Buying your first Subaru can be a daunting task. Buying any vehicle can be a challenge but a Subaru is a bit more unique than most vehicles out there. Here’s what a Subaru looked like in 1971. Things have changed alot since then as you might imagine.
Read on and you’ll learn about the good, the bad and the ugly on the used Subaru vehicle characteristics. There’s a bit of history mixed in also.
1981-1984 (some carryover models 86-87) Subaru OHV 1800 DL, GL (includes the Brat)
This was the small boxy Subaru you saw in all the commercials stating “Inexpensive and built to stay that way”
These models were simple, bullet proof vehicles that really gave Subaru the reputation for having a reliable vehicle that could go great in the snow. They had an innovative 4wd system and an 1800 cc carbureted engine that purred like a sewing machine while achieving pretty good fuel economy. Not great on the power, especially if you had one equipped with an automatic transmission.
Over the years their most frequent mechanical issue has been their perpensity to leak oil. The gasket and seal technology wasn’t the greatest. Cork and paper gaskets were used in many areas of the engine. Although the leaks created a mess, they didn’t cause much oil loss overall. Other than that, they were very reliable cars. If you can still find one in decent shape your biggest problem is finding quality parts to make repairs. Most of the genuine Subaru parts stock is obsolete for these models so you’re stuck with finding aftermarket offerings or sometimes used parts (if an item is obsolete). As long as the oil and coolant levels were maintained and regular service performed, these Subarus were indestructible.
STRENGTHS: Inexpensive, great selectable 4wd, available in 2wd, good fuel mileage, simple to work on
WEAKNESSES: Leak oil, difficulty finding replacement parts, Obsolete Carter/Weber carburetors, difficulty finding one in good condition.
1986-1994 Subaru Loyale (incl. DL, GL, GL10)
Larger, sharper body lines, improved more luxerious interior, new overhead cam engine design.
If you were a Subaru mechanic during this model run, you were constantly busy doing warranty repairs. This was the first Subaru model equipped with a timing belt and OOPS…. it didn’t last as long as the recommended 60000 mile replacement interval. Subaru began a campaign to replace the timing belts with an upgraded version and lowered the replacement interval to 52,500 miles as a gesture of goodwill. Back then, if you saw a Subaru on the side of the road you could bet that it was due to a broken timing belt. Subaru pro-rated the cost of the repair for the customer based on how many miles they got out of their belt before it broke.
Today, if you’re looking for one of these models you’ll probably find that the most reliable version was an SPI equipped mode. (Single Point Fuel Injection). It is a simple throttle body injection system (glorified carburetor) that was consistently reliable.
The carbureted models were OK but wear and tear over the years has made the carburetors finicky and many parts are no longer available. The turbo models is one to avoid (unless you can afford to work on it yourself) .The turbocharger itself lasted indefinately, but because the engines were producing more power and heat, they regularly cracked cylinder heads due to a thin casting area around a water jacket. Subaru made subsequent improvements to these cylinder heads, thickining the material around the waterjacket that tended to crack into the exhaust. This reduced the problem significantly but did not completely solve the issue. I only recommend purchasing one of the turbo models if you have adequate mechanical abilities and a desire to tinker. They were fun when they worked but a headache when they didn’t.
If Subaru would have continued with the Loyale they may not have lasted but alas a re-engineered Subaru, the Legacy was born in 1990.
STRENGTHS: Good 4wd system, SPI version reliable, ok fuel mileage, some 2wd models available, won’t damage engine if timing belt breaks.
WEAKNESSES: Turbo model=problems, oil leaks, short timing belt life on all models, road noise evident, emissions issues with carburetor equipped models and turbo models.
1990-1994 Gen 1
1995-1999 Gen 2
2000-2004 Gen 3
2005-2009 Gen 4
2010 on Gen 5
The introduction of the Subaru Legacy in 1990 was probably the single biggest change in Subaru engineering history. Engineered buy a team of young designers with the goal of competing with the Toyota, Nissan and Honda in the US market, they really hit the mark. Comfort, convenience, design and reliability were all taken to new levels for Subaru.
Standard features on most models included power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, 4 wheel disc brakes, 4-speed electronic automatic transmission and a computer controlled multi-point fuel injection system. Anti-lock brakes were also introduced as an option and came standard on the higher end models.
The 2.2 liter engine designed for the 1990 Legacy has proven to be Subaru’s most reliable workhorse to date. When shopping for Subaru Legacies in the 1990-1994 range, the usual rules apply. Have a thorough mechanical inspection performed etc. The 1990-1993 models had early automatic transmission prolems but any cars that are still on the road probably have have those issues addressed by now. The 5 speed equipped vehicles were virtually problem free. Two other items to beware of are air suspensions and sunroofs. Some of the top of the line Subaru Legacies were equipped with a ride-height adjustable air suspension. AVOID. The air bags were rubber and deteriorated, leaked etc. By now most of the models that were equipped with air suspension have been retrofitted with a conventional hydraulic strut/coil spring suspension(expensive). Facory sunroofs on 1990-1994 had leak problems. The original factory sealant would become brittle and dry, then leak water to the interior. We remove and reseal them from time to time and it is around a 6 hour job to remove it, scrape off the old sealer and reseal it with a hi-tech body seam sealer that can last the life of the car.
