Is a potential head gasket problem a reason not to buy a 2000 Legacy Wagon.
July 16, 2007 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any experience with a 2000 Subaru Legacy L wagon, specifically with the head gasket leaking or failing?

My wife's thinking of getting a 2000 Subaru Legacy L wagon. It's being sold by a used car dealer. It has 84,000 miles on it. Our mechanic checked it out and said it was in good shape. He also said (and so did the whole internet) that these cars have a high rate of head gasket failure, which would be an expensive repair we probably couldn't afford. The leaky head gasket was enough of a problem in this car for Subaru to do a service campaign where they add conditioner to your coolant, and if you have them do that, they extend the warranty to 8 years/100,000 miles. So, my questions are:

-- Does anyone have this car? What else do you know about the head gasket issue? Is it as bad as it sounds?

-- How can we find out whether we would qualify for the extended warranty if we bought the car? The 8 years are probably almost past by now, if the previous owner even did the coolant thing, which I don't know how to find out.

-- Would it be worth buying some kind of warranty from the dealer?

-- Any additional information about the wisdom (or folly) of this potential purchase will be much appreciated.
posted by sleevener to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A blown head gasket can cause a lot of expensive problems (because you can end up with water/coolant in your oil)
posted by zeoslap at 11:15 AM on July 16, 2007

This site has a pretty good 1 page summation of the issue. Some points to consider:

1) Can you be sure the car has what the linked site calls a "phase 2" engine (a single overhead cam 2.5 liter 4 cylinder)? If so, the kind of externally leaking head gasket issue intended to be fixed by the addition of "conditioner" to the coolant is a lot less potentially damaging to the engine, than the dreaded "internal" type of gasket failure, common on earlier engines. To understand why, let's review a bit about the purpose and design of head gaskets.

In the early 20th century, a head gasket was simply a thin piece of compressible, compliant material, that could be inserted between the main block and the cylinder head assemblies of piston engines, to seal the small tolerance gaps between the mechanical parts, thereby improving compression efficiency, and stopping hot engine gases from damaging engine parts around the combustion chamber. Engines have been produced which have no cylinder head gaskets. But most engines do have head gaskets, particularly liquid cooled engines, where the gasket(s) takes on the additional jobs of providing many sealing areas for the coolant flowing through engine block and cylinder head coolant passages, while also providing a bit of "compliance" which can take care of the difference between the thermal expansion rates of iron blocks and aluminum heads, used as weight reduction elements in many modern engines. So, a modern "head gasket" has really itself become a complex sub-assembly of materials that take on several jobs at once.

The 2.5 liter, four cylinder Single Overhead Cam horizontally opposed Subaru engine has 2 of these gaskets, one for each "bank" of 2 cylinders. The typical problem the "conditioner" fix is designed to address is a small amount of coolant "weeping" externally from the head gasket areas. Assuming you keep your coolant reservoir topped up, and that the leak never becomes serious, such a problem is not a serious detriment to the operation of the vehicle, although leaking coolant can stain your garage floor, and is hazardous if ingested by pets, who can be drawn to it by its sweet odor and taste. Such problems may be more prevalent in colder climates where the car is not regularly garaged, and the engine goes through greater extremes of operation from cold start to running temperature regularly.

An internal leak of a head gasket is a much more serious problem, that can quickly ruin a liquid cooled engine, by letting hot combustion chamber gases penetrate and excessively pressurize the cooling system (blowing radiators and hoses, and causing water pump failure), as well as allowing coolant to seep into the cylinders when the engine is shut off, contaminating the oil, and allowing scuffing of the cylinder walls by the piston rings, and damage of main bearings. An internal head gasket leak is often troublesome to diagnose, because the tell-tale "white smoke at start up" is often masked by condensation from normal exhaust gas, and the operation of the catalytic converter. But there is usually a tell-tale sweetish odor to the exhaust of a car with a faulty head gasket.

There would be nothing "wrong" with having the coolant changed, and the conditioner added, to forestall problems, even if this service has already been done. Whether this would qualify the vehicle for a warranty extension to someone who is not the original owner would depend on Subaru, but any dealer should be able to check the recall database by VIN number to see if the vehicle has been treated.

Generally, extended warranties aren't a good economic deal for consumers. But if you can't afford major repairs, extended warranties can become something of a pre-paid repair plan, whose cost can be financed in the purchase price of the car. That's a punitively expensive form of economic discipline, but if you can afford the monthly hit, I suppose it is one way to cover major maintenance. Generally, you'd be much better off socking away $100 a month in a car repair fund, and paying for repairs from that, when needed.
posted by paulsc at 12:07 PM on July 16, 2007 [4 favorites]

There are two failure modes that are frequently confounded, see here. The '97-'99 DOHC engines develop -internal- head gasket failures, allowing engine combustion gases into the water jackets. The '00-'03 SOHC engines develop external head gasket failures, allowing coolant to drip on the ground. Neither is good. In the thread linked, one of the mechanics says "HG replacement on EJ25s should be considered preventive maintenance".

