Subaru Outback Problems
No car is perfect, but we've gathered everything relating to the Subaru Outback reliability here to help you decide if it's a smart buy.
I want to buy a new Subaru Outback. I've been warned there are problems with the CVT auto transmission in some older models. Is there an issue with the newer models?
Subaru has a long history with the CVT transmission, and it hasn’t always been clear sailing. The first Subaru to feature this transmission was the Justy in the late 1980s and while we saw the similar Sherpa model, Australia never got the CVT transmission. In fact, the Justy had so many transmission problems that it was dumped from world price-lists in about 1995.
Our first taste of the Subaru CVT was in 2009 with the launch of the fifth-generation Liberty and Outback models which featured a CVT on four-cylinder petrol versions of the car.
The CVT has since been extended to the brand’s Impreza, Forester, XV and even the sporty WRX line-up.
And, yes, there have been issues reported by owners. While catastrophic failures have not been widely documented, the Subaru CVT’s overall behaviour has been criticised on a number of levels. Those include a jerkiness to forward progress (particularly in low speed and light throttle conditions) harsh shifting, shuddering under acceleration and a delay when selecting gears from Park. In some instances, a reflash of the electronic control module has improved things, for other cases, Subaru has introduced a completely new, improved software package.
Part of the reason Subaru has copped so much flak over the CVT is that the symptoms it displays are often the death-knell for other types of transmissions and consumers- rightly – have been worried. To counter this in the USA, Subaru extended the drivetrain warranty of 1.5 million cars with CVTs from five years and 100,000km to 10 years and 160,000km.
But even if total transmission replacements don’t seem common, do you want to live with this gearbox? For many people the answer is no. But to be fair, most of the problems seem to have occurred on pre-2018 models and later CVTs appear to be better units.
In the case of the Outback you’re interested in, with the update of that model in 2018, the CVT was revised with a revised torque-reduction control to improve upshift clarity, a short-pitch chain was used for lower noise and a revision to the shifter was made to improve shift feel (although we suspect that’s feel through the shifter itself, not the way the transmission feels when it selects a gear).
Does the 2021 Subaru Outback Touring have any electronics issues?
Subaru is firmly committed to the CVT (Constantly Variable Transmission) concept as it gives a theoretical efficiency advantage over conventional transmissions. The catch is that to make the CVT feel less alien, many car-makers (including Subaru) engineer in electronic `ratios’ which kind of sidesteps those theoretical advantages.
It’s true that Subaru CVTs have experienced some reliability problems in the past, but in the case of the Outback, that appears to mainly affect vehicles built between 2010 and 2015. After that build date, things improved dramatically on the reliability and durability front, not to mention the driveability and comfort offered by the CVT. So we wouldn’t be too concerned about this aspect of the vehicle. Given that you’re buying a brand-new vehicle, you’ll get the full five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty. And as proof of Subaru’s faith in the CVT concept, for the 2018 facelift of the Outback, the CVT got a seventh `ratio’ and a shorter-pitch chain to reduce cabin noise. So a brand-new Subaru CVT should represent the best the concept has ever been.
What car should I buy to tow a trailer?
While turbo-diesels aren’t perfect for everybody, when it comes to towing trailers, they do a pretty impressive job. The combination of a torquey diesel engine with an automatic transmission is a pretty handy one when you have a decent sized trailer hooked up. The caveat with a modern diesel, however, is that if most of your driving is urban running about, then the diesel is probably not for you. That’s because the emissions system on a modern diesel (the particulate filter) needs regular longer runs at freeway speeds to avoid giving trouble. But if, as you say, you tow a trailer often, then that should provide the load on the engine the diesel requires to remain trouble-free.
The good news is that the dominance of the SUV right now means that just about every car-maker has a mid-sized SUV in its showrooms right now. So really, you’re spoiled for choice. I’m not surprised the X-Trail is found a bit wanting at times; even brand-new, that version of the petrol-engined X-Trail could feel a bit underdone. You’ll be amazed at how good newer vehicles have become.
2010 Subaru Outback Diesel Problems
Subaru Outback diesel problems don’t seem to be too frequent or too common. And that’s probably in line with the brand’s overall reputation for reliable engineering.
Probably the biggest complaint from owners is that the engine lacks a little oomph from a standing start and suffers from what’s called turbo-lag; a delay between putting your foot down and the car responding. Even though Subaru claimed a torque peak of 350Nm at anywhere between 1800 and 2400rpm, in reality, the engine didn’t feel that strong down low, particularly just off idle. The other barrier to the success of the Outback diesel was that it could only be had with a six-speed manual transmission and no automatic option was offered in the model you’re talking about.
