How many of the repairs recommended for this 63,000 mile Suburu are really necessary?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

At my last oil-and-filter change, the service department at the local Subaru dealer did the "free 25-point inspection" and came back with the following diagnosis:

  1. Replace valve cover gkt @ $320
  2. Rear oil seal @ $620
  3. Frt cam seal @ $450
  4. Lft frt axle @ $270

(I've reported the acronyms verbatim, because I'm not sure what they mean.) I've made an appointment to have these done next week, but I am wondering if this is for real. What is the probability that so many items would fail all together, nearly all at once? My husband thinks that at 50,000-70,000 miles, one should EXPECT to put in a couple thousand dollars in repairs. The car is a 1998 Subaru Legacy Outback wagon and has 63,000 miles on it. It was driven in flat and humid Houston for the first 30,000 miles, and in hilly, very dry Tucson since then. At the previous oil-change visit, I was told about a non-urgent small leak related to the "frt cam seal," but no other problems. Thanks for your analysis! -- Renee

RAY: Well, that 25-point inspection wasn't so free after all, was it, Renee? That's more like "25 chances to find stuff we can fix for you"!

TOM: These are all separate jobs, Renee. There's no advantage or "discount" if you do them all at the same time. So, let's look at each one individually.

RAY: The lft frt (left front) axle is a wear item, which means it's something that wears out over time. Its failure can be hastened by tearing one of the CV boots, which can be a result of age, kicked-up road debris or driving over a petrified Barry Goldwater lawn sign.

TOM: But if the axle is already failing, there's no rush. You'll hear a clacking noise during acceleration on turns as it gets worse. When that starts to drive you nuts, you can replace it then.

RAY: The frt (front) cam seals (there are two of them on this car) leak a lot on Subarus. We replace them all the time. So, it makes sense to me that one or both would leak at 60,000 miles, and you might as well replace both of them.

TOM: But while they're doing that, they should absolutely replace the timing belt and the water pump, too. Both of those will need to be done soon, and the timing belt has to come off anyway to replace the front cam seals. It'll cost you a little more than $450 to have all that done (maybe $650), but you'll save a lot on labor by doing them all at once.

RAY: Up top, there are actually two valve cover gkts (gaskets) on this engine. We've had very good luck just tightening the valve cover bolts -- that often stops the leak. So, they should certainly try that before they replace the gaskets for $320.

TOM: And in terms of the rear oil seal, in all my years of working on Subarus, I have never replaced a rear oil seal. My guess is that oil is leaking somewhere else (like the front cam seal) and blowing to the back of the engine, where your mechanic is mistaking it for a rear-seal leak. So I'd leave that one alone for now, pending further evidence.

RAY: What you can do is, after the valve covers are tightened and the front cam seals are replaced, you can have your engine steam-cleaned. Then have someone look at it again in three months. On a clean engine, any additional oil leaks will be much easier to spot and locate.

TOM: So how's that, Renee? Figure $650 for the cam seal, timing belt and water pump, and another $50 to steam clean the engine. We just saved you almost a thousand bucks!

RAY: Send us half, and we'll call it even, kid.

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