I need some measure of catharsis. I need to get this off my chest, and to vent to a crowd that runs a good chance of understanding.
I’ve been under a significant amount of stress, recently. Household stress, financial stress, some existential stress, geographical stress... all in a number of subjects that would take too long to explain, and would blow out the scope of this post anyhow.
My husband and I should be finalizing our packing and purging efforts, so we can move back to California, this month. Yet I’m stuck waiting on two large paychecks from my California boss for projects I’ve worked on since May, who has yet to pay me (I know and understand why, but I’m powerless to speed up the process and that’s frustrating in it’s own right). In the meantime, I’m holding down a local part-time job driving cars I’m forbidden from talking about due to a very heavy NDA, to have chump change to pay the monthly bills. It’s also preventing me from finalizing one other task. Finishing up the last of the repairs I intend to do on our Subaru Forester.
Every single time I look out the front window, and look at that Sierra Gold Metallic / Titanium Pearl proto-CUV, I just shake my head.
I wish it had never come into our life.
Story time: roll the reel of time back, to October of 2012. I had been in a fairly serious accident in my Ford Taurus longroof. We were left with the Saturn SW as our only vehicle, as our W-body Grand Prix decided over the past Summer to barf up it’s torque converter. “Winter was coming” and my husband grew up in California, and lived in Kentucky/Tennessee for a number of years. I didn’t want to hear his complaints about driving in snow any more, and we had saved up some money for a downpayment on our next vehicle anyhow. We wanted to have a choice in what we purchased, for once. He wanted something with all-wheel drive but didn’t want a large truck. He was interested in a Wrangler, but we couldn’t afford the gas for it, and I had a hunch all the wind and road noise would draw complaints from him soon after acquisition.
He fell in love with the Forester, and so our sights were set. In February of 2013, we had found what we were looking for. A golden Subaru Forester, in the vintage he liked best.
He didn’t care about the fact that a 2003-2005 Forester XT would have been just as affordable, and we rolled the dice after I did my research and found that head gaskets were a common problem on non-turbo EJs for a number of years. I purposely set aside money for the job to be done, because I knew without proof that it had been done, it would be due.
We checked out the vehicle, and found it to be in absolutely immaculate shape for an 11 year old Michigan car. One owner, local.... and there was no way it could have as little rust and as glowing of a paint job as it did, without being garage-kept. Our neighbors thought we bought a brand new vehicle, it looked that nice. To where the paint on the rear wheel arches, and the bottom of the front doors, had only just begun to bubble.
After checking the vehicle inside and out, underneath and all around, we negotiated the price (it needed tires badly and it was supposed to snow that week), made the purchase, and drove our new chariot home.
2001 Subaru Forester S, almost fully loaded; 141,000 miles: $5,400
Not even 2 weeks later, the temperature gauge started fluctuating and the heater was making a sloshing sound. My heart sank. I got underneath the car and found that one side of the engine was dripping coolant off the bottom. I wasn’t certain if it was the head gasket leaking, or an aging hose. Since it was Winter, and all we needed to do was top off the coolant every week or two, and the temperature gauge never moved once, I decided I’d look at it when the weather improved. Mind you, at the time I was barely out of my wheelchair and walking around with a cane, or a walker when in the house.
I had set aside money for this eventuality, as even though the vehicle had FULL maintenance records (always maintained by one particular Jiffy Lube in Southfield, and Suburban Subaru of Troy) which included all the service intervals, and yes, the timing belt at 103,000 miles... there was no mention anywhere of the head gasket.
Finally in May, I took it to a reputable local mechanic one of my sisters’ friends always took her cars to; a small shop that did really good work, ordered the MLS gasket kit and bolts and misc. items needed for the job, and told them to crank away and call us when it’s done. While they had it, they had done a few small things like lubricate the parking brake and shifter cables as they were a bit in need of it, and since the engine was out, put in a new Timing belt, thermostat, and assorted other items. In the last month prior, the coolant leak had gotten worse, the temperature gauge started to move more than just a couple degrees in either direction (never overheated), and I was well enough to get under the car and identify and confirm that it was a gasket leak.
