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

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!

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.

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.

Thanks

This is an incredibly helpful blog!

LIC Response

Glad to help!

03 Legacy

I have 235k on the engine and just discovered dirty oily coolant with bubbles leaking out of the radiator when topped off. No sign of contamination in the crankcase yet so I might be lucky. With this much mileage would just a top end overhaul be sufficient or should I do a complete rebuild?

LIC Response

Complete rebuild for sure (I'd recommend a Subaru genuine reman block personally). Yours made it a long time, longer than most. Would be a shame to spend time/money just doing gaskets when in all likelihood it would need a motor shortly (if it doesn't already).

Advice, please. 2010 vs 2011 Forester

Hi, thanks for your site! I've seen two single-owner Foresters recently here in Canada and am close to pulling the trigger on one but this HG issue really makes me hesitate. My options are a '10 Forester at 71,000km with CPO from a Subaru dealer, and a '11 Forester at 50,000km from a different dealer. Should there be a very significant difference between the two years in terms of HG issue? Is evidence of HG leaking something I'd be able to see with the hood open? I'm leaning toward the '10 Forester because the CPO checkup and warranty - but should i be certain the head gaskets were replaced if I want to avoid $2000+ in complicated repairs in the near future? Thanks in advance!

LIC Response

Although the 2011+ Foresters no longer have the head gasket issue as mentioned in this article, do know that a lot of the early model redesigned motors have/had oil consumption issues and it was part of a class action lawsuit. 11-13's are the most commonly affected but I've seen 14's with issues as well. We recommend 15+ models to avoid this issue. Here is a link to an article: http://jalopnik.com/subaru-settles-lawsuit-over-oil-burning-cars-1752805682

2000 Outback

I'm looking at a 2000 Outback with 129,000 miles on it for sale by a small local dealer. Of course, before I buy I am going to have it inspected by an auto shop, but I am wondering, if the inspection comes back good, is there something I can do to help prevent the HG problem or is it only a matter of time?

LIC Response

At that mileage, its likely already has the HG issue and if not, its only a matter of time.

06 Forester

Hi there, I've got an 06 Forester at 92k miles. Unfortunately, I'm in a bit of a bind here. I had a shop take care of my timing belt, and at the time of service, they mentioned that I had a slight head gasket leak (probably the weeping stage you speak of). But the shop reassured me that it was minor, all Subarus had them, and that their "experienced" Subaru mechanic has several of his own Subaru's with gasket leaks and he said he didn't service them until they were greater than 150K miles. After reading this article, I'm a little panicked. First, I'm upset because as you've said here, the timing belt and HG problem should be fixed at the same time. This was not the case for me. Second, I've got some big trips coming up, and am looking at a 3000+ mile trip in the next few months (cross country move). I just don't know if I'm playing with fire here. The guys at the shop have told me my car is looking fine as recently as last week having checked the leak and all of my systems. The worst part is, I don't think I can afford to have this fixed at this time. I'm not sure what to do? Is it possible for me to wait until I'm closer to 120k miles, when I would be able to save up to afford this? What would you advise? Thanks in advance!

LIC Response

Unfortunately to do the timing service job and not the HG job is honestly a waste of money, especially since you have leaking head gaskets already (as most do at your mileage). Your timing service work (labor) is free when you do a HG job, as you have to remove the timing components to do this type of work...regardless if old or new components go back on (which you'd always do new of course), its part of the work. I'd be very skeptical driving that far with leaking HG's, as they're already breached and driving extended periods of time with sustained heat/stress, this is what makes them go out faster. If you were just cruising around town, few miles here/there...sure, you can delay it for a bit but not 30k miles delay, even with minimal driving.

2009 Forester gasket replace

My dad has a 2009 Forester (base 2.5L) he bought new, and we've enjoyed it for a long time. At about 150,000 the head gaskets gave and he took it into the dealership where they redid them. We have no idea what they replaced them with, this was six months ago. Should we replace the dealership instal now or can we go with confidence for a while at least? Also curious, I know a local pick and pull. I've thought of pulling a a turbo engine from an older XT for a swap out. Have you heard of guys doing that? Would an XT engine be compatible with a base model configuration? Thanks

LIC Response

The dealership can only use manufacture parts, so yes, they would have used the old faulty designed parts again, which will fail in time as a result. Depending on how the job was done, we see them make it anywhere from 10k-80k ish miles even, just as before with the factory gaskets installed. Really comes down to how they did the work (if they machined the heads, etc.). The redesigned gaskets, I've never had or seen another failure from them, as they honestly can't. Yes conversions are possible (non turbo to turbo swap) but its not plug and play like you've mentioned....you basically need x2 cars and then wiring integration.

2006 forester vs 2001 outback

I'm looking at buying either a 2006 forester with 165000 miles or a 2001 outback with 109000 miles. Both are nearly spotless. The outback had the timing chain and gaskets replaced at 90k miles. The forester has only ever had oil changes and the owner says the engine is dry as a bone with no leaks and hasn't had any problems. Any suggestions? The forester is asking $4500 and the outback is asking $4800 but would probably come down. Both were meticulously maintained.

LIC Response

I'd be concerned that the 2006 has never had anything but oil changes, sounds like it missed all its maintenance interval servicing (which is critical for long term). You mentioned chain on the 2001, so it must be a 6 cyl, which is a fantastic motor. I'd lean towards the older one if its a 6 cyl personally.

cracked cylinder heads

Hi guys Hoping to you can help. I'm looking at purchasing an '08 Impreza that was bought by a Subaru mechanic to fix and sell. It's got 100,000 miles and he's asking $7500 It had cracked cylinder heads which he replaced as well as the timing belt, head gaskets, water pump, clutch and all belts. He used the turbo HG apparently which aren't prone to leaking. My question is this: 1. What potential issues do I face buying an '08 Impreza with 100,000 miles that's obviously been overheated or something for the cylinder heads to crack? 2. Is this a vehicle I should stay away from like the plague or is it worth considering all the work that's been done on it? 3. Is there any way to check how the engine block itself is, like a compression test? Many thanks

LIC Response

I have never personally seen a cylinder head(s) crack from extreme heat and not destroy the block (at min the deck surfaces). I'd be cautious but not really anything you can check once its back together to ensure it was taken care of properly at time of rebuild. It would be worth double checking the cooling system for C0 (which it should have 0 PPM)

I am looking at buying an 08

I am looking at buying an 08 Subaru Legacy that has this problem. The guy is only selling it for $3k, but it has had this problem for a few months now. Any thoughts on if it would be salvageable at this point? It hasn't gotten to the over heating stage yet. It hasn't been driven a whole lot since the problem started.

LIC Response

Really hard to give good advice on something like this from afar but based on what you're saying, I don't see why it wouldn't be repairable as such.

hG

I recently took my 07 Subaru Forster to the local Subaru dealership and found out that the HG is leaking. It also seems to have developed a slight knock when I first start the vehicle. I recently put a new clutch in the car and would like to keep it running, seeing I've already invested that. Does the knocking mean there is more significant, costly damages that will need repaired also? If so what would we be looking at?

LIC Response

Really hard to gauge if your "knock" is cold start piston slap or truly "rod knock"...most when explaining, as you have, and choose the word "knock", its typically rod knock (which is not good and will lead to a costly motor replacement).