The new Tribeca is a fair bit more expensive than its predecessor, but then it’s a new beast altogether, with a new look, considerably more power and more refinement. Pitted against its direct competitors, the seven-seater Subaru is a bargain…
About a year ago Subaru launched the Tribeca, marking the brand’s entry into the SUV market. Leaving a subjective issue such as aesthetics aside, it was the less-than-perfect relationship between the five-speed gearbox and the 3,0-litre H6 engine that spoiled the mix, giving the car a restless nature on the freeway while making it sometimes unresponsive at low speeds.
Other than that it wasn’t a bad effort, with good dynamics and a car-like demeanour, which stood it in good stead for those wanting the looks, image and practicality of an SUV without making too many sacrifices.
The upgraded version offers much the same, but with a face much more likely to launch a thousand ships. Few Subaru fans would admit to loving the previous car’s styling, and most of them would consider the changes an improvement.
The nose is squarer, with a clearly defined and upright grille, flanked by conventional-looking headlights.The more horizontal bonnet has a number of benefits, says Subaru. It is easier for the driver to judge the extremities, and offers “improved pedestrian protection”, according to the manufacturers.
The rear view is also a big improvement and, parked beside the new model, the outgoing version looks clumsy and bulbous. The rear quarter lights are now a third larger than before to provide better visibility for the driver and a less claustrophobic environment for occupants of the third row.
Fundamental underpinnings remain virtually unchanged: the Tribeca is still based on a stiffened and strengthened Legacy wagon (Outback) platform, but with different rear suspension which has been further enhanced by different bushings for the 2008 model year.
Features and equipment
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The big news is the 3,6-litre engine, which has a different bore and stroke from the 3,0-litre unit and is a significantly different design. Cooling, lubrication and engine management systems have all undergone changes and the engine now produces 190 kW and 350 Nm, compared to 180 kW and 297 Nm previously.
Both the power and torque peaks have come down and maximum twist eff ort is now at 4000 r/min and the curve is much flatter. For example, at 2000 there is already 300 Nm available.
There are many other detail changes to the engine, all made with the objective of improving refinement, lowering fuel consumption and reducing emissions.Another plus for some buyers will be the fact that it can now run happily on 93 octane fuel..
The cabin is much the same, with the significant addition of a centrally mounted touch screen, which becomes a rear view camera when reverse gear is selected.
Just one version of the Tribeca is offered, and for R510 000 you know exactly what you are getting. This includes Xenon headlamps, electric front seats, sunroof and – significantly – the sixth and seventh seats! Strangely, the retractable luggage compartment cover still remains on a short option list.
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The Tribeca’s cabin has an aura all of its own, with the wave-form of the dashboard dividing the front compartment into distinct zones for the driver and front passenger. The ambience is enhanced by subtle lighting and details such as the trademark Subaru-swoosh of the instrument needles at start-up.
Front seats are very comfortable and the driving position is commanding. Unfortunately the steering column still adjusts only for height and not for reach, and some taller drivers complained of having to sit closer to the dashboard than they would have liked. In addition, the problem of the low-set and widely spaced gauges for fuel and engine temperature remains, which means they are oft en partly obscured.
Still, the environment is cosseting, an air of refinement adding to a sense of well-being. And not only does the engine have a more relaxed nature – it seems to be even quieter and smoother than before.
The touch-screen works well, providing a host of information quickly and easily. Satellite navigation won’t be offered as an add-on, though. Subaru reckons buying a stand-alone SatNav unit makes more sense, both financially and logistically.
Comfort in the middle row is excellent with the seats in their rearmost position. The cushion is split 60/40 and the backrest divided 40/20/40 so there are a number of options available. Theoretically, three six-footers could sit one behind the other, though none of them – driver possibly excepted – would be terribly happy. Access to the rearmost seats has improved but getting out is still a mission, though the actual seating position is surprisingly good.
With all pews in use there’s still sufficient luggage volume for a few school bags or grocery packets and with the rearmost pair stowed it expands to 450 litres – a competitive figure. Total load volume is generous, too, and the Tribeca’s practicality is confirmed by features such as a small storage compartment under the rear floor, cup-holders in the centre armrest, moulded cup-holders for the third row, and vents in the roof that distribute air from the separate fan speed control for those in the middle row. For added convenience, the tailgate can be opened electrically from the driver’s seat.
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While the bald numbers are not massively different from the 3,0-litre, the ease with which you can get the best out of the Tribeca is what makes the 3.6 version so much more driveable. For the record, top speed increases from around 203 to 206 km/h in our high altitude testing, while the 0-120 km/h sprint drops from 16,3 to 15,8 seconds – not vast differences.
What is significant is that it will be achieved on much the same amount of fuel, and the new engine needs to be worked less vigorously in any given situation.
The power plant still features both variable valve lift and variable valve timing but now the torque is more widely distributed. With gear ratios reconfigured accordingly, the transmission’s behaviour is vastly different and freeway cruising is no longer marked by the constant hunting between fourth and fifth that it was before. Of course, it still has one ratio fewer than some rivals but the drawback is no longer so glaring.
Drivers have the option of the Sport mode and in addition can shift manually in a sequential gate if so desired. The box will, however, change gear at about 6300 revs anyway, rather than allow the rev limiter to be reached.
Despite the marginal improvement in consumption, the 64-litre tank is still stingy: around town, drivers will need to head for the pumps every 400km or so.
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By SUV standards the Tribeca remains pretty sharp, its low centre of gravity and 55/45 weight distribution contributing to excellent road manners. Apart from its physical size, it’ll spring few surprises on those graduating from conventional vehicles.
The 18-inch alloy/tyre combination remains unchanged (though the wheel design is new) and the Tribeca still reacts obediently to steering commands despite a small (30kg) increase in weight.
There’s plenty of cornering grip. Understeer is well contained, though the vehicle certainly doesn’t point its nose into a corner or hold its line with the alacrity of an X5 – clearly the class leader in terms of overall handling verve.
Where the Tribeca scores is in the ride quality. It feels cushioned but controlled, soaking up most of what rain-eroded Gauteng roads could throw at us, only occasionally allowing bigger obstacles to thump through to the cabin. We also felt that at very high speed overall stability was not all it should be and steering feedback on poor surfaces could be disconcerting.
With its clever all-wheel-drive system the Tribeca takes some stopping off road, even when its modest wheel travel and tar-biased tyres count against it. As with most large soft-roaders, ground clearance and approach/departure angles are limiting factors and the deep front spoiler had a tendency to scoop up loose gravel or mud.
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If the 3,0-litre’s report card had said, “Must try harder”, the 3.6 would say, “Great improvement – well done!” It isn’t perfect, but it now has what could best be described as a well-rounded personality. It does still represent something of a bargain once you factor in the standard features that would cost extra on most of the premium brands.