Engine oil leak doesn’t necessarily spell death for car

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2002 Subaru Forester with about 135,000 miles that I love so much. About four months ago, I had the head gaskets replaced for $3,300. The mechanic said, “Oh, what a great car - it will keep going now for another 60,000 miles.” At the next oil change, he said it needed a quart of oil. I wondered what was going on. He changed the oil and checked it, and says oil is leaking between the motor and transmission - so the engine is leaking oil in a way that means engine death. Now I’m going to be needing a new car sooner rather than later! Is it possible he could have known this four months ago, before I paid the $3,300 for the head gaskets? I could have used that $3,300 toward my next car instead. Thanks. - Sue

Ray: Actually, this does not mean engine death, Sue. All it means is another $600. That’s just wallet death. And, depending on the circumstances, you might be able to prevail upon your mechanic to cover half of that cost.

Here’s the story: There are two ways to replace the head gaskets on this engine: You can do it with the engine still in the car, or you can pull the engine out and do it.

It’s a lot easier with the engine out - everything’s easier to reach and you’re not bent over the fender all day.

If your guy pulled out the engine, then it was unconscionable of him not to replace the two things that could now be causing the oil leak: the rear main engine seal, and the baffle for the crankcase ventilation system. The price for those parts themselves is negligible. And when the engine is already out, so is the labor. So it’s silly not to replace them.

So, ask him if he pulled out the engine to do the previous job. If he says yes, then ask him if he’ll cover the labor to fix the oil leak. That would be reasonable.

If he did the head gaskets while the engine was in the car, then he might not have known about the oil leak. And then the new repair is on you. But for $600, you might as well do it, right? Because that’s a lot less than a new Forester.

In either case, when the engine comes out, if you have a manual transmission, you absolutely should replace the clutch. Again, the labor cost is minor once the engine is out. And you don’t want to be writing to us in four months about needing to pull the engine or transmission for a clutch job. The same is true for the oil pan. It’s a piece of cake to replace while the engine is out, and the oil pans on these cars are notorious for rusting out.

So ask your mechanic that key question about whether he removed the engine last time. And then either appeal to his better angels to make things right if he screwed up, or bite the bullet and do it yourself if you need to. But either way, the car’s not a goner - this week. Good luck, Sue.

Air bags in suspension systems can wear out over time

Dear Car Talk:

The air suspension system on my 2003 Lincoln Navigator seems to work fine - until the cold weather sets in. The dealer replaced the compressor and the right and left front sensors, to no avail. In cold weather, the car will lift after driving a few miles, and then it seems to run fine. Are the suspension air bags just old and stiff, and hard to get started on cold mornings, like me? - Bonnie

Ray: Yeah, I’m afraid so, Bonnie.

The compressor was a good guess. But since that didn’t solve the problem, I’m guessing the bags themselves are old and porous, and are leaking down overnight.

So, when you get going in the morning, it takes some time before they inflate completely. I’d ask your dealer what he thinks. He’s probably fixed a gajillion of these things throughout the years.

Of course, he already replaced your compressor and sensors without fixing the problem.

If you’re planning to keep this car, then one way or another you need to get it fixed. You can have the bags replaced, and hope that does the trick. There’s not much else to replace after that.

Or you can look into converting the suspension to a more conventional coil spring and strut system. There are kits for that.

Either way, you’re probably looking at a few hundred bucks in parts, plus the labor. Hopefully, like the bags, the prices won’t be too inflated. Good luck, Bonnie.

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