Soon enough, we were back on the road. I knew this would happen one day, though it happened sooner rather than later. I can’t help but wonder if the Ford dealer that sold us the car, somehow covered or plugged the leak without me knowing, and it held long enough for them to sell it. I never noticed any leakage and had no telltale signs.
Afterward it had to return to the mechanic two more times, because the A/C would go out. This was traced back to incorrect o-rings, somehow, and was repaired. They still made me pay for part of the service to be done, as refrigerant isn’t free.
First Major Repair, Head Gaskets and Depleting A/C (their fault): $1,200.
Throughout the following months, we’d enjoy driving the Forster in the snow; the new Altimax RT tires we put on it proved to be competent all-seasons, and made the vehicle easy to control in the ‘ol white stuff. I even taught my husband how to throttle-steer it, when the front would plow a bit, or just for fun to point the vehicle in the direction we wanted it to go in. The differential moved power to the rear, the push of power canceled out the understeer, and we were on our way to complete out turn. Easy, gradual, predictable, and my “cars are appliances” man could even had fun doing it. That’s progress!
Eventually the rear would “bang” a bit with more spirited driving, so I changed the differential fluid in the front and back, and did a half-swap of trans fluid. In the dead of Winter. That instantly solved the problem. I had taken the center console and dash apart, twice, to replace various HVAC, dash, button, and indicator bulbs that were steadily burning out. It also developed a brake problem; one of the rotors was warping badly, and it would pull to one side when braking. I did brake service on the front, which if I remember was pads and rotors on each side, and new brake hardware on the passenger side.
I was suffering pretty badly from PTSD and having horrid flashbacks, when I was finally cleared to drive again. I couldn’t drive our Saturn, OR the Forester. They were too small. I was too afraid to drive. The Saturn was rotting away anyhow, and I received a settlement that allowed me to buy a better, bigger vehicle. I wanted the choice again, I wanted to buy what I wanted to buy for once, so I bought a 2002 Legacy wagon. Manual.
Which, once again, burned me. It drove fine; excellent, in fact. In great condition for the money. Yet inexplicably, within a month of me buying it, the clutch gradually weakened to the point where I could no longer drive it. So it sat for 3 months until I had the money together to get the clutch replaced. It was at this point we decided that we had had enough of Michigan. We were moving back to California, and we could clearly no longer afford to own a home, so we began the process of giving it up. As I would discover in the coming months, my difficulty in finding IT jobs in Metro Detroit was only PARTLY due to the economy. The other part of it was that businesses looked up my home address, found that I was driving basically from Lake St Clair, to Southfield/Farmington/Plymouth/etc, and thus would never call me because they felt I lived too far away (how about that ‘Eastsider’ Stigma, eh?). As soon as we moved closer into the center of the Metro, I was suddenly getting phone calls and emails, where previously I had received nearly none. Eventually I scored a decent gig, with a barely-functioning alcoholic of a boss, for far more money than I’ve made since the Recession but still horrendously overpaid for my job duties and experience, but by that point we’d made our decision.
Another reason why I vehemently hate this place, and can’t wait to get the hell out again.
The following Spring, we discovered that the A/C in the Forester didn’t work. I decided to take it to a different shop, who found that it still had the wrong o-rings installed which caused it to deplete over Winter, and the compressor also jammed up, but they managed to free it and get it working again.
Second Major Repair, A/C: $600
Last June, while driving on the freeway in the middle of nowhere, the temperature gauge suddenly started shooting up at an alarming rate. By the time we had pulled off the side of the road, it was already in the red. The radiator was nearly empty. I had kept some coolant in the vehicle as a precaution, since I was afraid the gasket wouldn’t hold. Filled it, and drove on our way. Over the course of the next week, I would try all sorts of troubleshooting and remedies to try and fix our new coolant problem. The needle would shoot up, but then pulling off the side of the road, shutting it off, waiting a couple minutes, and turning it back on, would resolve the problem for the rest of the drive. He needed to commute to work, and couldn’t drive the Legacy. He kept a hawk’s eye on the coolant gauge, and repeated this pattern.
