PROVEN: 1996 Subaru Outback Impreza

When the repair estimates got higher than $1,000, I liked to ask Baki, “If it was your car, would you

When the repair estimates got higher than $1,000, I liked to ask Baki, “If it was your car, would you do it?” The way he answered, it sounded like he thought my Subaru was kind of his car, too, even though it was ugly and had enough dents and dings in the body that I told people the car was “its own burglar alarm.” One time a mechanic told me, “Yeah, I’ve seen hundreds of these go 200,000 miles and plenty of them, probably a few dozen, go 300,000.” Stuff like that, I started to believe in my car like people believe in Jesus — it ran on faith, not science.

I bought my 1996 Subaru Outback Impreza in 2006, the year after I had moved to Denver and a couple weeks after a guy smashed my old car in an accident. It cost $4,000 and had 136,000 miles on it, a few dents, a couple holes from cigarettes (not mine) in the seats. But it had rubber floormats, a back seat that folded down and almost enough room for 5’11” me to lie down in the back of it. It had all-wheel drive to get me to the mountains during winter and high enough ground clearance to handle most Forest Service roads in summer.

At the time, it also had a working air conditioner, rear defrost, all four speakers, no problems with the paint, and an immaculate windshield.

After three years, the A/C compressor started making loud puffing noises, releasing half-second blasts of air and knocking the engine power down for just a second each time. After a year and a half of that, I started thinking about getting it fixed for $1,300. Then the clutch and transmission both went.

Baki called from Roos Only in Denver. He said it would be about $1,700 to replace both the transmission and clutch. He said I could keep a loaner car overnight. Jeez, I thought, should I dump $1,700 into a $4,000 car?

But part of me wanted to drive that thing into the ground, way past when it was fashionable, to push the limits of engineering and construction, and keep driving a car until it absolutely wouldn’t go anymore. Which meant until the engine gave out. The transmission and clutch? Body parts that could be replaced. The engine was the one piece that would mean taking the car off life support. I didn’t exactly have the money, but I didn’t have the money to buy a new car, either.

I asked Baki. If it was your car. Would you do it.

“Yes,” he said. “I would do it. We’ll get some more miles out of this car. It has a good motor.”

So they did it. It was a commitment to the car, sliding my credit card for $1,700. The next day, the A/C compressor started making that noise, even when I just wanted to use the defrost. Shit. They had told me that one day, the compressor would just blow up, shooting pieces of itself into the air conditioning system, and requiring that the entire system be replaced. I called Baki. Baki, I said, I just dumped $1,700 into this car, and replacing the A/C compressor is another $1,300.

“Yeah, bring it in,” he said. “Can you come down today?” I drove to the shop.

I walked in the front door, and Baki and I turned around and walked out. I opened the hood, and he reached in and unplugged the power to the compressor.

“There you go,” he said. “Now it won’t turn on. When you get some money, you bring it in and we’ll get it fixed.” We shook hands.

When my girlfriend and I broke up in 2011, the Subaru had just turned over 200,000 miles. A couple friends and I watched the odometer roll over as we pulled into the departures drop-off at the Denver airport. They cheered.

The average new-car buyer trades in their car when it reaches 55,000 miles, or after about four years of driving. Should I get rid of mine, I wondered, get something newer, make some car payments? I hadn’t had a monthly car payment since 2004. Think about it: Air conditioning. Rear defrost. The new(er) car smell, something different than dirt, sweat, and climbing gear. I could roll over potholes and hardly feel them.

Hell no, I thought. I wanted to drive until it quit on me, like a horse that just can’t go anymore. I wanted to make a statement about consumption, recycling, consumerism, all that stuff, even though no one would notice or care, because it was just another beat-up car on the road. But it was important to me, and important to Baki.

Summer 2011, heartbroken and hitting the road after my breakup, I got one last oil change and vacuumed it out for one last time before I packed it with all my stuff. As I hopped on I-25 North to leave Denver, the odometer read 200,700 miles. The vent blew hot air at me. The rear windshield wiper was frozen pointing upward, where it had stopped when the wiring harness melted, killing the rear defrost and the rear lock, which now only worked if I turned it with the key. A crack had finally finished its slow journey across the bottom of the windshield, and the molding was missing from the entire right side of the windshield glass, having ripped off on a windy day crossing Nebraska almost three years prior. A low rattle came from the gearshift, but if I turned the music up enough, it disappeared.

I took off, climbing, bouncing around, visiting friends, tumbleweeding, I called it. Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, every western state, the entire Pacific Coast from Astoria to San Diego. I slept in the car, slept on the ground in front of it more often, and wrote the beginnings of a book project on receipts and napkins I pinned against the steering wheel and scrawled as I drove and the ideas came.

When the Subaru rolled over 212,000, I was on my way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with my friend Greg, talking about life as we rolled across the dark desert in Northern Arizona and the Cardinals won the World Series, my dad said on the phone just before I lost my cell signal.