This car will be a crapshoot, depending on your situation it might not be worthwhile - but I have two Subaru Legacys, the older is dying after 250,000 miles, and I'm negotiating for an '00 OB wagon to be used as a daily driver.
posted by jet_silver at 12:16 PM on July 16, 2007

Failed preview. paulsc has this one down. Thanks for that one-page link!
posted by jet_silver at 12:20 PM on July 16, 2007

I have a 2001 Legacy Outback wagon and have been through this rigamarole with the dealer. The additive can only be poured in by a dealer's mechanic, and s/he puts a sticker onto the engine that identifies the additive, the dealer, and the date. If the stuff has been put in, a mechanic will be able to tell.

Mine leaked ever so slightly even with the additive. Subaru paid for replacing the head gasket in 2006 when the car was 5 years old. I've had no other problems and am quite happy with it.
posted by acorncup at 12:22 PM on July 16, 2007

2000 to 2002 soobies with the 2.5 H4 engine had a bad tendency to chew up head gaskets. This was the new engine design for the market and they ran into more than a few problems.

More than likely you would end up paying a good sum of money just to keep an 8 year old Legacy running.

Other items that they had problems with that you'll find in many of the forums: Valve stem problems and pulley tensioner issues.
posted by pezdacanuck at 12:22 PM on July 16, 2007

My '02 started smelling like antifreeze last winter, whenever I stopped and got out of the car. This was at about 60K miles. The dealer's service guy got his Serious Face on, and started telling me how much it was going to cost to replace the head gaskets. Fortunately, I have an extended warranty, so it only cost me $50. The extended warranty cost less than the gasket job would have, and since it's $50 per visit, I got my misbehaving CD player and clock all replaced at the same time.

During the discussion, the service guy said he was surprised, because the gaskets don't usually go before 100K miles. Consider that the timing belt for those engines also comes due at 105K miles, and you might be spending some money next year.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:00 PM on July 16, 2007

We have a 2000 Legacy which has recently started to develop a lot of 'small' issues that are collectively adding up to enough expense to make me consider whether it's worth keeping. This year alone:
- turn signal lever failed ($several hundred)
- power steering problems (diagnosed but problem disappeared so we didn't spend the $700 to have it fixed)
- rear wiper failed ($unknown at this point)
- seal on rear window leaks, allowing water into rear lights & other electrical ($500+)
- front brakes need replacing ($?)

I think if there was a major expense such as the the head gasket we'd give up on it.

Neighbours just replaced a 1998 Legacy and found little cost difference between buying a brand new Legacy with 0% interest and a 3-4 year old model, so went with the new one.
posted by valleys at 2:23 PM on July 16, 2007

Is she really attached to that model? With the potential problems that you've been warned about it sounds like it's not really worth it. I'd go for a used Honda, Toyota, or Nissan unless the wagon feature is what she's really after.
posted by 6550 at 3:37 PM on July 16, 2007

I hope you skip the subaru. I had a 98 forester that developed all sorts of problems, despite nearly obsessive maintenance. Eventually, its head gasket leaked internally (this was the DOHC 2.5L). This has been effectively covered here.

But it also had a condition common to both the DOHC and SOHC from 96 to 2002 -- piston slap. Google it.

Plus, Subarus have a complicated AWD system that is expensive to fix and detrimental to the car's fuel efficiency.

If I ever wanted another station wagon, I'd get a Hyundai or a Suzuki Esteem. Otherwise, yeah, Honda or Toyota.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:59 PM on July 16, 2007

My '02 has the piston slap; the dealer says it's "normal." It goes away when the engine warms up. My 2000 didn't have it.

The AWD is worth the loss in gas mileage to me. If you don't live where it snows, it might not be to you. I still get 25mpg. Suzukis are notoriously unreliable. Hyundais have a long warranty, but I don't know how good it or they are.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:13 PM on July 16, 2007

My 1999 Forester also had head gasket problems which helped to cause a plugged radiator and severe overheating problems. It cost me a lot (~$2600CAD) to get the head gaskets and the radiator changed.

Really, I like owning my Forester, but I'd never buy another Subaru unless I was absolutely convinced there was never going to be a head gasket problem again.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:53 PM on July 16, 2007

Actually, my '02 doesn't have piston slap; the dealer says the pistons touch the cylinder head at the top of their stroke, making the ticking noise. I assume it's because the aluminum block contracts more than the steel crankshaft throws do when the engine cools.

Piston slap is excessive clearance between the piston and the cylinder bore, which allows the piston to rattle a little. I don't think that condition is common in Subarus.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:21 AM on July 17, 2007

Kirth - I've heard some great bullshit stories from car dealers, but that is the best ever!

Piston slap in Subarus is caused by short piston skirts (that's hot!), an engineering trick designed to minimize reciprocating weight, and is manifested as a loud, metallic hammering sound upon acceleration. Your dealer is correct on one thing, though - it is exacerbated by uneven expansion and contraction of heating/cooling metal alloys, and goes away once the engine is warm. Mine, driven in the southwest, took about 10 minutes or so. 10 very loud minutes.

There is much argument in the subaru enthusiast community as to whether or not it causes premature engine wear, but frankly, that problem is usually remedied by the fact that the head gaskets let go before 100k anyway.

Selling that piece of crap was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Trust me, if your pistons were actually "hitting the cylinder head," you'd be in trouble!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:12 PM on July 17, 2007

Okay, thanks for the help, everybody.
posted by sleevener at 6:02 AM on July 18, 2007

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