Buying a Used Subaru Outback. What Problems Can You Expect?

Despite the Subaru Outback being a relatively trustworthy and reliable vehicle, this three-faced car/SUV/wagon still does have some pretty major caveats that car buyers who are considering choosing this crossover vehicle, should consider. Potential buyers of a used Subaru Outback should be aware of some of the drawbacks of the engine, gearbox and other issues that we identify.

Used Suburu Outback: The Basics

It may be classified as a midsize SUV, but when viewed from the side, this vehicle has a distinct wagon look to it, albeit a bit of a rugged one. Made by Fuji industries under the ‘Subaru’ brand name and also known as the ‘Subaru Legacy’, the Subaru Outback has been around enough years for the designers to iron out most of the kinks.

Despite it being a well established brand, there are twenty things buyers may want to consider before purchasing this vehicle. On the plus side, The Outback has a kick-ass symmetrical AWD system that outperforms anything else on the car market when the snow and ice comes to town. Just the great handling in extreme conditions may be enough to counter the many problems we have listed below. Most of the points below refer to the new sixth generation Subaru Outback 2020 model, but many of them also apply to the previous Outback models including the fifth generation (2015 – 2019) and the fourth Subaru Outback generation (2009 – 2014)

The Subaru Outback 2020 – Sixth Generation

The lineage for the Outback is a strong one, but with a new design for 2020 and updated tech, the new Subaru Outback 2020 may have some flaws that have been manifested in the line of one of the most popular practical crossover SUV’s on the market.

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The Worst Faults With a Used Subaru Outback:

removing wheels to replace Subaru Outback headlight bulbs

1 – Wheels Must Be Removed To Replace Headlight/ Headlamp Bulbs

On the Subaru Outback, it is a very difficult task to replace the headlight bulbs due to the poor design of the engine bay. The task is usually a relatively easy task on other cars, but on the Subaru Outback, it is quite hard and expensive to do as the wheels have to be remover to get access to the back of the headlamp units.

When attempting to replace the main-beam headlight bulbs, the Subaru Outback must first be jacked up off the ground and the front wheels must be removed. Then, the wheel arch panels must be removed to gain access to the back of the headlights in the engine bay to replace just one broken bulb. Next, the rear cover to the headlights can now be removed and the bulbs can be replaced. The process is then reversed to put everything back.

This sad-but-true lament about the Subaru Outback has frustrated Subaru owners and Subaru mechanics the world over. When they discover just how much labor must go into performing such a simple task of replacing a headlight bulb, Outback owners are genuinely shocked. The problem speaks to a fundamental design flaw that Fuji industries cannot seem to resolve and it ends up costing Outback owners a small fortune in labor costs every time a bulb blows. Even worse, an Outback owner cannot even do this task themselves unless they have half a day available to spend messing around with a jack, an impact driver and some very small hands. They will also need a great deal of patience.

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2 – Headlight Bulb Burnouts

In a related problem, the Subaru Outback also has a problem with the ‘auto’ light setting. The use of this light setting on the dash can compound the bulb replacement problem (identified above) by actually burning out the headlights prematurely. Whenever daylight comes into the light sensor on the dash, the onboard computer decides whether the lights should be on or off. If the light gets a little dim (like driving through a tunnel, or in the shade), the headlights will instantly come on, but then immediately off again as soon as light improves. If the Subaru Outback is driven through a light-dark-light scenario, e.g. at sunset, then the computer will start flashing the vehicle lights like a proverbial disco ball. Most cars avoid immediate response in their software to avoid excessive wear on the headlamp bulbs, but the Subaru Outback will just keep rapidly flicking the headlights off and then back on when the daylight changes. Incandescent bulbs do not like this and will burn out quickly. The Outback system will keep doing this until the bulbs finally burn out and then it is time for the wheels to come off for a full bulb replacement. The poor headlight management system on the Outback is clearly one of its Achilles Heel’s and the software has not been updated by Subaru.

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3 – Subaru Outbacks Often Require Proprietary Parts

Just like Mercedes and BMW’s, many of the Subaru car parts are proprietary, making them quite expensive and rare to find. This can cause delivery delays and price gouging when urgent fixes are needed. Subaru vehicles often require special tools for mechanics to work on them, meaning that not every garage can undertake work on the Subaru Outback. E.G. proprietary wheel bearings that fail after 60K miles and the non standard ratchet required for the Boxer engine cylinder head are examples where the Outback makes repairs more difficult than they need to be.

