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Car shoppers and owners planning to hold on to a vehicle for the long run need to be on the lookout for expensive and inconvenient problems. Needing to rebuild an engine or replace a transmission are among the most expensive repair problems, as we previously identified. Another budget breaker is a head gasket replacement.
A head gasket provides a tight seal between the engine cylinder head and the block. These gaskets are under pressure, and they can fail due to engine overheating, deterioration over time, a design flaw, or incorrect installation. A problem with the head gasket can quickly lead to other issues, as coolant or motor oil leaks into the engine or drains outside it.
This is one of those problems that can trigger a check engine light. (Let this be a reminder to take those seriously!) Even if the problem is caught early on, having to replace a gasket can cost upward of $2,000. But if there is damage within the engine from not catching this issue soon enough, repairs can cost more like $3,000 or $4,000, Consumer Reports members have told us.
To understand how often such problems occur, we analyzed data on older models from our Annual Autos Surveys to see which major systems can lead to expensive repairs and identify the models that have a significant risk. Head gasket issues are among the problem areas that stood out, because they are legendary for the potential damage and cost.
“It is striking how such a simple component can lead to such catastrophic problems,” says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic. “Catch a failure early, and you might limit the expense. Better yet, learn from others, and avoid models known to have a higher risk of these dreaded issues.”
Several Subarus made our list because they share a common four-cylinder engine. CR members chronicled symptoms like oil appearing in the coolant overflow tank, overheating, and engine sputtering. Costs cited by the survey respondents tended to span from $2,000 to $4,000 to fix these Subarus. The risk for problems grew once the cars logged more than 100,000 miles. Given that these models are over a decade old now, most probably have such mileage. Clearly, they should be approached with caution on the used-car market, and current owners should be vigilant in looking for signs of a developing problem.
To help warn both current owners and used-car shoppers, we have compiled a list of 10 models that stood out as having the most severe problems, as determined by frequency and cost. We focused on models from the last decade.
The models are presented below in rank order, starting with the one with the greatest problem rate for CR members. We include the model year with the greatest problems (and when applicable, a range of years affected by this problem) and the typical mileage range when the problem occurs, then recommend similar alternative cars without this concern. In cases where there are no alternatives presented, it means there are no similar cars that weren’t found to have the same issue or another significant problem.
We had plenty of survey responses to identify those in the list below as models to be concerned about, but the number of responses we received about the mileage at which the problem occurs was too low to accurately report for three models (Subaru Baja, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Infiniti M).
Looking just a bit further, there are several vehicles that have a disproportionate frequency of head gasket issues, including in rank order: 2006 Ford Fusion, 2007 BMW 5 Series, 2003 Chevrolet Corvette, 2005 Ford F-250 6.0-liter diesel, and 2008 Ford F-350 6.4-liter diesel.
The journey to 200,000 miles can be a bumpy one, but it can be smoothed by starting with a good, reliable car and properly maintaining it, per the directions in the owner’s manual. Consumer Reports always recommends shoppers consult the reliability ratings, based on our large-scale member surveys, to predict the models that have better odds of being trouble-free. This detailed data is found on the car model pages.
2007 BMW 3 Series
2010 Subaru Impreza
2007 Subaru Outback
2006 Subaru Forester
2011 Chevrolet Cruze
2006 Subaru Baja
Alternatives without this problem: 2006-2008 Toyota Tacoma
2008 Mini Cooper/Clubman
2000 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Alternatives without this problem: 2007 Mazda MX-5 Miata
2013 BMW X5
Typical mileage: 59,000 to 67,000 miles
Alternatives without this problem: 2012-2014 Lexus RX
2008 Infiniti M
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