February 24, 2021

Goodbye Ruby Subie

All good things must come to an end.

You are driving on a two-lane highway winding its way through the foothills. Ahead, an unsuspecting tourist barely manages the speed limit as you catch up to them. A straightaway opens. You double downshift to third, dump the clutch, and floor the accelerator. The engine screams, boost builds, the turbo kicks in, and you’re already in the passing lane. You are sucked back into your seat as you row through fourth and fifth and change back into your lane. The tourist with rental plates vanishes from your rearview mirror as the next corner begins.

Today I bid a bittersweet farewell to my beloved Subaru, Ruby, of the last 7.5 years. She recently threw a check-engine light that preliminary investigation revealed to be something deep inside the engine, requiring removal of the engine for further diagnosis and repair (no compression on cylinder two, exiting via the exhaust, likely a valve, piston, or ring issue, for the mechanically inclined). Given her age and mileage (230 000 km), I could not justify a multi-thousand-dollar repair, nor do I have the time and inclination to investigate and fix the issue myself, so I sold Ruby on the cheap with full transparency of the engine’s condition.

When I first bought Ruby way back in 2013, I’d been driving a Mazda 3 but was finding it inadequate for winter highway driving. In order to handle such sketchy driving conditions, I wanted an all-wheel drive station wagon with a manual transmission, and, preferably, a powerful engine. With such criteria dialed into Kijiji (popular for used cars in Calgary), Ruby appeared—and I pounced. The minute I saw her red exterior, black interior, and outrageous gold rims (with the summer tires), I knew this was to become my car.

Fast forward to 2021, and a surprising number of people were still interested in Ruby even with her broken engine as she is a bit of a unicorn. The GT trim level incorporated the faster 2.5 L, 250 hp turbocharged engine of Subaru’s high-performing STI in the unassuming, practical station-wagon body of the Legacy. (A co-worker commented that the car was “so [me]: unassuming on the outside, yet so sneakily capable of high performance.” Touché.) It was thus a factory sleeper that those in the know could identify by its badge or functional hood scoop. You can no longer buy a turbocharged Subaru wagon in North America—let alone one with a manual transmission—hence why I held onto her for so long.

With such a powerful engine, Ruby was stupidly fun to drive. Ask anyone who got to witness one of my infamous fifth-to-third-double-downshift-and-floor-it highway passes or frozen-parking-lot donuts and skids. In almost eight years, such vehicle antics never got old. Rather than being a chore, driving was way too much fun. Boys with toys, I guess. Interestingly, I was never pulled over for speeding in Ruby—you can still have fun while following the rules. The only speeding fines I received were a few questionable photo-radar violations, which I contested and got reduced. I’ll make the case that having extra power on demand (minus a few seconds of turbo lag) can actually enhance safety as it gives you one more tool in your defensive-driving toolkit: get your passes over with rather than lurking in the oncoming-traffic lane, or use your speed and traction to get out of harm’s way if someone is uncontrollably sliding towards you. Subaru’s signature all-wheel drive worked brilliantly and not once did the car get stuck in snow-filled ski parking lots (at least in the snow-deprived Rockies).

It’s interesting how we can become attached to our vehicles. I’ll do my best to spare the car–girlfriend metaphors that are too easy to make in automotive writing. Seven-and-a-half years is the longest I’ve owned any vehicle so far, and I’ve certainly been through a lot with this one in terms of modifications, maintenance, and places visited.

The only modification I made to Ruby was to add an auxiliary input to the stereo. Only in 2007 and later did Subaru include a native auxiliary input into the stereo, so Ruby was missing one when I first bought her. Due to the integrated HVAC controls and stereo, adding an auxiliary input in this particular model was surprisingly tricky. Fortunately, an enterprising electrical engineer in Québec made a custom printed circuit board (PCB) that enabled auxiliary input into the factory stereo by completely disassembling said stereo, rerouting the ribbon cable from the 6 CD changer (Forty Licks was one of a handful of albums I ever owned) into the custom PCB, and soldering a cable from the PCB onto the stereo. On another occasion, I replaced both front lower-control arm bushings with the help of a mechanic friend. Working on your own vehicle is uniquely empowering and can strengthen your bond to it. (For some internet rabbit-hole fun on modified Subarus, massively popular MightyCarMods built a custom Legacy of the same body style as Ruby with an even more ridiculous engine, known as “Supergramps”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c4NmB5q454.)

Maintenance was expensive, running nearly $2000/year, adding up to almost the purchase price of the vehicle ($18k at 86 000 km in 2013). Many wear-and-tear items required attention: summer tires ($1k), winter tires ($1k), timing belt and water pump ($1k), spark plugs and fluids ($1k), brake pads and rotors (2 x $1k), front struts ($750), front windshield and sunroof glass ($1k), among other things. Unscheduled maintenance included CV joints ($1k), fixing the cruise control ($150; three shops could not figure it out with one quoting a $3k engine harness, while the fourth simply replaced a $150 switch), replacing the rear-wiper wiring harness twice ($1k; it kept cracking due the the cold Alberta winters), re-attaching a rusted muffler ($300; while it was unattached, the engine was effectively straight piped and sounded wonderfully obnoxious), and replacing a hub and ball joint ($1k). Throw in oil changes, and years of premium gasoline with surprisingly poor fuel mileage (9–10 l/100 km highway, worse in the city), I can only make the wholly unoriginal assertion that cars are indeed money pits.

Ruby took me a lot of different places: to the mountains from the city of Calgary basically every weekend for years, and to the West Coast and USA on road trips (back when those were a thing). I almost never drove to work or school, preferring a bicycle for most regular urban commuting.

A car can be both a means of getting places but also a place unto itself. Ruby’s station-wagon body provided a place to crash—figuratively speaking—as I slept in the back many a night on road trips rather than pitching a tent. Being a dirtbag is actually quite liberating: instead of fighting to find high-season road-trip accommodation and being beholden to arriving at a certain destination, just hit the road, sleep in your car when you get tired, and pay nothing to do so.

I have had my fun ripping around in Ruby as an Albertan; alas, the time has come to get something newer. As I now live in a small town with only a Ford dealer, it no longer makes sense to keep maintaining an older import. I hope that in your new life, Ruby, you will be able to continue the, uh, legacy (you knew this pun was coming). The hunt for my next vehicle is on. It will involve ground clearance, a more efficient engine, and—one of the most requested features lacking in Ruby—cupholders!

Goodbye Ruby Subie
Who could hang a name on you? (I did, for the last 7.5 years)
When you change with every new day (usually by depreciating)
Still I’m gonna miss you.