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Subaru's Tribeca Goes Uptown

Editor's Rating: star rating

To boost sales of its Tribeca in the competitive midsize SUV market, Subaru improves the styling and drops the B9 prefix

Up Front

With its new, improved 2008 (already!) Tribeca, Subaru is a little like an airline pilot making a midflight correction. The B9 Tribeca, which hit the market as a 2006 model, hasn't been selling well, and tough new competition is on the way. So Subaru decided to fix the Tribeca's perceived problems now rather than later. It also said goodbye to the meaningless "B9" prefix.

I have to say that the '08 Tribeca is a very attractive vehicle, especially for anyone with kids and carpooling responsibilities. If you're looking to downsize from a big, gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicle to something smaller and more fuel-efficient, it's a winner. But we're in a buyer's market for midsize (and full-size) SUVs, and there are numerous attractive alternatives, many of which have lower list prices and which are being heavily discounted right now.

Here are some of the deals being offered on 2007 SUVs in roughly the same size range as the Tribeca: Through July 2, Honda Motor (HMC) is offering $2,500 in "marketing support" to its dealers on the Pilot that can be passed on to consumers; Hyundai has $1,000 rebates on the Santa Fe; Suzuki has $1,000 to $2,000 rebates on the XL-7, with an extra $500 off for active military and college students. Subaru itself is fighting back with $2,750 off on the 2007 B9 Tribeca through July 2.

Among domestics, Ford Motor (F) is offering $500 off its new Edge, and General Motors (GM) $1,000 off on the GMC Acadia. Toyota Motor (TM) also was discounting its '07 Highlander by $1,600 through June 11, though the big news is that the new, redesigned '08 Highlander with a bigger engine is about to hit the market.

The 2008 Tribeca, meanwhile, has a relatively high list price, though that's offset somewhat by the fact that all-wheel drive and a long list of features are standard. The '08 Tribeca starts at $30,640 in the five-passenger configuration, almost exactly the same starting price as for the '07 B9, rising to $38,440 in the seven-passenger configuration with a third row of seats, plus a navigation system. That's only $520 more than the top-end B9, before rebates.

Subaru is hoping the new Tribeca is attractive enough to gain sales momentum, despite the tough selling environment. It's 189 in. long, a tad shorter than the B9, but has roughly the same width, height, and curb weight as the previous model. It's a bit longer than the '07 Santa Fe and Highlander, and about the same length as the Pilot. On the road, though, the Pilot looks bigger than the others, because it's taller and wider.

The Tribeca's exterior styling has been changed quite a bit, so if you've seen its predecessor on the road and didn't like its looks, don't hold that against the '08. The net effect of the restyling is to make the Tribeca look more mainstream than the B9. In particular, the front end looks less odd and more substantial. The grille is taller and wider, the headlights and bumper have been changed, and the hoodline has been raised. In back, the taillights are wider and more distinctive.

The new Tribeca also has more power under the hood than the B9: a 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter, horizontally opposed, six-cylinder engine. That's only 11 horsepower more than the old Tribeca, but the new engine is designed to raise low-end torque to 247 lb.-ft., 15% more than before, so it delivers better acceleration at lower speeds while being more fuel-efficient than the previous engine and using regular gasoline. Premium gas was recommended in the previous Tribeca.

The federal government is changing the way it calculates gas-mileage ratings as of the '08 model year, so comparing fuel efficiency with '07 models is a little complicated. But the new Tribeca is expected to have about the same mileage as its predecessor—18 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway. If my limited experience with the '08 is an indication, the new model may do better than the previous one. In 270 miles of very hard, mixed driving, I got 19.5 mpg. I suspect I would have gotten well over 20 mpg in more normal mixed driving.

Like other Subarus, the '08 Tribeca has stellar safety features and ratings. Front, side, and head air bags, stability control, traction control, and electronic brake force distribution are all standard. It earned the top five-star crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in both front and side collisions.

Maximum towing capacity, by the way, is 2,000 lb., and can be raised to 3,500 lb. with the optional towing package, which is plenty for hauling small boats and trailers. Tribeca sales are way down so far this year, but that doesn't mean much as the new model is just coming out.

Behind the Wheel

To me, a Subaru, like a Mercedes, always has a recognizable feel to its ride, steering dynamics, and handling. Subaru interiors have been made fancier and less plainly functional, but the way the vehicles drive still seems more functional and basic than in other vehicles. As with other Subarus I've driven, the '08 Tribeca's ride is a bit harder than I expected, though not sporty. The steering isn't tight—there's a definite lag when you waggle the steering wheel back and forth a little—but it seems to take a little more effort than in other vehicles. All this is part of the appeal of a Subaru if you're an aficionado, but if you've never owned one it's something to be aware of before buying.

