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2003 Forester head gasket

cabriggscabriggs Posts: 28
Hi. My wife has a 2003 Forester XS with about 71k miles. At the last oil change they told me there's a small oil leak and I should get it checked out. When I got home I noticed some drops in the driveway.

I brought it to my mechanic and he checked it out and said it's clearly the head gasket. He said that since it's a small leak, the easiest thing would be do leave it alone and check the oil level frequently and add a little as needed. He said he generally doesn't do head gasket replacements, even though they're labor-intensive and therefore profitable, because they're very difficult to do perfectly and you often end up with a small leak, which in our case would make it pointless.

I'm looking for information and guidance. Is my mechanic's recommendation of doing nothing reasonable? If not, how much should I expect to pay for this? Are there other options? What questions should I be asking?

Perhaps complicating things is the fact that we just bought a new Outback for my wife with the intention of selling her Forester to her parents. Obviously, we don't want to give them something with a problem. Also, they live out in the boonies where it's an hour or more to the nearest dealer if they have a problem. (I don't know about local mechanics where they are, but they really are in the middle of nowhere, so it might be 45 minutes to one.)

Any advice?


p.s., sorry if this is a dupe. I tried posting it several hours ago but that one hasn't shown up yet.


  • ateixeiraateixeira Posts: 72,587
    I'd change the gaskets now. What you don't want is for the block to overheat and warp - then it'll never be the same again.

    You caught the problem early and it can be fixed early. That's what I'd do.
  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    I think I would do the same. However, your situation is somewhat different than most Subaru head gasket problems in that you have an oil leak rather than a coolant leak. As such, it may be that the oil leak will not create the same sort of issues the coolant leak so often does (namely, the overheating issue cited by ateixeira).

    The first thing to do may be to gauge the severity of the leak by tracking how much oil is lost over a given interval (such as one thousand miles). Then you can consider what to do next. You can be certain that it will get worse although how quickly that will happen is less certain.

    The cost to replace both head gaskets will likely run $1,800 to $2,500. The good news is that you can piggyback other maintenance work, such as replacement of the timing belt and water pump, with no additional labor cost. The timing belt is due at 105,000 miles. Strictly in terms of parts, the cost is around $300 for the head gaskets (with timing belt replacement).
  • cabriggscabriggs Posts: 28
    Thanks for the advice, both of you.

    Since we're selling it to family, and based on your suggestions, I'm inclined to just get the head gaskets replaced. My in-laws might even split the repair cost with us. I emailed a few local dealers for quotes. Two wrote back, one said $1400 and the other $1600. More affordable than I expected; before I saw your post I was assuming around $2000. I'll ask about the timing belt and water pump too.

  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    I should have noted that the range I estimated was for both head gaskets. I suspect the quotes you received was for just the one. Since the majority of the labor is tearing everything down to access the head, the amount of labor involved in the second gasket is fairly minimal (perhaps 2-3 hours of additional time).

    At least, that was my experience; I replaced the head gaskets on my '96 Outback myself.
  • cabriggscabriggs Posts: 28
    The $1400 quote was not specific. The other said, "We can replace the passanger side and drivers side headgaskets for 1595.00. (turbo is more)." I'll ask the other guys to clarify.

    Thanks for pointing that out.
  • cabriggscabriggs Posts: 28
    Speaking of clarifying, I meant I'll ask the guys with the $1400 quote to clarify. The $1595 quote seemed clear to me, in that it includes both head gaskets.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Posts: 72,587
    Yep. Let us know what they say.
  • cabriggscabriggs Posts: 28
    They said both:
    "That is for both head gaskets and all related seals and gaskets, coolant and oil and filter. extra would be a timing belt depending on mileage and drive belts depending on condition. There is no additional labor charge on the belts as they must be removed during the head gasket replacement."

    Sounds good to me. Am I missing anything? Now I'll ask about the water pump.
  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    No; that sounds like a great price.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Posts: 72,587
    I agree.

    I ended up spending a bundle on my Miata to get the water pump and timing belt done. Ended up doing the T-stat as well, but in all I spent $1100 just on that.