Eventually one day in July, it threw a light. Misfire on cylinder 4. I knew that this was the gasket blowing. I could never find the leak. It didn’t appear to blow coolant out the tailpipe. I was at a loss. The only other vehicle we had was a manual, and my husband couldn’t drive it and just couldn’t get the hang of it when I tried to teach him. It was too soon. We had decided to leave back to California and were saving up, we left our house and moved back in with my parents, and we already knew we were taking the Forester with us. We put money into it, it was still in decent shape, we were going to keep it until the wheels fall off.
Or at least, until the rest of it started falling off.
Fast forward, and a family friend sold me their Chrysler minivan for a fair price, and allowed me to make payments on it. I had finally landed what I thought was a decent local IT job, so I was paying it down as fast as I could manage.
The Forester was driven, sputtering, to the same shop. The Legacy was driven there the next day. Over the course of the next month, the Legacy was sacrificed and the transplant was completed. All the best parts were swapped in. It had a new heart, with 2,000 more miles on it than the one that came out of the Forester, on an engine one model year newer. I sold the Legacy chassis for $500 to a local Subaru guy. Original purchase price of the Legacy was $3,000 and another $600 for the clutch job. The clutch had 1,300 miles on it.
Third Major Repair, Engine Transplant: $880 (Purchase cost of Legacy: $3,000, Clutch job $600, sold chassis+trans for $500).
In just this past year alone, aside from the engine transplant, the passenger CV axle went bad, a couple more dash bulbs burned out, I replaced the driver side front and rear weather stripping since it had finally torn apart due to our especially cold past Winter, the rear wheel bearing(s) had/have started to go south, the fuel lines leaked on the coldest of days necessitating a nice hour-long underhood rubber fuel line replacement in 0-degree weather, the brake hardware on the DRIVER side froze up requiring pads/rotors/hardware on the front AGAIN, and there’s a squeal in the back which I’m pretty sure I’m going to discover this coming week, are pads and rotors are ALSO due for replacement.
In the course of ownership, it had been “swiped” twice in the parking lot while my husband was at work, so the rear bumper and tail lamp were now scraped up, as well as the corner of the front bumper, and acquired a number of door dings because people in Michigan just don’t give a shit. About themselves, about anyone else, about life, about anything.
The various parts cost of the work I’ve done myself, can easily add at least another $500 to the total cost of maintenance for this rolling nightmare of a vehicle, which at this point in raw dollars has cost me over $3,100; over 57% the original purchase price of a vehicle we’d only owned barely 2 years.
This also doesn’t include the time I’ve spent under the hood, figuring out small idling issues, making adjustments, checking fluids in paranoia of leaks or burning oil, and restoring some power to our “mysteriously not as powerful” Subaru that was especially lethargic with the A/C on, because the Throttle Position Sensor was never adjusted for the automatic transmission now in the place where a manual once was. Which before I even knew to adjust the TPS... I swapped out the differential fluid AGAIN thinking it had somehow gone bad, or the drain plugs had come loose some way.
Last week, my husband made a comment that my van A/C was a welcome relief from the Subaru’s.
As it turns out, he was afraid to tell me that the A/C was weakening in the Subaru. I popped a can of refrigerant/stop leak in it, and so far it’s held. I can see where one of the lines was leaking the oil. That $600 service now felt like another waste of money, on a waste of a vehicle.
At this point, I don’t feel like I can trust it with a cross-country drive. We only plan on taking one vehicle, still, and I wanted to take the Subaru. Now, with everything that’s happened, and all of the continual piddly-shit and not-so problems that keep cropping up.... I have had a change of heart. The van’s our chariot. After all, it’s had a better reliability and maintenance record in my first 6 months of ownership, than our Subaru did.
