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The ever-shrinking list of SUV-free automakers has shrunk again. With the introduction of the 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca, the list is down to eight: Audi, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Maserati, Mini, Scion and Chrysler if you don't count the Pacifica. We admire their resolve, although Audi will cave next month and introduce its SUV, the Q7, at the Frankfurt auto show.
Subaru has come close to losing its SUV-free status in the past with its Legacy Outback models and its Forester, but the B9 Tribeca is undeniably a sport-utility vehicle. And for Subaru's sake it has to be a good one.
This isn't only the company's first SUV, it's the largest and most expensive Subaru ever, the first Subaru with an available navigation system, and the first Subie to wear the company's new design philosophy. Subaru is even calling it its flagship. In other words, the B9's 18-inch wheels and tires are carrying quite a burden in addition to the truck's 4,225 pounds.
After living with a Subaru Tribeca for 10 days, we think Subie's brass can kick back and relax. We like this oddly named truck. We're still wondering why it's named twice, once for a bingo call and once for the trendy Manhattan neighborhood, but we like it.
High Luxury, High Price
Our test truck, a loaded-to-the-gills seven-passenger Limited model with DVD and navigation, costs $38,320. That's $7 grand more than a base five-passenger B9 costs and about the same as a loaded Toyota Highlander Limited or a midlevel Acura MDX will run ya.
For your $38 thou you get a truck that's about the same size as a Lexus RX 330. You also get three rows of seats, perforated leather, rear air conditioning, stability control, front-seat side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags, "smart" dual-stage-deployment front airbags, four-wheel disc antilock brakes, power seats, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, tri-level heated seats, and keyless entry. Foglights and a sunroof, too. The only thing our tester didn't have was satellite radio, which was disappointing at this truck's sticker price.
Both rows of rear seats fold flat very easily, which opens up a maximum of 74.4 cubic feet of cargo room. When just the third seat is folded there's about half that, and with seven people aboard, pack light. These are average numbers for the class, but the Toyota, the Acura and the Honda Pilot do hold more.
Subaru has also packed the B9 with small details that help justify its price. Things like ambient interior lighting that illuminates the footwells, center console and cupholders at night; the two wireless headsets and remote control you get when you order the optional rear-seat entertainment system; and the extra heft of the clamshell doors on the center console are all nice touches that take this truck up a notch on the luxury-o-meter.
Flies in the Pudding
As jam-packed and luxurious as the B9 is, there are a few flies in its pudding. They aren't deal breakers, but Subaru should have done a few things differently.
Although visually striking, its interior design does have a few usability shortcomings, starting with rear-seat room. The third row is nearly useless for people with two legs and a head, which we kind of expected, but the short legroom of the second row was disappointing. It seems the second row was shoved a few inches forward to make room for the basically useless third row just so the marketing guys can say the truck can seat seven. And it can, but only for a few minutes, then those riding in the third row begin to choke on their kneecaps.
Weak air conditioning will also kill a good time, and the B9's is barely adequate to cool its large cabin on a 95-degree day. It gets the job done, but always seems to be on full blast and recirculation to do so.
The navigation system itself works wonderfully, easily finding the Santa Barbara Zoo and a gas station with an ATM for one family and Angel Stadium during the Yankees series for another. It's some of the other functions the nav system shares its screen with that come up short, like its trip computer, which somehow doesn't have a fuel-range feature.
We also found it maddening that the map screen never displays a clock or the radio station you're listening to. Most systems have the time in a corner of the map screen, and the radio station pops up in a smaller window when you change it, but in the B9 you must go to the "Info" or "Audio" displays for that data.
Power to Wait
All Tribecas are powered by a 3.0-liter double-overhead-cam horizontally opposed six-cylinder that makes 250 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 219 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. And all Tribecas use a five-speed automatic transmission with a Sport mode and a manual mode Subaru calls SportShift.
The B9 isn't underpowered, but another 30 hp and torque that peaks a little sooner in the rev range would be nice. At the test track, it accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, and covered the quarter-mile in 17 seconds flat at 77 mph, which is about the same performance as we've measured for a V6 Highlander.
