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Subaru Tribeca

words - Steve Kealy
Subaru's first foray outside its heartland and into the world of SUVs is a qualified success

Subaru Tribeca
Local Launch
South Coast NSW
November 2006

What we liked
>> Surefootedness
>> Build quality
>> Reversing camera

Not so much
>> Looks
>> Interior packaging
>> Ho-hum legal limit performance

The Tribeca is Subaru's first all-new car since the launch of the Forester way back in 1997 and brings to five the models offered in Australia.

It breaks with tradition in many ways -- it doesn't have a lifestyle name such as  Outback, Forester or Liberty (Legacy elsewhere), it offers a seven seat option and it is styled -- and built -- in the USA. Indeed, the name is a truncation of the "Triangle Below the Canal", an artistic and cultural ghetto in New York bounded by Canal St. Perhaps Subaru Australia might have been better to use the additional B9 -- meaning Boxer (horizontally opposed) engine, and model number.

'Tribeca' is inescapably going to be mangled: with seven seats, perhaps 'Tribe-car' is more descriptive anyway.

In essence, the new vehicle is loosely based on the Legacy underpinnings, using the 3.0-litre flat six and a five-speed automatic transmission. No manual is, or will be, made available. Subaru calls it an SUV, but equip it with a space-saver spare wheel, thereby contradicting the definition.

Quixotically, Tribeca's challenging looks may alienate many of its targeted new owners -- Subaru hopes that dual-income married professional families, aged between 39 and 45, with two or more children and a domestic income of upwards of $130,000 per annum will queue up to drop between $53,990 and $60,990 into willing dealer's pockets.

Subaru reckons that this very specific niche will absorb all the 380 Tribecas available before Xmas, and upwards of 150 per month thereafter.

Stylistically, the car is a mess -- it would appear to be the work of a committee which was never actually convened -- although it was nice of Subaru to let blind people style the nose of the car. The tailgate design appears to have been lifted from an Alfa 147, with a six-inch after-thought extension added to the bottom so it meets the rear bumper. The rear-view result is depressingly Tarago-esque, but without the outdated Toyota's style.

Inside, it's not much better -- the sweeping dash looks like a poor cousin of the Nissan Murano's sloping design and gives the feeling of space, but with at least seven different colours and finishes, the result is a discordant mess of textures. Sadly, the dominant one is a faux silver which in five or six years will likely lose its lettering and develop annoying black patches on the frequently-handled bits.

Conservative Japanese cars don't always sell well in the large and more confrontational American culture, so styling models in America, specifically for America, makes sense. In the Tribeca's case, this doesn't translate well to the rest of the world.

All Subarus sold in Australia are all-wheel drive -- an almost-USP shared only with Audi (though Ingolstat still has some FWDs) and fringe-dwellers like Land Rover. The added cost and complexity of AWD is justified by the implicit safety of additional grip, although the benefit shrinks dramatically in the face of increasingly common and rapidly improving electronic driver aids on two-wheel drive vehicles.

Standard equipment includes a rear-view camera, Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) with traction control, ABS brakes with brake assist, eight-way adjustable electric front seats and touch-screen satellite navigation on all models. The Premium model adds a roof-mounted DVD entertainment system with twin wireless headphones, electric sunroof, leather trim, two memories for the driver's seat settings and heated front seats to the list.

The value of the heated exterior mirrors and speed-sensitive front and rear self-de-icing wipers may be moot, but the absence of self-dipping mirror and sensors for wipers and lights is surprising.

The flat-six engine is pretty much lifted from the Liberty and Outback H6, with minor changes. Equipped with variable valve timing, it delivers 180kW at a busy 6600rpm and 297Nm at 4200rpm.

In the Tribeca, the engine gets a reinforced cylinder block and a revised cylinder liner design to reduce noise, vibration and harshness.

The electronic 'drive-by-wire' throttle was revised for more response, power and economy and a new accelerator pedal reduces the driver's leg angle for less driver fatigue.

The five-speed auto transmission has shorter gear ratios with a lower final drive and an incline control has been added, which alters the shift map when climbing to maintain engine torque. Given that the Tribeca with fuel in the tank and even a lone occupant will top two tonne, plus its maximum 2000kg towing capacity, the shorter ratios are understandable.

The rear differential casing now has cooling fins and a diff oil temperature warning light has been fitted for extreme conditions -- such as towing its maximum capacity in high ambient temperatures. A transmission oil cooler is also fitted.

The front suspension gets bigger shock absorbers and a thicker sway bar, while the rear suspension is a new double wishbone design.

Tribeca wears 18 x 8-inch alloy wheels and 255/55x18 Goodyear Eagles, but the spare is a tall, skinny space-saver, the 165/80x17 tyre being about an inch less in diameter and about a quarter the width of the regular wheels.

The spare wheel is painted bright yellow and when fitted, the vehicle is limited to 80km/h, but Subaru claims that approach, departure and break-over angles are not compromised.

