2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca

Driver Side Front View

San Francisco You would think the birth rate was absolutely exploding, since virtually every carmaker wants an SUV with three rows of seats. Even BMW is working on "space-functional products" (crossover minivans) for six or seven passengers. Now Subaru, which doesn't usually follow automotive convention, has done just that by unveiling a seven-passenger crossover SUV, the B9 Tribeca.

Fear not, Vermont vegans. Despite surging sales and new products aimed at people who wear Tod's loafers rather than Birkenstocks, Subaru has not exactly joined the mainstream. As if to emphasize that point, the Tribeca hews to the Subaru norm of looking abnormal. The front styling was inspired by an airplane's fuselage and wings in a nod to parent company Fuji Heavy Industries' aeronautical heritage. You'll be seeing it in all future Subarus.

The Tribeca not only looks different from most mid-size SUVs, but it drives differently, too-which is to say, better. It's based on a beefed-up version of the Legacy/Outback chassis, with a revised independent rear suspension, standard stability control, and all-wheel drive that sends 55 percent of torque aft for a smidgen of rear-wheel-drive chassis feel.

Rear Passenger Seat View

Despite weighing 4200 pounds (500 pounds more than the Outback), the Tribeca had great body control when we hustled it through challenging Napa Valley roads. If you launch into a wide sweeper or descend into a hairpin, it's easy to forget that there's a substantial mass of SUV behind the driver's seat coming along for the ride. The steering is not overly communicative but has good feel and progressivity. While smooth and refined enough, the boxer six produces a modest 250 hp, and the five-speed automatic is in no particular hurry to deliver it to the ground.

The Tribeca's modern cabin is suitably decked out for a striver marque, with optional navigation and DVD screens and middle-row seats that split and fold more ways than a deck of cards. The optional flat-folding third-row seats are suitable only for children.The success or failure of the Tribeca will determine whether the Subaru brand can extend beyond its core competences of value, utility, and simplicity. If you have seven people to haul, a minivan makes more sense than any mid-size SUV. Clearly, Subaru is hoping that some of its customers aren't as sensible as they once were.

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