Full Test: 2008 Subaru Tribeca
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2008 Subaru Tribeca Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
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2008 Subaru Tribeca SUV

(3.6L 6-cyl. AWD 5-speed Automatic)
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You might accuse Subaru of having an identity crisis. Though it's built by a company that long ago established a tough-as-nails reputation among the inhabitants of wintry climes, the 2008 Subaru Tribeca dares to be stylish. It's kind of like wearing a tuxedo, only keeping your snow boots on.

Subaru went for a lot of style in the original 2006 B9 Tribeca. Mention "B9 Tribeca" to a friend and the reaction you'll receive is one of either delicious enthusiasm or a scowl, as though you just popped a lime in his mouth. Styling is, as always, a matter of taste.

Now devoid of the "B9" designation, the 2008 Subaru Tribeca has also shed its controversial skin, and it seeks more mainstream harmony between its upmarket appearance and practical family-rated nature. We'll see if it makes anyone look as if they've eaten a lime.

Doing a 180 on the Outside
Just when you thought you were accustomed to the B9 Tribeca's unusual, surprised-bidet face and creature-from-the-depths rear, Subaru has up and revamped the styling to a near-unrecognizable degree. The carmaker is taking no chances with this face-lift — all the adventurous yet awkward styling elements are gone, replaced with a blandness that will offend nobody.

A much larger grille and deeper front airdam give the front of the new Tribeca a more substantial presence, although the price is a reduction in this sport-utility's useful approach angle to obstacles from 18.0 degrees to 16.7 degrees. The rear taillights are larger units that, together with the relocated license plate, lend a more harmonious look to the back of the Tribeca. Functional improvements for the 2008 Tribeca exterior include usefully larger sideview mirrors and a reshaped D-pillar for improved rearward visibility.

To our eyes, the Tribeca's new nose bears a striking resemblance to a Chrysler Pacifica, and the anonymous rear smacks of...well, take your pick. Still, the new look is cleanly executed and the balanced proportions will no doubt curry favor with those who were turned off by the ambition of the original Tribeca's styling. Styling mission accomplished, no doubt.

Staying the Course on the Inside
The B9 Tribeca's interior was widely admired for its blend of Subaru practicality with a handsome, restrained sense of style. The new Tribeca's interior appointments remain stylish and largely functional, save for a center stack that curves away from the driver and a few ancillary gauges that are blocked by the driver's hands. Subaru didn't mess with success here.

Access to the third row has been improved by the addition of a tilt-and-slide feature on the driver-side second-row seat to complement the one on the other side, and there's a stronger helper spring to make the process of getting back there easier. Once you're in, the third row is no roomier than before, so it's strictly for kids. Meanwhile, those of larger dimensions can find a home in the second-row seats, which feature 8 inches of fore-and-aft travel and also recline. A rear-seat air-conditioning blower is also part of the three-row, seven-passenger model.

Subaru has gone to some lengths to make the Tribeca a right-size vehicle, so it lets you make a choice about the kind of interior function you want and offers some financial incentive for doing so. Tribeca prices, including destination, range from a low of $30,640 for the base-model five-passenger version to a high of $38,440 for an option-loaded seven-passenger Tribeca like our test vehicle. Skip the third row and you'll save a thousand bucks.

We Asked for 30, but We Got 11
When we first heard that the 2008 Tribeca would be sporting a 20 percent increase in engine displacement, we were pleased that Subaru had apparently heard our pleas for more power in the Tribeca. It turns out the increase of 11 hp from the new 3.6-liter flat-6 isn't quite the 30 hp we asked for, but the comprehensive package of improvements makes a purposeful difference. For example, the new engine runs on regular 87-octane fuel, whereas the outgoing 3.0-liter required premium fuel. And since torque has increased by 32 pound-feet, there's more grunt in the portion of the power band where the 4,294-pound Tribeca needs it most.

Subaru engineers packed 3,630cc of displacement into the same-size box by means of a 2.8mm (0.11-inch) increase in bore and a whopping 11mm (0.43-inch) additional stroke. To compensate, the cylinder liners have been thinned from 2mm to 1.5mm and the redline drops by 400 rpm to 6,400 rpm. To maintain the same deck height as the outgoing engine, a shorter connecting rod is employed.

A new parallel cooling flow scheme better regulates cylinder temperature for improved resistance to detonation, allowing for more ignition advance. Although Subaru's variable valve timing is now found on both the intake and exhaust side of the 3.6-liter mill, the 3.0-liter engine's variable valve-lift mechanism has been deleted.

The five-speed automatic transmission has also received a thorough makeover. Taller ratios in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th gear of the revised, lighter gearbox keep shift points reasonably similar to the previous autobox. Meanwhile, revised shift-mapping and a new torque converter are said to deliver quicker, smoother shifts, as well as a dramatic reduction in hunting from one ratio to another. Even so, we can't remember making any complaints about the old transmission.

