The Subaru 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, in other words. Properly equipped, the Tribeca can tow up to 3,500 pounds. In fact, the 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. The Tribeca has also been named a Top Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The Tribeca first appeared in 2006, powered by a 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. It was an attractive vehicle with the exception of its grille design, which was certainly distinctive but controversial at the time and hasn't grown on us as we hoped it might. The 2008 model year brought revised styling that gave it a more conventional look. We find the revised looks pleasing if not distinctive. The 2008 lineup also brought a larger, more powerful 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine and other mechanical refinements.
For 2009, Subaru has expanded the model lineup, inserting a new mid-range SE trim level between the base model and the upscale Limited.
We find the Tribeca a joy to drive, with a roomy, comfortable cabin that has an upscale feel. It's a practical vehicle with lots of nice features. The bigger engine has given the Tribeca the power it needed. Subaru is a leader in all-wheel-drive technology so the Tribeca boasts one of the best such systems in this class, making it a superb choice for foul weather. In short, we 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 excuses for the styling.
When it was introduced for the 2006 model year, the Tribeca faced the world with a three-part grille Subaru said was reminiscent of an airplane coming at you. We thought it looked more like a horse collar. Since then, Subaru has changed its corporate design language, and the resulting new look for 2008 continues unchanged for 2009.
It's a nice-looking vehicle. But if the original grille went too far in being different, the current 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. If you're thinking we're hard to please, you're right. There's certainly nothing wrong with the looks of the Tribeca.
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 glasshouse to a spoiler laid atop an acutely angled back window.
While the previous front end was controversial, the rear end was odd, too. That changed last year 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 rear design is better looking, but more like that of various competitors.
Inside, the Subaru Tribeca offers a stunning styling statement. Visually, and ergonomically, we found the Tribeca cabin a delight. It feels luxurious and upmarket. We felt comfortable immediately after climbing in. 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. 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.
We found getting in and out easy. We didn't have to climb up into it or down 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); thick pillars are the trend as automakers design vehicles to better protect occupants in 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 became thinner, making the view out the rear a bit better than it was before.
Once buckled in, we found all the controls easy to locate and operate. The gauges and panels tasked with communicating important information did so quite naturally. We liked the large tachometer and speedometer, which were easy to scan. 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. 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.
The touch-screen navigation system includes a rearview camera, a great safety and convenience feature. When the driver shifts the transmission 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 daylong, round trip between California's Central Valley and the Bay Area and another extended ride in the back seats around California's Wine Country. The second-row 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 in terms of configurations and range of adjustments, as we learned on routine trips to the grocery store, the post office and just generally running around town for a week. A tilt-and-slide function added to the second row last year eases third row access. That's a good thing, because getting in and out of the third row wasn't easy before.
The glove box offers enough space for the owner's manual, cell phones, and garage door remotes. Two cupholders are concealed beneath a well-damped cover in the center console aft of the shift lever. Rearward of this is the padded center armrest covering a respectably sized storage bin. Two more cupholders can be found in the fold-down middle seat center armrest. Space for a water bottle is molded into the map pockets on each of the four doors and into the quarter panels in the cargo area. Storage nets are stitched into the back sides of the front seats. There are four power points: two in the front center console, making for a bit of a stretch for radar detector cords, and two in the cargo area. The sound-insulating subfloor in the cargo area has several different-sized bins molded into its top side. A bin-with-net in the left-side quarter panel in the base model's cargo area gives way to the subwoofer in the SE and Limited.
The Tribeca impressed us in routine, daily use. Flipping up the tailgate and dropping the third-row seat to load up a week's groceries or purchases from the neighborhood hardware store for a weekend's chores quickly became second nature. Dropping the second and third rows opens up 74.4 cubic feet of cargo room on a flat load floor. That's competitive for the class, but there are plenty of SUVs with more room. By way of comparison, the Mazda CX-9 has 100.7 cubic feet of cargo room and the Toyota Highlander offers 95.4 cubic feet. Nonetheless, the Tribeca has lots of utility.
The Subaru Tribeca is enjoyable to drive regardless of weather conditions.
It's powered by a 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine that makes 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. Subaru's 3.6-liter six-cylinder delivers competitive performance in a class filled with excellent V6s. We found the 3.6-liter H6 offers responsive power. Only slight pressure on the gas pedal brings up sufficient power for passing.
The transmission is smooth and responsive. Shifts up and down are managed almost seamlessly. Even when shifted manually using the SportShift there is only the slightest interruption in the energy flow. When using the SportShift, the Tribeca will shift up a gear automatically at engine redline (because it assumes the driver forgot it was in manual mode); it will not, however, drop down a gear without the driver tapping the lever forward. We often found it easiest to simply put it in Drive and let it do its own shifting, since it did such a good job on its own.
Fuel economy isn't a standout feature, however. The Tribeca earns an EPA rating of just 16/21 mpg City/Highway. This is likely due to weight and all-wheel drive.
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 big, 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 most 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 serves 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 2009 Subaru Tribeca has all the right feel of control and dexterity, plus impressive hauling capacity for people and things. The 3.6-liter H6 engine delivers competitive performance when compared with other SUVs. Careful suspension tuning and a relatively low center of gravity results in responsive handling that makes driving the Tribeca enjoyable. The engine and ride quality are smooth and comfortable. Subaru's all-wheel drive technology is thoroughly proven. The current styling is more attractive than that of the 2006-07 models.
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.