Move over WRX, there's a new kid on the Subaru block, and it's about to steal your thunder.
Having cleared the performance hurdle with the 227-horsepower WRX and the 300-hp WRX STi, the Japanese automaker is moving on to the midsize SUV market with the 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca, a seven-passenger vehicle designed to go up against the Honda Pilot and the Toyota Highlander.
About the size of a Lexus RX 330, the Tribeca, which goes on sale this summer, is the first Subaru to speak the brand's new design language. With its slight wheel flares, high rear beltline, snubbed front end and airplane-shaped grille, the Tribeca's look isn't for everyone, but it will be for every Subaru. Expect elements of the Tribeca's look to carry to other models.
The Tribeca is also the largest and most expensive Subaru ever, with prices starting at $30,695 for the five-passenger model and topping out at $37,695 for a seven-passenger Tribeca Limited.
An Outback Underneath
Unfortunately encumbered with a double-barreled name — "B" stands for "boxer engine," and nine is an internal chassis designation — the B9 Tribeca is based on a stretched and widened version of the Subaru Outback platform. The new body structure is 22-percent more rigid, with a 55-percent increase in bending stiffness.
That taut structure combines with a revised front suspension and a new double-wishbone rear suspension, which replaces the Outback's multilink setup, to provide a compliant ride. The Tribeca easily soaks up bumps, even over a rutted stretch of dirt and gravel road.
Power and Weight
Like all Subarus, the Tribeca is offered with only all-wheel drive. Power comes from the same 3.0-liter horizontally opposed "boxer" six-cylinder engine found in the Outback. It's rated at 250 hp and 219 pound-feet of torque.
The engine is mated to a highly modified version of the Outback's five-speed automatic transmission equipped with SportShift to allow manual shifting. Past experience in the Outback found its shifter continuously hunting for gears during mountainous driving. This was not the case in the Tribeca, its transmission held a low gear steadily during steep ascents, without early upshifts.
Even with the Tribeca's substantial weight of 4,200-plus pounds, it's never at a loss for power. There's plenty of midrange muscle and the Subie easily tackled a lengthy, steep hill climb during a light off-road exercise.
Steering, however, was a bit light for a vehicle of such girth, which accentuates the Tribeca's heft. On the road, this feels like a big, heavy truck.
EPA ratings have not been released, but during our 100-mile test-drive, the trip computer calculated our consumption at 20.7 miles per gallon.
Safety Comes Standard
On the Subaru B9 Tribeca, everything relevant to safety is standard, including four-channel/four-sensor antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD).
Also standard are traction and stability controls, seat-mounted side-impact airbags and dual-stage deployment airbags in the front with an occupancy detector for the passenger seat, plus side curtain airbags to protect rear passengers. By comparison, the Toyota Highlander's head curtain costs an extra $650, an option which is not available on the Honda Pilot.
Near Lexus Luxury
Subaru has shown signs of luxury intent in the 2005 Legacy and Outback models, but really brings the upscale look and comfort home in the B9 Tribeca.
Available in both five- and seven-passenger models in base or Limited trim, the Tribeca sports an elegant dash with more features than ever before available in a Subaru. One example is a stunning touchscreen GPS navigation system that's optional ($2,000) on the seven-seat Limited. Standard on the base is a 100-watt single CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers, while the Limited model upgrades to a 160-watt unit featuring an in-dash six-disc CD changer, MP3 compatibility, eight upgraded speakers and a subwoofer.
Second-row passengers will have no trouble getting comfortable thanks to 34.3 inches of legroom and reclining seatbacks, but those in the third row aren't as lucky. With its limited legroom and obstacle course entry which forces passengers to climb over the corner of the second row, the third-row seat is for occasional use only.
All rear-seat riders are bound to enjoy the optional 9-inch DVD entertainment system with two sets of wireless headphones, remote control and auxiliary input for video games, an option that will add $1,800 to a seven-passenger Tribeca.
On seven-seaters, a 50/50-split third-row bench and 40/20/40-split second row are standard, but cargo capacity is limited to 8.3 cubic feet with all seats up and expands to 37.6 cubic feet with the third row folded flat and 74.4 cubes with the second-row seatbacks folded forward. The Highlander and the Pilot offer a fair bit more.
All the Right Stuff
Some might simply consider the Tribeca late to an already crowded game. Subaru, however, calls the B9 "progressive."
After a couple of hundred miles behind the wheel, we still wouldn't call the Subaru B9 Tribeca progressive, but agree it offers an impressive overall package. Subaru's competent boxer engine and all-wheel-drive system combined with a lengthy list of standard safety equipment and a luxurious, feature-laden interior make this new flagship a vehicle worth considering, even among the top competitors.