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By OReilly Auto Parts
How To: Change the Air Filter in a 2010 to 2014 Subaru Outback
By OReilly Auto Parts
How To: Change the Brake Pads and Rotors On A 2010 to 2014 Subaru Outback
If you were to ask a Subaru owner, they may tell you that their world is flat. No, I don’t mean that they think the earth is flat. It’s a clever euphemism for the distinctive engine design used by Subaru: the flat, or boxer engine. The boxer engine is to Subaru what the V-8 is to muscle cars. You may have seen a T-shirt or decal somewhere with the icon below. It’s an illustration of a crankshaft and pistons from a boxer engine.
But there’s so much more to this automaker than its distinctive engine types. Let’s take a closer look at what makes Subaru so special, and what makes it tick as a brand. After that, we’ll look at a few common repairs so you’re prepared to help your customers find the part they need to get their vehicle back on the road again.
Flat Engines vs. Boxer Engines
Subaru engines are often misunderstood. People commonly refer to them as flat engines, but this isn’t the case. There’s one major difference in the construction of these two types of engines.
Both flat engines and boxer engines will have cylinders on either side of a central crankshaft, but the crankshafts are different in each engine type. A flat-engine crankshaft will mount two opposing connecting rods onto a shared crank pin (Figure 1), whereas a boxer engine will mount each connecting rod onto its own separate crank pin (Figure 2).
This subtle difference in construction affects the way the pistons move inside the cylinders. In a flat engine, one piston will move inward while the opposing piston moves outward. In a boxer engine, each opposed pair of pistons will move inward and outward at the same time.
Boxer engines produce significantly lower vibrations when compared to other engine configurations. Since each opposing piston is moving in and out at the same rate and speed, the opposing forces are canceled out. This means that they don’t require counterbalance shafts to smooth out their operation, and the internal components don’t suffer from the same sort of wear and tear caused by vibrations.
Boxer engines offer a number of advantages over other engine styles. (It wouldn’t make sense for Subaru to keep installing these engines into their vehicles if that wasn’t the case.) First and foremost, the boxer engine is incredibly compact. It’s effectively a V-4, with two cylinders on each side of the central crankshaft. This means that the overall length of the engine block is only a little bit over the length of two cylinders.
Boxers also are compact vertically, so they can be mounted lower in the engine bay. This pays dividends when you consider the center of gravity in the vehicle. The engine tends to be the heaviest component in the front of the vehicle. If the engine can be mounted lower in the vehicle, it lowers the center of gravity. This leads to better driving dynamics, better stability in corners and reduced understeer (Figure 3).
Understeer is a phenomenon that causes the vehicle to not turn as sharply as intended. Have you ever put a 24-pack of drinks in the front of a shopping cart, then tried to turn the cart at the end of the aisle? That’s understeer.
As I said earlier, boxer engines produce less vibration than other engine styles, and don’t require any additional counterbalancing to operate smoothly. And last but not least, they produce a truly distinctive exhaust note. Seriously, it’s music to the ears. Well, that may be the car enthusiast in me speaking.
Now, all of these advantages aside, there are a few drawbacks.
The engine assembly is rather complex, both during manufacturing and when rebuilding later on down the road. In an inline or V-style engine, you can place the crankshaft into the main bearings, torque the main bearings, then install and torque the connecting rods onto the crank pins. All of this can be done from underneath the engine with relative ease.
Boxer engines use a crankcase that’s split into two pieces. You can’t access the crankshaft to torque down the connecting-rod caps once the crankcase has been put together. So, the connecting rods must be installed and torqued down onto the crank pins with the crankshaft supported outside of the engine. Then the entire rotating assembly is installed into the crankcase. Or is it?
Nope! The pistons need to be installed onto the connecting rods AFTER the two halves of the crankcase have been bolted together. There are special access holes in the front and back sides of the block that allow you to slide the wrist pins into place (Figure 4). There are a few common issues in boxer engines once they start to age, but we’ll come back to those later on.
Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive
If there’s one other thing that Subaru is known for, it’s the all-wheel-drive system. Known as Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive (SAWD), Subaru has been perfecting the art of driving all four wheels for decades. SAWD was first introduced in 1972 as an optional part-time four-wheel-drive system on the Leone wagon. This early four-wheel-drive system was all-mechanical, and has evolved into the more electronic SAWD system that we know today (Figure 5).
