2009 Subaru Tribeca Expert Review:Autoblog
"It looks like a puppy," my wife said upon first setting eyes on the 2008 Subaru Tribeca. That's an apt description of any Subaru; they usually feel quite eager from behind the wheel, and they're trusty companions. The new front end on the Tribeca is more bland than the outgoing aviation-inspired look, but that hasn't dulled the inherent goodness of this big CUV.
The power unit has also seen upgrades. B9-era Tribecas (the alphanumeric has been dropped for '08) had 3.0 liters of horizontally opposed 6 cylinder to haul 4300 pounds. Power delivery was on the revvy side, so maximum torque didn't arrive until you wound it up a bit. 2008 brings more than a half-liter capacity bump, making the Tribeca feel more sprightly with not only more grunt, but also revised delivery characteristics that better suit most drivers.
The Tribeca's styling has had much of its polarizing uniqueness beaten out of it with a bland stick. The most dramatic changes are up front, where the original face's headlight tunnels and three-piece grille have given way to a far less distinctive frontispiece. In the interest of quieting detractors, the Tribeca has tiptoed to the precipice of anonymity, but thankfully, some of the interesting detailing in the shape pulls it back. Glance quickly, though, and you may mistake it for a DCX minivan. The rump has also come in for a nip and tuck. Gone is the inset on the lower portion of the hatch, the taillamps have been reshaped, and the rear bumper's facsia has been heavily revised.
Away from the nose and tail, much of the ALFA-esque styling has escaped unscathed. The flanks still carry sculpting that catches light and focuses your gaze. The rear quarter windows have been enlarged, a boon for visibility, and the D-pillar comes away successfully tamed. Even with its funkectomy, we still find the Tribeca interesting to look at, and the vehicle continues to stand apart in a crowded field.
Inside and out, the Tribeca is unabashed about the dashing line it cuts. The sides are hewn in a way that catches light and dribbles reflections like liquid. The more you gaze at the Tribeca, the more you like it, even with the higher nose and more traditional (and large) grille. Inside, the swoopy dash and fresh design still remains. The materials are well done, if more workaday than luxo-plush. Silver plastic trim always raises questions about longevity, but what we saw in the belly of the beast appeared like it'd ward off scuffs and nastiness.
Instrumentation is clean and easily read, with electroluminescent gauge faces. We were less than impressed by the "information center" LCD screen at the top of the center stack; what's so wrong about keeping feedback local to the controls? The speedo and tach sit at the bottom of two nacelles and the temperature and fuel gauges flank the circular tunnels. The treatment adds a bit of levity to the often-blah territory of vital information delivery. The dance that the gauge needles do when you first energize the electrical system is a novel trick, too. Our test car was not equipped with navigation, which would have placed a touch screen where the underwhelming LCD took residence. The display has a tendency to half-disappear when wearing polarized sunglasses, which made it difficult to read quickly, though we're sure part of the reasoning for the LCD in the first place is that it's a central repository for information about what the HVAC and radio are doing. We found ourselves looking at a knob that was bankrupt of any indication of setting, rather than going first to the LCD for information. Looking somewhere other than the control you want to adjust is just unnatural. It's kind of like driving the car via a VT100 terminal, and it's maddening. The HVAC's trio of rocker action knobs take practice, and the digital readouts in the center of the temperature selection knobs look cooler than they are in practice. Since the knobs have a rocker action, there's no way to quickly discern what they're set to without taking your eyes off the road long enough to comprehend the number in the readout. The central fan speed knob would also be better with detents, rather than returning to center. The other ventilation controls hide out just in front of the shifter, and can be difficult to quickly locate since the buttons are all alike, with low contrast markings.