When the Tribeca is loaded down with family, friends and all their fitment, however, the 3.0-liter is taxed, especially up grades. Keeping the transmission in Sport mode helps the engine stay above 3,500 rpm, which is where it makes its power, but you still have to plan way ahead if passing is on your agenda.
The engine also gets a little rough, a little noisy and a little thirsty when it's on boil, and it drinks premium. We averaged 21 mpg on the highway, 16.5 mpg during normal driving and a dismal 13.4 mpg driving like the Duke boys.
More of a Cruiser
Like most of its competition, including the Toyota, the Acura and the Lexus, the B9's foundation is car-based. Subaru enlarged and strengthened its Legacy platform to build the Tribeca, but replaced the Legacy's multilink rear suspension with a more sophisticated and smoother-riding double-wishbone design.
All-wheel drive is standard, as it is on every Subaru. The system, which Subaru calls Variable Torque Distribution (VTD), is tuned to normally send 55 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels, but it responds to driving and road conditions on the fly, continuously redistributing power to the car's four tires as needed.
The B9's structure feels tight and its around-town ride is pleasant, but this truck isn't the sporting drive we've come to expect from Subaru. Despite its big wheels and tires and aggressive stance, it's more of a cruiser. Slow steering, a fair amount of body roll and a mushy brake pedal keep you from wanting to drive it with any kind of zeal.
Lateral grip was also less than expected. Despite its big tires, stability control and all-wheel drive, the Tribeca felt soft and slow to respond in the slalom, negotiating the cones at only 54.5 mph. The last Highlander and Pilot we tested ran the 600-foot course faster.
The Tribeca stops better than it turns. Despite a soft pedal and the B9's big curb weight, its brakes get the job done. They resist heat well and stop this SUV from 60 mph in only 123 feet.
Puts a Premium on Style
Subaru says the Tribeca's "dose of high style" will "shake up" the SUV segment, and we agree. As are most of its competitors, the B9 is well built, well contented and comfortable, but unlike its long list of foes, it's cool-looking.
Although that look was pirated from the good folk at Alfa Romeo, it's the only and obvious reason to buy this B9 instead of its more staid Asian competition. Subaru not only knows this, it's counting on it.
So if you put a premium on style, then the 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca, no matter how silly its name, is the midsize SUV to have. Nice going, Subaru.
System Score: 8.0
Components: The Tribeca Limited comes with an upgraded stereo as standard equipment. Subaru calls it a "premium audio system" and it does offer more speakers and more watts over the non-Limited Tribeca. The upgrades include a 160-watt system with nine speakers including a rear-mounted subwoofer. The head unit is nicely incorporated into the sculptured dash and offers a six-disc changer with MP3 capability. A portable MP3 player or video game console can be plugged in as part of the rear-seat DVD entertainment package that's optional on the Limited. As part of that package, DVDs can also be viewed through the front navigation screen when the vehicle is in "Park."
Performance: The Tribeca Limited's stereo score is fairly high due primarily to its abundance of features rather than stellar sound quality. Not only does the system offer video game inputs, but it also allows the navigation screen (when so equipped) to show DVD videos (as long as you're parked). The stereo sounds fine but lacks the added dimension of surround sound that is becoming a staple on many premium SUVs and sedans.
Still, bass response is nice and deep and most types of music sound good if not great. The subwoofer is clearly doing its job but we'd like to hear sharper, punchier bass. Highs can tend to sound tinny and midrange tones are not well separated. No one feature of the Tribeca's sound is terrific but taken as a whole the system does deliver better-than-average sound quality, but given the Tribeca's $38,000 as-tested price, we were expecting a little more.
On the positive side, the controls for adjusting the sound and stereo functions are easy to use and are logically incorporated into the dash. The navigation screen also serves other functions, one of them being audio adjustments. The only drawback here is that some functions are changed through a touchscreen feature and some are not, and knowing when to touch or not to touch can be a challenge.
Best Feature: Navigation screen and stereo controls integrate nicely.
Worst Feature: Sound quality not as "premium" as we'd like.
Conclusion: Like the vehicle itself, the B9 Tribeca's stereo offers a combination of hits and misses. The sound quality is just adequate but the unit looks good and is well integrated with the rest of the SUV's functions. — Brian Moody
Inside Line Executive Editor Richard Homan says:
Thirty-eight thousand dollars is a long way to go for three rows of seating.
