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March 24, 2010

Review: 2010 Subaru Tribeca

There comes a time in a man’s life when he goes past having 2.1 kids. A time when he can no longer fit his family in a sedan, or even a wagon. The time has come for (gasp) a minivan. Ending one’s days of blissful driving for the sheer utility of a van may be inevitable, but there a few vehicles that just might provide an equitable solution, giving each kid his own seat, while still being kind to the guy behind the wheel. One of them resides atop the product line of sports-sedan/wagon expert Subaru: the full-size, all-wheel drive Tribeca.

The Tribeca started out its life as an odd-looking duck, with the company’s flying-papaya grille design. That was, understandably, quickly phased out in favor of the current generic styling motif. It doesn’t look like a sporty drive. If anything, it actually can pass as a Chrysler minivan. It’s all very pleasant, though, and the car manages to look not much larger than the Outback.

Waiting beneath the placid exterior are several tools to possibly wake up Mr. Hyde: a platform shared with the Legacy/Outback sports sedan/wagon, a 3.6 liter flat-six engine, 18-inch alloys with performance tires, and the company’s famed symmetrical all-wheel drive system.

Up front, there’s adequate room for knees and elbows for the driver and passenger. The seating position is commandingly high. The secondary controls are laid out in an “aviation-inspired” wing that stretches across the dashboard and center console, sweeping into the doors. It’s a refreshing change from the utilitarian consoles of most family vehicles.

The Tribeca does have its limitations. If you regularly ferry more than five people, then it’s better to look for larger alternatives. There are seven seats in this car, but as the brochure says, capacity is actually “5+2” passengers. The rear seats have preciously little kneeroom, and although the middle seats can slide forward, there’s not much room to spare. Those +2 seats are best reserved for small kids.

The typical minivan might earn negative points for one’s self-image, but seven-seat SUVs cause a different kind of pain: middle-age back aches, from squeezing in and out of the third row. The Tribeca is no exception. The third row is challenging for anyone but small children, despite the sliding second row. Installing a child seat is best done after rigorous back stretching exercises. The third row folds away easily, enlarging the luggage area to suitcase-swallowing size. If you need to transport the kitchen sink, even the second row folds flat.

Fire up the flat-six engine, and there’s very little noise in the cabin. It’s too bad that the engine is so isolated, as it can produce a decent impression of a Porsche motor. Like all 911 engines, its configuration allows it to be perfectly balanced. Humming away at redline, the Tribeca powerplant gives off a buttery-smooth engine note, with no hint of unruly vibration.

With 256 bhp and 335 Nm available, the Tribeca is always eager to launch, like a bulldog pulling away at its leash. Floor the throttle, and you can embarrass many a four-cylinder sedan as you sweep past them. The five-speed automatic shifts crisply, and there’s a separate gate for sequential-style shifting. There’s neither torque steer nor wild fishtailing here, as the all-wheel drive system does a good job of putting the power down to the pavement. The tires are relatively sporty for an SUV, 55-series on 18-inch rims.

It would be a stretch to say that the Tribeca would be a suitable substitute for a sports sedan. Its steering is too vague and the body rolls too heavily for a driver to feel truly at one with the vehicle. Also, the brakes may provide adequate bite, but feel soft and soggy through the pedal.

The softness of the chassis belies the Tribeca’s reserve of performance. Push it hard through the corners, and there’s a measure of confidence and tenacious grip afforded by the low-profile tires and the all-wheel drive system.

The Tribeca’s compact dimensions may have compromised cabin space, but it pays off when it comes to maneuverability. The car is a cake to park, with its short length and clearly visible hood. As further insurance, there’s also a backup camera that displays its image on the center console

The price might induce some sticker shock, as the P2.698 million asking price is about twice that of the base Forester. To its credit, the Tribeca comes with a long list of standard features, including HID headlights, curtain airbags, memory seats, moonroof, and roof rails.

The Tribeca does a fine job of transporting five in supreme comfort, seven in a pinch. When pushed harder, it can even give a hint of the enjoyment to be had from its sportier stablemates. Its inherent stability and the supreme smoothness of its flat-six engine give it a unique edge. Perhaps having more than 2.1 kids may not be so bad, after all.

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