By Mark Maynard
I was driving a Subaru Tribeca during a week of walloping storms and I thanked my guardian angels several times. I felt in complete control fording troughs of water in lanes of interstate, while visibility was blown out by sheets of rain.
Size isn’t as important as control in adverse conditions, and the Tribeca is so tight, refined and responsive it felt as if I were driving a BMW on dry roads. Even its 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter flat six-cylinder has that strong Bavarian engine tone.
I could see why owners love their Subarus and how Tribeca is a logical step larger for them. But I could also see why this Subaru is overlooked by owners of other brands.
Size does matter when paying $30,000 and up for a seven-passenger crossover. But as a seven-seater, Tribeca is too small and overshadowed by the overwhelming style and function of Subaru’s own five-seat Outback and Forester.
Monthly sales have been so low, it is honorable that Subaru keeps Tribeca in production. It had 175 sales last month, 256 in January and 208 in December — and those are the months when all-wheel drive is a selling point. By comparison, sales for Outback and Forester were 5,467 and 4,943, respectively.
Tribeca went on sale in 2006 and Subaru appears to be giving its biggest vehicle, a last shot at stardom — and it already gets 24 out of 25 stars for government crash-safety ratings.
New this year is a top-line Touring model, with more luxury features. All models now include third-row seating, when before the two extra seats were optional. Pricing ranges from $31,190 to $36,490 for the Touring, today’s test car.
The Touring adds heated front seats and an auxiliary air conditioning unit with headliner-mounted vents in the second and third row seats. It has a monochromatic paint scheme (without the lower-body plastic trim to resist road rash), HID headlights, a power moonroof and a rearview camera with a monitor in the auto-dimming mirror. A Bluetooth hands-free phone module and XM satellite radio (with three-month trial subscription) are also standard for the Limited and Touring.
If the devil’s in the details, then Tribeca’s troubles aren’t in what it does have, but what it doesn’t have as a top-line vehicle with a near-luxury price.
Fuel economy is challenged at 16 mpg city and 21 highway on the recommended 87 octane fuel. A five-speed Sportshift automatic transmission is the only choice, when a six speed might add a couple more mpg.
There aren’t center-console armrests for driver and front passenger. There is no power tailgate option and the door is heavy to raise and lower. And there are no straps or handles to help raise and lower the third-row bench from the cargo area.
As a seven-passenger vehicle, there is little legroom in the second row if there are tall adults in the front seats. And while the third row has nice seat bottoms, there is very little legroom.
These may be superficial concerns to a Subaru owner moving up, but not for the outsider comparing vehicle content and prices online. There is solid competition in larger, seven-seat vehicles, such as the Mazda CX-9, GMC Acadia or Ford Flex.
The CX-9 is a good comparison because it is also near-luxury in accommodations and ranks 24 out of 25 stars for NHTSA safety. It is almost 9 inches longer and about 2 1/4 inches wider, which provides expansive cabin space and more cargo capacity. At 290 pounds heavier, fuel economy is 15/21 mpg city/highway, and with more horsepower. The CX-9 also has a price advantage — and had more than 6,000 sales in the last few months.
Tribeca is an in-between caught in the American culture of people who spend hours a day in their vehicles where they like room to spread out. Size, price and features do matter in a seven-passenger vehicle.
2010 Subaru Tribeca Touring
Body style: seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive, sport-utility vehicle
Engine: 256-horsepower, DOHC 3.6-liter six-cylinder with horizontally opposed cylinders and variable valve timing
Transmission: five-speed Sportshift automatic
EPA fuel economy estimates: 16 mpg city, 21 highway; 87 octane recommended
Cargo space: 8.3 cubic feet to 37.6 second-row folded
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.9/42.3/58.1 inches
Second-row head/leg/shoulder room: 38.2/34.3/57.5 inches
Third-row head/leg/shoulder room: 36.2/30.9/51.3 inches
Length/wheelbase: 191.5/108.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,256 pounds
Safety features, include: six air bags; Vehicle Dynamics Control, integrating all-speed and all-wheel traction and stability systems; four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist
Base: $36,490, including $695 freight charge; price as tested, $38,690
Options on test truck: navigation system with LCD touch screen, $2,200
Where assembled: Lafayette, Ind.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at Mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.
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