My fears and my expectations were summarily reversed after driving the B9 Tribeca. After seeing the new Subaru in photos, I expected to be unimpressed, visually speaking. But when it appeared in the Edmunds lot, in person before my very eyes, I was surprised by how much presence the van-ute has.
That good feeling lasts and even grows the longer the B9 hangs around. It's a good-looking vehicle that gets noticed, looks modern in traffic, and adds to the aesthetic value of any driveway, soccer field or pediatrician's office it's parked in front of.
This really is a multichild family school-commute vehicle. The all-wheel drive makes it a noble all-weather chaperone, although the AWD also hobbles the on-paper potential of the B9's 250-horsepower six-cylinder.
On paper, as well, is the goodness of a three-row, seven-seat configuration. I mean, who wouldn't want to be first in line to taxi a hyperstimulated group of preteen overachievers to little league, Pop Warner, Indian Guides, AYSO practice, computer camp, swim class, and birthday bashes at Golf 'n Stuff.
And when those three rows are in use, darn, where did the cargo space go? There's not enough room for much more than a stray thought and a pack of cigarettes. And while I would expect no more than provisional accommodations in the third row, I would have hoped for more legroom in the second row.
And $38,000 really is a long way to go for three rows of seating.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
So it's a little ugly, so what? There are already enough faceless crossover SUVs out there, do we really need another? That probably wasn't the thinking around the corridors at Subaru, but there's no getting around the B9's misshapen nose and odd rear end. You can't stop looking at it and wondering what it is — a brilliant marketing ploy.
Shocking sheet metal aside, the B9 gives you few reasons to dislike it. It's easy to get into and once inside the seats are comfortable and the cabin unique. Most crossovers in this class are purely functional. The Tribeca adds a little style to the mix and I liked it. Can't say the same about the lazy transmission, but the strong six takes up the slack. I got the feeling that if it were loaded up with a big family the engine wouldn't seem so peppy, but it was never more than just me so I could be wrong.
If there's anything that really bothered me about the Tribeca (other than the ridiculously small third-row seat), it would be the price. You can buy a lot of SUV for $38,000. None of them would get as many looks as the B9, and few would be as good in the snow. I don't care much about either. If you do, the Tribeca might just be perfect.
"I fell in love with looks of this SUV the minute I saw it. The car is real comfortable and looks great. I love the moonroof. It has the navigation system but I haven't had time to really learn it yet. However, I bought it because I haul around 4 grandkids all the time as well as I am a realtor and I wanted room for passengers. However, it is a tight squeeze to put more than four people in this vehicle. Three is really more comfortable. The worst part of this car is the extremely poor gas mileage. I thought being it was a 6 cyl. that I would get much better gas mileage than the Lincoln Towncar I traded in to lease this.However I get only 15.6 miles per gal." — Diana Dunn, July, 17 2005
"First new car we've bought in 12 years, so it was a big decision. My husband is a car nut, and swore he was not going to buy a Subaru. But this won us both over. We love it. Very convenient, great interior design, very comfortable PLUS we are averaging 21 mpg (we live in a large city, so this is amazing to us). Test-drive it and you just might buy it." — HJD, July, 16 2005
"After owning the Tribeca for about three weeks, I must say we are very pleased with the car. We find the vehicle has an ample amount of legroom both front and back. We like the fact that the rear seats have fore and aft movement. The car handles beautifully. So far it's been a pleasure to own." — Len Barta, July, 14 2005
"My husband and I were originally looking to purchase the Murano, and as I was conducting research, I came across the Tribeca. After going to the dealer and seeing it in person, we had to have it. We absolutely love this car. We have the Atlantic Blue with grey interior. It's like a cross between the BMW X3, Infiniti, the Lexus and the Murano. A lot of features to have fun with including the rear DVD, and it drives like a dream. We haven't had the chance to test out the sports/manual transmission drive yet, but maybe when we go on vacation, we'll be able to test it. Several people have already stopped to ask us what the car is, and we have gotten many curious looks when driving this car." — Trace& Mike Francis, July, 13 2005
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