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4 – Windshield Real Estate Occupied By Owner Inaccessible Technology

Despite being a great safety feature, the Subaru driver assist ‘eyesight’ system takes up a large amount of real estate in the car windshield and often interferes with a vehicles owner’s use of their own dash cam, radar, navigator, EZ Pass and any other windshield mounted items that any used Outback owner may want to use. The Eyesight system also can get in the way of the drivers view of the road, but it does provide some benefits to the driver, with a increase in overall safety as it can correct many driving errors automatically.

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5 – Fuji Industries Not a Good Corporate Citizen

Subaru, and its manufacturer Fuji Industries, does not have a good track record of owning up to past mistakes and it has taken a number of consumer lawsuits to force them to fix dangerous problems with past Subaru Outbacks see:

Subaru LED Rear Lights

6 – Lack of LED Lighting

LED brake lights are are faster to come on and last longer than their incandescent counterparts. LED bulbs are still not standard on the Subaru Outback. Studies show that quick-response LED brake light bulbs can provide an extra 25 feet of braking distance for cars behind, often making all the difference from a safety perspective. LED brake lights save lives but Subaru has yet to receive that memo. Only the top packages of Subaru Outbacks have LED brake lights, that works out to be less than 10% of all Subaru Outback dealer inventory sold this year. LED lamps are clearly a gret choice for safety, but the Subaru Outback may be stuck in the bask of glory since winning its “safe car” reputation.

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7 – Difficult To Upgrade Vehicle With Add-Ons

If Subaru owners attempt to add any add-ons to their vehicle to improve safety or performance, then the onboard computer goes bananas with all kinds of weird error messages. For example, If the incandescent brake light bulbs are replaced with LED bulbs all manner of error lights will appear on the dashboard. The on-board computer is expecting to see the electrical resistance of an incandescent bulb in the socket and now thinks that the old-style light has blown. It will notify the driver by flashing all sorts of error lights on the dashboard and then switching off cruise control or traction control to boot, which clearly have nothing to do with the problem.

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Subaru Outback Turbo

8 – Outback Turbos Usher In New Age Of Unreliability

With the introduction of the turbo for the more powerful 2020 Outback models, the reliability of the top version of the Subaru Outback just went downhill rapidly. Turbos will often break when they are needed the most and this failure can render the car inoperable.

Adding a turbo to any vehicle design is an engineers way of getting more horsepower and better efficiency out of a smaller engine, but its introduction brings significantly less reliability over time. That may be fine on the Subaru WRX model, but it is not fine on the old faithful Subaru Outback that has been known to be a longstanding workhorse and now may have just jumped the shark.

With a lighter engine and better fuel efficiency, the new Subaru Outback 2020 may be a great deal nippier away from the lights than its previous versions, but its long-term reliability took a major hit and buyers should expect Subaru to dump this solution in the design of the seventh generation of Subaru Outback that is expected in 2025. Pundits think that by them, they will be dropping in the bullet proof gasoline engines from Toyota into their vehicles and ditching the turbo or just going completely electric, while jumping over the hybrid engine design.

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9 – Cargo Space Getting Smaller

In the 2020 model, the rear cargo space just went down by 3 cu ft, but leg room went up by the same amount. Go figure, longer legs and less luggage. Must be a new type of human.

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10 – No Memory Seats

Memory seats are still not an option, even on the top of the line Outback model. For anyone that shares a car with another person, this feature has been outstanding on the Subaru Outback for quite some time and shows no sign of turning up anytime soon.

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11 – Electric Windows Often Stick

The Subaru Outback still suffers from sticking windows. Windows that will not roll down if the vehicle has been standing for a while and in some cases will stick after just a couple of hours, can be a royal pain. A quick elbow to the window temporarily solves the problem, but this fault could be devastating if the car is in an emergency and the vehicle passengers need to get out of the windows for some reason. If the vehicle is already underwater and there is no other way out, then the sticky windows can turn this vehicle into a death trap. Some Outback owners have taken to regularly lubricating the window mechanisms with silicone lubricant, but even then the windows may still stick. It is shocking that this safety problem exists on a modern car, even though the Subaru Outback often gets a 5 star safety rating, occupants may not be able to get out of the vehicle if it is on fire or underwater and may die.

