Now in its fourth year of production, the Subaru Tribeca is a solid midsize crossover SUV. About the size of a Toyota Highlander, the Tribeca seats seven. It's loaded with technology, starting with its world-class all-wheel-drive system, and offers a luxurious cabin.
We found the Tribeca a joy to drive, with a roomy, comfortable cabin that has an upscale feel and a modern interior design. From behind the wheel, because of a sloped windshield and short hood, it feels more like a minivan than an SUV. The leather seats in the Limited model could use more bolstering, but it's a practical vehicle with lots of nice features.
The Subaru Tribeca is powered by a 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine with horizontally opposed cylinders (called a boxer six) rated at 256 horsepower. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 16/21 mpg City/Highway. All models come with all-wheel drive and a 5-speed SportShift automatic with a manual shiftgate.
Tribeca has good power, and it's smooth and quiet at highway speeds. Subaru is a leader in all-wheel drive technology so the Tribeca boasts one of the best systems in its class, making it a superb choice for foul weather. The handling is sure-footed and agile for a vehicle this size, the all-wheel drive giving it a secure feeling that encourages spirited driving.
Tribeca was launched as a 2006 model. 2008 brought styling revisions, a larger engine and mechanical refinements. For 2010, all Tribecas became seven-seaters, and the Touring luxury model was added. There are no significant changes for 2011.
The look of the Subaru Tribeca hasn't changed significantly since it was re-styled for 2008. It's a nice-looking vehicle. But if the 2006 original went too far in being funky with its Alfa Romeo grille, the current model looks bland with its Chrysler grille.
The near-rectangular grille is swept back and a little wider at the top, like that of so many other SUVs and crossovers. It flows into a gentle bulge at the center of the hood, while the lights to either side curve back and around into the fenders.
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 on Premium and Limited and subtly reminds us 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. The standard alloy wheels, with their five split spokes, look handsomely sturdy.
At the rear, there's a hint of a defining waistline, thanks to that upper-level crease that joins with the rear door handles with the gentle convex peak across the oval taillights. A sunshade-like spoiler trails the rear edge of the roof, and the bumper dips naturally into a step below the one-piece tailgate. It looks good. The tail lamps and shape of the tail gate are the best clues that it's a Subaru.
We like the monochrome look of the Touring model. The monochrome scheme pulls the design together without making the Tribeca visually taller; it also shows off some interesting detail work, particularly at the front. The bright grille, door handles, and roofrails provide just enough flash and contrast to ensure that the Touring looks like a real machine, and not (as with some monochrome designs) an extruded plastic toy. We like the Touring's new seven-spoke alloy wheels: a clean design with just enough three-dimensionality to suggest dramatic tension.
Inside is a luxurious and upmarket cabin. 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. It's a stunning styling statement. 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, especially in the bolstering, especially against slippery leather.
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 forward 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. But the sideview mirrors are excellent, so backward visibility is great.
Once buckled in, we found all the controls easy to locate and operate. From behind the wheel, the Tribeca actually feels more like a minivan than an SUV, because of the sloped windshield and the fact that you can't see the hood.
The gauges and panels tasked with communicating important information did so quite naturally. We liked the large tachometer and speedometer, with their organic white lettering, red needles, and silver rims. 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 conventional pointers. Arms and hands rest naturally on nicely textured surfaces. The doors are especially good, with nice long padded armrests and terrific long pockets.
The buttons and levers are 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 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.
The rounded center stack spreads outward onto the dash like in the shape of a Y. 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. On models without navigation, the image is displayed on the rearview mirror, but the image is smaller and, we think, less useful.
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 wine country. Later we took half a boys' soccer team to their game, and they loved the ride, totally spacious to them, as they usually squeeze into a coach's old Legacy wagon. 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 new tip-and-slide function eases access to the third row from either side of the vehicle.
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.
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.
Cargo space opens up to 74.4 cubic feet after dropping the second and third rows, and it's a nice, flat load floor. That's competitive for the class, though there are plenty of SUVs with more room. By way of comparison, the Toyota Highlander offers 95.4 cubic feet of cargo room, and the larger Mazda CX-9 has 100.7 cubic feet. On the other hand, the Nissan Murano offers only 64.5. Overall, the Tribeca compares well on 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 boxer six delivers competitive performance in a class filled with excellent V6s. Only slight pressure on the gas pedal brings up responsive power, sufficient 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; it will not, however, drop down a gear without the driver tapping the lever forward. Blips are programmed into aggressive downshifts, like a sports car. We often found it easiest to 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. Multi-lane, divided highways passed under its impressively quiet tires as smoothly and as rapidly as did winding two-lanes. However the brake feel wasn't linear as we would have wanted.
It's nimble enough, and there's not much body lean, although it's not as precise as it might be, during that type of driving. Generally, better handling comes from a lower center of gravity that comes with that essentially flat engine placed low in the chassis, a trademark Subaru engineering feature.
It's very smooth and quiet in a straight line. Credit belongs to the high degree of refinement Subaru's engineers have achieved in development of the horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine.
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.
The 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.
Tom Lankard contributed to this report following his test drive on the coastal roads north of the Bay Area, with Mitch McCullough reporting from the Wine Country, Kirk Bell in Chicago, John Katz in Pennsylvania, and Sam Moses in the Pacific Northwest.