The rest of the controls are easy to figure out, and fall easily at hand. The driving position and provisions are comfortable in that familiar, friendly Subaru way. The seats had tasteful, grippy fabric, and were quickly adjusted to proper posture. There are three rows of seats available in the Tribeca, but we think that the space is better utilized as cargo area, like our two row tester. The 2nd row is also more accommodating without a third row nipping at its heels. Even though the Tribeca carries high style, with its front quarter windows, deeper front airdam and powerful wheel arches, the D-pillars don't bite into useful interior space like in other vehicles such as the Infiniti FX. The load area with just two rows accommodates a long day of consumerism at the temple of the buck without a whimper.
When you finally break free from the joy of beating down your credit score, the drive home is a refreshing respite from the humdrum conveyances that surround you on your suburb to suburb trek. The steering operates with well-oiled precision and is weighted nicely for locking on to straight ahead. The Tribeca is definitely a Subaru from the driver's seat. Wheel motion is well controlled and the Tribeca doesn't have an aversion to rounding corners.
Subaru continues with its uncommon powertrains to good result with the newly-enlarged H6. The 3.0 didn't have enough room in the case for a traditional bore and stroke job to offer the desired size increase, so a slightly triangular connecting rod was developed to facilitate more stroked volume without an increase in deck height. It sounds like a lot of effort to go through when they could have just made the engine a little wider, but by maintaining the same external dimensions, re-cyphering the engine bay wasn't necessary, keeping costs down. There are lots of other detail changes to the mill, including variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cams, and a revised cooling system that drops the octane requirement to 87 R+M/2.
The Tribeca's idle is very smooth and well isolated, and at speed the 3.6-liter flat six is muted. A stomp on the go pedal is rewarded with a snarl starting around 2,700 rpm, and even with more torque available across the rev range, the 3.6 is better when the tach winds around past three. The engine note is sweetly mechanical, but not as thrilling as what you'd hear from that other company that makes horizontally opposed sixes. That's an unfair comparison, though, and the Tribeca's engine sounds good when being caned, and quiets right down when you're not calling for Full Ahead from the engine room.
The Tribeca's driving traits put it in good company, running with effete European breeds dynamically. The interior fitment lacks some of the sumptuousness of those vehicles, but that's not a knock on the big Subie. What you find is a vehicle that carries its size well, offers unique styling and doesn't have to be apologetic for sloppy reflexes. It's no Legacy wagon, but that's exactly the point. The Tribeca exists to fill a hole in the Subaru line not served by the other offerings. It's a big, family-friendly machine that is thoughtfully packaged, rather than being a V8 stuffed in a ladder frame and topped with an SUV body. The new nose will likely find more play in Peoria, and Subaru's apparent mission of turning out ersatz half-price BMWs that sacrifice little is carried through the newly freshened Tribeca.
New Car Test Drive
Revised styling and more power.
TriBeCa is a trendy, upscale neighborhood between New York's Soho and Lower Manhattan districts. It isn't cheap real estate. Nor is the Subaru Tribeca cheap transportation. Tribeca is a midsize crossover SUV with available seating for seven. Its overall dimensions put it in the same class as the Toyota Highlander and Nissan Murano; it's nearly as big as a Ford Explorer. Properly equipped, the Tribeca can tow up to 3500 pounds. Tribeca is fully competitive in this class, especially given its lengthy list of standard features.
Starting with all-wheel drive, the Tribeca is loaded with technology, giving drivers the latest in all-weather safety and performance. The Tribeca earned the highest possible rating in NHTSA federal crash tests, with five stars in the frontal and side-impact tests for both the driver and front-seat passenger; and a four-star rating in the tests for rollover resistance.
For 2008, Subaru drops the odd B9 suffix from the Tribeca name. More important, the 2008 Tribeca gets new styling that's less controversial than last year's.
A larger, more powerful 3.6-liter six cylinder engine on the 2008 Tribeca replaces last year's 3.0-liter six-cylinder. Also new for 2008, the transmission has been re-tuned, the rear suspension settings have been revised, and there's a new wheel design. Inside, a tilt-and-slide feature for the second-row seats has been added.
We've found the Tribeca to be a joy to drive, comfortable and practical. The new engine gives the Tribeca the power it needed. In short, we'd list the Tribeca as a buy. It's comparable to the Highlander and Murano, and that's high praise indeed. And we no longer have to offer explanations for the styling.
