2001 Subaru Forester -- make an expensive repair, or pack it in?
September 8, 2015 8:28 PM   Subscribe

I found out today that my 2001 Subaru Forester may need a new catalytic converter, which all told is probably going to run me something like $1000. I already did this in 2013. Is it time to sell this car, or do I stick with the wisdom that you just keep repairing until you can't repair anymore?

My concern is that I find I'm spending more and more time and money on maintaining this car. I've spent about $5000 over the last six years on repairs, going up to $6000 if I do indeed need this catalytic converter. I feel like it's weird for a 2-year-old converter to need replacing (though this cylinder issue I had last winter may be the explanation.)

Reasons not to buy a new car:

* I like driving this car;
* It only has 135K miles on it, and I drive it about 6000 miles a year, so it really could last a long time;
* Even if I spend $2000 a year on repairs (well more than I spend now), that's still a lot cheaper than buying a new car;
* Exciting computer-assisted driving / fully electric vehicle stuff seems to be developing really fast and buying a car in 3-5 years might be way more exciting than buying a car now;
* Our other car is a 93 Corolla with non-functioning AC, so at any moment that car could give out completely and we'd actually need a new car;
* Conventional wisdom that it's always better to keep an old car running rather than buy a new one.

Reasons to buy a new car:

* I don't like the feeling that at any moment something might seriously go wrong with my car, and this is happening more and more frequently. (The cylinder thing was Dec 2014, this June my alternator died and I had to get it towed 30 miles, and now the catalytic converter again.)
* I can afford a new car.
* Scanning listings suggests that my car is worth about $3-4K, and there's competing conventional wisdom that you shouldn't put more money into repairing the car than it's worth.

So a) is the cylinder failure a reasonable explanation for why my catalytic converter would be faulty, or is there likely something deeper wrong with the car that caused it to fail so soon? and b) is it time for a new car?
posted by escabeche to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If it were mine, I loved the car, and I could afford to do the repair, I'd repair it. Not from financial analysis or any of that logical stuff, but because a car you like is worth keeping. Maybe (probably [ok, definitely]) I'm pickier than most about my cars, but almost every time I've replaced a car I loved, I've regretted it (and that's when the replacements were ostensibly big upgrades). You don't say how much you like it, and hopefully you're not as crazy as I am, but that's what I'd do.
posted by primethyme at 8:35 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

2 years is really short for a cat converter. Did you install an after market one or an OEM last time?

Regardless, I would keep her, but I drive my vehicles into the ground. Got a truck with 135,000 on it and I am expecting at least 200,000. For me, it is not so much what it is worth, as it is what is the replacement cost and why get rid of something that still works and has value.

You can buy a new car in a few days if this and your toyota were to crap out. I would take the risk of having to rent a car for a week. YMMV (pun intended).
posted by AugustWest at 8:42 PM on September 8, 2015

It is really helpful if you state the codes you got. I believe when you had the two-cylinders misfire you should have been getting P030x and P030(x+1). If it is P030x and P030(x+2) it is indicative of a head gasket failing. This could make a short-term problem with the cat, but given the quick resolution in the linked thread, everything around 18 December, I doubt it.

What makes you think the cat is the problem, especially since the new cat is only two years old? If you have the codes, please so state.

Alternators and cats are orthogonal (neither has anything to do with the other. You were unlucky with your alternator. None of my Subarus has had that problem.)

Fear not, if the car is as described I will buy it from you. Foresters of that era are very solid machines and at 135k for $4k I'll chance the head gasket possibility.
posted by jet_silver at 8:47 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Answers to a few questions raised:

Current code is P0420. (I'm not sure how they know the problem is the catalytic converter and not the O2 sensor. Both are new as of January 2013.) Codes for the two cylinders were P0303 and P0304, so x and x+1 as you say.

I've been using this garage for 10 years and trust them.

The catalytic converter they installed in January 2013 was original from the manufacturer, not aftermarket.
posted by escabeche at 8:57 PM on September 8, 2015

Here is an explanation of a P0420. Loads of cheap, shade-tree stuff to be done before changing the cat. This is kind of typical of codes, it looks like bad news but it could be nothing more than a plugged fuel filter.

Do the cheap stuff first is my motto, and 80% of the time it works 100% of the time.
posted by jet_silver at 9:12 PM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

The cylinder failure is a very plausible explanation for a catalytic converter problem especially since, when the cylinders were acting up and you "parked at my son's school, [you] could smell a kind of burned rubber smell in the back of the car."

