Up to now Subaru’s leisure offerings have consisted of station wagons with an off-road bent, the split between this dual-purpose ability varying depending on which drivetrain is chosen, and whether you opted for the Forester or Outback. The Tribeca, however, represents Subaru’s first foray into the SUV market
The Tribeca B9 Subaru is going into the full-sized urban “sports-ute” arena, and for good measure the single version introduced to South Africa in February boasts a seven-seat configuration.
Subaru says the Tribeca – named after a trendy New York suburb – represents the confluence of three vehicle genres and combines the best attributes of luxury sedan, MPV and up-market sports-utility vehicle.
With its R449 000 sticker it certainly looks attractively priced, which could also have something to do with the fact that while only two years old in international terms, it is already scheduled for a facelift, possibly as soon as early next year.
Like the Outback, the Tribeca is based on the Legacy platform, but Subaru says it is substantially stronger, stiffer and longer, quoting a 55% increase in its bodyshell’s resistance to bending, and a 22% improvement in its resistance to twisting.
Under the skin it is similar to the flagship Outback, using the same 3,0-litre horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine (which means a lower centre of gravity), and the same five-speed automatic gearbox.
Features and equipment
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Being a Subaru means it has symmetrical allwheel drive at its heart, thus drive from the 180kW, 297Nm powerplant is permanently distributed to all four corners, favouring the rear slightly with a 45/55 distribution. An electronically controlled multi-plate clutch varies this slightly, and full traction/stability control further controls what actually gets to the tyres, using a mix of braking and engine torque reduction to intervene at individual wheels.
The second aspect of symmetrical AWD is that drivetrain components are laid out in a straight line so that weight is reasonably evenly distributed left/right as well as fore/aft, to give the car better static balance.
To call the exterior of the Tribeca controversial would be something of an understatement. But it does embrace what is – at least at the time of design – Subaru’s aesthetic “recipe”. That means the nose of the vehicle pays homage to a distant aircraft heritage, and to this end the trapezium-shaped centre section of the grille represents a cross-section of the fuselage, while the sections either side are the wings…
The swoopy flanks are more successful, ending in a fashionable reverse-sweep C-pillar. With an overall height of less than 1,7m the Tribeca is positively svelte for an SUV. A long rear overhang and handsomely integrated taillights give the rear three-quarters a certain elegance, but many observers form their first and lasting impression from the nose.
The interior is configured to provide a high level of safety and comfort. Discussing the last first, there is leather in abundance, with electric controls for seats, mirrors and windows. A sunroof, cruise control, heated seats and driving computer are all standard.
On the safety front, as well as six airbags (the front pair of which are dual-stage), the Tribeca has benefited from advanced design and manufacturing techniques to ensure the integrity of the cabin area. Seatbelt pre-tensioners are fitted to the outer seats in the middle row, and to the front pair.
These features are largely a given at this level, but the Tribeca also has a rollover sensor that causes the curtain airbags to deploy when sensors deem a roll-over accident to have become inevitable.
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There is a class and style to the Tribeca’s cabin that is not generally achieved by SUVtype vehicles sourced from the East. The most startling feature on first acquaintance is the swoopy wave-form of the soft-touch dashboard, which has the effect of bisecting the cabin, with a prominent centre stack and a high transmission tunnel contributing to an intimate driving environment for both driver and front passenger.
Finding the perfect driving position should be easy with electric adjustment for the seat, but that isn’t always the case. Because the steering column cannot telescope, taller drivers may find themselves too close to the wheel.
In addition, the leather-wrapped wheel with satellite controls for the nine-speaker sound system can partially obscure the low-slung fuel and temperature gauges, but there is no such problem with the main gauges, which are especially legible and attractive.
Talking ergonomics, we also feel that a button to synchronise the temperature settings on the climate control could’ve been added, especially as you can’t conveniently see what is being displayed in the window of the passenger’s temperature setting due to the curvature of the dash. A separate control allows rear occupants to modulate their fan speed.
The LCD screen is uppermost in the centre stack, and displays ambient temperature, radio station and the various data from the driving computer, though the driver must lean forward – albeit slightly – to scroll through the menu.
We liked the varied and generously proportioned storage compartments between the seats, achieved by relocating the emergency brake to the footwell. Positive feelings were reinforced by indents in the plastic mouldings which prevent wires from cellphone chargers or an MP3 player being snagged between the lid and body of the double- decker storage compartment.
