The Good Sleek and polished design. All-wheel-drive. Flexible seating.
The Bad Slightly under-powered feel. Fancy feel for a muck-and-mire brand.
The Bottom Line Solid peformer. Good value compared with more prestigious brands.
Subarus have traditionally been the Wellington boots of the auto industry. Valued for their glued-to-the-road traction in any kind of weather, they were never so fancy that drivers cared whether they got them muddy.
The new B9 Tribeca is different. If Subaru's Outbacks and Foresters are the unofficial cars of Maine mail carriers and Minnesota ice fishers, the Tribeca would look right at home transporting Martha Stewart up the long, stately drive of a Connecticut estate.
Besides the car's plush leather interior and curvy exterior, one of the first things you notice is its size. The Tribeca, Subaru's first legitimate SUV, is the biggest vehicle the company has ever sold. But because it's based on the Outback wagon platform, its practical carrying capacity isn't much more generous than the Outback's. The Tribeca offers a version with a third row of seats, long demanded by Subaru loyalists, but the cars' overall length is the same as one with two rows. That means the third-row seats are uncomfortable and leave little room even for groceries.
The Tribeca's big plastic faux aluminum center console and cockpit-like red instrument-panel backlighting usher in an upscale era for the auto maker. The 40/20/40 split -- the middle seat is half as large as the window seats -- allowed for great flexibility when I stopped at Home Depot (HD ) with my son, wife, and mother and needed to carry lumber and some bags of mulch, too. The lumber rested between the two rear seats, and I was able to drive with the hatch closed.
Despite the new glitz, Subaru remains practical under the hood, using the same solid 3.0-liter, 250-hp engine and all-wheel-drive system as the Outback. Outback prices range from $24,445 to $34,220 fully loaded. The Tribeca starts at $31,320 for the least expensive five-passenger model and runs up to $38,320 for a seven-passenger version with DVD player and navigation system. Still, that top-level Tribeca is about $5,000 less than the comparable Volvo XC90 and Acura (HMC ) MDX, according to edmunds.com. Fuel economy is 18 mpg in the city, 24 mpg on highways -- only 1 mpg less than you get with the Outback.
I drove the Tribeca mostly on pavement but hit some gravel and dirt roads, too. It was smooth and athletic on the highway, though 25 or 30 more horsepower would have been welcome to help carry the 4,225 pounds under me. The familiar Subaru low center of gravity created by a low-slung engine minimized wheel spin on dirt and wet grass.
Subarus, with standard all-wheel drive, have long been sensible alternatives to SUVs. But the Tribeca, named for the trendy New York neighborhood, also fits right in with the snazzy Acuras and Volvos you might see parked on the streets of lower Manhattan.
By David Kiley