I would guess that enough unburned fuel was dumped into the catalytic converter then that it overheated to the point that it cooked a rubber vibration damper that is often a component of exhaust system mounts, and so much heat can seriously compromise a catalytic converter.
posted by jamjam at 9:18 PM on September 8, 2015

Random data point, but my dad has this generation of forester and put another 100k miles on it compared to yours. I drive it once or twice a week, it still runs pretty well. The head gasket is FINALLY failing again(it was done right smack dab at 100k and a tiny bit of change) but it has been for... a year now, with no real ill effects or it even throwing a code.

It's survived almost entirely on cheap repairs. A few expensive things have been perpetually put off for 50-70k miles with no real serious problems arising from it(the rear diff started having a very slow leak around 150). The biggest recurring problems were oxygen sensors until the parts got better or... something, and they stopped failing.

My dad is planning on driving it until it fails in some way that costs more than 1k to fix. That's been the plan for well, the past 5 years at least. We both haul around heavy stuff in it and use it as a cargo hauler in general. It's the most bulletproof car any of us have owned.

That smell you described has happened for years, and it's on ours it was a tiny oil leak onto the exhaust manifold/cat area. Our solution was to always set the fan to recirculate and crack the windows if the windshield gets foggy.(seriously) A similarly trusted shop said "well you could do x and y and z and it would stop it, or just ignore it and check the oil occasionally".

I'm on board with the downstream cheap parts theory. When it's seriously acted up like this, it was just a cheap sensor or two. It's thrown this code, and changing the sensor got rid of the code returning after we'd clear it and it didn't come back. It did eat sensors every year or two for well... a lot of the late 2000s.
posted by emptythought at 9:24 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Having one, much less two, catalytic converters fail like that is intensely suspicious. I think there's some underlying problem at work that was not solved originally. Whether it was related to the issue in your previous AskMe, it's hard to say.

I would get a second opinion, no matter how much you trust the garage. There's just too much money at stake, and even if the shop isn't consciously ripping you off, it doesn't seem like they necessarily know what the issue is, either. Cars do not just "lose their mind" temporarily. That's somebody saying "I have no clue" without coming right out about the fact that they have no clue.

Anyway, I'd probably work my way through various sensors before replacing the converter, and do it only as a last resort and only if you are really sure it's dead. (And unless you are 100% sure you've fixed the underlying issue I'd certainly not stick a new one in there, I'd be putting a junkyard part in from a wrecked vehicle obtained from your friendly local pick-n-pull for sure. And then only to get it through emissions testing.)

On very little basis at all, one thing I'd check, or have someone check for you, is the fuel system. It is possible in some cars for a failing or otherwise underperforming fuel pump, or clogged fuel filter, or any number of other things on that side of the engine, to starve the engine, causing it to run lean, and that this can damage a converter over time. I've never actually had it happen to me personally, but it's certainly theoretically possible and depending on the design of the car can sometimes not trigger the idiot light until it's too late. Anyway, just something to consider in addition to the "running rich" failure scenario.

Whether this is something you want to deal with vs. sell, I can't really tell you. I wouldn't fault you if you did some sensor swapping, and if that didn't correct the problem you just took the car down to CarMax and got rid of it and got a different used one, taking a bet that you won't get another one with the same problem. The buy/sell spread on a similar used car might not be that much higher than what you're looking at for the converter repair. And going through a converter every two years is not something I'd tolerate.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:46 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to understand what diagnosis leads you to believe that you need a new catalytic converter. Is your check engine light on? Does the car run poorly? It's really difficult to believe that an OEM converter would last 12k miles. My answer to your first question is that it's doubtful there's some other serious problem contributing to the early failure.

Realizing you've been with the same mechanic for a while, I'd still strongly suggest getting a second opinion. If the location on your profile is accurate, there should be at least one other Subaru specialist shop in your area.

Is it time to buy a new car? That's bit more complicated to answer. I've owned two Subarus in the past, and have replaced them at about the same mileage where yours is at. The running gear (AWD and transmission) are pretty bullet-proof, so you shouldn't have many issues there. On the other hand, many Subarus tend to develop leaky head gaskets, and oil consumption goes up as they get older. But since you only put 6k miles on a year, you might well get a few more good years out of your car.