Cost To Repair Sticking Windows: $160 Per Window

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Subaru Outback Oil Leak
Subaru Outback Oil Leak

12 – Leaking Head Gasket. Regular Oil Top Ups Required

The Subaru Outback suffers from a perennial problem of a leaking head gasket that can cost a fortune to replace due to its inconvenient location in the engine bay. The problem is caused by the design of Boxer engine that keeps a sub/standard composite head gasket under oil at all times, which breaks down the structure of the gasket. Other engine designs allow engine oil to drain away from this area, when the engine is not running, minimizing the reaction between the composite gasket and engine oil full of harsh chemicals. The head gasket problem very quickly creates a leaking engine oil situation on the Subaru Outback and has still not been resolved in the newer Outback models, despite the introduction of steel layer in the gasket to make it last longer.

The leaking head gasket problem requires the Outback engine to be regularly topped up with appropriate oil to avoid it running dry. On many of their older Subaru Outback models, Fuji Industries recommends NOT to use synthetic oil at all, without any explanation to the reasons why that is. Mechanics have guessed that synthetic oil may accelerate the damage on the poor quality head gasket even further, which would then lead to even faster oil leakage and a reduction in engine power, ultimately resulting in total engine failure. The benefits of synthetic motor oils in the Subaru Outback are outweighed by the extra damage that the synthetic oil does to the head gasket.

Oil problems on the Outback are quite common and Fuji Industries have struggled to solve the issue over the many years that it has persisted. The head gasket on most Subaru Outback engines will begin to fail at 80K miles and the cost to repair can be between $3000 and $5000, as the whole engine needs to be remove from the car to replace a $25 component.

Cost To Repair Head Gasket: $5000

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Subaru Outback Oil Lights Stays On Despite oil being full

13 – Engine Oil Warning Light Slow To Update

For a car that already has so many oil issues, it is surprising to find that the on board computer also has a fault when it comes to engine oil. If the oil is low, the oil warning light will appear, but even after adding engine oil, it often takes over 15 minutes or so for the oil light to go out on the dash, even though the oil level is actually now full. This is because the car computer likes to take its time to re-assess the oil level and this action confuses many Outback owners who then add even more oil effectively putting too much oil in the vehicle, of which there is conversely, no warning light.

In another related fault, after parking the vehicle on an incline for a few days, Outback owners will often see a “low oil” light appear on the dash, even though oil levels are just fine. Even after driving the vehicle for a few minutes will not reset the light, as the car must be put back into park to allow the computer to reset itself. This is an annoying foible of owning a Subaru Outback and any new owners are often confused.

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14 – Lack of Electric or Hybrid Version Available

The 2020 Subaru Outback still does not come in a hybrid or electric version. An all-electric version of this popular vehicle is still twenty years away for Fuji Industries, but a new partnership with Toyota may deliver earlier than date.

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15 – Never Buy The First Year of Any Model Car

The 2020 model is the sixth generation model of the Subaru Outback and savvy buyers know that should never buy the first year of any model car, unless they are going to lease the vehicle. At the end of the lease they can hand the car back with all its problems to the dealer and wash their hands of any problems that seem to manifest themselves in the first versions. If there are no problems with the car, lessees can then choose to just buy it for the pre-agreed amount on the lease, which means that they were able to avoid all the risk. Its a three year long test drive!

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Chrome Aftermarket Subaru Outback Bumper Protector

16 – Few Outback Accessories Are Available

The choice of accessories for the Subaru Outback is significantly less than other comparable vehicles. This is often down to the relatively small number of vehicles that are sold in the US and also down to Subaru who believe that their customers should make do with the basics that are delivered as standard.

In one such instance, Subaru refuses to make a chrome bumper protector to protect the paint on the top of the bumper from being scratched when loading the vehicle. This is a common accessory that most car manufactures offer. Subaru does offer a black plastic version, but it is both expensive and downright ugly. Only a couple of aftermarket manufacturers will attempt to make a bumper protector for this less-than-mainstream vehicle and used Subaru Outback owners will often discover just how few options they have from both the dealer and the aftermarket choices for any additional accessories.

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Subaru Outback Takata Airbags

17 – Takata Airbags Can Deploy Unexpectedly and Flying Metal Parts Can Injure Occupants

The Takata airbag recall, which has affected the whole automotive industry, has also taken its toll upon the Subaru Outback, but with a little more impact than other car manufactures.