Six months later, I rolled back into Denver, and the Subaru was the closest thing I’d had to a home all that time. Still, I wanted something a little more comfortable, so I bought a van. I pulled the Subaru into a storage unit in east Denver, saving it for a friend who’s teaching yoga all over the world. He sold his car before he left and I figure when he finally comes back I’ll sell him the Subaru for $1 so he’ll have something to drive if he wants to.

It’s a good car. Baki told me it was.

Proven is stuff that stands the test of time.

Photo by Brendan Leonard

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
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Showing 22 comments
  • Skip Lauderbaugh

    Agree that Subaru’s are good cars… But for reliability , I’ll take a Toyota 4Runner – I just had to trade in my company vehicle a 2004 4Runner with 278,000 miles – other than one CV boot just regular maintenance . I never had one problem – engine , transmission, A/C worked just like they did when it was new…. Including the original battery – easly had another 100,000 in it… FWIW

  • Dean

    I have a 1997 Impreza wagon. I’m debating what to do with it this spring. It needs new tires, and the rust is getting pretty severe in spots, but it runs like a champ. I’ve had to replace most of the parts on it, but working and playing in rally sport means I have access to a pretty decent stock of hand me down parts that are cheap. But I wonder… The rust is bad, and new tires will cost about $500. The shell has 340,000km on it, and still feels as solid as my mom’s 2008 Outback with 60,000 miles on it.

    It might get replaced in the spring, but maybe I’ll just replace the tires, and keep driving it a little longer. So consider this a very strong second vote for “PROVEN.” If it does get replaced, it’ll be with another Subaru wagon.

  • Dean

    I’ve always liked 4Runners, but can’t get past the size and fuel fuel bills. Plus, having done some rallycross, I’m not ready to give up something that is fun to drive… But yeah, Toyotas are great, just not for me.

  • John

    I sold my ’06 Legacy Outback for $1000 when it had 210,000 something miles on it. I had replaced a main bearing in the motor on my way back from Flagstaff. The entire drive shaft after the U-joints made so much noise after a trip back from 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. I was ready to replace all the struts but I sold it before having to do so. I do miss that car, though.

  • Colin

    My 96 Cherokee:
    Bought in December 2004: 109k.
    Current: 235k

    Replaced the radiator 2x at $300 each time. A little brake work. And about $1000 worth of suspension work, but that was related to the lift I put on it, not the stock suspension. And, yes, I adjusted the speedo gear to the new tire size, so the mileage is right.

  • Jeremy

    Great story… gotta love a Rooo

    I remember growing up in a Subaru back in the late 70’s… floor boards had rusted through and my little brother and I would drop stuff through the floor and then see if we could see the item / toy / ball bounce down the road behind us as we drove on. We rode that Subaru all across Utah, through a divorce, and into a new life with a new family…

    There have been a few constants in my life… Subaru quality, My Dad… and the thrill of adventure.

  • adam lauver

    I have always wanted a Subaru. Good looking car, long lasting and fuel efficient. I have had 2 vehicles in my life. I first started driving a 93 Toyota Pickup and last year bought an 09 Tacoma with just about everything you can get on it. Thanks to my dealership owning uncle I got a great deal on it, however I have been recently contemplating trading it for a more fuel efficient, AWD Outback. The 93 now sits at my dads and is the go to vehicle for a quick grocery run with 180,000 miles and not a single thing wrong. Is it time for the Tacoma to get the boot? Or should I stay try to my love of Toyota?

  • Sizzle Tits

    I bought a 1990 Toyota 4Runner (4 cylinder) for $400 Canadian. I’ve had it for 4 years now and she and I have traveled western Canada and the U.S. My ski buddies lover her and every time we go skiing she takes us there. We are just about to break the 500 000km mark this winter. Her name is Unicorn, and she is one of a kind.

  • Ian

    I have owned three Subaru’s. The original wagon which would indiscriminately break clutch cables. I always had a box of them in the back — they were easy to replace. I called it the SIlver Bullet and racked-up close to 300K. That wagon was replaced by my favorite Sub. A GL Wagon. I would take that car four-wheeling — it was great! Finally replaced it with a Toyota Pick-up when I couldn’t shift into second gear anymore (around 260K). Later my family owned a red Loyale wagon — my least favorite Sub. but lasted well past 300K.

    Now a friend of mine bought a new 2013 Outback Wagon. I barely recognize it as a Subaru. My head doesn’t even rub on the headliner!

  • Matt

    I’ll throw the Volvo 850 wagon into the mix for proven cars. My parents have had 3 over my lifetime and I’m currently driving the 4th one in the family. All four have (or had) over 200k miles on them and still drove like champs. No AWD, but with the traction control and a good set of snow tires I’ve never had an issue in winter.