Modern SAWD systems work in conjunction with the vehicle dynamic control, antilock brakes and traction control for optimum handling performance and grip. Subaru has earned a reputation as one of the best vehicles to drive in snowy conditions, or offroad adventuring thanks to the superior grip and stability offered by SAWD. I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen a Subaru Outback with a suspension lift, big offroad tires and a roof rack out on the road. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see Outbacks, Foresters and Crosstreks set up for offroad adventuring out on the road today.
Subaru’s commitment to safety has led to years of industry-leading advancements in both passive and active systems. A precision-engineered, strong vehicle frame will provide maximum protection for passengers in the event of a collision. Subaru’s advanced airbag systems can deploy up to eight airbags, protecting the passengers from forces in all directions (Figure 6).
In other vehicles, the engine and/or transmission may be pushed inside the passenger compartment during a front-end collision. But, thanks to the compact size and placement of the boxer engine, the drivetrain is pushed downward and away from the passengers in a Subaru (Figure 7).
It’s clear that Subaru’s commitment to safety has paid off. A cursory glance at the IIHS website shows strong ratings for all of its current models. In fact, Subaru earned Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ ratings on the following 2022 model-year vehicles:
• BRZ (Top Safety Pick+)
• Crosstrek (Top Safety Pick)
• Crosstrek Hybrid (Top Safety Pick+)
• Impreza (Top Safety Pick)
• Legacy (Top Safety Pick+)
• Outback (Top Safety Pick+)
• Forester (Top Safety Pick+)
• Ascent (Top Safety Pick+)
The only model missing from this list is the WRX. It appears that the 2022 WRX hasn’t been crash-tested at the time of this writing. Based on Subaru’s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 2022 WRX also earn its place on this list in the near future. I went back 10 years on the IIHS website and saw consistent top safety-pick ratings for the brand throughout the past decade.
In addition to these strong crash-test ratings, Subaru has pioneered several advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) to help drivers avoid collisions whenever possible. The EyeSight system uses a series of cameras to scan the road ahead of you (Figure 8), and apply the brakes if needed to avoid or minimize a collision. Subaru’s DriverFocus system looks for signs of a distracted or drowsy driver, much like an attentive front-seat passenger might do. And of course, Subaru offers other ADAS systems for added safety and convenience including blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and reverse automatic braking just to name a few.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Subaru’s strong racing heritage. Subaru has proven itself in the racing world by pitting its engineering and manufacturing skills against the competition. And of course, Subaru’s success on the racetrack has led to advancements in its road cars.
If you want to get a closer look into the Subaru racing world, I highly recommend searching for a video series called “Launch Control.” This show follows the Subaru Racing Team USA (SRTUSA) season after season. You’ll see driver profiles and background, vehicle development and the challenges that come along with running a race team.
As with all things that are mass-produced, there are some common failures you should be on the lookout for. If a customer walks into your store with a question about their Subaru, you may be able to help them find exactly what they need to perform the correct repair and keep their vehicle on the road for as long as possible.
Due to the design of the boxer engine, the cylinders are mounted horizontally on either side of the crankcase. This orientation means that any sediment, debris or contaminants that might be present in the cooling system will settle down inside the coolant jackets instead of elsewhere in the system. The same thing will happen with the oiling system. Over time, this can cause the head gaskets to leak, leading to oil and/or coolant consumption, leaks and abnormal smoke from the tailpipe.
This is an issue that has garnered a lot of attention on social media and other channels, but it’s not a guaranteed problem with every single Subaru engine. Routine maintenance such as oil changes and coolant flushes can help to extend the life of the engine and all of its components. There are two types of head gaskets that will be found inside the boxer engine: composite and multi-layer steel (MLS). If the customer removed a composite gasket from their engine, an MLS replacement gasket can be seen as a more robust option. MLS gaskets are more wear-resistant and can offer an extended service life over composite gaskets.
It’s not uncommon to see oil leaking from a high-mileage boxer engine, or any other style of engine for that matter. While not overly common, valve-cover gaskets, camshaft seals and rear main seals tend to be the most likely sources. If the engine-oil level drops between services, but there are no external leaks present, it’s time to look inward. Worn turbo seals, piston rings or a faulty PCV system can cause oil consumption.
