The Dreaded Subaru Head Gasket Issue

Thu, 01/30/2014 - 11:51am - Noah Levy
The Dreaded Subaru Head Gasket Issue

Non turbo 4 cylinder applications all have head gasket issues, you've heard this before, most of you know this, and yes its a result of a bad/faulty design with the gasket.

The factory gaskets have a coating that deteriorates over time (typically between 80-120k miles. That range is dependent on if you've run the SOA mandatory coolant conditioner, which is designed to get you past that 100k mile hump).

The symptom of leaking "head gaskets" is oil weeping between the head/block surfaces. This weep over time turns into a significant leak, which then turns into coolant leaking as well, after that symptom you often times will go into overheating, from there its a few mile slippery slope...which then has coolant and oil intermingling together. 

If you haven't guessed it yet, this is where bearings get trashed, you develop a rod knock and hopefully at this point you've realized its about to be over but recognize before the next critical stage.

The sad thing is....it doesn't need to get to this point. If you work with a specialty shop its easy to point out early on when this is happening (at the weeping stage) and proactively fixing it. By doing so, you 1- secure your investment with your vehicle, 2- save yourself the headache of being broken down on the side of the road, and 3- you get to enjoy your car for another X amount of miles b/c you didn't let it catastrophically fail.

Did you know when we do head gasket jobs here at LIC Motorsports we don't install the same gaskets that do the same thing? Would you be shocked to know that the dealer and most other independents still install these bad/faulty gaskets to this day when they perform this job (reason being is Subaru hasn't revised the gasket on the older SOHC vehicles).

These vehicles all have cylinder head gasket related issues:

  • Impreza 1999 to 2011
  • Forester 1999 to 2010
  • Legacy 2000 to 2009
  • Outback 2000 to 2009
  • Baja 2003 to 2006

 

You can purchase revised/upgraded gaskets here: Non Turbo Upgraded MLS Head Gaskets


More info about our Head Gasket Service here: Maintenance Service Page

 

Here is images of when someone has let it go to far and more or less driven there car into the "ground" (that slurry leaking out is the "milkshake" of coolant/oil that has mixed).

 

Comments

2000 impreza L

I just bought a 2000 impreza L. 130,000mi I was told they hit a pot hole and the radiator started to leak. When i got it home i started it and let it idle and with a flash light i could see it dripping behind the water pump. So i removed it and could see where the gasket failed. Icleaned rtv and reasemble only to see the same drip. I redid everything again but used a felpro gasket. Now i have bubbles in the overflow so i hacked up passenger front and filled and reved, still had bubbles in overflow so i left it overnight and it was still full to the cap. It was hard to start this morning and had a small puff of white smoke and the spark plug is wet. Under the car now Ida leaking a bit faster and its dripping from water pump. Could this be from has gasket instead of the water pump?

LIC Response

If its filling up the expansion tank (overflow), you have a head gaskets issue.

02-08 Forester Turbos - same HG issues as non Turbo?

Thanks for this informative post. I'm looking into buying a used Forester 02-08, 2nd Gen. My main question is if the XT motors (DOHC vs. SOHC with non-Turbo) are susceptible to the same HG issues. If not, are there other issues unique to the XTs such as cooling? Thanks, R

LIC Response

As mentioned in a previous post: Although the faulty design is isolated to the non turbo vehicles, you can have a head gasket related issue on any car...turbo included. But this article and what happens is not the same as associated with the turbo vehicles that are a result of other reasons. Typically the turbo models have head gasket issues for a few reasons, which isn't really a head gasket problem, its warped heads from: 1- abuse, 2- a failure (like radiator break, car overheats), 3- tuning (not properly tuned).

2009 For Sale: HG already replaced twice?

Looking to trade my 2003 Tacoma for a 2009 Forrester (non turbo) and the Carfax shows that the HG has been replaced twice in the last 110k miles. I have no way to determine if they were replaced with non-factory HG, so it could potentially be a repair for ME to consider in the future, though they did do the timing belt with the last HG.... I'm not sure if this is a vehicle I should consider, or hold out for something else based on everything I've read here?!?