The 2008 Subaru Tribeca comes in five- and seven-passenger versions, each available in standard or Limited trim. All are propelled by the same 256-hp, 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine driving all four wheels full time through a five-speed SportShift automatic with a manual shiftgate.
The base Tribeca ($29,995) comes with five-passenger seating, cloth upholstery, an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat and a four-way power passenger's seat, both with manual lumbar adjustment. The second row of seats is almost as flexible as the two front seats, with a 40/20/40-split reclining seatback and a 60/40-split seat bottom adjustable fore and aft. Dual-zone automatic air conditioning is standard, as is a 100-watt, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers and an auxiliary input jack. Other standard features include cruise control, an interior air filter, fog lights, remote keyless entry, power windows, power heated outside mirrors, and power door locks. The steering wheel, which tilts and has radio controls, and shift knob are covered in leather. And there's an information center displaying audio settings, time, fuel economy and outside temperature. The standard tires are P255/55R18 Goodyear Eagle LS2 all seasons on alloy wheels.
The seven-passenger Tribeca ($30,995) adds a third-row seat split 50/50, plus heated front seats and an auxiliary rear air conditioner fan control in the second seating row.
Tribeca Limited five-passenger ($32,595) and seven-passenger ($33,595) models upgrade with leather upholstery (a choice of smooth or perforated) for the first two rows of seats. The stereo is upgraded to a 160-watt system with an in-dash six-disc changer and nine speakers, including a subwoofer in the rear cargo area. Limited also comes with a sunroof, driver's seat memory, a universal garage door opener, and roof rails. Touch-screen navigation ($2,400) is offered only on Limited, and it includes a rearview camera and XM satellite radio. A rear-seat DVD system ($1800) is available on seven-passenger Limited models with navigation.
Options include ultrasonic reverse parking assist ($270), a remote starter ($335) that allows you to start your Tribeca from up to 800 feet away, and a shade-type retractable rear cargo cover with a cargo net and cargo tray. XM satellite radio ($398) is available as a stand-alone option. A tow package ($514) allows the Tribeca to tow up to 3500 pounds. Several accessory packages are offered, allowing buyers to add simple extras such as floor mats, an auto-dimming inside mirror, reading and puddle lights, and various bumper-protection and roof-rack systems set up specifically for kayaks, bicycles, etc.
Safety features on all models include Subaru's Vehicle Dynamics Control, Variable Torque Distribution all-wheel drive and all-wheel traction control to help the driver maintain control. Brakes are vented discs with antilock (ABS), Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), and Brake Assist. Front seat occupants are protected by dual-stage front airbags, seat-mounted side impact airbags and active head restraints, which automatically push forward and up in rear-impact collisions. Curtain airbags insulate the front and second row seats in side impacts. All seating positions get adjustable head restraints, and outboard seats have height-adjustable anchors for seatbelt shoulder straps. Child safety seat anchors (LATCH) are provided for the rear seat(s). A tire-pressure monitoring system is standard. Safety options consist of the aforementioned rearview camera and rear park assist.
The most notable exterior change for 2008 is the redesigned front end. When it was introduced for the 2006 model year, the Tribeca had a three-part grille Subaru said was reminiscent of an airplane coming at you. We thought it looked more like a horse collar. Now, Subaru has changed its corporate design language and the 2008 Tribeca reflects that change.
If the original grille went too far in being different, the new grille and front end may go too far in trying not to offend. The grille is wider and taller, and the smaller grilles flanking the central grille are gone. The front of the hood line is raised, and the headlights are lowered and more horizontal. Subaru says the new front end visually widens the vehicle. We think it looks alright but makes the Tribeca look too much like a Chrysler Pacifica.
