COAL: 2002 Subaru Outback – But You Were The Chosen One!

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I’ve thought long and hard about what kind of article I wanted to write about our Outback. The grayish-greenish-blueish station wagon/SUV-thing was supposed to be our family car for the long run. It was supposed to be the first car of our fleet of two as my wife and I raised our family and commuted to work and school. It was great in every sense of the word: clean, dealer maintained by the previous owners, and solid as the day it rolled off the assembly line in Indiana. I figured that we would take care of it and I could hand it down to my son when he reached driving age. But none of it came to pass and we did not make it through the winter before it was all over.

The car was ours in early June 2010. We went to the dealership and I drove it. I knew it was the one I wanted, but it was priced about $1000 more than we were comfortable paying. With my pen hovering above the paper, I hesitated on signing for it and made as if to stand up and leave to test out a red Forester that I had seen up the road. The sales manager came out, appalled that I would walk away and put the final price within $200 of where I wanted it. I smiled and signed for it and then they started counting our money while I patted myself on the back for getting a good $500 knocked off the price. Others probably could have done better, but whatever, I got what I wanted.

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That was the high point of our year (our son was born on the last day of the previous year). The Outback, ever faithful and trouble-free, did everything we asked it to do. It did it comfortably and competently, whether it was bounding down dirt roads like our Impreza had in college or cruising down the freeway at 70(ish) miles per hour, it was perfect. It showed no signs of 100,000 miles of previous usage, and was a welcoming environment in which to transport our growing family.

Summer wore on, hot and humid and completely devoid of phone calls and job opportunities. By the end of August we changed our plans and lowered our expectations, but to no avail. As the Great Recession wound down, so many people looking for work and so few companies looking to expand made for a very stinky soup to find oneself in. We were miserable and hopeless, but at the very least the car was posing no problem.

With our plans changed, the car took us three times to Chicago for interviews. It was quiet and comfortable on the highway. The air conditioning blew cold in the summer and it was toasty warm in the winter. The cupholders were conveniently placed and the seats were pleasant for long drives, perhaps the best seats of all my cars. The Outback was more than big enough for the three of us, swallowing our luggage and a stroller and hiding it all under the cargo cover behind the rear seats. With the beige interior it was a light and airy place to be. I am confident that with the arrival of a second child it would continue to be large enough to suit us. That was not to be, however.

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Fall took with it the leaves and the summer’s warmth and our plans to remain in the US for an extended period of time. At the end of October we decided to go back to Japan. I sent out some applications and, with my previous experience, had my choice of where to work. The Outback took us one last time to Chicago in December for an interview that provided an opportunity to teach English in Japan once more. We made reservations at a nice hotel for the following night and made a weekend of it. The Outback waited for us in a parking garage downtown and then took us back to our temporary (if long-term) home at my parents’ house. My wife went back to Japan in January with our son, then I followed in late March when I got my visa and my job started. The car was sold in February after spending a few hours listed on Craigslist for about $1000 less than what we had paid.

So what was it like to own for nearly a year? Perfect. I think that the Outback is a perfectly balanced family car, even given the early generations’ not-quite-full-sized size. Had we stayed in America and had our second child there, I am certain that it would have continued to be well-suited to the task of carting us around. A third child may have changed that, but only a smidge. We’ve made a living pressed for space in Japan, so what Americans may perceive as a lack of room was really never an issue for us.


So, this one did have the EJ25 with its infamous self-immolating head gaskets. Were they a problem on this car? Nope. No problems whatsoever. No oil leaks, no burning oil, no CEL or anything that would indicate any issues at all with that engine, the 165-horsepower boxer that powered it. While no one could say that it was a powerful, sporting engine, it did have a certain joie-de-vivre with its Subie burble and well-balanced ride and handling compromise (best of all our cars, I would say). It could be that the Subaru SS got to me in the middle of the night, slipping into my bedroom to poison me with the Subaru kool-aid so that I never say anything negative about their products, but the head gasket thing to me seems overblown. Subarus aren’t perfect. No car is (except maybe 90s Toyotas), and I do believe people when they say that they’ve had bad experiences with Subarus of their own. Mine have been great, though; solid, dependable, wonderful cars.


So, how to sum up the second generation Outback that was in our service for not quite a year… Hm… Promising. The car was ready to be something more to us than it had an opportunity to be. For those eight short months of ownership it showed that it had what it takes to be a great car, but it fades into the background of the suffering of that year and the low point of a hopeless fall when I was really questioning my worth as a human being. Looking back on it through that context, it makes me think that it really cared a lot about us. When everything was going wrong, when all of our plans fell apart and every opportunity slammed closed to us, the Outback never let us down.