LIC Response

That model year will suffer the same issues as mentioned in this post.

2011 Outback

I had the same issue with my 2011 4 cyl. Outback at about 120K. Wish I would have known to find out the issue a couple of years ago.

LIC Response

As mentioned in another post: Although the 10+ Outback gaskets have been upgraded to the MLS style (which are corrected), they tend to have cooling related issues, although its not a HG issue itself, it becomes a HG job. The main culprit we see is the lack of cooling in the radiator, they are tiny. Cars nowadays, in my opinion, are really being designed like your cell phone, to only make it so long...there is reasons behind this, cost is cheaper, cost of ownership (when comparing brand x to brand z, that they're comparable), and truthfully most dont keep their cars for longer than 5 years at this point, which is about 100k miles. I don't agree with it but being in this industry a long time and working on Subarus for darn near 15 years now, I have seen the deviation in quality and longevity.

My son's 2006 Subaru non

My son's 2006 Subaru non turbo Forster is at the dealership for 3 recalls (we've hd the car for a year). The timing belt has not been changed but they're recommending it because of the car's age. We're at 66k miles. Also, the head gasket is weeping. At least $3k to do both. What do you recommend? Can it weep for awhile before it needs to be repaired? Are the dealerships still using gaskets that will cause the issue again ? He's about to take the car 10 hours away to college.

LIC Response

Yes, he is not only do for his 105k (timing component job, for his based on age) but is also due for his 60k (which is a full tune up). No the dealer has not corrected the head gaskets that they use and you would, if you have them do the work, have this issue again. You wouldn't want to do head gaskets without doing the maintenance items needed. You shouldn't ignore the weeping gaskets, as they will only get worse and can/will damage the motor.

Fix or sell?

I have a 2003 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport nearing 140k miles. The last few times I took it for an oil change the mechanics told me about oil leaking near the HG. I took it for an oil change to a new shop yesterday and the mechanic there explained this common HG issue and said I need to start thinking about fixing it before it dies on me. The car is only worth around $3-4k and it will likely cost about the same to fix it. I have had this car for a long time and I love it. Now the question is: fix or sell?

LIC Response

If the car has been well maintained and running good, no reason not to fix it...what do you replace it with for similar money? It would be someone else's used/abused vehicle that you'd have no history of knowing. If you're in the market for a new car, well there is not substitute to that, as it will be trouble free. Older cars, even with HG's corrected, will still suffer from the older wear/tear of that kind of mileage, so it won't be trouble free for the next 60-100k miles like a new car would be

2009 Forester Gaskets

My 2009 Forester still runs great, has $144k miles - however my mechanic told me I should get my head gaskets sent out to a mill shop to be straightened out which costs around $3000. A different mechanic told me not to worry about it until the car starts overheating. It has been leaking oil (not enough to leave a puddle under the car, but enough for mechanics to mention it to me during oil changes for the past few years. Any thoughts on how soon I need to address this? I hate to spend that kind of money and am tempted to sell the car and buy something I can afford which will be a cheaper car like a Kia Soul or a Ford focus and I hate to downgrade like that. My mechanic said if I fix the gaskets, I could probably get another $100k miles out of the car.

LIC Response

On the SOHC motors like you have, you'd never want to wait until it overheats...as it would seize the motor shortly after if not caught. The DOHC motors caused overheating but on the SOHC they leak oil and have a progression as mentioned in this article. If its leaking, its time to fix it (or move on) but if you wait, it will only end in catastrophic failure.

