Subaru Outback Problems: 8 Common Issues (Explained)

The Subaru Outback is an exceptionally popular crossover SUV that is in its sixth generation of production since it debuted in 1995.

The body style has remained mostly the same with four doors that provide passengers with easy access.

A rear hatch and roof rack allows the Outback to carry plenty of cargo.

But some problems have persisted over the years and are listed below.

Related Article: Subaru cars with most recalls.

1. Oil Leaks and Faulty Seals Endanger the Engine

Engines need oil to reduce friction and stay cool. The Outback has been a persistent leaker of engine oil for many years. The primary culprit is a camshaft seal that sometimes fails and causes oil to leak from the engine.

An oil leak is no small matter and especially when it is related to an important part like the camshaft. 

If the camshaft overheats and deforms or breaks, the engine will not run correctly.

You might notice oil collecting beneath your Outback’s engine compartment or accumulating on the outer surfaces of the engine. Leaking oil is a telltale sign of a bad camshaft seal.

The solution is to replace the camshaft seal, but that requires a lot of labor. The Subaru’s engine is configured in a way that even changing spark plugs requires partial engine removal.

Replacing a camshaft seal is no different.

Depending on how many miles you have on your Outback, you might want to replace the timing chain at the same time that you replace the camshaft seal. That is especially true if your Outback has more than 70,000 miles on the odometer.

The 2014 model should be avoided. Check our list of the best and worst years for Subaru Outback.

2. Oxygen Sensors Crack and Cause Rough Running

Several editions of the Subaru Outback suffer from failing oxygen sensors. The sensors often develop cracks that make it impossible for them to do their job.

Each Outback comes with one that helps to optimize fuel economy, but it does not work correctly when it is cracked.

The check engine light will appear when the oxygen sensor cracks and fails.

The problem became common enough for Subaru to issue a recall to replace the damage-prone oxygen sensors with more durable units.

The problem often arises when the Outback has significantly more than 100,000 miles but sometimes occurs on relatively newer models with much lower mileage totals.

Outbacks made between 2000 and 2003 are most prone to oxygen sensor failure.

3. Head Gaskets and Cooling Systems Sometimes Compromise Engine Reliability

The Outback has an aluminum head that helps to cut down on engine weight. Unfortunately, aluminum heads are prone to damage when the engine compartment gets hot.

If you live in the Desert Southwest or another local where the summers are hot, the Outback might run much hotter and cause the head to deform.

A slight amount of warping would make it possible for the head gaskets to fail and allow oil to leak out from within the engine compartment.

A leaking head gasket could become a serious problem if you let it linger for too long.

The lack of oil could cause excessive engine heat and damage to mechanical components. The valves in particular could become deformed or damaged and cause the engine to run roughly.

You need to keep a close eye on the oil levels in your Outback and watch for any excessive oil loss. If you see oil accumulating hear the heads, you likely have a problem with the heads and the head gaskets.

The problem often occurs when an Outback tops the 100,000-mile mark.

4. Oil Pump Seal Leaks Compromise Reliability

The oil pump does a critically important job by circulating oil throughout the engine to reduce friction and internal heat. The seals sometimes develop cracks or otherwise fail and enable oil to get past them.

If the problem persists long enough, the engine will have less oil than needed to stay at its intended operating temperature.

If you notice the heat gauge rising higher and higher over a period of time, a bad seal on the oil pump might be the problem.

You can check for oil accumulation near the oil pump to determine if you have a bad seal there instead of one of the other common issues causing a loss of oil and a rise in engine operating temperature.

You can replace the oil seal and possibly install a new oil pump if the old one has degraded due to the bad seal. While you are at it, you might want to check the head gaskets and the camshaft seal.

If they also are leaking oil, it is a good time to replace all three and help to shore up the engine cooling for many more thousands of miles of reliable travel.

5. Cooling System Failure Compounds Head Gasket Problems

Closely related to the head gasket failure is a cooling system problem that commonly occurs.

A faulty water pump often accounts for reduced coolant flow, which enables the engine to run much hotter than designed.

When the Subaru engine starts to overheat due to a lack of cooling, the heads take a lot of punishment.

The high heat temperatures that result often cause the heads to deform and the head gaskets to fail.

You need to pay close attention to the coolant and cooling system to help ensure the engine stays in good running condition. Regular inspections of the hoses will help you know when to replace them with new ones to prevent a rupture and sudden loss of coolant.

Flushing and filling the coolant at least every other year will help to keep the coolant’s viscosity high while enabling the water pump to do its job.

If you see coolant accumulating beneath the engine compartment, you might have a bad water pump that needs to be replaced right away.

