COAL: Project Subaru Rescue 2021: Win, Lose or Draw?

(ED: After this past Sunday’s COAL on a problematic 2003 Forester, the timing of this submission is a new version of the CC Effect™. Except this time the author is buying a used one.)

When I get my cars serviced at my mechanics shop, an 8 minute walk from my front door, one of the mandatory dialogues between the shop’s owner Paul and myself is to quickly review every car in the lot and hear what it’s in for. I just can’t help myself.  Goes something like this:  “What’s up with that Escape?” “Needs an alternator”. “How about that Jeep?” “Misfire”.  “That Corolla”? “Exhaust leak”. The list can run 10-12 vehicles or more and he tolerates the distraction politely and well.

Back of Yard Derelicts

At any given time on Paul’s lot,  there are some some lost causes.  Faced with an unaffordable repair estimate, a customer will often leave them as they decide what to do – fix or scrap.  Sometimes this can become many months  and sometimes phone calls aren’t returned when customers are asked “what do you want to do with this car”. Right now,  there are at least 4-5  basket cases there. Among them,  green Subaru Outback with a blown motor, a Nissan Versa with a blown transmission, a not-so-bad looking Chevy Van , and a very unloved  looking 2002 Subaru Forester .  Paul doesn’t much like being a storage facility but it sort of comes with the territory.

I asked what the story was with the Forester. As it turns out , it was owned by a local woman who brought in the car after the Police ordered it removed.   He quoted her a price to fix it- nothing catastrophic, but a laundry list of basic maintenance she likely ignored for years that added up to a price she could not afford. This was last summer . Paul ended up calling the Police to have a wellness check on the woman, who finally called him back and asked him to sell it on  her behalf. While he does not like getting into the car sales business, he said he would ask around.

From 20 feet away, it looked rough. One tire was completely flat, the others in various states of underinflation. All dry rotted. Clear coat protection peeling.  But upon close inspection, though it was dirty and jammed with a variety of personal contents and garbage…it was actually …not bad, not bad at all. There was no visible rust.  My mind started percolating. My youngest, Shane, just turned 17, is going to need a car soon. He is  in drivers training, a process delayed by COVID. He’s been permitted since last fall.

Some parents these days are into cheap leases for their new drivers over a used car, handing over the keys the day they get their license. There is a valid case for this: better safety and reliability versus rolling the dice on a used car. I get it. But I’m afraid there ain’t no damn way I’m giving a 16 year old a new car, or even an almost new one.  I didn’t grow up that way, and I’m just not wired to do that for my kid.

And speaking of Shane’s driving, well, that’s not going so well. I’ve never been as scared in my life as I’ve been driving with Shane.  OK, maybe that is a slight bit of exaggeration. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but to sum it up there is this general state of driver unawareness . The way you remind him to check his blind spot and he says “yeah” and glances over for .02 seconds, not really looking. The way he drifts toward the right shoulder every time and needs reminding to correct. The way he completes turns just a tad too fast, with his signature whip turn that sometimes chirps the tires that makes everyone lean over in the car ..”whoaaaah”.  The way we get close to a car in front of us and  you say to yourself “I think he’s going to slow down…or is he?”   Normally supremely confident, he’s not taken to driving.  I think he will, eventually.  Bottom  line, he just needs a lot more seasoning and he’s not ready. I  don’t want him to get hurt, or hurt anyone by action, or inaction, while driving. I owe the motoring world that.

But I thought, this little gem might be a great car for him. If the price is right. And the price was right.  Paul told me the owner refused a previous offer of $750.00. I decided to offer her $1,000.00 but would go to $1,250.00. The offer was made over email by Paul. She countered at $1,050.00. Done.  Good Lord, what have I done.  Buyers remorse set in immediately.

I’ve always been a closet Subaru fan and I think these early 2000 cars might just have been Peak Subaru before they became the mainstream brand they are now.  They were a niche brand back then..80% women buyers for some models.    A much narrower model range. No three row crossovers. Known and popular for it’s all-AWD lineup, passenger safety , utility, durability and general outdoorsy quirkiness and of course the WRX and STI. They have steadily grown and increased their market share,  even during the Great Recession. They are an automotive success story, to be sure.

