Should Pat change his own air filter, or is he out of his league?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

My mechanic asked for $99 to replace the cabin air filter on my 2003 Subaru Outback. Apparently, this needs to be done every year. I decided to do it myself, but after searching online for the filter, which is available for about $20, I was surprised by the lack of step-by-step instructions and the comments to the effect that it is a real project just to access the darn thing.

While I'm fairly handy with tools, I'm now thinking that rather than being the first in my neighborhood to try to sell a car with the dashboard in pieces, maybe you guys have some advice on whether this is a do-it-yourself job, or whether I should slink back to my mechanic, pretend we never discussed this before and ask him to do it. Thanks.

-- Pat

TOM: You can handle this, Pat.

RAY: Some cabin air filters ARE notoriously difficult to get at. In fact, I once spoke to a mechanic who told me that at his dealership, they never even did it. Even though a service order called for it, it was such a colossal, hour-and-a-half, pain-in-the-butt job that they'd just mark it as changed and throw the new filter in the trash can.

TOM: That's awful. But it's really the fault of the manufacturer. It probably felt the competitive need to have a cabin air filter, since other car makers were advertising it. So it told its engineers to put one in the ventilation system. The engineers crammed it in the best they could, but there was no real thought given to the poor schmoes who'd have to fight their way in and change the thing!

RAY: Anyway, luckily for you, Pat, your car is not one of those. The cabin air filter on your '03 Outback sits right behind the glove box. So all you have to do is pop out four screws and remove the glove box, and the filter housing should be right there in plain sight. It's a 10-minute job -- for me. For you, two hours.

TOM: And even if you can't handle it, you'll only have to sell the car with the glove box hanging out, not with the entire dashboard in pieces. Good luck.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One