:14 AM on June 15, 2012

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