Man Seeks Subaru

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 09, 2016

Dear Car Talk:

I want to buy a used Subaru for my winter adventures, most likely a 2000-'05 Outback or Forester with approximately 100,000 miles. (I know, I'm begging for trouble!) There is a small used-car dealer in the area who specializes in used Subarus. He is somehow associated with a locally renowned specialty Subaru repair shop that does excellent work. This guy finds used Subarus and takes them to this shop and gets them fixed up, including head gaskets, timing belts, etc. So far, so good. I recently looked at two of his cars, a 2004 with 75,000 miles and a 2002 with 150,000 miles. The 2004 had a chattering noise when idling. I'd heard that this noise might be the "lifters." When I asked about this, the guy said that it's actually "piston slap" and all Subarus have it. I've looked at quite a few Subarus so far in my search, and almost none had this noise. Hmm ...

Then the 2002 with 150,000 miles had some visible oil seepage underneath, and when I asked him about that, he said that "all cars have some oil leakage when you change the oil." Again, hmm ...

Furthermore, when I told him my reservations about getting a car with 150,000 miles, he said that if the car was well maintained, it was no problem at all, and said I am obsessed with the mileage. So my question is not so much about the cars themselves, because I would get any prospective car checked out at that repair shop; my question is more about this dealer's answers to my questions. Is what he said actually accurate? His answers kind of make me question his sincerity a bit, in spite of his association with this repair shop.

-- Jay

Not trusting a used-car dealer is not exactly a man-bites-dog story, Jay. But we'll run it anyway.

A used-car dealer's goal is to sell you a used car. Your goal is to get not just any used car, but a particularly good used car at a fair price. So that's why we recommend to you, and to everybody else, that you have a used car checked out by your own mechanic before buying it, no matter who you're buying the car from -- even your brother. (Especially your brother.)

This salesman is correct that many Subarus do have piston slap. While on most cars this is a fatal flaw, we've found that Subarus often can live with it for a long time.

The sound comes from a looseness, or wobbling, of the pistons inside the cylinders. It tends to diminish once the car warms up and the pistons expand. If it doesn't subside, or if it sounds different or more advanced than the normal Subaru piston slap, you'll want to steer clear of that car. That's something you should trust your own mechanic to tell you.

In terms of the oil seepage, the mechanic could be right: The leak could be oil spilled during an oil change. The filter is right up front in this car, so if that's where you see the oil, he may be correct.

But these cars also are famous for having leaky valve-cover gaskets, cylinder head gaskets, oil pans, oil-pan gaskets and cam seals. If the leak is toward the back of the engine, it could be a leaky rear main seal, which is big money to fix. Again, you'll want your own mechanic to tell you what's actually leaking.

And the guy is wrong about mileage. Generally speaking, a car with 150,000 miles on it is much closer to the bone yard than a car with 75,000 miles on it.

Sure, you can get a car with lower mileage that's been abused, or a car with high mileage that's been handled like a rare porcelain miniature of Sonja Henie's tutu.

But generally speaking, a car with 150,000 miles on it is a short-term vehicle. So if you're looking for some real winter adventure -- like getting stranded in a blizzard -- a car with 150,000 miles will be more likely to give you that.

What concerns me most, though, is the way the dealer dismissed your reasonable concerns and tried to demean you by saying you're "obsessed with mileage." That's why I think it's time to take your business elsewhere.

One possibility is to talk to the folks at that garage that specializes in Subarus. Tell them what you're looking for, and ask them to let you know if any of their customers decide to sell a good used Subaru. Since these mechanics probably have taken care of the car for years, they'll know exactly what kind of shape it's in, what it needs and how much of an animal the owner is.

Customers do often mention to us that they're planning to sell their car. They want our advice about what to fix, or what price to ask for it. So we do occasionally get to play matchmaker.

Hey, it's not exactly Yente from "Fiddler on the Roof," but it does provide an occasional moment of job satisfaction.


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