Subaru are a Japanese car company, formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries, who has built a dedicated fanbase over the years due to their off-roading capability, unique Boxer engines, high-performance potential alongside their well known Subaru reliability reputation.
Historically, Subaru were very reliable and known for their high standards of build quality. However, since the early 2000s they have suffered from several bad engineering decisions which in turn may have started tarnished their reputation.
In the 1990s Subaru were known to be extremely dependable and over-engineered vehicles. Their World Rally Championship victories with Colin McCrae behind the wheel only further boosted their popularity with the public.
In 1996 Subaru’s US sales figures increased by 21.03%, the biggest leap in the company’s history since 1979 after which they had been on a constant gradual decline.
With this rise in popularity saw a rise in ownership which had led to the widespread knowledge of Subaru’s infamous head gasket issues.
Blown Head Gaskets
Blown head gaskets are an issue which has plagued Subaru models for many years, with this being most prevalent from 2003-2009.
Upon examination of the long-term quality index by Dashboard Light.com, for the best-selling model at the time (the Subaru Outback) we can see a spike in defect rates from 18% to 23%. This was mostly due to head gasket issues that took place after the warranty period had expired.
Blown head gaskets have been an issue with Subaru since the mid-1990s. However, this has only become widespread knowledge outside of enthusiast circles since the early 2000s.
This fault usually occurs somewhere after the 75,000mile mark. Apart from blown head gaskets, Subaru’s of this era are generally pretty reliable and good value for money however a blown head gasket is not a trivial or cheap issue.
Why The Head Gaskets?
Subaru’s head gaskets are prone to failure for several reasons, all of which making them the main source of bother for owners and potential buyers.
Experimental engine tech works wonders in the world of rallying where power comes first and longevity second, but the exact opposite takes priority on the street. Subaru’s downside is also one of their unique selling points – the Boxer engine.
The gaskets are made of thin metal sheets coated in a graphite-like material. This combination is known as a ‘composite type’ head gasket and are viewed as outdated and prone to failure. A more reliable type of head gasket is MLS (multi-layered steel) which is both more widely used and less likely to break.
The issue of a fragile head gasket type was only magnified by Subaru’s idiosyncratic engine layout. The boxer 4-cylinder horizontally opposed engine, loved by many for its tunability and unique sound, has two cylinder head gaskets instead of the one featured on more conventional inline-4 engines.
Replacing these is both a time consuming and expensive job and not something a mechanic will be easily able to sort in an afternoon (unless you are dealing with a well-equipped Subaru specialist).
Subaru waited until 2011 to update their materials and from then on the problem of blown head gaskets ceased to exist.
Buying a Pre-2011 Subaru
The simplest solution is to simply not buy a Subaru car from 1995-2011 unless it has a full-service history including a head gasket replacement.
If not then you could potentially be forking over a large sum of money to get this issue fixed which judging by Subaru’s track record is an inevitable issue.
You can tell if the head gasket is blown as the engine will leak coolant, so after a short drive the engine will be prone to overheating.
Earlier Subaru’s suffered from internal leaks, and later models from external which are naturally easier to spot.
Look for an oil leak around the head and crankcase, or a puddle of coolant on the ground under the car.
Recent Subaru Reliability Improvements
Since revising their head gasket design Subaru’s reliability has improved – it isn’t perfect but it is an upgrade from their previous infamous reputation.
Subaru’s popularity peaked in the US in the early 2010s with sales figures skyrocketing. Their yearly sales figures increased by on average 20.85% each yeah which is a phenomenal achievement.
This can be attributed to Subaru having a small roster of very capable cars, each with a very distinct purpose and buyer in mind. Whether it is the Forester for a family who likes to occasionally head off the beaten track, or the Impreza WRX designed with hardcore car enthusiasts in mind.
Each of these vehicles scored above average on JD Power’s review scale;
- Forester – 73/100
- Impreza – 60/100
- Legacy – 71/100
- Outback – 72/100
Subaru Short Lived Success
Despite this achievement Subaru were far from establishing a solid reputation as a bulletproof purchase. As of 2016 Subaru reliability dipped again which in turn damaged their public image.
They dropped to 18th place (out of 36) on the reliability table for the Reliability Index on Which?.
The 4th generation of Subaru Forester suffers from axle and suspension problems, which accounted for 38.43% of reported problems from owners.
The Forester also was prone to a number of interior functions failing including the air conditioning, and also poor engine idling.
On average Forester owners paid £955 ($1180) for their cars to be fixed, according to a study by Which? carried out in 2018. It should be mentioned that this included labour costs.
The Legacy, Subaru’s everyday sedan, was prone to a myriad of engine problems not limited to turbo failure, radiator failure, and problems with the starter motor. These accounted for 23.5% of reported owner problems with axle and suspension issues coming in second for most common defects.
On average repairs for Subaru’s cost £85 ($1050), once again this is including labour.
Across all Subaru models the average cost of a repair is a sizeable £562 ($695). With this you have to take into account that this includes a labour fee, with labour costs rising by at least 40% since 2015 according to recent figures. Furthermore, this study was carried out in the UK where Subaru’s are rarer than they are in the States.
Ordering replacement parts in the UK can be more expensive than more common Japanese makes such as Toyota or Honda. Nevertheless, none of these figures inspire confidence in potential Subaru buyers and highlight Subaru’s unreliability was still present across their model range.
Subaru Reliability – Current Line-up
In 2019 Consumer Reports ranked Subaru as their #1 car brand in terms of overall performance and value.
However, they also ranked Subaru at #7 for repairs and reliability, 5 spots lower than their previous ranking in 2018. Clearly Subaru are on the right track but are still encountering problems.
Recently Subaru has issued a number of recalls for major faults, and with only a small roster of cars in production, this reflects a far more substantial dent in their reputation than say a recall by Mercedes which has triple the number of models on offer.
In early 2019 Subaru issued a recall for their Outback due to a loose bolt possibly causing the brake pedal area to deform, reducing braking performance, and increasing the risk of a crash.
Around the same time, Subaru also issued two recalls for 671,225 Subaru Impreza’s due to a pair of different issues which caused a loss of engine power. The first was due to the risk of a crankcase ventilation valve and an oil flow control device separating and letting valve components into the engine. The second was due to improperly programmed engine control modules.
In 2020 Subaru had to recall their new XV Crossover due to a seatbelt issue. Failings like this do not help to strengthen their public image.
Final Words On Subaru Reliability
In conclusion, Subaru are a brand with great potential let down by some reliability issues. If you are dead set on buying a Subaru look for models with extensive service history – or prior to 2011 replaced head gaskets.
They provide great performance and value for money compared to rivals, but this does come at a price – a potentially hefty repair bill.
When considering buying a Subaru don’t let a seemingly great deal blind you, always do your research, and consider that some more expensive rivals (such as a Toyota CHR, instead of an XV) could be far less hassle in the future.
How has your Subaru experience been?