    This is a great "while you're at it" value.
  • Let me preface this by stating, i have not had any "symptoms" of a blown headgasket. I noticed a couple small spots under my car, but that is it. My subaru dealership saw an external leak around both gaskets. Got a second opinion and he said it was just "seeping" and the headgaskets would have to be dealt with at some point. That was at 79,000. I have done nothing, but check oil, which is always at full mark and keep an eye on coolant reserve tank, which was usually around half full. Now I have 83,600 and have noticed in the last month that my coolant in reserve tank is just above the low mark. Still, no symptoms though. Went to a third mechanic and they said HG were leaking, but did not really say anything about the coolant loss. Both previous mechanics said it was an external(oil) HG problem. They changed oill and topped off the coolant. Here is the question..I bought this car from the dealership at 36,600miles. I noticed the service recordss indicated at 34,400 they had done a one-sided engine cylinder overhaul. I was niave enough to take them at their word that it was fixed and there were no other problems. Could that have contributed to this problem? I am reluctant to fix this if this car is going to be prone to engine problems. Maybe that should have been a red flag in the first place...
    Any help/advice would be greatly apprciated!!!
  • ateixeiraateixeira Posts: 72,587
    They probably did change the gaskets and think it was resolved, but...

    If the heads overheat and warp, even a new gasket won't seal properly.

    The thing is, at 79k miles, that was several years after the service was done, so it's unlikely the dealer botched the job. You would have seen the issue right away.
  • Actually, Subaru is paying for it, which is surprising. Would it be prudent to get the timing belt/water pump/thermostat/spark plugs replaced at this time while the engine is already dismantled to save on labor cost or will they replace some of that during the head gasket replacement?
  • When I had my wife's '03 Forester's head gasket done, they did the timing belt for an additional $90. This dealer told me that on Foresters they never replace the water pump on a schedule, only if it starts leaking, which surprised me but I went along with it. They said they'd inspect it. I don't remember them saying anything about it afterward, so either they forgot about it or I did. Didn't think of the thermostat or plugs.
  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    It is probably overkill to replace the water pump and thermostat with as few of miles as you have, but I'd do it since they are already in there. I didn't replace my water pump the first two times I had the engine torn apart (once at 83,000 and again at 144,000), and it failed on me at 177,000... at -25F, 0200 on a Sunday morning; it was not the best of circumstances! ;)

    All of these items should be charged strictly at the cost of the parts with no additional labor cost.
  • dcm61dcm61 Posts: 1,465
    edited October 2010
    All of these items should be charged strictly at the cost of the parts with no additional labor cost.

    Replacing the water pump is additional labor (they don't have to touch it when doing the t-belt).

    I was charged 1 hour additional labor (+ coolant) to do the water pump and thermostat on my '96 Outback, when they did the front crank seal and timing belt.
  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    Yes, but I think the original poster needs to have head gaskets replaced, which digs much further into the engine than the timing belt replacement. Even so, it is still a good idea to have the pump replaced when doing the timing belt service. :)
  • ateixeiraateixeira Posts: 72,587
    For $90 heck yes I'd change the timing belt.

    Technically it's not due until 105k, though.
  • I seem to have the same problem as another message poster. After a recent oil change I was told that I had a small head gasket leak, but as of this morning it is no longer small. I called Subaru and there is no recall. They did say they could "offer a little assistance" if I were to take it to a Subaru dealer to have it repaired. However, they would not quote an amount.

    Over the phone, the local Subaru dealer told me that it would cost $1,800 to $2,500 to repair. The car is sittling at a local mechanic's shop and I'm waiting for them to give me a price.

    These engines seem to be have a known head gasket issue and it appears that the 2002 model was recalled. Is the 2003 engine different from the 2002? Are there fewer issues with the 2003?

    Based on a comment that I read about this being a difficult repair to do without continuing leakage, is it better to go to the dealer than to the local non-Subaru mechanic?

    I bought this car thinking that it would be trouble-free and last me a long time. A problem like this at only 75,000 miles is a major disappointment and has changed my previously high opinion of the Subaru line of vehicles.

    Any advice would be sincerly appreciated.

  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    The engine is not different. They changed the gasket material in an attempt to make it more durable, along with requiring a different coolant formulation, but the open block EJ25 engine is prone to head gasket failures. Some do it young, most do not.

    I have replaced the gaskets myself on an EJ25 (I did mine at 192,000, so not that young!) and did not have any leak issues afterward, so I think that as long as the mechanic does a detail-oriented job, it shouldn't matter if it is a "Subaru mechanic" or independent. Before you commit one way or the other, I would ask for a commitment from Subaru through the dealer. Sometimes they will cover the cost of parts associated with the job (which will probably save you $400 or so of the total cost, since it is mostly labor).