2014 forester leaking oil

At about 50,000 miles my low oil light came on. Replaced it with a quart of oil and got an oil change shortly after. Prior to this, my forester had been towed, backwards out of the parking spot, while my car was in park. Looking underneath at my oil change showed no damage. Now at 52,000 miles, low oil light came on and my dipstick was practically dry. I'm a good 2,000 miles from needing an oil change. I replaced with 2 quarts of oil. There's no evidence of a leak in my parking spot at home or when I check my spot after work. I do a moderate amount of highway driving and had just been driving for 3.5h all highway when the low oil light came on this time. What should I ask the dealer to check/do? I'd like to get it serviced soon because this is a recurring issue. Thanks!

LIC Response

Unfortunately this is an all too common issue. As you stated, its not leaking, which means its consuming it.

Should I even buy a new Forrester?

I've had a 2006 Forrester that I have meticulously maintained & I love the handling, safety, etc. But still, around the 70k mark, it started to leak oil. I have had it examined four times over four years for slow oil leaks. My mechanics have said it has been a torn oil cap, leaking valve cover gaskets, oil filter leaking, now possibly head gaskets. In addition I feel like the car has had a million other small issues: replaced starter, spark plugs & wires, seat heater replaced, sway bar links replaced, battery replaced twice, heat shields rotted, brake pads and rotors often, replaced faulty evap vent light, replaced shifter cable, leaking upper radiator hose, replaced faulty AC compressor & orings, lock actuator malfunction, cracked engine belts... it feels like it never ends, and I don't even drive it that much. I know some of this is necessary for any car but I feel like I am always going to the mechanic while my husband and family with their Toyotas never have to go. I really love Subaru Forresters and I would like to get a new one, but my mechanic says 'Don't do it!' They say that even the brand new Subarus (2017) burn oil badly and have other issues (torque converter) that they are not dealing with. They say get a Toyota Rav or a Honda CRV. I have had a Rav before and didn't like the cushy ride, general bulkiness, visibility etc. I love the Subaru for its stern handling and excellent design as a compact SUV. And it is the safest car on the road. Consumer Reports ranks it the best SUV in its class. But I can't be going to the mechanic with oil leaks or something else every few months! Do you think the 2017 Forresters have improved on any of these flaws, or is it always going to be something with the Subarus in general?

LIC Response

All 15+ models I've seen thus far seem to be fairly decent for the most part. I have on occasion seen brand new models burn abnormal amounts of oil but for the most part, they seem to be fine. If you like the cars, no reason to not get another one....BUT as you mentioned, they are not a Honda or Toyota, these cars don't make it on minimal maintenance and 300k+ miles.

Engine coolant

I just bought a 2006 Forester xt with a bad engine. I am having.it replaced with an engine from a 2008 xt. I had the timing belt and head gaskets done with all oem parts. My question is what color coolant should I be using with this engine?

LIC Response

Up to 08 Foresters take green, 09+ is blue.

Head Gasket leakage and cracked engine blocks

Back in 2007,I had a 1996 Outback with 110k that overheated and when I took it in the Subaru service rep said it was a leaky head gasket. Paid $3500 for them to pull the engine and replace the gasket. A few weeks later it overheated again. This time they said it was a cracked engine block and that they could put a new or used motor in for $3000 to $4000. After a few challenging moments, they agreed not to charge me for the labor since they should have spotted the crack block when they had the motor pulled earlier. Total cost plus the previous gasket change, $7 or $8000. Decided to trade it in for a new Outback. (At this time I had not heard of a chronic HG problem with Subaru's). The 07' Outback was a lemon with rust issues, shock problems, rear ball barring problems, so before the warranty was up, I traded it in for a 2010 Outback. (I just loved the way they handled in snow and the amount of cargo room.) Anyway, just 2 weeks ago with 106k miles, my Suby over heated while on a road trip and about 3000 miles from home. Luckily, we were in a town with a Subaru dealership and you guest it, probably the head gasket or an engine block issue. Not sure until they pull the engine,but it would cost $$3500 to $4000 and then the fix or an engine replacement for another $4 to $6000, not to mention possibly 7 to 10 days to fix it. We were in a pickle. Had no time to fix it and was the cost really worth it. They offered a trade in for a new or used car. When I mentioned this was a problem I had encountered earlier, the sales guy tells us Subaru fixed the problem with the HG sealant and that I shouldn't have that problem again. We ended up buying a new Outback partly because we live in snow country, but mostly because we were stuck and a long ways from home. Now, after learning about all the problems other Subaru owners are having, I am really bummed and wondering why there wasn't a class action lawsuit on this HG problem years ago!! I expected to have my Subaru's last me at least 200000 miles and now I'll be lucky if they last 100k.

