From the first time we saw Subaru's B9 Tribeca at the 2005 Detroit auto show, we knew that it'd be significant: It was Subaru's first seven-passenger vehicle, meaning that it would compete with a fresh plethora of SUV-ish minivan substitutes. It was Subaru's largest vehicle yet. It would come standard with a six-cylinder engine. It would cost much more than any previous Subaru, save the quirky SVX. And, certainly not least, it sported a goofy-looking, aircraft-inspired front end that was to become the new face of Subaru.
Such a groundbreaking car was a perfect fit for our Four Seasons test fleet, so we ordered a titanium silver metallic Tribeca. Once we got the vehicle away from the auto-show lights and into our own driveways, its distinctive design--both inside and out--drew our attention first.
"Although a designer seems to have been absent when the computer put together the exterior shape," creative director Richard Eccleston wrote in the Tribeca's logbook, "I'm quite impressed with the layout of the interior." Others described the cabin's styling as "top-notch," "a nice change of pace," and "voluptuous," but many observers found the car's exterior to be quite strange and likened it to a whale, an overfed beetle, a Hudson Hornet, and a Saab 96.
While the interior drew positive comments for its unique design, clear controls, and competitive levels of fit, its darker-colored plastics were criticized for their cheap feel and textures. Moreover, several drivers intensely disliked the Subaru's seats.
"The front seats are horribly uncomfortable," said road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos. "They have far too much midback lumbar and no upper-back support. Plus, you sit on top of the seats, not in them." Assistant editor Sam Smith agreed, adding that "both armrests are too far down and back, so I had to adjust the wheel into my lap to take the strain off my shoulders." The situation was compounded by a steering column that tilted but didn't telescope.
The annoying climate-control system also seriously hindered our comfort. "The automatic climate control is bound and determined to blow cold air on you," senior editor Joe Lorio noted after a midwinter drive across Pennsylvania. "We had to keep raising the temperature setting by one degree while keeping the fan speed on low. This was somewhat effective, but you shouldn't have to trick the climate control into doing what you want. If I were buying this car, I would pay extra for a manual system."
We reached a more positive consensus about the Subaru's driving experience, which was enjoyable for such a large vehicle. "It drives well," "the chassis feels very tied down," "there's no highway float," and "nice handling," were scrawled in the logbook's pages in the first month, testaments to the Subaru's well-tuned suspension and slightly rear-wheel-biased, standard all-wheel-drive system. The smooth, 250-hp flat-six engine--which produced a sweet, almost Porsche-like growl when pushed--did a decent job of moving the Tribeca, but its lack of torque became very apparent whenever the 4300-pound Subaru needed to haul lots of people, gear, and/or a lightweight trailer.
We were also somewhat disappointed by the Tribeca's overlight steering feel and its sometimes indecisive automatic. "The transmission is frequently unsure of itself, especially during kickdown exercises in normal (not sport) mode," one editor pointed out. "Downshifts are inconsistent in speed and force, and the kickdowns are often too abrupt in relation to throttle position. Sport mode improves the downshifts somewhat, but then the gearbox is reluctant to upshift to fourth and fifth."
Luckily, the Indiana-built Tribeca's trouble-free operation and reliability also helped salvage some of its creditability. A faulty wheel-speed sensor triggered the check-engine light early in the test, but our local dealership replaced the part under warranty during what proved to be our only unscheduled trip for service. Four scheduled-maintenance visits cost us only $244.13. Other than that, the only costs were a set of impressive Pirelli Scorpion winter tires and premium gasoline.
But boy, did we stop for fuel often. The Tribeca shares its 16.9-gallon fuel tank with Subaru's smaller Legacy, which also donated many of its underpinnings to the Tribeca. With our mediocre 19-mpg overall average and the tiny tank, the low-fuel light blinked on every 270 miles or so. (By contrast, our Four Seasons V-6-powered, all-wheel-drive Cadillac SRX chugged premium unleaded at a rate of 18 mpg, but we could still travel more than 310 miles before it was time to refuel.)
When we ordered our car, the least expensive (five-passenger) Tribeca cost a Legacy GT-like $31,320. Wishing to treat our readers, families, and occasional diminutive third-row guests to the best Subaru possible, however, we ordered our long-term test car in seven-passenger, Limited trim with rear-seat DVD entertainment and touch-screen navigation systems--a spec that inflated the base price to $38,320 and also included heated leather front seats, a six-disc CD changer, and a sunroof. We added another $1341 worth of floor mats, cargo area accessories, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and trailer hitch, bumping the price of our Tribeca to just shy of forty grand.
So, what's a $40,000 Subaru like? Not sufficiently different from other Subarus--just add a third row of seats, a nicer interior, and a bit more cargo space for about $10,000. Yeah, it doesn't sound like the deal of the century to us, either. That said, the middle row offers plenty of legroom unless you scoot it forward to make space for third-row passengers' feet, and Subaru did lower the price slightly for the '07 model year while adding a few minor features such as an iPod jack and a backup camera. Other changes for the sophomore year partially address our qualms, including a switch from chrome to black horizontal slats in the grille, an optional chrome-mesh front-end treatment, and a rear suspension revised for improved low-speed ride. But our fundamental issues with the Tribeca remain.
"This Subaru strikes me as not worth the premium over a Legacy GT or an Outback wagon," opined Lorio, who was actually one of the Tribeca's bigger fans. "Yes, the interior is nicer, you can get that dinky third row, and you get to sit up high, but the wagons are quicker, steer better, seat four just fine, and are a lot cheaper."
Indeed, the B9 Tribeca is groundbreaking for Subaru and a decent vehicle for families who need space for the occasional sixth or seventh person, but, odd face or not, we'd place it behind the Ford Freestyle, the Honda Pilot, and the Mazda CX-9 in this booming segment.