Subaru Tribeca a forgotten talent

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 05:01 30/05/2012

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We've been using trucks for seven-up motoring for too long; the all-wheel-drive Tribeca people mover is a far better family bet.

Of course that's only true if you have $70,000 or thereabouts to play with. But when you see so many top-level Prados, Pajeros and Discoverys about at school drop-off time, with stickers ranging from $85 to $157k, such a budget is not unreasonable.

A few days with Subaru's oft-forgotten six-cylinder crossover-cum-MPV, the Tribeca, illustrates just how effective a vehicle can be when it's designed for people rather than merely tough terrain we may never try to access.

The Tribeca gets its name from the arty-crafty New York area known as "The TRIangle, BElow CAnal street," - geddit? - where trendies gather and impress each other. The car competes with two other three-row, seven-seaters with six-cylinder power: the Australian Ford Territory, which spreads from $60k to $70k in all-wheel-driven spec, and the Mazda CX-9, which in single specification asks $60k and, like the Tribeca, was designed to meet the needs of the US market more than any other. It's a market that wants seven-seat luxury, agility close to that of a passenger car and enough space for a growing family.

We've never liked practical cars in New Zealand, possibly preferring less comfortable hunter-gatherer, high-rise truck- based SUVs instead, even though our off-roading seldom extends much further than a car park ramp. Which is why cars like Tribeca and the CX-9 are relatively uncommon here.

The Tribeca has been available since 2006, first arriving with a clock-stoppingly ugly three-slot grille and a engine low on torque and a little too prone to rev.

Since then, a cleaner body design and a simpler grille has sorted the looks, and for our test, Subaru threw on a nice set of alloy wheels, turning our dark blue evaluation vehicle into something of a family stealth cruiser. Most age-groups approved of this, though the firmer ride quality is a compromise - the standard car has higher-profile wheels and tyres and rides a tad more comfortably.

A new 3.6-litre power unit has invested the car with the kind of flexibility and refined progress the early model didn't have and a five- speed adaptive electronic direct- control automatic transmission with manual shift mode allows you to either drive how you want to, or, with the help of cruise control, to merely set and forget.

Fuel consumption is rated at a combined 11.6L/100km. I saw a little better than that without trying to hard, and would expect feather-footed drivers to manage to slot into the 10L bracket. The car is well-suited to New Zealand traffic patterns in the city and on the open road, the improved torque provides sufficient punch without resorting to too much kick-down for most situations, though I'd have liked to have six- speeds for a wider spread and a longer cruising gait, something most cars offer when you spend this kind of money.

The Tribeca's handling and cornering habits are closer to an SUV's than that of a sports station wagon, but despite a little body roll, there's lots of grip and not as much understeer as you might expect from something as tall as this.

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The car's steering is well-weighted and accurate but a little over-insulated from proceedings to be called communicative.

The brakes are good, but required more pedal movement than I'm used to. A matter of taste, I guess.

While Subaru is famous for its off-road engineering, don't think of the Tribeca as an SUV in the trailblazing sense. It doesn't have the ground-clearance for serious off-roading, but most in this bracket don't have to negotiate more than forestry trails and gravel roads. The way the all-fours set up balances and keeps the car neatly placed on gravel is a good indication of what it can do, with its axle-to-axle torque distribution.

On the safety side, the Tribeca reflects the US obsession with ticking all the boxes. It has two-stage front airbags, side-curtain airbags, rollover sensors, variable torque distribution for the all-wheel-drive system, standard vehicle dynamics control, a traction control system, a tire pressure monitoring system and of course ABS. So nothing's left out, and I'm glad to say that when the electronics cut in - you'll notice a warning flash on the dash - it is not a killjoy, though it is nice to know it is there.

The sole choice Tribeca R Premium model in New Zealand is well-loaded with equipment, with three-temperature heated front seats, flat-folding seats in the second and third rows, three-stage two-zone automatic climate control, a glass/shade power sunroof package, satellite navigation, a rear-vision camera and a rear seat 9-inch screen DVD entertainment set up.

Accommodation's good and unlike many truck-based offerings, the rearmost pair of seats is not of the padded laptop variety, but almost full-sized items, obviously designed for big American kids, and able to be used by adults, too. However when all seven seats are occupied, you can only really take soft baggage with you, though when the rear places are folded away, the volume is more than useful.

Middle-row seating is wide enough for three and offers excellent legroom, even when the front seats are powered back for taller occupants. However, the front pair of chairs, evidently contrived to cosset the backsides of full-sized occupants from the land of the burger and hotdog, are like well- designed armchairs, set behind a double-sweep of dash that looks not inappropriately, like a parody of a stylised McDonald's "M."

These heated and powered chairs are terrific on a long drive and while they don't exactly grip you like a racing bucket, they didn't cause my time- ravaged back a single twinge.

Although the bigger dials and switches are easy to see and use, those buttons on the dash's metallised surfaces had printed instructions that often became invisible in the glare of sunlight.

Apart from a thick pillar to get used to when waiting for people coming towards you from the left - something we're more conscious of these days - and that tight load space when travelling seven-up, I couldn't pick many holes in the Tribeca. It's a refreshingly refined and well-sorted multi-seater, with loads of equipment. However, by my calculations, I reckon it's about $10,000 too expensive.

Including shipping and factoring-in exchange rates, I can't see how its US sticker of $30,595 translates into almost $70,000, especially when the company's Impreza costs from $18,000 in the US and translates to $34,990 in New Zealand.

It has to be said that some pay still more than the Tribeca's sticker for poorly-suited, less talented SUVs as their family drop-off and weekender vehicle, but I do feel that at about $60k, we'd see a lot more of this Subaru in New Zealand.

SUBARU TRIBECA

Drivetrain: Longitudinally front- mounted AWD 3630cc DOHC 24 valve flat-six, five-speed automatic.

Performance: 190kW/6000rpm, 350Nm/4000rpm; 215kmh, 0-100kmh 8.8secs, 11.6L/100km, 275g/km CO2.

Chassis: Front MacPherson struts; double wishbones at rear; engine-speed power- assisted steering.

Safety: Six airbags; stability and traction control; reverse camera; variable torque distribution AWD.

Dimensions: L 4865mm, W 1880mm, H 1720mm, W/base 2750mm, F/track 1580mm, R/track1580mm, Weight 1942kg, Fuel 64L.

Pricing: Tribeca 3.6R Premium $69,990. After market alloy wheels $4500.

Hot: Primped-up style; smooth, refined powertrain; accommodation; fit and finish.

Not: Expensive car; tight load space when seven-up; left-front blind spot; overlight steering.

Verdict: It's the one no-one thinks about, but worth a look when you're researching a luxury active family holdall.

- The Press

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