  • Louis Zuhr

    I think this deserves a poll…

    Which is the all time grand daddy of dirt bag rigs?

  • Kyle

    Rack up another vote the 4runner, 1998 in my case. “Mitchell” was the unsung hero of the UC Santa Cruz cycling team for several years, rolling all over the state crammed full of bikes, camping gear, and sweaty friends. Except for regular maintenance, it is still rock solid to this day. But it’s not about the kind of car you drive, it’s the life you life with it. It’s an extension of you. Mitchell has seen the best and worst of me; the new and familiar. He is my best friend.

    And for what it’s worth, taking off the roof rack and hitch rack for my drive from Santa Cruz to Lone Pine yielded the best gas mileage he’s ever gotten…one tank. 14 years into it’s life.

  • CM

    +1 for Toyotas. I have a 2001 Tacoma, but an old 4WD 1992 Toyota Pick-Up that I lost to an unfortunate crash will always be my favorite vehicle.

  • Ed

    My 1998 Subaru Forrester has 213,000 on it and still going. I pull a 16 foot bass boat with it.
    I’ve gone through three clutches. TThe paint is almost gone from the hub cap covers. This is the 7th Subaru my family has owned.

  • the mostly reverend

    practical cars for me: for decades, a sh*tload of VWs [57s-77s, bugs, vans, ghias, & a single cab for good measure], and an 86 volvo 245 wagon. married a subaru outback three years ago. LOVE it. sold most of my vdubs, volvo sits in driveway, and we do it ALL with the sooby, including pulling our 13′ 1962 winnebago travel trailer to race weekends.

  • S.Fuller

    I have contemplated selling my 2004 Explorer a number of times for an Outback based on a number of friends that have had good luck with them. My biggest issue now is how damn *large* they’ve gotten. It’s not really a LOT smaller than the Explorer, and I really don’t want to have another car payment. It’s too bad that Subaru has decided to make the car larger, but I guess the US market has demanded it.

  • Desert flower

    I’ve have a 1996 subaru runs well no complaints it has 237,789 miles and still takes me everywhere .

  • Lucky

    I have had the good fortune of marrying into a couple of great rigs. Unfortunately, the ’98 Subaru Legacy Outback gave up the ghost driving to Oregon for Christmas. The water pump went out (it had been replaced with the timing belt ~50k miles ago), resulting in some blown head gaskets. It endured far more than the 160,000 that the odometer displayed. I was overjoyed to find a willing buyer- for $500- who has the knowhow to rebuild the engine. I am hopeful that the Soob will live on to see many more adventures.
    In its stead, our 1988 FJ62 Land Cruiser has filled the void. We toured southern Oregon, climbed some fire roads in the Siskiyous, and slept in the rear for the month of July. The rig (and its owners) are downright giddy for a Washington winter. My mechanic literally belly laughed when I asked what it needed after our Oregon trip. “You’re a little low on washer fluid.”
    Given the fact that both cars come from my wife, it’s safe to say that I married Up.

  • Kark

    Damn good story. I’ll drink to an inanimate object that’s ferried a dude(s) on adventures.

  • KatieSue

    I’ve got an 07 impreza wagon, the last of the old body style and I love that thing. It was almost new when I got it and took it to Red Rocks on a climbing trip before it even got new plates. Since then it’s been from Squamish to Joshua Tree and countless dirt roads hiking and climbing locally, so many road trips to dating guys out of state or 3 hours away because they were climbers. It’s amazing. I named it Narn after a kid’s imaginary friend who could do anything and it lives up to it’s name. I can tear up a snowy parking lot in the canyon where I guide 4th grade snowshoe fieldtrips and help dig the school bus out of the snow. Yesterday a 2Liter of coke exploded in the back and froze to the inside of the windows and I laughed and thought what a good story that will be in a few years when I need the spare tire and it’s all gummy. I traded in a sweet Audi for that car because I needed something to abuse and not feel bad. I abuse it like crazy and I think te car and I both love it. That damn Audi cost a thousand bucks for a head light so when I needed to drop 2500 on the Impreza at 120,000 miles for the first time ever I was glad to do it. I plan to be with it till it dies.

  • Vannessa

    I agree with putting the money into it. My 99 Subaru Forester (name is Quicksilver) hit 206,000 and the engine blew. My husband and I debated for hours what we should do; put money into an older car or buy a new car. Quickie has no structural damage, a new transmission, and no rust so why wouldn’t we put the money into a new engine! They truly are amazing and I love my car dearly!

  • Jon

    I love BL’s line about the Subie being the closest thing to a home that he had in those years. I feel the same about my ’07 Forester, purchased with my first savings from my Army paychecks.

    It’s not fast, and the mileage isn’t super great, but my dog and I can sleep comfortably in the back and its ferried gear and friends to the Dacks and the gunks.

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