Spring Break Roadtrip Breakdown QOTD: “Dad, It’s Me, The Car Broke Down” – Has Your Kid Broken Down Somewhere Far Away?

Since their senior year of high school was effectively ruined by Covid, the plan was for the eight friends to head to the sunny desert southwest for a week in an Airbnb.  Plans were made, two cars were sourced from surprisingly supportive parents, and the schedule was adjusted to leave a day early to get ahead of the snowstorm of the decade that’s in full force right now.  The drive would be about 1,000 miles each way, and the girls’ Subaru Outback was volunteered for the trip by one of the moms after getting a full service at the dealer, while the boys went slightly ahead in an SUV.

Eight hours after they left, my phone rang (and I knew immediately there was a problem since it wasn’t a text…) with the fateful call from Piper – “Dad, it’s me, the car broke down.  A light came on and then ALL the lights came on and we decided to pull over.  The boys kept going but are going to turn around, I tried to figure out the problem but can’t.”  Me: “OK, so explain to me what’s going on and what you’ve done so far.”

Piper:  “Well, I remembered what you showed me and decided to check the oil after we stopped the engine.  I think it looks ok, there is oil on the dipstick.”

Me: “Ok, it’s between the empty and full marks, right?”

Piper: “No, it seems like there’s more than that, I’ll have someone text you a picture.”  Ding.

Looking at it is seems like it’s overfilled a bit, going well past the full mark (the little circles at the left are the target area).

Me: “OK, it seems a bit overly full but what exactly was the warning light?”

Piper: “It was the AT Oil Temp light, it came on and then a little bit afterward everything came on, it was like Christmas, but it still drove ok, but we thought maybe we should stop, so we pulled off.  I also looked at the coolant and it seems like there is at least a little bit of fluid in the clear bottle thingy but it’s not full, is that the problem?  What’s AT, I know what oil is and that temp might mean coolant.”

Me: “Yeah, that clear bottle is your coolant overflow tank, if the engine is hot, it can fill it as the coolant expands, but pulls it back out as it cools down.  If that was a big problem the regular engine temperature gauge would go up and/or a light for that should come on.  Anyway, the AT Oil Temp light means the automatic transmission is hot, not the engine, that’s a different part of the car.  ATF is Automatic Transmission Fluid, a different oil than what’s in the engine.  But good job checking!”

Piper: “OK, yeah, the boys are turning around and coming back.  Should we drive it?  It’s currently turned off.”

I google frantically and see that if the light is on but not flashing then the car should be stopped but left running in “Park” to cool the fluid down and advise as such.  That gets done but then the light apparently starts flashing.  More googling shows the flashing light to be an even worse bad thing and driving should be avoided if possible.  I ask and ascertain that the car is a 2014 Outback with the 4-cylinder and CVT with 101,142 miles on it.  Also that they are well out of the mountains and on more or less flat ground maybe an hour north of Albuquerque.

Piper: “The boys just came back and tried to mansplain to me that I checked the brake fluid.  I told them to go away and I know what I’m doing, I know how to check the oil and coolant.  They think it’s just a sensor and the engine looks fine and the transmission doesn’t need to cool down, they say we should keep going.”

I explain that it could be a big problem and driving could cause more damage.  In the meantime googling shows that these cars had their transmission warranty extended to ten years and 100,000 miles due to issues, but the car is already over the mileage limit and there are other limitations to the extension.

While I try to explain how to check the ATF level, the girls eventually decide that the car is running, it’s 4pm, and they are going to make an executive decision and make a careful run for the Albuquerque Subaru dealer, which is 50 or so miles away, with the boys close behind.  I suggest they at least apprise the mom that owns the car of the decision and this gets done.  They also call the dealer who says they will wait for them.

An hour later they get there, the car goes right in and gets its codes checked.  The verdict is that it’s likely a pressure sensor that’s bad.  The lounge apparently has good snacks and undoubtedly things were sped up with nobody at the dealership wanting eight teenagers eating everything in sight.  Eventually the good news is it can be fixed, the bad news is it’ll have to be the next morning, it could take up to six hours.  Since there was an overnight stop planned for Albuquerque already, this works for everyone.

The next morning (Saturday) the kids return at opening time.  The car gets pulled into the service bay bright and early and everything is done by noon.  I had suggested they try to get a goodwill repair done or at least ask to try to get a discount since while the car was over the warranty mileage limit the age was well within the parameter and it seems to have been dealer serviced.  Apparently the owner of the car spoke to someone at Subaru corporate and Subaru in the end agreed to pay for the entire repair (!)

It turned out that the transmission valve body needed to be replaced and the transmission reprogrammed afterward.  The total for the repair came to $1,996.24, which would have put a serious damper on the festivities.

However, Subaru stepped up and saved the day (week), along with Garcia Subaru of Albuquerque who got the car in and repaired as fast as would seem possible.  While it’s unfortunate that a repair was needed in the first place, this is the type of corporate action that builds owner loyalty, never mind the eight young adults who are now enjoying their break after a quick glance back at the dealer out of the back window…

All photos by Piper except for the dipstick one, taken by Jenna.