LIC Response

Although the 10+ Outback gaskets have been upgraded to the MLS style (which are corrected), they tend to have cooling related issues, although its not a HG issue itself, it becomes a HG job. The main culprit we see is the lack of cooling in the radiator, they are tiny. Cars nowadays, in my opinion, are really being designed like your cell phone, to only make it so long...there is reasons behind this, cost is cheaper, cost of ownership (when comparing brand x to brand z, that they're comparable), and truthfully most dont keep their cars for longer than 5 years at this point, which is about 100k miles. I don't agree with it but being in this industry a long time and working on Subarus for darn near 15 years now, I have seen the deviation in quality and longevity. In regards to class action lawsuit, I honestly don't understand how they haven't been held accountable for millions upon millions of flawed cars...they must of paid someone in the right place ;-)

Headgasket or PCV blocakge....

Car: 2007 Impreza 2.5i Millage: 106k Around the 104k mile marker, noted a 'burning' smell coming from the engine compartment and would be in the passenger compartment with the fan on high. Took it to a quick lube place, said they didn't see anything. At 105k, took it to a reputable local independent shop to look into + needed timing belt. Said head gaskets were leaking and dripping onto exhaust causing the smell. They referred me to the dealership. Dealer did the timing belt, tune up, and replaced the head gaskets. I previously owned a mazda and did one tune-up myself and did PCV valves with the tuneup. Dealership didn't replace them. Overall, was satified with work, the price, and warranty. Couple days later however, I throw a p0420 code (Catalyst System Efficiency Below Threshold; Had this same code at 70k and was a bad O2 sensor - was replaced and never saw it again). I'm not going to pretend to be a car guy, but I'm a doctor and am a good diagnostician. The timing on the p0420 code seems too coincidental to just be a Catalytic converter dying 3 days after the major service I had done. My hypothesis: the PCV valve is clogged. This caused increased pressure and caused the engine oil to seep out gasket seals. Now with new seals, the pressure and uncombusted carbon cant go anywhere, instead heads to catalytic converters and is causing my p0420 code. From a mechanics perspective, does this make sense? is it even possible? They're shipping in a new Cat to be installed next week, I just want to scratch my curiosity on this and ask them to check the PCV before just solving the new symptom in case there is a unifying reason why all this is happening a the same time (Occam's Razor), but want an outside opinion on whether this is even possible before asking. Thanks!

Does it effect a wrx Impreza 2004?

I recently purchased a wrx Impreza 2004 wagon and wondered if this would be something that would affect my car. I would like it if someone could inform me about this or if any other issues I should be aware of.

LIC Response

Although the faulty design is isolated to the non turbo vehicles, you can have a head gasket related issue on any car...turbo included. But this article and what happens is not the same as associated with the turbo vehicles that are a result of other reasons. Typically the turbo models have head gasket issues for a few reasons, which isn't really a head gasket problem, its warped heads from: 1- abuse, 2- a failure (like radiator break, car overheats), 3- tuning (not properly tuned).

LIC Response

The issue is not the PCV causing this. You touched on it earlier, you had the P0420 code before, installed a new 02 which got it by for a bit. The P0420 code is not a 02 code, its a cat code and although you can get it by for a touch longer by just adding a 02, the issue is the cat. Anytime we do new cats, we always do new 02's. Also, when we do HG jobs, we always replace the PCV, its like a $10 part and no reason not to while there and with the mileage the OEM has on it.