Their engines commonly run well for 200,000-300,000 miles if they were properly maintianed. Their timing belts far exceeded the 60000 mile required replacement interval. (we’ve seen original belts still intact although barely at 110,000 miles.) They also leak oil far less often than the prior Loyal 1.8 liter engine.
STRENGTHS: If well maintained, go forever and ever, comfortable to drive, reasonably inexpensive to maintain, good power. 2wd versions got very good fuel mileage. Full Time AWD
WEAKNESS: 90-92 Automatic Transmission could be a weak point. Look closely at this if purchasing.
Subaru SVX 1992-1997
At this time Toyota, Honda and Nissan were developing their “upscale” brands of Lexus, Acura and Infinity. Subaru’s attempted to join the club and break in to this “over $30000” market with ther own offering. The SVX was a sleek high performance touring coupe that was the most technologically advanced Subaru ever built. It was luxury high performance at it’s best. The SVX was extremely stable at well over 100mph and without a hint of road noise or vibration. Was standard with couputerized climate control, high end sound system w/CD player, very comfortable ergonomically designed interior and a 230hp silently running 6 cylinder boxer engine. The SVX also had a 4 speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. This was it’s one weak point over time. It just couldn’t handle the power of the 6 cylinder.
STRENGTHS: Smooth, Quiet, Great for driving the highway 101 up and down the coast. Accelerates 0-100 without even realizing you’re going over 60. Forward designed half/windows.. either love them or hate them but rolled down over 65mph there’s still no wind noise. Engines have been as reliable as teh Subaru 2.2 engine. (it’s basically the same engine with 2 more cylinders added on)
WEAKNESSES: Automatic transmission has blown out in alot of the 1992-1994 models. 95-97 seemed to last much longer but a few of them have blown also. Rear wheel bearing failure often premature also. Hard to find shops familiar with them due to their low production.
1993-1998 Impreza and Impreza Outback Sport
This model line was marketed as an entry level Subaru for the younger crowd. It was smaller and sportier than it’s Legacy counterpart but still had the same drivetrain and suspension as the Legacy. Imagine what happens when you put running gear from a larger heaver car into an Impreza. You get one of the most reliable Subaru’s ever made even to this day. It’s one of the top rated used cars by Consumer Reports.
STRENGTHS: Great reliable compact car, great AWD system. 1.8 liter and 2.2 liter engines very reliable. Sporty handling. Like the Legacy, can roll the odometer over many times.
WEAKNESSES: Road noise and kind of tinny sounding closing the trunk/doors etc. Just not as luxurious as a legacy.
1995-1999 Legacy and Outback
Once again, another great improvement to design and style. Combined with great marketing campaign with Crocodile Dundee as their spokesman, the Subaru lineup really was getting attention. No longer just a quirky niche vehicle, the Subaru Legacy and Outback were developing mainstream popularity with the US consumer. Subaru’s reputation for AWD combined with a sleek sporty design drove sales to new levels. The Outback itself was a completely new concept in the automotive world that the
All of the Subaru models equipped with the 2.2 liter engine were once again, bullet-proof. The 2.5 liter equipped models not so lucky. In attempt to keep up with the V6 counterparts available for Honda, Toyota and Nissan, Subaru upped the displacement and horsepower with the intro of the 2.5 liter 165hp boxer engine. It was a great improvement of torque and power over the higher revving 2.2 liter but would proove to have problems develop later in it’s life with the onset of the failing head gasket issue. Subaru had previously used a fiberous composite head gasket design but switched to athin, all metal head gasket on the 2.5 engine. I’ve never heard why this change was made, but since the change was made, the frequency of head gasket failures increased dramatically. If you could overlook the eventual head gasket failure and repair expense, the cars were otherwise another long lasting reliable Subaru.
STRENGTHS: Roomy, good handling, lots of options and features available. Overall good longevity of most components on vehicle.
WEAKNESSES: Head Gaskets on the 2.5… Make sure to have a hydrocarbon test done to the cooling system before purchasing a 2.5 liter equipped version. Rear view mirror vibrates, kind of annoying. A bit underpowered going over the pass full of passengers and gear.
1998 Subaru Forester Debut
In 1998 Subaru took the smaller platform of the Impreza and basically stretched it upward into their boxy new small SUV called the Forester.
