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2009 Subaru Outback PZEV (Subaru)
2009 Subaru Outback PZEV (Subaru)

You & Your Car

Timing belt trouble: Can I fix it myself? Add to ...

I drive a 2000 Subaru Outback that is nearing 147,000 kilometres. I’ve noticed, with increasing frequency, a light clattering engine noise when the weather is cold. The colder it is, the worse the noise gets, However, there is never any trouble starting the engine and, once warmed up, the noise goes away. It seems to be valve related and I believe it might be the timing belt. In summer, it’s hardly noticeable. The maintenance manual says to change the belt at 160,000 kilometres. Are there any other methods to prove it is the belt? If it is, I’d like to replace it myself. Can you tell me the typical cost of do-it-yourself versus a shop repair? Do you know of a video I can watch? – Gregory

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It seems a bit early for the belt to need replacement. The clatter when cold could be an oil-related issue. It is tougher for oil to get into tight spots when cold, so those first few seconds can be noisy and cause damage. Perhaps it is time for an oil specifically developed for high-mileage engines.

There are no tests I am aware of for checking the timing belt that do not involve gaining access to look at it. Even then, the visual won’t help since the issue is that, over the years and kilometres, the belt stretches. It may look fine, but the longer length alters the critical issue of timing – when the valves open and close.

If the belt has stretched and the resulting change in timing caused the noise you hear, that would occur regardless of ambient temperature – whether summer or winter.

Replacing the belt is a major job. The belt itself is probably a $50 part, but the average cost of replacing it is in the $1,000 range – because of the labour involved. If you are a competent mechanic with all the right tools and experience, search the Web for a video and have at it.

But be aware a lot of things have to come off the engine, including the radiator and related hoses and the various devices run by belts and pulleys – before you get to the timing belt cover.

If shopping around for a spot to do the work, make sure to compare apples to apples. One shop might give a low-ball figure, but is it going to replace not only the belt, but related items like idler pulleys, tensioner, crank and cam seals?

The time to do this is when they are exposed – after all, they have been in service for a long time – assuming they will last much longer is a gamble. Does the shop warrant its work, and if so, has it been in business long enough to trust it may still be there if a problem arrives down the road?

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Winter tires

I live in New York City where winters are cold but there isn’t much snow. I drive to Montreal a few times a winter and want to know if I should replace my OEM (original equipment manufacturer) tires with an all-season that is decent in light snow or a winter or ice tire. Can I use these tires all year on my SUV or is that bad? – Brahm

That’s a quandary many people face, commonly Canadians heading south during the winter. The issue is not so much snow as temperature. All-season or, as I call them, “compromise” tires start to lose their effectiveness below 7 C. The harder rubber provides less grip.

There is a new “all-weather” tire that claims to be effective year-round but again, think compromise. In your shoes, I’d have a set of proper winter tires so you are covered whether in New York, Montreal or anywhere else where it gets cold.

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