    For a car as old as yours, that is still good faith.
  • danielldaniell Posts: 128
    Consumer Reports Buying Guide for 2011 shows that for both the Legacy and Outback MY2004 the 4 cyl motor is "much worse than average". The Forester and Impreza (both non-turbo) motors are average. Same motor, should show same ratings, so CR is clearly not 100% reliable either... However with no design changes, one should expect the head gasket issues to continue, perhaps at a smaller rate, due to various patches employed (special coolant, special head gasket material).
  • saedavesaedave Chicago, ILPosts: 683
    Consumer Reports Buying Guide for 2011 shows that for both the Legacy and Outback MY2004 the 4 cyl motor is "much worse than average". The Forester and Impreza (both non-turbo) motors are average. Same motor, should show same ratings, so CR is clearly not 100% reliable either

    Oddly, the average motors are in models assembled in Japan. The "much worse than average" models are assembled in Indiana. I wonder if the cylinder heads are put on the blocks in Indiana? If so, there is another side to the story.
  • danielldaniell Posts: 128
    edited November 2010
    Could be country of origin... but also small sample size, self-selected sample (non-random) etc.

    The CR 2010 Buying Guide (last year's) shows for MY2004 the NA Forester motor as better than average, while the NA Impreza is much worse than average. The 4cyl Legacy is average. No consistent pattern...

    So far, MY2005 has been holding quite well, according to what I could see here and on other Subaru websites. We'll see if it holds up for the next few years.

    My 2002 Forester needed new head gaskets at about 65k miles. I had all the known problems (head gaskets, rotors warped, brake pads needed 2-3 times at each end already, inner CV boot ripped, overhead clock stopped working, a wheel bearing failing now at 77k miles etc.). Also had a few other "bonus" ones (some front differential seal failed twice). Car has been meticulously maintained, never abused. Might consider another Forester is the new motor solves the head gaskets issue and it gets a more modern transmission.
  • saedavesaedave Chicago, ILPosts: 683
    Might consider another Forester is the new motor solves the head gaskets issue and it gets a more modern transmission

    The transmission at this time is still the 4EAT, but in its favor is minimal problems AFAIK. When (if) the CVT replaces it, performance and mpg should be better with perhaps a price penalty.

    Replacing my 2005 Outback VDC, I chose an XT in 2010 to get the semi-closed deck block as well as the performance enhancement. The new chain drive cams on the 2011 normally aspirated engine are another nice enhancement.
  • krc2krc2 Posts: 4
    I was driving around on the road the other day and the temp guage shot up toward the red. I pulled over turned off the engine (but left the fan going) to try to cool. Added some water - for some reason was low! Took to mechanic - bad head gasket. Subaru specialist mentioned that these engines are notorious for hg failure. Did a hc test to confirm exhaust in coolant which was displacing coolant with air/ exh gas.

    Do a quick web search and you will see the quality problems specifically with the HG on these motors. This despite using subaru "coolant conditioner" - though perhaps getting to 125k was because of this?

    Overall, the car is good quality, but the expense and failure rate (bad enough on earlier models to force subaru to change warranty policy) of HG is horrendous. We are talking about a repair bill that is 40-50% the value of the car - so is it even worth doing? How many have had the HG repaired and gone 150k? When do you just throw in the towel and move on (interestingly, my Ford Taurus has 150k with NO issues - just good luck or is J quality declining?)?

    Hopefully the heads can be shaved and saved.... :)

  • ateixeiraateixeira Posts: 72,587
    Newer models have been better, but you're right, it was common. 125k miles is a lot, though, it usually happens sooner.
  • Well my head gaskets did blow. My nephew put some stop leak in in and it seems to have fixed it for the time being.I realize this is a temporary fix. I am now looking to get it fixed before it blows AGAIN!!! The mechanic I am using said it would be best to put a new/rebuilt motor in it than rebuild the one in the car at this time. I am driving the car daily and sometimes it smells hot but seems to be doing ok.I just feel very anxious to get this fixed.I have Multiple Sclerosis and live on disability I am trying to get help from my church to help with the cost.My question is : is it better to buy a rebuilt one or repair the motor in the car???Repair or replace???
  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,509
    It depends.... When the motor overheats, there is a possibility that the heads will warp. If that happens, then replacement of the gaskets will result in continued leaking (or the leaks resuming not long after replacement). If they're not warped, your engine is probably fine.

    I had issues with mine, as well as intermittent overheating prior to the gasket replacement, and finally took the time to tear it all down and replace at 192,000 miles. I had the car another 28,000 miles and had no further problems with them. When I had it tore down, I put a straight edge across the heads and could not perceive any warpage, so I simply assumed they were fine and plowed ahead.
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