Beyond that, the usual diesel-engine caveats apply including the requirement to give the engine a decent run at highway speeds every few weeks at the very least. Without this, the engine’s particulate filter (which aims to clean up tailpipe emissions) will clog up and may need to be manually cleaned or even replaced, and that won’t be cheap.
Subaru engines have, over the decades, proven themselves to be tough customers on the one condition that they’re serviced absolutely by the book. Skipping scheduled services is a sure way to send a Subaru engine to an early grave. So make sure any car you’re considering has a full and complete service history with no evidence of missed oil changes. It’s also worth noting that this model was caught up in the Takata air-bag fiasco, so make sure this critical recall has been attended to.
How is water getting inside my 2009 Subaru Outback?
Short of a broken or degraded window seal, check the door rubbers for signs of damage. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a small twig or even a thick blade of grass sticking to the rubber seals that will allow water in. However, there’s a more likely answer. If it was the front-seat foot-wells that were wet, I’d be blaming the air-conditioning vent that is supposed to drain the water - that builds up in the system - to under the car, but can sometimes lock or clog and run the water into the car.
So let me ask you a question: Does your car have a sunroof? If the answer is yes, that’s where I’d be looking. The sunroof, being set into the roof panel, naturally collects water when it rains. So, there are tubes that run from the sunroof, down the rear pillars of the car and vent to the outside just in front of the rear wheels. If these drain tubes block up, the water will run down the outside of them and into the rear foot-wells. Cleaning out the tubes will usually fix the problem.
Should we replace our Holden Commodore with a Subaru Outback?
A car with a little extra ground clearance is great for camping as it often allows you to get a little farther away from the masses in their caravans who tend to huddle around the shower block at bush campsites.
The Subaru Outback is a good, solid choice and if you can find an independent workshop to service it, you’ll avoid the cost of dealership prices. And you’re right, the all-wheel-drive would be great for gravel roads. Another vehicle to look at would be a late-model Ford territory diesel which is big and clever inside and has the option of all-wheel-drive. The diesel engine is a plus on the bush where that fuel is more readily available (in really remote areas) and gives you more range for big holidays in the mulga.
Don’t rule out things like the Mitsubishi Pajero, either, which won’t be as around-town friendly, but is a proven quantity and is absolutely tremendous off-road. The same goes for a Toyota Prado or Nissan Pathfinder prior to the current model (which is a bit less hard-core adventure).
Subaru Outback 2001-2009: Any known issues with the head gasket?
You’re absolutely spot on, Craig, although my info suggests the problems started occurring in the Outback model as early as 2000. For other Subaru models, head gasket failures have been an issue since the mid-90s. Then trade seems to think that the typical fail-point is somewhere between the 120,000km and 200,000km mark, but I’ve heard of cases of cars much younger than this suffering gasket failure.
So what causes it? Fundamentally, it was a bad design in the head gaskets Subaru was using at the time. The gaskets were a composite type, made up of thin metal sheets that were coated with a graphite-based material. Frankly, they were duds and it’s this simple fact that has caused so many Subaru owners so much grief over the years. Subaru eventually changed the design of the gaskets around 2011 and the problem just stopped.
You can spot a Subaru with a head-gasket problem a couple of ways. For a start, the failed gasket will allow coolant to escape and that will lead to the engine overheating. So, a car that runs hot after a distance is a likely suspect.
Early failures tended to allow the coolant to leak internally (where it was consumed by the engine) but later generations of the Subaru motor started to experience external leaks and these, obviously, are much easier to spot. Look for an oil leak from around the sealing surface of the head and crankcase and coolant on the ground under the car each morning.
The really weird part of all this was that Subarus tend to be otherwise very reliable and durable and, serviced correctly, can cover huge distances. But the problem was made worse by the fact that the Subaru flat-four engine actually has two cylinder-head gaskets, instead of the one of most four-cylinder engines. Replacement of the dud gaskets is the only fix and it’s quite a big – and expensive – job.
Subaru Outback 2019: CVT issues
The CVT is a relatively new thing having been developed in the 1970s, so there are still teething problems that can crop up with them. But they are now quite reliable and getting more so all the time. I wouldn't be overly concerned about the reports you read.
Subaru Outback 2010: What oil and coolant should I use?
Use a good quality 5W-30 A3/B4 engine oil. You can buy coolant ready mixed or in concentrated form when you need to mix it. Whichever, choose a good quality coolant from a respected brand like Castrol, Shell etc.
Subaru Outback: Replacement key cost
The cost of a new key fob will depend on the variant and year. You can read more about how to replace your car keys here.