Thumbs Up: Comfortable for front and rear seat passengers.
Thumbs Down: No telescoping steering wheel, on the expensive side.
Buy This Car If: You know and love Subaru, and want more style, luxury and room than the Forester offers.
For years, Subaru struggled to build some kind of a brand identity in the United States. Even in their early days, they were fairly well known in states like Colorado and Vermont, where winters typically range from bad to brutal. Subaru offered an inexpensive, reliable and fuel efficient AWD alternative to full sized SUVs, and the brand’s reputation began to grow. For years, their advertising slogan was “inexpensive and built to stay that way”, but times move on and buyers don’t necessarily want inexpensive and de-contented cars, even ones that get you just about anywhere you need to go.
Subaru’s first attempt to go upscale was the Legacy sedan and Legacy wagon. Originally conceived to battle cars from Acura and Lexus, the Legacy models found their niche competing against Hondas and Toyotas instead. When Subaru introduced the Legacy Outback, they pioneered the the trend towards downsizing the SUV, and the Outback continues to be one of the company’s perennial best sellers. Likewise with the Subaru Forester, which is kind of a 3/4 scale SUV, and even comes in an entertaining, turbocharged XT variant for those who want a bit more spice with their all weather commuter.
In the early years of the decade, Subaru realized that they were missing out on an important segment of the market. Some buyers wanted more room than even the Forester offered, and families with small kids sometimes needed a third row seat. Subaru also wanted to shed their “boring but practical” image, and they made a serious effort to incorporate a unique style both inside and outside the Tribeca. When the car hit the U.S. market in 2006, most reviewers praised the Tribeca’s interior as being the nicest ever offered in a Subaru. Outside styling was a bit more controversial, and Subaru abandoned the triangular, “snarling badger” grille after just one model year.
The current Subaru Tribeca is pleasantly styled, even if it is a bit on the conservative side. The car looks best from the rear 3/4 view, where the character line starting at the front fender progresses into a dimensional ridge and blends with the taillights. The flared fenders give the car more of a presence, and add to the Tribeca’s somewhat beefy appearance. Even from the side, the Tribeca is a good looking vehicle, and it really doesn’t look like anything else on the road. Up front, however, is where the Tribeca blends anonymously into the crowd, with a nose that looks like it was pulled straight from a Chrysler minivan. Even the sculpted and titanium painted lower fascia isn’t enough to make the front end interesting, and that’s the main exterior styling flaw of the Tribeca. It’s almost as if Subaru went to the opposite extreme after styling the original Tribeca, and tweaking the lines of the front end would go a long way towards establishing a stronger identity for the Tribeca.
Inside is where the Tribeca really shines. The front seats (leather in all but the base model) are heated and wider than average, with comfortable side bolsters. The driver’s seat is power adjustable and features three memory settings, while the passenger makes do with manual adjustments.
Rear seats are also decent and feature an adjustable rake and seat bottom. A DVD entertainment system (part of option package 18) and rear HVAC vents ensure that rear seat passengers will be amused and comfortable, even on long trips. The rear is designed to fit two adults, but you can squeeze a third in between for short trips.
Unlike most mid-size crossovers, the Tribeca offers a third row seat suitable for children on short trips. You won’t be squeezing any adults back there, especailly on longer trips, since leg room is less than ideal. Still, Subaru deserves credit for offering a third row seat at all. It’s there if you need it, and completely unobtrusive when you don’t.
The dash is pleasant to look at, with a matte black top, dark aluminum-look trim and a lower surround color matched to the Tribeca’s interior. The center console wraps around the driver and the passenger, and the curve continues into the door. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also intrusive on leg room; you will smash your knees, more than once, getting out of the Tribeca. The other interior flaw is the lack of a telescoping steering wheel. I’ve got average length arms and legs, but I couldn’t find a comfortable driving position. If my legs were comfortable, I was having to reach too far with my arms; if I was within reach of the steering wheel, then my legs were cramped. If there was one thing that I’d tell Subaru to fix, that’s it.
Subaru’s touch screen infotainment and nav system is straightforward and easy to figure out, but the screen really needs a hooded display. There’s so much glass in the Tribeca (a good thing for outward visibility) that the nav display frequently gets washed out in bright sunlight, making he display hard to read. Below the infotainment controls sits the HVAC controls, which are easy to understand but somewhat puzzling. As far as I could tell, there’s no way to link the driver and passenger temperature settings, which appear to operate independently at all times.
Instruments consist of a temperature gauge, a tachometer with gear indicator (helpful, since the Tribeca’s five speed automatic transmission can also be manually shifted), a speedometer with odometer and a fuel gauge. There’s no readily visible driver information display, but data on range or fuel economy can be called up on the infotainment display.
The Tribeca’s 3.6 liter boxer motor puts out 256 horsepower and 247 ft lb of torque. Coupled with the five speed automatic transmission and standard AWD, that’s good enough to get the crossover from zero to sixty in less than 8 seconds. You pay the price for the power in fuel economy, and I saw 15.8 MPG around town. That’s about what the EPA tells you to expect, and they’ve rated the Tribeca at 16 MPG city and 21 MPG highway. Drive aggressively and you’ll struggle to hit those numbers, but those gentle with their right foot may do a bit better than what the EPA projects.
On the road, the Tribeca drives more like a car than a midsize crossover, and that’s a good thing. Outward visibility is excellent, and the Tribeca feels more nimble than you’d expect from a vehicle that weighs nearly 4,300 pounds. Subaru’s AWD system provides excellent traction on wet or slippery roads, and the four wheel disc brakes do a decent job of stopping. The Tribeca includes electronic stability control, called Vehicle Dynamics Control in Subaru speak, and electronic brake force distribution coupled with brake assist, which increases braking pressure in panic stops.
My Tribeca Touring version carried a base price of $36,520, including destination charge. The sole option on my tester was the $4,000 Option Package 18 (Navigation System, Rear Seat DVD System), which brought the sticker price of my Tribeca to $40,520. By comparison, a Mazda CX-9 in similar trim would cost $39,595, a comparably equipped Ford Flex would run $42,465 and a comparable Chevy Traverse would sticker at $44,410. That still doesn’t make the Subaru a bargain, since a comparably equipped Hyundai Veracruz would sticker at $38,890.
So who is the Tribeca aimed at? It’s really meant for Subaru loyalists who’ve outgrown vehicles like the Outback and Forester. It’s not perfect, but it is familiar to anyone who’s ever owned a Subaru, and that’s enough for a lot of brand loyal buyers.