Seasonal inspections can help to ensure the coolant is in good shape and the cooling system is operating properly.

Once in the spring and again in the fall should do the trick while enabling your Outback to handle the extreme weather changes during the summer and winter months.

6. Unsettling Shuddering and Vibration while Accelerating

A torque converter helps to send the power to all four drive wheels and enables the wheels to roll smoothly. It is important to ensure all wheels rotate with the RPMs needed to complete your driving maneuvers.

When you are turning, the outside wheels are covering more ground than the inside wheels. That means the outside wheels are spinning faster than the inside ones.

The torque converter enables that to happen while maintaining a smooth ride.

When the torque converter fails, the wheels often will shudder and vibrate during acceleration or while turning. Shuddering and vibrating wheels can be very unsettling and cause you to think there is a more serious issue.

It also makes the ride much less comfortable.

The only way to solve the problem is to replace the torque converter. Doing so often requires extensive labor and could become costly.

The problem commonly arises when the engine has about 110,000 miles of travel.

Make sure to check for this before you use your Subaru Outback for towing. Here’s a guide to how much Subaru Outbacks can tow.

7. Degrading ABS Brake System Reduces Braking Power

Brakes are a very important part of any vehicle’s safe operation.

Without good brakes, you run the risk of causing an accident by losing control of your vehicle.

Like virtually all modern vehicles, the Outback is equipped with an anti-lock brake system (ABS) that greatly assists in making controlled stops.

Unfortunately, a defective ABS control module afflicts many Outbacks and might become a problem for yours.

The Outback originally was equipped with a control module that was part of the entire ABS braking assembly. If you have one of those early models, a defective control module requires you to replace the entire ABS system on the afflicted wheel.

Subaru fixed that part of the problem by equipping the ABS system with a removable control module, which means you can replace the control module more quickly and affordably. The 2017 Outback is the model year most associated with the control module problem, which usually occurs early in its service life.

If you are driving a 2017 and there is no issue with the ABS system, odds are the control module will stay in good condition. There always is a chance of an additional failure, though. Fortunately, the cost to repair it is not as steep as it used to be.

8. Turbocharger Causes Engine Problems and Reduces Power

A turbocharger is a huge part of what makes the Outback a great vehicle with good power from its four-cylinder boxer engine. When the turbocharger develops problems, so does the engine.

Virtually any model year of the Outback might develop an issue with its turbocharger. Many of the issues are related to other problems, like leaking head gaskets or seals inside the engine that reduce the oil flow to the turbocharger.

Many Outback owners have reported issues with the turbocharger suffering from a lack of oil and causing the engine to misfire or the turbocharger to completely stop working. 

When the turbocharger stops working, the engine power drops and so does the fuel economy.

Subaru generally has improved the design and quality of its turbochargers over the years. So the older your Outback might be, the more prone it is to issues with the turbocharger.

Replacing the turbocharger might be the best solution but smaller ones also exist, like using a better quality oil filter.

General Pros and Cons for the Subaru Outback

The Subaru Outback is highly regarded as being very reliable and a great all-season vehicle. ‘

All-wheel drive and a reliable horizontally opposed engine with a turbocharger give it good power and fuel economy. It also runs smoothly and is a generally very reliable vehicle.

Most people who buy and regularly drive an Outback absolutely love the mid-size crossover SUV.

It has been in production for nearly 30 years and has benefitted from incremental improvements over the years.

Current models are sleek, stylish, and enjoy very potent and reliable motors that produce good power and achieve good fuel economy. You can go nearly anywhere with an Outback, although heavy off-roading might not be a good idea.

The only real negative is that tune-ups and even oil changes generally are not easy for owners to do at home.

The boxer engine configuration makes it nearly impossible to access the oil filter and all of the spark plugs on some model years.

What Do the Reviews Say?

The reviews continually refer to the Outback as a terrific vehicle that handles all four seasons of driving weather very well.

The purchase price of a new model is reasonably affordable compared to competing brands and models. You can enjoy reasonably good driving comfort while driving a vehicle that is built to last for a very long time.

When maintained properly, an Outback often exceeds 200,000 miles on the odometer. 

It is a highly prized vehicle on the used market because of its reputation for reliability and exceptional build quality.

Resale Value on the Subaru Outback

The Outback is considered by many to be the best two-row crossover SUV on the market. It is neither small nor bulky and uncomfortable to drive.

As a result, it holds its resale value fairly well.

All vehicles depreciate rapidly for the first four or five years of their service life. But you can expect your well-maintained Outback to hold about half of its purchase price five years after buying it as a new model.

The used market places a high demand on well-maintained Outbacks. And Kelley Blue Book rates the Outback as retaining its value longer than its competitors.

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