Along the sides, the body panels are mostly vertical, though not slab-like; their expanse is broken by mild fender blisters circling properly proportioned tires and wheels. Beginning at the trailing edge of the front door and even with the door handles, a soft crease grows as it moves rearward, giving the rear portions substance before ending in the wraparound taillights. An understated character line etched into the doors and running between the wheel arches draws attention to the matte-black rocker panels and subtly reminds the observant of the Tribeca's 8.4-inch ground clearance. The steeply raked windshield and A-pillars pull the eye up and over the tall glass house to a spoiler laid atop an acutely angled back window.
While the previous front end was controversial, the rear end was odd, too. That has changed as well. What was once a strange combination of an airy top half with a ponderous bottom half has been better integrated. The waist line that wrapped around the vehicle and created the upper/lower tension is gone. The license plate frame has moved up, and the split tailgate has given way to a one-piece liftgate. The new design is better looking, but again, more like that of various competitors.
Overall, the new design is less controversial but it's also less distinctive. It won't be a deal breaker like the last design, but you might not be able to recognize a Tribeca as easily.
While the 2008 Subaru Tribeca may be bland on the outside, its interior is a stunning styling statement. Visually, and ergonomically, it's a delight. It feels luxurious and upmarket. We felt comfortable immediately after climbing in. A little more time behind the wheel revealed that it's not perfect, however: the front seat cushions could be deeper for more thigh support, and back support isn't great. The organic, almost-wholesome sweep of the dash as it flows into the door panels creates cocoon-like comfort zones for driver and front-seat passenger.
We found getting in and out easy. We didn't have to climb up into it; we simply opened the door and sat down. Once underway, the relatively high seating position allowed us to check traffic several cars ahead. Outward visibility is slightly compromised by the thick A-pillars (on each side of the windshield), the trend as automakers design vehicles to better protect occupants in violent rollovers. More than once, we overlooked a pedestrian or another car at an intersection because the pillar blocked our vision. With the 2008 restyle, the rear pillars are thinner, making the view out the rear a bit better than it was before.
Once buckled in, all the controls fell right to hand, and the gauges and panels tasked with communicating important information did so quite naturally. Well, maybe the fuel and coolant temperature gauges weren't completely intuitive, tucked away in the lower outboard corners of the instrument cluster and utilizing LEDs in lieu of the analog style. But we liked the large tachometer and speedometer, which were easy to scan. Arms and hands rest naturally on nicely textured surfaces with the requisite buttons and levers where they should be. Steering wheel-mounted supplemental controls are styled into the sweep of the wheel's spokes. The shift lever's SportShift slot, which allows the driver to manually select the desired gear, is properly placed to the driver's side of the primary gate.
The rounded center stack extends into the cockpit for easy access to its controls and features. The primary audio control knob is centered within ready reach of the driver and front-seat passenger. The heating and ventilation controls are really cool, with big knobs that feature digital readouts. The front passenger's air conditioning temperature control knob is thoughtfully positioned facing the passenger. The stereo handles MP3 media, and includes an input jack in the center console. An elaborate information screen and (optional) navigation system display are centered in the upper half of the dash with controls that are accessible to both the driver and front passenger.
When ordered, the touch-screen navigation system includes a rearview camera, a great safety and convenience feature. When the driver shifts the transmission shift into Reverse, the navigation system's center LCD display shows what the color camera detects within its field of vision behind the vehicle. Reference lines help guide the driver. In everyday use, rearview cameras make parallel parking easier and quicker. A rearview camera can help alert the driver to hazards that are difficult to see otherwise, such as a child sitting on a tricycle behind the vehicle. Also available is rear park assist, which uses ultrasonic sensors mounted in the rear bumper to detect objects behind the vehicle and emit an audible beep that increases in frequency as the vehicle gets closer to the object behind it. Our preference is to have both features, both for convenience and safety reasons.
The second row is more comfortable than it looks at first, which we discovered on a day-long, round trip between California's Central Valley and the Bay Area. The seatbacks can be reclined. Indeed, we never even thought about comfort while riding in the back seat for more than an hour, indicating it was roomy and quite comfortable. The second row is one of the most flexible we've seen.