The all-wheel-drive system in Subarus can be vulnerable to unintended drivetrain movement or free play. For example, a worn pair of engine mounts could cause the drivetrain to shift from side to side while driving. This places added stress onto other components such as CV axles and bearings. If a customer is in your store asking about a replacement CV axle, try to help them figure out what caused the axle to wear out in the first place. You may be able to help them to treat the cause, not the symptom.
Timing belts and water pumps are routine maintenance items on boxer engines. Replacement intervals vary based on the model and the production year; be sure to check the OE service information for specifics. We suggest selling a complete timing-belt replacement kit with the belt, water pump and all other required components to get the job done.
Finally, be on the lookout for worn, cracked rubber hoses in the engine bay. Years of heat cycling will cause rubber hoses to break down, become brittle and crack. The same goes for plastic components such as radiator end tanks, reservoirs, plastic hose fittings and more.
It seems to me that Subaru has found a winning formula, and the automaker continues to stay true to it. I’m excited to see what the next decade will bring for this pioneering Japanese automaker.
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As luck would have it, I have the perfect serpentine-belt story to demonstrate: 1) the strange side of automotive repair; 2) the crazy things you have to deal with as a counter professional; and 3) that professional technicians can make mistakes, even when we don’t realize it.
A few years back, a friend of mine had driven to Georgia for a month-long visit with family. While they were down there, one of the front brakes locked up. They took the car to a local shop, which quoted them a lot more money than they could afford to fix the car. Since they were a close friend, and since I always looked for an excuse for a road trip, I agreed to help.
I was confident in their description of the problem, and even though I had never worked on the vehicle – a 1991 Lincoln Town Car – I was sure the problem was either a caliper or a hose. I bought all the brake parts I could possibly need, rented the cheapest econo-box car I could find for one way, filled the trunk with parts and tools and set the cruise control for Georgia.
As soon as I arrived, I transferred my cargo to the Town Car, turned in the rental and went to work. All I needed to do was fix it just enough so the car would make it back to Ohio and the comfort of my shop. I slapped on the caliper, bled it out and it was ready to go. However, before hitting the road, I did a quick check-over of the rest of the car.
My only serious concern was the serpentine belt. It was severely cracked and worn – probably one of the worst I had seen. I envisioned it falling apart somewhere in the mountains, so I thought it was best to replace it. On the way to the freeway, I stopped at one of the large auto parts stores and bought a belt. Since I hadn’t planned on this, I also had to buy a serpentine-belt tool.
The belt took me longer than normal to replace because the accessories on the bottom of the engine were difficult to get to, but I could see them well enough to know the belt was on correctly, and all the pulleys and tensioners seemed OK. I started it up, the belt ran true, so I was good to go. The freeway was still a couple miles and a half-dozen traffic lights away. Sitting at the very last light before 600-plus miles of open road, the car suddenly started making a terrible noise under the hood.
The rhythmic nature of the noise told me something was wrong with what I had just done. I dodged the entrance ramp for the side of the road. The new serpentine belt had completely shredded and fallen apart. I removed the remains of it, and luckily still had the old one in the trunk. I double-checked all the pulleys and tensioners and could see no problem, so I reinstalled the old belt.
Clearly, it couldn’t have been my mistake, so I blamed the belt for being defective. But, I still wanted a new one for the trip, so I returned to the auto parts store. I explained the problem, but they didn’t have another one. They refunded my money with no questions asked – which was, from a standpoint of customer service, the correct thing to do, and from my standpoint, also correct since a defective part wasn’t my problem.
With no option for a new belt, I had no choice but to cross my fingers and make the trip. I made it back without a single problem. The next week I took the car into the shop to properly finish up the brake work and install another new belt. This time the car was on the lift, so I draped the belt in place from the top, and as I always do, raised the car up so I could loop the belt around the accessories on the bottom.
Then I saw the problem. It turned out the correct belt for the car was a seven-rib belt. Someone in the past had installed an earlier-model A/C compressor that had a six-rib pulley, and they had installed a six-rib belt so it would work. Oops. In my apparent haste, I didn’t notice that when changing the belt. Of course, a six-rib belt works fine on seven-rib pulleys. But when the seven-rib belt was forced to work on the six-rib pulley, it shredded like cheese going on a pizza.
