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Just going to describe a few symptoms and what the trouble turned out to be in case anyone is experiencing this right now. Easy fix for this scenario!

Model: 2001 Outback Ltd (4 cyl, Auto)

Symptoms: Poor acceleration, and intermittent engine shudder, followed by flashing Check Engine light.

Background: Prior to the last oil change, I had noticed some sluggishness while getting up to highway speeds, nothing too major, but unexpected, and with all the new roundabouts in town, it got my attention because one needs to be able to accelerate quickly at rush hour. So, a few weeks ago, I got under the car to change the oil and do a drain & fill on the tranny (and gasket change) and having extra time under the car, I of course look around at everything, and noticed the #2 spark plug wire boot was sticking out further than the one next to it, so I reached up and pushed it back in until I had a (slightly) satisfying click, and pushed on it again from up top of the engine bay but it's hard to get a good shove on it because of the window washer reservoir in the way. Anyhow, I drove it like that for several days, only to notice the performance continuing to degrade to the point that every time I hit a big enough bump, I'd have to stop the car, and push on the plug wire boot.

Troubleshooting: Removed washer reservoir, pulled plug wire boot completely out. Last three inches of what is supposed to be nice pliable rubber was kind of dense hard sponge-like, leaving dark marks on my fingers. So the wire boot had been experience a tremendous amount of deteriorating heat. I examined the conductor connection inside and found it looking quite normal, but wondered why it was not staying on the plug.

Resolution/Conclusion: Turns out the spark plug itself had a missing tip that threads down onto a stem. I never saw this when I installed the plugs, and have absolutely no idea how or when the tip went missing, but clearly explains why the plug wire had nothing to snap onto. I bought a new Bosch Platinum plug and re-used the existing wire for now, because I don't know where to source just one wire, other than a junk yard. Car runs like it is supposed to, and I no longer fear darting into a round-about, especially with the kids in the car.
 
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