The Magic Formula: More Power, Lower Fuel Cost
Driven back to back with a 2007 B9 Tribeca, the new 2008 Subaru SUV doesn't feel significantly faster, just a shade more eager while squirting around town, which suits its mission just fine. As tested at the track, the 2008 Tribeca proves acceptably rapid, getting to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds at 86.1 mph. There's less engine noise inside, too, perhaps due to revisions to the valve train's chain-drive mechanism.

Fuel economy estimates are 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway under the new EPA calculation that starts with 2008 models. (See our Special Report on the new EPA standards.) When we actually compared real-world fuel economy, we discovered that the new 2008 Tribeca is no thirstier than its progenitor. We averaged 16.5 mpg over a few tanks of mixed driving, matching the fuel economy we achieved in the 2006 B9 Tribeca. With more thrust and the cheaper running costs of lower-priced fuel, the new 3.6-liter Subaru engine is a smart combination.

Still a Solid Choice
Pointing the Tribeca around curves is a familiar exercise, as few of its underpinnings have been changed, save for revised rear bushings said to improve already well-dialed ride quality. There are no changes to the suspension geometry in the new model.

The Tribeca still steers with linear response and the right amount of effort, and composure is maintained up to its modest 0.78g cornering limit. The Tribeca's 62.1-mph slalom speed is electronically limited by the non-defeatable stability control. Though body roll is well reined in, the Tribeca is still not infused with the sporting character you might expect from Subaru's all-wheel-drive cars.

So that's it, then. Now that the oddball styling has been addressed, Subaru hopes its flagship will find the sales success that has eluded it so far. Still, style isn't everything. Perhaps the next step in the Tribeca's evolution is to have it fall in line with Subaru's corporate identity of unpretentious, rugged fun.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

Second Opinion

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
My first impression of the Tribeca is that it's just another midsize SUV in an already crowded lot of competent contenders. The new look isn't really doing the Tribeca any favors, although Toyota and Honda have done quite well without so much as peeking outside the box. OK, maybe the Element is a quick glance in an edgy direction.

But after spending a little time with Subaru's freshened crossover, I'm beginning to see its appeal. It has a little more attitude than the Highlander, although it doesn't go to the bone-jarring extreme of an Infiniti FX45. The Tribeca's ride isn't overly busy and I like this SUV's substantial feel on the road. Subaru says it has revised the rear suspension for a smoother ride, and the result is noticeable. This little tweak makes the Tribeca a lot more pleasant and makes it feel like a more luxurious vehicle.

Its larger flat-6 engine is an obvious improvement. Now the Tribeca gets away briskly, and merging onto the highway is effortless, something I couldn't say about the B9. Handling still isn't excellent (kind of a disappointment for a Subaru), but I doubt many WRX owners will be lining up to swap into a Tribeca.

The big Subie's interior remains a high point. It's fairly luxurious, and it almost measures up to that of the Lexus RX. I don't always like the way the controls and buttons are arranged on the overly styled dash, but this look is also part of what makes the cabin stand out.

Families who don't want a minivan and feel too bland while driving a Highlander will certainly find the Tribeca appealing, while available seven-passenger seating should seal the deal for many.

Stereo Evaluation

Overall Grade: B-

Brand Name: N/A
Watts: 160
Speakers: 9
Optional Equipment: Limited comes with upgraded audio
Price if optional: N/A
CD Player: 6-disc changer
Formats: CD, MP3, WMA, AAC
Aux Jack: Yes
iPod Connection: No
Hard Drive: No
Bluetooth for phone: No
Subwoofer: Yes

How does it sound: B-
In Limited trim, the Tribeca has an upgraded audio system as standard and no other system is offered. Sound quality is above average, although it lacks the added dimension of surround sound that is becoming a staple on many premium SUVs and sedans.

Still, bass response is deep although not very precise. The subwoofer is clearly doing its job, but we'd like to hear sharper, punchier bass. The overall tone is biased toward highs and this usually sounds pleasant to most ears. Unfortunately, those highs tend to sound tinny, while the midrange tones are not well separated. No one feature of the Tribeca's sound is terrific, yet taken as a whole, the system does deliver better-than-average sound quality. Of course, the Tribeca's near-$40,000 as-tested price led us to expect a little more.

How does it work: C+
Audio buttons and controls are not well laid out thanks to the Tribeca's funky rounded dash. Ultimately, everything is easy to figure out, although the combination of touchscreen controls and dash-mounted buttons is less than ideal.

For example, when using the touchscreen navigation menus, it feels natural to rest the lower part of your palm on the portion of the dash that juts out just below the display screen. The bad news is, this is exactly where some of the navigation system's hard buttons are located, so they kept getting pressed accidentally.

Loading CDs is quick and easy, as is adjusting bass, midrange and treble.

Special features:
Opting for the Tribeca Limited gets you the option of a rear-seat DVD player. It uses a 9-inch screen and has auxiliary input jacks for video devices like a digital camera, camcorder or video game console.

Conclusion:
In Limited trim, the Tribeca's stereo sounds a little better than average. Considering the Tribeca Limited's hefty price tag, we expected a slightly more impressive sound system. — Brian Moody, Road Test Editor

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