Head gasket question...

I have a 2005 Outback 3.0 that is over heating occasionally and leaking antifreeze. I've been able to drive it, making sure coolant is always topped off. I was suspecting HG failure. But are you saying that a HG would cause catastrophic failure fairly fast? I have been able to drive a lot of miles since first signs of overheating.

LIC Response

You can get away with minor overheating incident for a little bit of time but do know its NOT ideal to keep driving it like that. As it heats and cools, the heads will warp more and more, which is just a recipe to introduce oil and coolant together. Although you're still getting by for now, it will have a catastrophic incident if not corrected. Your car doesnt have HG issues, your issue would be warped heads, the more they warp the more you risk destroying the motor. HG leaks can go on for a very long time before they are catastrophic.

2008 Outback dead.

So we just had the engine seize up on our 08 Outback. There was no warning oil light. The cruise control light came on. Then the engine made horrible knocking sounds and died. No warning. No visible leaking or dripping. Anyone else have this problem? Not​ my first Subaru but my first car ever to burn oil without me knowing it.

LIC Response

Your model doesn't have an oil warning light, those weren't installed on Outbacks until 2010. Sounds like your car was low on oil, developed rod knock, and then broke.

Purchased a 2006 Forester

Purchased a 2006 Forester 2.5x. The timing belt, head gasketsand water pump were changed by the shop I purchased it from. Been 3 days and having issues with idling to the point of almost dying and the oil pressure light flickering after exiting the freeway and stopping at lights and stop signs . Noticed today that the oil level was low after it was full 2 days ago. The mechanic said to bring it back for him to look at. I don't know anything about Subarus but thinking there might be a bigger problem here. Any advice?

LIC Response

Something major is wrong, if that oil pressure light is on and flickering, it means oil pressure is dipping below 3 psi.

2001 subaru headgasket

I am looking at buying a 2001 subaru outback, 4 cylinder that has been sitting for two years for 250$. Drained the oil and there was a bunch of coolant in it, up to a quart . Could that be a symptom of sitting so long, or is it garunteed a headgasket problem. I havnt put a battery in it yet to check the mileage.

LIC Response

Coolant shouldn't ever be in with oil, under any circumstances, in addition - a car sitting would have nothing to do with that...what you have is a catastrophic event that has occurred and the motor will either A) need replacing or B) rebuilding (this likely isn't an option) prior to car being back up for proper operation.

slight leak of some fluid

morning from Cape Town I have a 2007 Forester XT will 225000 km (about 140000 miles) All services done on time and cambelt done at 100000 and 200000. Car is going great and seems not to be using oil - checking dipstick regularly. when driving in a refined fashion - low revs, pulling away slowly and not flooring it on the highway, everything is good. However, if I drive like a bit of a hooligan - no red lining or anything like that, but robust acceleration, maybe hitting 140 kph on the freeway,( as I should from time to time in an XT) i get smoke coming from the engine bay when I stop the car. This is accompanied by a burning smell and it takes about five minutes for whatever it is that is leaking out to burn off. The smoke seems to be coming from the bottom of the engine on the right hand side of the car quite far back towards the windscreen. there is no water in the oil and no oil in the water and otherwise the car pulls as strongly as the day I bought it. Can you perhaps give me a suggestion as to what this may be? Cheers Michael

LIC Response

Sounds like your valve cover gaskets are weeping (which would be expected and normal at your mileage and typically always presents itself on passenger side first, reason being is the up-pipe sits approx 1/2" away from the seals).

thanks Noah - here in SA we

thanks Noah - here in SA we drive on the left so steering wheel on the right - does that still make sense? Cheers thanks for the reply

LIC Response

You bet...still would be be on that right side, as the turbo is in same location as our cars. Only difference is that you would call it driver side ;-)

Subaru Forester

Hi, I'm looking to buy a 2006 Subaru Forester it's $3300 129k miles and I'm really nervous about the head gasket issues. I'm also looking at a 2010 Subaru Forester $9600 97k miles which would be a better option choice? If the head gaskets are a issue how often will they break down and is their a way to prevent it without having to replace them?