With the A/C going out like it has in the past week, and the ever-increasing groan of the wheel bearings, with more serial brake and under-hood maintenance than I’ve done on any car I’ve ever owned, I am fed up. Every time I get in the car and drive it, I can’t help but have a permanently-plastered sour look on my face. The emotional and financial turmoil this car has put us through, has been significant. My husband feels bad because he still likes the car (and I do, to a limited extent), but he too is fed up and doesn’t trust it in the least. I had to sacrifice one of my own cars, in it’s entirety, to keep this one going. Because I was foolish enough to buy a car with a manual transmission, with a spouse who was unable and afraid to learn how to drive, and only two older cars between the two of us with no third vehicle to spare (which at one point, we did: the Taurus, Saturn, and Grand Prix).
I feel angry. I feel emotionally drained. I feel sad. So much has happened while we owned this car, and so much emotional investment into it. It feels like a betrayal. A vehicle with a reputation for being “tough” and “low maintenance”, has turned into one of the most high-maintenance, problematic, and unreliable vehicles I have ever owned. I want to drive it off a cliff, but I look at it and think “it’s a sharp car”. It made my husband happy, when it worked, and made him feel like a confident driver in the snow. It allayed his fears of Winter driving, and eliminating fear and doubt out of my spouse’s life is something I consider a worthy accomplishment. This isn’t a happy or secure car. I get sick thinking about how much better of a vehicle we could have purchased, with the thousands of additional dollars we’ve spent on it.
Once I have my paychecks, I can do the brake service on the back and clean it up for sale. We’re both working part time anyhow, until we move soon. We don’t need two cars and two insurance payments. Hopefully I don’t fly into a rage, and break all the windows with the tire iron.
I’m sure with everything that’s been done, not much else can go wrong, so the next owner will probably make out like a bandit on this little golden shithead. But I can’t risk it breaking down in the middle of the Nevada desert, with a panicky husband, and two cats. I won’t risk it. I’m too afraid of it. I told him he can get a newer Forester XT if he wants, when we get settled in. But I don’t know that he will. He likes the XV and the new Forester, and once I’m working again in California, we can probably afford a 1-3 year old used car. But that remains to be seen.
I still want an Outback XT. I still entertain the idea of a Forester. But at this point if I want my longroof back, I’m going to get a mid-00s V70/XC. It’s been a while since I’ve had a sporty car, so I may just go for a G37 instead. But shit, I’m so burned out on spending money on cars that it won’t happen any time soon. I’ll drive the wheels off the van. Not like a rust belt Chrysler is worth piddly shit in California, anyhow. No value in selling it.
The “Foz” has about 155,000 miles on it, now. In 2.5 years of ownership, due to his short work commute the first year and a half, and the months it’s spent broken, we’ve put 14,000 miles on it. That’s it. But when it did work, it has been 14,000 miles of Winter fun, in a nimble little CUV, that’s cheeky and has personality, great steering feel, some off-roading cred, and was used for it’s intended purpose all the while: we took it on country trails, we took it on gravel roads, we drove it up north to a cabin in the woods, we went camping with it, we hooned it in snowpacked parking lots.
It’s going up for sale, soon. I’d rather have the money from it, to spend on a rust-free California vehicle. I’m heartbroken and relieved to see it finally go. I’m going to miss it, and we can always get one again, but I don’t know if I want to risk the possibility of more disappointment. I get attached to cars. I’m a Jalop, like many of you. I feel a bond between man and machine, even between me and my soccer-mom van. I’m sure despite everything, my husband still really likes his car. I hope he doesn’t get too depressed, because one of the most painful things in life, is seeing your own spouse unhappy or in pain. By extension, I sometimes feel that the Forester’s failure to provide reliable transportation, is also partly my failure to provide my end of the bargain when it comes to stability.
Thanks for reading my rant. I hope it was semi-comprehensible. At least I feel better for writing it, and getting it out there.