The counter professional where I bought the belt didn’t question whether or not it was defective. He just refunded my money. But he could have questioned it and maybe he should have, and not necessarily with the intent to say I had made a mistake, but in the interest of figuring out what had happened. Admittedly, I was surprised by the “defective” belt, but my confidence got in the way of common sense. Had I been questioned, I may have thought a little harder and began to wonder if indeed I had missed something. Well, we all make mistakes.
Selling Serpentine Belts
So, what goes into selling serpentine belts? The application is normally the easy part unless you have a crazy story like mine, but you may often be asked how to tell if the belt is worn out. Small cracks in the top surface of the teeth are normal and common, even with low miles on a belt. When the cracks extend all the way down to base of the teeth, that’s a belt that should be replaced.
The more prevalent indicator, however, is the cross-section of the teeth. When they’re new, the belt teeth aren’t pointy. They are squared-off at the top, and the cross-section of the belt will mate perfectly in the pulley grooves, providing maximum contact area. When the belt wears, the teeth become pointy and the cross-section of the belt changes drastically, reducing the contact area.
These visual inspections almost always allow you to make an easy decision about the belt. However, if condition ever is in question, and the vehicle owner isn’t sure of age or mileage, then it’s time to replace it. But the belt isn’t the only factor. Idler pulleys and tensioner pulleys are ideal upsell recommendations. Any loss of proper tension and any misalignment – both of which can be caused by worn idler or tensioner pulleys – will cause premature belt wear and/or noise.
Noise is the big one, and usually the first thing that makes people think about replacing the belt. Serpentine belts normally run very quiet, which is one of the reasons we like them so much. Any squeaking or chirping usually gets blamed on the belt, and usually it’s the reason they’re replaced. Make no mistake: A worn belt certainly can make noise, but usually it’s in combination with other factors.
It’s not uncommon to install a new serpentine belt to remedy a squeaking noise, only to find the noise is still there. In most of these cases, the belt truly needed replaced, but think of the perception by the customer. If they’re not aware of the other factors involved, they’re going to blame it on the quality of the belt. It happens often. Go figure! Who would ever claim a new serpentine belt was defective?
As I previously mentioned, incorrect alignment or incorrect tension can and will cause noise. In addition to pulley and tensioner condition, when the belt is installed, it makes a great straight edge. If it’s not perfect, then something is misaligned.
The most common culprit for noise, however, is dirt, debris and particles lodged in the accessory pulleys. If you don’t see it at first, look closer. It often collects in the base of the pulley grooves. As innocent as it may look, it will cause you to pull your hair out chasing a noise.
There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to clean them, but the bottom line is that it simply doesn’t matter. Clean is clean. Here’s the catch. Often, the debris is embedded in the grooves to the point where you have to dig or scrape it out with a pick, then follow it up with a wire brush. It’s not always fun, but it’s the only way to ensure no noise from the belt. You can use any solvent or degreaser you want, but that’s just the finishing touch. The physical debris must be removed, all the way around each and every pulley.
When it comes to upsells, belt tools are nice to have in stock. These are generally just for releasing the tension on the belt, but there’s another tool that’s a long metal rod with two metal “fingers” on the end. They are designed to grab and maneuver the belt, so you can install it in cars with very limited space to work. These can be a real lifesaver.
If the car has more than one belt, it’s a good idea to recommend all of them at the same time. If one is worn out, the other most likely will be too. It’s almost always a dirty job too, and one that causes a lot of skinned knuckles because you’re working in such a tight space. Shop towels and mechanics gloves are a great recommendation. If they don’t want gloves, point them to the nearest drug store to pick up Band-Aids on the way home. They’ll probably need them!
Last but not least are stretch belts. All the same rules for wear and inspection still apply, but there’s no tensioner. They have an elastic core that allows them to keep tension on the pulleys. They work great. Period. But installation is different. You absolutely must use the correct tool. It’s not that the tools are earth-shattering wonders; they simply provide a smooth ramp to guide the belts in place. If you do it any other way, you risk damaging, and most likely will damage, the belt.
Oh yeah, and for the record, I didn’t put another six-rib belt on the Town Car. I installed the correct A/C compressor pulley and put a seven-rib belt on the car. The way it should have been.
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