Seating both front and rear is excellent – at least with the middle row slid as far back on its runners as it goes – and then there is legroom, headroom and shoulder room aplenty for five.
With seven seats in use, travellers will not only have to pack light, but those in “economy class” will need to be compact of build. Access to the rearmost seats is reasonably easy for agile individuals, but, depending on the position of the middle seats (there is 200mm of travel), legroom can be adequate or very tight. Once again, this is par for the 5+2 course, though the Subaru is quite strong on space for smallish feet, thanks to a low rear floor.
There’s a generous 450 litres of luggage volume in five-seater guise, with a useful waterproof compartment under the carpeted floor, too. Total load volume is quoted as 1450 litres – a competitive if not class-leading measure.
However, the Tribeca is more MPV-like in terms of versatility thanks to a middle pew with a three-way split, and individual backrests that can be reclined to the ideal position.
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The Tribeca’s powerplant is equipped with both variable valve lift and variable valve timing, so one would expect it to have a generous supply of torque across a wide rev range.
The reality is slightly different, and while the kW rating makes it one of the most powerful normally-aspirated engines of this size around, the 4200 r/min torque peak for its fairly modest 297 Newtons of twist effort suggests characteristics more suited to a sporty sedan.
And that is the overriding impression after living with a Tribeca for a few days in Gauteng’s rarefied air. There’s not a lot of get up and go below 3000 r/min, and for best results the gearbox needs to be slotted into the Sport mode, which means more frequent downshifts, but they do at least take place before too much momentum is lost.
However, there’s a fuel consumption penalty, and Sport mode ignores top gear, so a manual change is required to let the transmission shift into fifth anyway.
The engine and the gearbox do communicate, their control units “learning” a driver’s habits, but there is too much delay in this process. When gearshifts do eventually happen, they can be harsh, neck-jerking affairs.
With the torque habits of this engine, a ‘box which is particularly keen to shift down is needed – and that’s what the Tribeca doesn’t ultimately have, despite the “SportShift” tag.
No real criticism can be levelled at the brakes. They returned a consistently good performance with decent pedal feel, and were a model of consistency in our 12-stop 80 km/h to zero tests.
On our 120km/h fuel run, the Tribeca used just over 11 litres per 100 km/h, and in mixed driving we’d expect 13 per 100 – 15 for heavy-footed drivers hurrying down the freeway with the gearbox incessantly dropping back to fourth gear. Either way, the 64-litre fuel tank is merely adequate.
Ride and handling
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The low centre of gravity and even weight distribution are key to the Tribeca’s excellent road manners, and despite being a fairly large and heavy vehicle it can be driven with some verve. After a while, most drivers will feel comfortable using it as you would a medium-sized sedan.
The 255/55 rubber on 18-inch wheels provides plenty of grip and the Tribeca can be steered confidently into a corner at considerable pace and with little understeer or body roll to spoil the fun.
Steering is via rack and pinion and this contributes to the accuracy with which it can be placed, even on a narrow road, at pace. The steering came in for some criticism: some felt it was geared too slow, and enthusiastic drivers reported that the helm was occasionally upset by mid-corner bumps, and an unpleasant shudder passed through the wheel when manoeuvring at parking speeds.
Overall ride comfort would have to be adjudged very good, adept at soaking up bumps and dips of various shapes and sizes, the firm settings manifesting as some fidgetiness at low speeds, and the occasional transmission of suspension noise through to the cabin.
The centre diff can change the torque split from 45/55 to an even 50/50, and of course this – along with the stability control system – will help off-road ability.
But this isn’t a bundu-basher in any shape or form, though having said that, it has been configured to cope with light-duty work. We measured minimum ground clearance at a reasonable 193mm, but the limiting factor will be the modest off-roading angles as a result of the long wheelbase and long overhangs.
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The Tribeca undeniably deserves to be Subaru’s flagship, and elevates the brand into new territory, where it takes on a whole new bunch of rivals.
Is it good enough to have moved so far upmarket? In many ways it is, but in others it is a little disappointing, primarily as a result of the tardy gearbox and the engine’s limited low-down torque, which rather spoiled what would otherwise have been effortless cruising.
If the face-lifted version has less extreme styling, and some added features (we’d like to see a steering column that adjusts for reach and some other ergonomic issues addressed), including satellite navigation and a wireless DVD entertainment system on the options list, it could have wider appeal. But it’s a very good first effort nonetheless.