The poorly designed Takata airbag, which was used by most auto manufactures for over ten years, is now well known for spontaneously deploying and the Outback has seen its fair share of injuries and accidents resulting from this unexpected explosion. What makes the Outback worse than other vehicles in its class is that the way the airbag explodes means that vehicle occupants can be injured by flying plastic and metal parts during the unexpected event. Despite this increased risk in injury, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) can still show that the risk of injury with having a defective airbag is still less than having no airbag at all, so it advises Outback owners not to disengage the airbags, despite the possibility of an unexpected additional injury. All Takata airbags must be removed from Subaru Outbacks, but if they stay in, Outback owners should expect to get injured.

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Subaru Outback made in Japan

18 – The North American Subaru Outback Is Not Made In Japan

The North American Subaru Outback is built at Subaru’s Lafayette, Ind. manufacturing facility and that plant has a great deal higher fault rate than other manufacturing plants around the world. The best Subaru Outbacks are built in Japan by Fuji Industries and these cars have the very lowest initial and long term fault rate of all the Subaru vehicles manufactured across the globe. As you work your way around the world, the US factory has the highest fault rate of any Subaru factory and should be avoided whenever possible.

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19 – Water Pump is Driven by the Timing Chain

If there ever was a prize for the dumbest idea to save on manufacturing costs, the introduction of a water pump, that is driven by the timing chain, has got to be it.

Obviously the choice of a timing chain over a timing belt is a very good idea in itself and its replacement of the old plastic timing belt, that would often fail and cause the engine to blow up, is a great move forward. Although introducing a water pump into the timing chain loop is indicative of a good idea gone bad with this complete lack of good judgement. Not only does it make the replacement of a defective water pump extremely costly for owners, but it also increases the overall chance of a total engine failure by introducing the risk of water from the water pump getting actually into the engine, which, as any mechanic knows, is a very bad thing indeed.

This flawed design has been copied by a few other engine designers, and only then on some of their bigger engines, namely Nissan and Ford to name just two. This flawed design only exists on the 3.6 litre Subaru Boxer engines, but Subaru still continues to adopt the practice on some of its newer models and cannot ween itself off this poor design concept. They should take their lead from ultra-reliable vehicles like the Toyota Tundra and keep the water pump off the timing chain.

Cost To Repair: Water Pump Only $650

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20 – Outback Wheel Bearings Early Failure

While the wheel bearings on many Toyota’s, Honda’s and Mazda’s can go well over 200,000 miles, the wheel bearings on the Subaru Outback models are notoriously unreliable and can often last as little as 50K miles. Subaru service managers like Woodrow McFadden (Subaru of Englewood NJ) and Alvin Fike (Subaru of Glendale), have reported back to the Subaru corporate headquarters that many used Subaru Outbacks have come into their service centers for a problem diagnostic and have demonstrated failed wheel bearings at 20,000 miles or even less. This indicates that the manufacturing source of these proprietary Subaru parts is less-than-stellar and that Subaru Outback owners are probably going to experience this part failing in their vehicle at less than 50,000 miles. It should be anticipated that the Subaru Outback will required total replacement of wheel bearings for all of the four wheels by the time the vehicle reaches 100,000 miles.

Cost To Repair Wheel Bearings: $500.00 per wheel. Total Cost $2000

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Conclusion: Despite Its Failings a Good Used Subaru Outback May Still Be A Good Bet

The Subaru Outback may have a lot of mechanical problems associated with it, but in an rough ice storm, a pounding snow storm or even a flood, there is nothing like driving the Outback through the worst weather that can make all those concerns melt away. The problem is though, when the storm has passed, the Outback may not start up again without a great deal of TLC to get it back on the road. Used Subaru Outback owners usually know what they are getting into and owning one might be par-for-the-course to experience this level of durability, however fleeting it is.

Michael Rogers

Having never been a member of the 657 crew and still a frequent guest at the Jolly Sailor, Mike likes to travel back to his old stomping grounds once in a while. Rogers has been writing for twenty years about things that really don't matter for such publications as Good Housekeeping and The Radio Times. Married with two dogs and a cat, he will often be found at his desk looking for writing inspiration in the most random places, often in the waste paper basket for something he wrote last week.