The spare is cranked down from under the tail, and the regular wheel will fit in its place -- often an issue with space-savers -- but while there, it will foul on steep angles.

According to Subaru, the spare wheel is an integral part of the rear crumple zone.

Eight-way adjustable seats should make even Quasimodo comfortable, but the Tribeca's wide flat seats are short on lateral support when cornering, and too brief under the thighs too, so tall drivers will find long journeys wearying. Coupled with an extremely limited adjustment for steering wheel rake (and none at all for reach) some drivers might not get a happy harmony between feet, hands and backside.

That said, the driver can usefully brace the left knee against the console when cornering.

The seven-seat option is, frankly, a poor joke -- with even an average 175cm driver seated comfortably, leg room for second and third-row passengers of a similar size puts the knees against the seat in front, and feet awkwardly trapped by the furniture ahead.

What the Tribeca's designers seem to have ignored is that while very small children, even those who do have legs, might fit, children have a tendency to grow up, and we doubt that Aussie kids over about 10 will remain comfortable for longer than it takes to get home from school -- even the addition of a roof-mounted DVD player won't keep crammed, cramped kids from becoming fractious.

Finally, when fitted with seven seats, the new Subaru is claimed to offer 64 different seat/cargo combinations, depending upon how you fold the furniture -- including the fact that with all seven seats occupied, there is "still space for a golf-bag".

Full marks or rather stars, here. The Tribeca is right up there with the best of the best, scoring a maximum five stars in the ANCAP crash test analysis. It joins its Forester and Liberty stablemates at the top of the tree.

The tests, conducted in Sydney, were a 50 per cent frontal offset into a solid barrier at 64km/h, a side impact at 50km/h and an impact into a pole at 29km/h.

As with all new Liberty, Outback and Forester models, active head restraints are fitted to the front seats to restrict whiplash injury in a tailgating impact.

Dual-stage front airbags, side and curtain airbags with seat belt pre-tensioners are standard.

The Tribeca's Vehicle Dynamics Control includes an uprated traction control to limit wheelspin on slippery surfaces. When loss of traction is detected, individual brakes are applied to reduce wheel speed and engine power is also reduced.

Yaw rate and lateral G force is measured by a new double-axis rollover sensor system that prepares the vehicle for an inversion by deploying the side curtain airbags and setting the seat belt pre-tensioners in anticipation of the impact. Let's hope Subaru has allowed for exuberant offroad-driving Aussies.

In the US, the Tribeca was awarded four stars (out of a possible five) for roll-over safety; the highest rating ever achieved by an SUV.

However, what's not so safe is the manner in which the bulky and steeply raked A-pillar obscures vision while cornering -- drivers are obliged to peer around it.

According to Subaru Australia, "Tribeca will be competing against premium brands such as BMW X5, Lexus RX 350 and Volvo XC90, and mainstream brands such as Ford Territory Ghia and Nissan Murano."

Yet none are a perfect price and specification match for the new Subaru and in good marketing practice, the importer shamelessly cherry-picked details of the Tribeca's rivals that don't measure up: price, power, consumption, ground-clearance, warranty, wheels, parking sensors, sound-systems, security, the roll inertia value that resists a top-over and even spoiler-envy.

Subaru's Marketing boss, Graeme Woodlands, formerly a true blue Ford employee, went so far as to claim that the Subaru was "significantly more reliable and better quality" than the Ford Territory. When pressed, he asserted that while at Ford, he had seen the reports that backed up his statement, but wouldn't elaborate.

Subaru claims a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 9.8sec; a fourth gear top-speed of 195km/h and a fuel consumption of 12.4lt/100km.

To drive, the Tribeca feels big, and it is: 4855mm long, 1880mm wide and 1685mm high (Territory -- 4856, 1898, 1714; Holden Captiva -- 4637, 1849, 1720). It also feels heavy, and it is, from 1895-1940kg unladen, depending on model.

Unsurprisingly, the 3.0-litre flat six engine's performance is dulled by this mass and bulk; a sensation exacerbated by an overly enthusiastic automatic five-speed gearbox that gleefully skips up and down between ratios with the vigour of a vervet monkey on speed. The result is an engine that isn't able to shine and instead feels loud and lazy.

Yet allow the speedo to creep well past the posted national speed limit, and the Subaru tightens up its act. Power delivery is crisper, the gearbox less frenetic and point-to-point acceleration is impressive.

Handling is surefooted given the all-wheel drive, but the lack of lateral seat support will make spirited driving tiresome, so in reality the Tribeca is less of an SUV and more of an American-style minivan. The launch venue didn't offer any gravel roads, so an idea of the vehicle's all-road prowess will have to wait for an evaluation closer to home.

Tribeca's specification includes several great features, with the reversing camera the first among many, and although some exclusions are a little baffling, the competitive price will win Subaru new customers who aren't petrolhead enthusiasts, but who have a keen eye for a bargain.
A five-star safety rating will placate the nervous, but the drive experience is a long way from the involving and entertaining experience that Subaru usually serves up.



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Published : Thursday, 9 November 2006

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