The big news for 2008 is the Tribeca's new engine. Now standard on all models is a 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder that makes 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. While the new engine has only 11 more horses than last year's 3.0-liter six cylinder, it also has a significant 32 more pound-feet of torque, which is important for getting 4250 pounds of SUV moving.
The last engine was merely adequate, but the new engine makes the Tribeca competitive in a class filled with excellent V6s. We found the new 3.6 H6 offers responsive power. Only slight pressure on the gas pedal brings up sufficient power for passing. Shifts up and down are managed almost invisibly; even when executed manually through the SportShift there is only the slightest interruption in the energy flow. Speaking of the manual characteristics of the SportShift, the Tribeca will shift up a gear at engine redline; it will not, however, drop down a gear without the driver tapping the lever forward.
Fuel economy isn't a standout feature, however. The Tribeca earns an EPA rating of just 16/21 mpg City/Highway.
The more time we spent with the Subaru Tribeca, the more we liked it. Not that it didn't impress us from the get-go. Multi-lane, divided highways passed under its impressively quiet tires as smoothly and as rapidly as did winding, switchback-laden two-lanes.
Subaru revised nearly all the suspension settings for 2007 and tinkered with the rear suspension again for 2008. The result is a smooth-riding vehicle with true crossover traits: SUV functionality with a carlike ride.
Credit for much of the Tribeca's smoothness belongs to the high degree of refinement Subaru's engineers have achieved in development of the horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. Credit for the Tribeca's nimble handling goes to the relatively low center of gravity that comes with that essentially flat engine placed low in the chassis, a trademark Subaru engineering feature. The Tribeca is bigger than it looks and in close quarters it feels that way, but on the road it handles surprisingly well. The Tribeca tracks through tight, left-right-left transitions with little body lean and inspires confidence at high speeds that you wouldn't experience in any of the truck-based SUVs. The steering is accurate, though a little slow.
We felt the brakes weren't ideal, or at least not to our liking; brake feel wasn't truly linear and somewhat spongy. And the steering column is offset a smidgen to the right, toward the centerline of the vehicle. A lot of vehicles have imperfectly located steering wheels, but we were surprised to find this in a Subaru.
All-wheel drive comes standard, and Subaru is a leader in this technology. Subaru's all-wheel-drive system makes the Tribeca an excellent choice when the weather turns foul or conditions become slippery, whether it's snow or ice, or a muddy, unpaved road, or a rainy, oily backroad or on-ramp. Under normal conditions, it sends 55 percent of the power to the rear, to provide a handling optimized rear-drive bias. The system also acts as an active safety feature even on dry pavement, helping to reduce skidding in corners and aiding the driver in controlling the vehicle. Subaru's all-wheel drive is your friend.
When our time with the Tribeca came to an end, we were sorry to see it go. We could see ourselves owning the Tribeca and being quite content with life as a one-car household.
The 2008 Subaru Tribeca has all the right feel of control and dexterity, plus impressive hauling capacity for people and things. The new engine makes it competitive in an increasingly tough midsize SUV/CUV class, and the revised suspension tuning adds to its refinement. Subaru's all-wheel drive technology is thoroughly debugged and proven. The revised styling makes it more attractive.
Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco after his test drive on the coastal roads north of the Bay Area and California's Central Valley, with Mitch McCullough reporting from the Wine Country and Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.
Subaru Tribeca 5-Passenger ($29,995); Tribeca 5-Passenger Limited ($32,595); Tribeca 7-Passenger ($30,995); Tribeca 7-Passenger Limited ($33,595).
Options As Tested
GPS navigation system ($2400) with rearview camera and XM satellite radio; Convenience Group 4A ($142) with cargo area spotlight, rear cargo net, rear cargo tray; Convenience Group 2 ($507) with puddle lights, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and rear dome, reading light; Popular Equipment Group 2a ($344) with splash guards and roof rail crossbars; Protection Group 1 ($372) with floormats, front bumper underguard, and rear bumper cover.
Subaru Tribeca 7-Passenger Limited ($35,995).
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