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Subaru is becoming a premium brand. It isn't Mercedes or BMW nor does it intend to be, but the technology underneath, the stuff you can't see, is cutting edge, giving drivers the latest in all-weather safety and performance. The latest example of this strategy is the all-new 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca.
The first thing you should know about the Tribeca is that it's a big SUV, as big or bigger than a Nissan Murano or Toyota Highlander or even a Ford Explorer. It seats up to seven passengers.
The first thing you're likely to notice, however, is the styling, particularly that grille. It looks like something from an Alfa Romeo. Subaru's new chief designer came from Alfa, but he told us the grille was already set in stone when he arrived. The design of the Tribeca doesn't please everyone, but seems to grow on some people with time.
TriBeCa is a trendy, upscale neighborhood between New York's Soho and Lower Manhattan districts. It isn't cheap real estate. Nor is the Subaru Tribeca cheap transportation. In case you haven't noticed, all Subaru models are somewhat pricey, but we think they offer a lot of value in terms of technology, handling, foul-weather capability and dependability. For its part, the Tribeca is competitive in the class, especially given the lengthy list of features with which it comes standard, much of which are optional or not even available elsewhere.
Extensive driving in Northern California revealed the Tribeca to be a joy to drive, comfortable and practical. In short, we'd list it as a buy. That's a strong recommendation, given that we think highly of the Highlander and Murano.
Neither trim package is lacking in function or comfort. All Tribecas, for instance, have Subaru's Vehicle Dynamics Control system, which joins forces with Variable Torque Distribution all-wheel drive and all-wheel traction control to help the driver maintain control. Standard wheels are 18-inch aluminum alloys with low-profile, all-season tires; a tire pressure monitoring system is standard, too. Brakes are vented discs with antilock and Electronic Brake-force Distribution systems.
Safety features include Subaru's unique auto-retracting brake pedal assembly designed to lessen exposure to crash-related injury for the driver's feet and lower legs. Front seat occupants are protected by dual-stage frontal airbags, seat-mounted side impact airbags and active head restraints, which automatically push forward and up in rear-impact collisions. Curtain airbags insulate the front and second row seats in side impacts. All seating positions get adjustable head restraints, and outboard seats have height-adjustable anchors for seatbelt shoulder straps. Child safety seat anchors (LATCH) are provided for the rear seat(s).
Inside, all Tribeca models give the driver an eight-way power adjustable seat and the front passenger a four-way power seat, both with manual lumbar. The second row of seats is almost as flexible as the two front seats, with a 40/20/40-split reclining seatback and a 60/40-split seat bottom adjustable fore and aft. Dual-zone automatic air conditioning is standard, as is a 100-watt, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers. Cruise control is standard. So are power windows, outside mirrors and door locks. The steering wheel, which also tilts, and shift knob are covered in leather. And there's an information center displaying audio settings, time, fuel economy and outside temperature.
The seven-passenger Tribeca gets that way via the addition of a third-row seat split 50/50. It also adds heated front seats and an auxiliary rear air conditioner fan control in the second seating row.
Moving up to the Limited in both the five-passenger ($32,295) and seven-passenger ($33,895) versions replaces the standard cloth upholstery with a choice of smooth or perforated leather seating surfaces. The stereo is upgraded to a 160-watt system with a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and nine speakers, including a sub-woofer in the rear cargo area.
Factory options are offered only on the seven-passenger model and include a rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($1800) and a touch-screen, DVD-based, GPS navigation system ($2000). Subaru-approved options for both models and installed either at the port or by the dealer (installation costs are extra) number some 20 or so and include an assortment of features. Among them: an auto-dimming inside rearview mirror ($183), battery warmer ($30), engine block heater ($30), hood protector ($73), roof rack-mounted kayak carrier ($147), roof-rack mounted bike carrier ($140), and towing package with hitch and oil cooler ($514).
The more time we spent with the 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca and the more miles we put into its rearview mirror the more we liked it.
Not that it didn't impress from the get go, which was south of Market Street in San Francisco. From there, through the streets and across the Golden Gate, up U.S. 101 a ways, then over to the coast and up to a lunch stop along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay, the Tribeca never disappointed. Actually, it quite impressed. Multi-lane, divided highways passed under its impressively quiet tires as smoothly and as rapidly as did winding, switchback-laden two-lanes.
Credit for the smooth ride goes to the high degree of refinement Subaru's engineers have achieved in development of the horizontally opposed, six-cylinder engine. As with other SUVs, there is some road vibration. Credit for the Tribeca's nimble handling goes to the relatively low center of gravity that comes with that essentially flat engine placed low in the chassis. The Tribeca is no lightweight at 4,400 pounds, and it feels bigger than it looks, but it handles surprisingly well. By way of comparison, the Tribeca's track, which is the distance between the tires side to side, is fully two inches narrower than the Nissan Murano's track, and they're the same height. And the Tribeca tracked through the same series of tight, left-right-left transitions as the Murano with less body lean and at measurably higher rates of travel. The steering is accurate, though a little slow.
Passing power came on immediately with only slight pressure on the gas. Shifts up and down were managed almost invisibly; even when executed manually through the SportShift, there was only the slightest interruption in the energy flow. Speaking of the manual characteristics of the SportShift, the Tribeca will shift up a gear at engine redline; it will not, however, drop down a gear without the driver tapping the lever forward. Fuel economy isn't a standout feature, however. The Tribeca earns an EPA rating of just 18/23 mpg City/Highway.
Brake feel was not ideal, or at least not to our liking; it wasn't truly linear, but somewhat spongy. And the steering column was offset a smidgen to the right, toward the centerline of the vehicle. We're used to this awkwardness in GM vehicles but were surprised to find it in a Subaru.
When our time with the Tribeca came to an end, we were sorry to see it go. Not in the same way we sometimes are with a Porsche, a Dodge Ram SRT/10 or a BMW, but because we really could see ourselves owning the Tribeca and being quite content with life as a one-car household.
The 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca is at once unlike and like other Subarus. It has all the right feel of control and dexterity, plus impressive hauling capacity for people and things. And the engineering technology delivering all this right stuff is thoroughly debugged and proven. All that's left to prove is whether people will pay what the Tribeca costs and whether they can get used to that face.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco, the coastal roads north of the Bay Area and California's Central Valley, with Mitch McCullough in the wine country.
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