Cleaned up nice!

I told Paul to take his time with the Subaru as I was not in a rush. Work on high priority work for his clients who need to get on the road and squeeze mine in when he has capacity.  Six weeks passed until she came home. Shane and I vacuumed it, wiped down the interior, aired it out, and so on.  So here is the tally, so far:

  1. Purchase Price :$1,050.00 plus 6% sales tax= $1,113.00
  2. Tires, Kelly Edge (cheap, but not too cheap) $ 489.92
  3. Battery, brakes/pads/rotors all around,  wiper blades, serpentine belt, oil change, Freon/AC charge, oil/fluids and lube , front wheel stud, general check up and labor: $1,393.22
  4. Title transfer, new plates and registration: $206.00

$3,202.14 for  a decent , relatively low mileage car, in this market? I think I could of done worse.

The last oil change shows 2012 at 59,000 miles End it has 60,800 miles now. That means in nine years it traveled barely 1,400 miles, barely moving. One can only speculate the previous owners situation and why it wasn’t driven much. Theory one is lady simply never left her house. Theory two , and one that is much more sinister and one I hope is not true…odometer was rolled back. The old girl is not going to tell us all her secrets. Wish I would of noticed this little tidbit before forking over $1,050 over Venmo. Gulp.

An audio time capsule!

It also had a six CD changer with six compact discs the previous owner didn’t remove, as well as a tape deck. I may own 3 total tapes from the old days. All but one we’re burned CD copies or mix CDs. Let’s just say that the owner of the CDs  and myself wouldn’t have much common ground and the music front, but to each his own.  “Love  Metal Him” and “Music” are  metal mixes.  The only thing I remotely knew was Beastie Boys “License  to Ill’ which noted “no track 13”. Pity. On “Favorite Mix 1” , two songs that I’ve got a check out sometime include track 12 “Shake That Ass” and 13 “Mama Got Ass’.  And a Nelly CD from about 10 years back.

Entering the car, no key fob , no proximity sensor.  Just a long super skinny key. Taking some getting used to.  Inside: hard  surfaces and mouse fur fabrics and not great fit and finish. And no tech, no safety nannies,  no audio ports, no USB, no steering wheel audio controls…nothing.  And to be honest, I find all of this  quite refreshing. Everything you need, nothing you don’t. Also I can appreciate the unabashedly delightfully fake wood trim throughout.   Buttons and knobs actuate and click in an very old school way with lots of clicks and firm detents. I think this was a fairly high spec trim level for a Forrester. Power everything, but no moonroof. I would’ve preferred crank windows and a manual tranny – that would have been only too perfect.

I’m working the kinks out and driving it as my daily driver for the near future. It cleaned up pretty well, I’d say. Probably not much I can do on the paint, but that’s OK.  After a recharge, the air blows nice and cold, an honest to goodness shocker.  Acceleration is slow,  handling is vague, and the boxer engine sounds like an old sewing machine and very agricultural.   Are these old Subaru boxers supposed to sound like this?  Or does this mean a mechanical implosion is imminent?  Don’t know.

I have a sense that the old girl is really happy to be on the road again. Just a feeling.   The dull driving characteristics are just what Shane needs.  A quick blast on the highway, cruise works, and hummed along and tracked straight at 75.     After the first week I’m noticing a pretty strong smell coming out from the motor on and off. And not a good smell. Could be just some stuff  caked on the engine from sitting for so long and Paul’s guys said you can’t help but spill some oil on the manifold by virtue of where the filter is. No visible leaks in the driveway- so far.

Oh, but there is a dark cloud here.   I know nothing about  Subaru’s so I did zero research. While these  cars have a fervently loyal fan base, maybe I was wrong to assume this made in Japan car had Toyota or Honda quality.     I guess there would be so some risks for a $1050 car, right?  While people tell me this could be a 200,000 mile car, no problem, its widely  known that this engine is  prone to head gasket failure at higher miles. Apparently this flaw in their motors wasn’t really solved until 2013. Will this end up being the find of the century and serve our family for a couple of years with relatively trouble free service or will it grenade and I’m selling it for parts in short order?  Time will tell.