Forrester HG Issue

Have a 2010 Forrester. Just got the bad news: 4000 bucks to replace the head gaskets and belts and coolant hoses. Per Edmunds it's only worth 4200. Makes that decision easy. Shame on Subaru...lost customer. Mine only has 99000 on it. If you'll give me 7500 vs. 9600 above, we got a deal. The HGs are bad in all of them.

LIC Response

An all too common issue unfortunately.

LIC Response

They are likely both experiencing HG failure and likely why they are for sale at that pricing and mileage. There is no way to prevent the HG issue with the factory gaskets unfortunately. As mentioned in the article, the HG issue happen between 80-120k miles and if repaired with the factory gaskets, will happen again.

2011 Forester XT Head gasket issue

Why isn't there either a recall or class action for the head gasket issue. My 2011 only has 66K miles (just 6K out of warranty), and having the same head gasket issue as others. Started as on intermittent overheat issue. And SOA is only offering $500 for repair. What is the critical mass of HG issues before it is dealt with instead of burning their loyal customers. 4th family Subaru and definitely out last!

LIC Response

Although the faulty design is isolated to the non turbo vehicles, you can have a head gasket related issue on any car...turbo included. But this article and what happens is not the same as associated with the turbo vehicles that are a result of other reasons. Typically the turbo models have head gasket issues for a few reasons, which isn't really a head gasket problem, its warped heads from: 1- abuse, 2- a failure (like radiator break, car overheats), 3- tuning (not properly tuned).

07 Forester 2.5XT Limited

Hey There, I noticed your article is focused on the non-turbo version of the Enugu e- I'm looking st buying an '07 Forester 2.5XT with about 75k miles, should I still have concerns about the HG failing?

LIC Response

Although the faulty design is isolated to the non turbo vehicles, you can have a head gasket related issue on any car...turbo included. But this article and what happens is not the same as associated with the turbo vehicles that are a result of other reasons. Typically the turbo models have head gasket issues for a few reasons, which isn't really a head gasket problem, its warped heads from: 1- abuse, 2- a failure (like radiator break, car overheats), 3- tuning (not properly tuned).

Has the issue been fixed?

I have a 2005 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS wagon, went through the whole deal- replaced gaskets, etc etc. still burns off oil (need new mechanics). Getting rid of it, but my love for their design, drive, and price point makes me want another one. Has this issue finally been solved/fixed?!?

LIC Response

The "burning oil" vs head gasket issues is two separate things, the burning oil is internally in your engine (HG externally leak oil). Yes the HG issue has been resolved, meaning they have revised the gasket so they won't externally leak but the new cars have small radiators and hotter thermostats, which can result in cars overheating and end up with a HG job again but its not related to the actual gaskets but still lends the same work/result.

Burning Oil

Thank you for such a quick response! Hmm... So if I went to Subaru or a mechanic, I'd have to ask for a fix regarding an *external* oil leak? I thought that was what they were fixing the first time :/ The new models- the small radiators/hotter thermostats... Are these things that are part of all car things to be looking out for (or problems in general)? e.g. If I buy a Subaru, do I need to put on my calendar to have certain parts checked at certain miles vs. if I get a Toyota that can run on 3oz of gas and regular service will take care of it? I don't want to be the short blonde girl on the side of the road with an overheated radiator! I also don't want "I told you so" from my dad if I finally convince him Subaru's are awesome and it was just my year/make/model with the issue. (I hope you get paid a lot for your expertise!)

LIC Response

Ha ha, I would say Subaru's keep us busy but with that being said, they have a fairly simplistic maintenance schedule. The key is staying on top of it and doing regular/realistic drain intervals for the fluids.