I also found the new Tribeca's acceleration more sluggish than I had expected. I consistently got zero-to-60 times of 8.7 seconds, though at least one other reviewer reported times of under eight seconds. I did a lot of runs trying to improve my times (which is one reason I was surprised to get such good gas mileage), but never could.

I also got the fastest times just leaving the transmission in automatic mode, rather than doing the shifting myself. As with a lot of other vehicles these days, the manual shifting function seemed to be there mainly as an afterthought, to match the available features in rival vehicles, rather than as something on which the company has focused a lot of attention (as, say, BMW and Mazda have). I didn't find it especially quick-shifting or sporty.

The new Tribeca's big appeal is its attractive, ingenious, and practical interior design. The dash is sculpted and curves around into the doors and center console, giving the front seats a cockpit feel. The design cuts down on leg space a little, so a tall or heavyset person might feel cramped. But I'm 5 ft. 10 in. tall and I had plenty of leg, shoulder, and head space in the front seats.

The interior is much nicer-looking than Subaru interiors used to be, but still functional. My test car had beige leather seats and looked almost elegant, but also cleaned up well. I carried two dogs in it, tried hauling skis, boards, and other bulky stuff, and even ate hoagies and dripping ice cream cones while driving (sorry, Subaru). Yet it cleaned up to look just like new with a damp cloth. The floor mats were of some sort of dark, textured synthetic material that didn't show the mud and dirt my shoes always pick up this time of year around my rural home.

One thing that surprised me is that, with the driver's seat set for my height, I could actually sit comfortably in both the second- and third-row seats. There are indentations in the headliner in both rows of seats, creating a little extra head space even in models equipped with a sunroof. There's also a new easy-to-operate tilt-and-slide-forward feature on the second row of seats, making it easy for an adult to get into the third-row seats.

The third-row seats have an unusual design that makes them more functional than most I've tried. The seats are quite shallow—only a few inches off the floor—but the seat bottoms are very deep, providing more space then usual so you can lounge back a bit and not have your knees up under your chin. I wouldn't want to ride in the third-row seats on a long trip, but I think I'd be comfortable for an hour or two.

Luggage space behind the third row is limited. But the seats fold down to create a large, flat space. The second-row seats also fold down in the usual 60/40 pattern, but not flat. What's very handy is that the middle section of the second row also folds down, allowing you to carry skis or other long objects even with four passengers seated comfortably in the two front rows of seats.

I tried it with a pair of old K2 downhill skis and some ancient cross-country skis that are far longer than the skis and snowboards most people use these days. The cross-country skis extended up between the front seats, but there was plenty of room for both skis and passengers. Of course, knowing Subaru owners, most skiers would buy a Thule rack to put on the roof, but you don't have to buy a roof rack unless you have more than four people riding in the vehicle.

There are handy cupholders sculpted into the vehicle's sides for occupants of the third-row seats, and electrical outlets in both the second and third row.

Buy It or Bag It?

Chances are you're going to have to pay a premium price to get your hands on an '08 Tribeca. It's new to the market, and Subaru is unlikely to slap big discounts on it any time soon (though if gas prices keep rising, all bets are off). The '08 is too new for the Power Information Network to have data on it, but the '07 B9 Tribeca is selling for an average of $30,645, even with an average discount of more than two grand, Power says.

That's considerably less than the GMC Acadia, which is going for an average of about 35 grand, according to Power. But it's slightly above the average selling price of the 2007 Toyota Highlander ($29,820), Ford Edge ($29,588), and Honda Pilot ($29,381)—and a lot more than the Suzuki XL-7 ($24,977).

If you're willing to pay a bit more for a newly updated model, the two rivals to look at are the Ford Edge and the '08 Highlander. The Edge is a nice vehicle but seemed a bit pricey to me when I drove it and doesn't come with third-row seats. The '08 Highlander, which is due out in July, is slightly longer and wider than the old one, and is now powered by a 3.5-liter, 270-horsepower V6 that delivers 249 lb.-ft. of torque. In other words, the Highlander has been redesigned in much the same way that the Tribeca has.

The bottom line is that you probably won't be disappointed if you rush out and buy an '08 Tribeca—except maybe by its relatively high price. But I'd wait a bit, and at least test-drive it against the Edge and the new Highlander.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Subaru Tribeca.

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