Subaru's Transformation to Johnny Town Mouse

David Kiley

More from the North American International Auto Show.

Subaru is a brand clearly trying to go from a country mouse to a city mouse. Beatrix Potter readers know what I mean. Those who don't can buy a book. Subaru has long starved its customer base, rabidly loyal to the brand's utility and all-wheel drive, of a decent size SUV or minivan. Take my family, for instance. We had a 1998 Subaru Outback. Our son Henry came along and the station-wagon got frightfully small with his child seat anchored in the middle. Go on a Christmas trip with luggage and presents, and we were murmuring..."we gotta get a minivan." And we did--a Honda Odyssey. If Subaru had a minivan or some such seven-passenger equivalent, we would have bought it.

Now, Subaru does have one, the B9 Tribeca.

Subaru has long been known as the Birkenstock shoe of the auto industry. Not too pretty, but extremely capable and of high quality. To its followers, Subaru is a cool brand. It's like a cheaper, better-in-the-snow version of Volvo. And very reliable. But its Japanese owners are not happy with this image. There is pride involved, you see. What's Japanese for "not comfortable in your own skin." They have been moving to take Subaru upscale, to compete more evenly with Acura and Volvo. It has been introducing speed and performance into the lineup the last few years with the WRX, which is a terrific car and enthusiastically embraced by auto writers. A loaded Outback is now above $30,000. The Tribeca will be priced well above $30,000. And the name--Tribeca--of course refers to a trendy neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. The Outback, by comparison, refers to the Australian Outback. I hear some bloke at Subaru suggested calling it the "Flushing" for the neighborhood in Queens where the Mets play, but that it was shot down in focus groups. Do the denizens of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone and Rocky Mountain mail carriers who have been loyally buying Subarus for decades even know what Tribeca is?

At the auto show, the Tribeca was launched to the crowd with Champagne, fancy chocolates and stinky imported cheese. I was looking for a hot cup of coffee and an energy bar maybe. That's Subaru's image. The head of design at Subaru, Andreas Zapatinas, came to Suabru from Alfa Romeo to set the new design direction at Subaru. And the Tribeca, frankly, looks like the European designers won every debate they had with the practical packaging engineers on this project. That third row of seats we all wanted in a Subaru is so far smooshed back in the vehicle as to make you not want to use it. The space behind the third row would hardly hold $200 worth of groceries from Whole Foods--two bags. It's too fancy for this brand, it seems to me. Call me a Subaru enthusiast, which I am. It's not that I don't like to see my brands grow up. But it's at times like this I recall what my Mother always told me when we Kileys were going out the door. It's advice that has served me well, and serves marketers well when they heed the advice. "Remember Who You Are." Yep. That's what she always told us before we ventured out of range of her protective eyes.

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