Have you considered what you would replace your car with? I no longer drive a Subaru for a few reasons: Their cars, especially the Forester, have become bloated and more expensive over time. They have replaced automatic transmissions with CVT, which I'm just not crazy about. And finally, Subaru's interior designs haven't quite kept up with the times, if that sort of thing is important to you.
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:05 AM on September 9, 2015

Hmmm, our similar-era Subaru had the same problem, I asked a related question here, and leslies replied that she'd had the same problem and "some older Subarus seem to just do that." In case that informs your decision. (We sold ours.)
posted by daisyace at 3:45 AM on September 9, 2015

Just sold our 2001 Forester (mentioned by daisyace) above a few months ago at 200K miles. The O2 sensor in ours was bad for years - replaced it once and it left the check engine light on all the time for years - our mechanic said it's partly because there is more CO2 in the atmosphere now than what these cars were designed for. Not a big issue except it means one is polluting more and if you live somewhere where you have to pass emissions tests you probably won't. I would be inclined to push back at your mechanic about the cat converter - 2 years is too soon and maybe they would help you out. Certainly shouldn't be failing without something else involved as others have suggested.

2001 Foresters are notorious for head gasket woes. Ours needed replacement at around that mileage but years earlier because we drive a lot more than 6K miles a year. The replacement failed and our mechanic put a new engine in it - and we drove it for many more years. I guess what I'm saying is you can take from that that you may need to keep dumping money into it to keep it running but as a local car certainly worth while. One way to define when it's time to replace is if you're spending as much on a car payment on repairs every month. Doesn't sound like you're there. Oh and our 2001? Sold it to a friend for his kid and he put a couple grand into it and will keep it going. We didn't need a second car or would have done the same but we also drive cars until they die. (our other car is a 2014 Forester which we love but I like the CVT so...)
posted by leslies at 5:11 AM on September 9, 2015

P0420 is a crazy common code across almost all manufacturers, but especially Japanese car makers for some reason. Your mechanic is simply telling you what the reference book says the problem is. He doesn't actually know with any certainty. If you replaced the cat two years ago, the problem is pretty likely not the cat. I'm betting you didn't need to replace the cat back then, either.

The P0420 code is based on what one of the O2 sensors in the exhaust line is telling the computer, vs. what the computer thinks it should be expecting from that sensor. If things don't match, the computer throws the P0420 error.

I had a 2001 Nissan Maxima that had what I called an eternal check engine light for exactly the same code. It started throwing the code within the first year after I bought it new. Since I live in a state without car inspection, I opted to let it go. It never affected performance.

A lot of people report that installing a spacer where the particular O2 sensor mounts, in order to move the sensor out of the exhaust stream, solves the issue. I'd do something like that before I spent money for a new cat.

You have relatively low miles on the car. And Subarus are mode for the long-haul. Keep it.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:13 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a 1999 version of this same car and it was a long, slow slog of repairs every 12-18 months in the last years I had it - really expensive ones, too. When I faced the last $1500 job I said fuck it and traded it in on a newer car. All along, people were telling me how wonderful Foresters were and how much more life this one had and so on. I wasn't thrilled about the oil leak/smell, either. Basically, it seems to me that that era Forester seems to just require a tremendous amout of hand-holding, that though they may indeed last a long time they require a lot of repair/replacement projects to do so, and periodic infusions of big chunks of cash, and no, it doesn't get better. I held on as long as could, but when I started to worry about taking it on longer trips, that was the end of it for me. I need a car I can rely on. All I can say is that the 2007 model Toyota I got in 2009 is still going strong and I have done absolutely nothing to it except change tires, brakes, oil and other little jobs like that. .
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on September 9, 2015

It *is* possible that the Cat was killed by a car that was misfiring. Very easily - if it is misfiring then it is sending unburnt fuel down the exhaust and unburnt fuel is the worst thing that can happen to a catalytic converter. So that is plausible, to me.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that the cat is ruined for sure, as the same misfire may have damaged the O2 sensors (did they get replaced after the previous misfire was fixed? Or during?). if the 02 sensors were after the misfire was repaired then I'd be more suspicious of the Cat.

If it were me, I'd investigate that code more. Swap some stuff out as per the linked article that jet silver gives you. I don't think that $1000 on a car that age that is usually pretty reliable is a lot of money and you enjoy the car. If you didn't and you can afford to change it, then go ahead, but if you keep it just put aside $1000 or so a year for repairs. That's a pretty reasonable sum of money compared to the cost of a newer car.
posted by Brockles at 8:24 AM on September 9, 2015

FWIW about $1000/year for repairs is what we budget for cars older than about 5 years. Average new car payment in the U.S. is about $471/month, so $83/month to keep your decent older car going is a pretty good deal.
posted by flug at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2015

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