The Forester had all the safety features required of an automobile (much stricter than SUV safety standards which are based on truck standards) while at the same time having the look and increased ground clearance of an SUV. These were equipped with the 2.5 liter engine also, which would eventually see the head gasket issue creep up on it. At first sales were slow because they weren’t the most asthetically pleasing vehicle. Once people started to realize how nice they drove and how great the visibility was with the increased ride height and large all around windows, they really started to take off. They were eventually so popular that the other car manufacturers finally decided to copy the concept themselves with cars such as the CRV and the Rav4.
STRENGTHS: Easy to get in and out of due to ride height. The best visibility of all Subarus due to window size and height. Compact car handling and easy to park. Nice interior amenities.
WEAKNESSES: Head Gaskets on the 2.5… Make sure to have a hydrocarbon test done to the cooling system before purchasing a 2.5 liter equipped version.
2000-2004 Legacy and Outback
A major redesign came for the 2000 Legacy and Outback. Both based on the same platform, the Legacy and Outback were now larger, heavier Subarus than in the past and came equipped with a revised 2.5 liter single overhead cam engine. (although in 2001 a 6 cyl was added to the lineup)The creature comforts were greatly improved on this upgrade along with a much quieter ride due to suspension redesign and added sound deadening material. Other options were added such as VDC (vehicle dynamics control) and upscale editions like the LL Bean which cam with the 6 cyl and upscale interior. This 2.5 engine was prooving to be much more reliable than the past 2.5 but eventually would develop a common problem of an external coolant leak at the left side head gasket. It wasn’t profuse but if left unchecked could eventually allow the coolant to get low enough to cause problems.
STRENGTHS: Nice handling, quiet ride, increased cargo space, improved ameneties over prior models.
WEAKNESSES: None other than possible head gasket failure from 2.5L equipped vehicles. Have head gaskets inspected closely at purchase. Budget to replace in future if they’ve never been done. Brakes wear out a little more often than prior models due to increased weight of vehicle but not excessive.
2002 WRX Debut
Impreza on steroids!
This indroduction really put Subaru on the performance map in the USA. Known for saftey and reliability, now Subaru offered world class performance sedan for thousands less than BMW and Audi counterparts. While not as refined as the afformentioned, it wasn’t important on the track.
The WRX had a 227 hp 2.0 liter engine that has proven very reliable thus far. Boasting 0-60 in under 6 seconds as well as an improved braking and suspension system over the standard Impreza. The WRX could be purchased as a sedan or sport wagon.
STRENGTHS: Bullet proof engine, great performance and reliability in stock form. Comfortable to drive. More interior creature comforts than prior offerings. Many reasonable upgrade options for power, braking and suspension.
WEAKNESSES: 2nd gear on manual trans subject to damage if abused. Stock tires were mediocre at best. Radiator seems to eventually develop a crack in the plastic tank at around 100,000 miles. Often excessively modified and abused. Brakes could have been better compared with the performance of the rest of the car.
FINAL POINTS ON BUYING A SUBARU
1. Do your research. Make sure it’s a model that will suit your everyday needs.
2. Perform a CARFAX or similar history check service. If there are red flags, don’t waste your time going further. Buying a car with a totaled or rebuilt title can mean years of headaches or lost money not to mention it could put your safety at risk.
3. Make sure it has pased an emission test within the past 365 days or less or you may have trouble transferring the title. Visit www.emissiontestwa.com to check on the vehicles past emission tests.
3. Have it inspected by someone familliar with Subarus. Full mechanical inspection paying particular attention to the head gaskets on the models described above. A close inspection of the body for prior damage can be helpful too. Body damage can be OK if it was repaired professionally.
4. Take a long test drive combining highway and city driving to see if you’ll be comfortable with the seating, ergonmics, ride quality etc. If you’re transporting kids, check the fit of the car seats.
5. Get prior records, has the car been maintained religiously, kind of or not at all? This can be very valuable in deciding if it’s a car you want. If a dealer tells you it’s a one owner car etc make sure you see the records first to prove it. I’ve heard many promises from salesmen trying to make deals but they were never able to produce the information to back it up.
6. Avoid purchasing a car that someone won’t allow you to have inspected. There’ll be other cars that come along.
7. Beware of cars sold at well below market value. If a person is selling a car for $7000 that is listed all day long on craigslist for $10000 don’t be tempted. It’s usually because they are hiding something or the car has a rebuilt title.
8. Check the bluebook value at www.NADA.comto evaluate if the price is in the proper range. Use any findings of needed repairs noted on the inspection when you’re negotiating the final sale price.
9. Be able to walk away. Buying a car can be an emotional event that leads us to making bad decisions. If unsure, give it a couple of days. That will usually give a person enough time to wind down and make a clear logical decision.
10. Take care of your new investment. Get any need repairs taken care of right away. Find a shop famalliar with Subarus that can give it the proper, regular maintenance that will keep it going for the 200,000 plus miles it’s capable of achieving.
Independent Subaru Expert