Subaru B9 Tribeca – a downtown name with an uptown attitude

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Coloring out of the lines can be fun, but it can be risky in the automotive world.

Unusual styling can sink an otherwise excellent vehicle. A decade ago it sunk the best-selling car in America.

Let’s return to the mid-90s, heady days for Ford and its best-selling Taurus sedan. Ford introduced the jellybean-shaped Taurus in the late ’80s and it resonated with families across the land. By the early ’90s, the Taurus was the best selling car in America.

In 1995, Ford wanted to take the Taurus to the next level, and totally reshaped the car. The new, rounded lines didn’t resonate. Sales began slipping immediately. They were buoyed for awhile by large allocations to fleet customers. But that one adventurous styling exercise eventually sank the Taurus, which departed the retail automotive scene this year. Ford continues to build Taurus for rental and fleets only and that will end sometime next year.

When an all-new car is developed with an off-the-charts design and with no previous history and without the brand recognition of the Taurus, then it seems a likely candidate to fail regardless of its beneath-the-skin attributes.

Somehow this convoluted trail leads us to the 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca, a vehicle that began drawing criticism the day it was introduced at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show last January.

We drove a top-of-the line Tribeca Limited this summer and we found it to be a very pleasant mid-sized sport utility vehicle, the first true sport utility in the Subaru lineup.

It plugs a hole in Subaru’s product offerings. It has many attributes that are sure to please the type of customer who would buy a Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Lexus RX 330, Infiniti FX35 or Acura MDX.

Like everything in the Subaru lineup, the Tribeca comes with standard all-wheel drive, and like the Outback wagon, it comes with a version of Subaru’s 3.0-liter flat-six engine.

But unlike current Subaru products, it comes with a slightly higher stance measuring 5.5-feet tall, a third-row seat option, a rear DVD entertainment system with a large 9-inch screen and a space-age dashboard.

It also comes with a bigger price-tag than anything in the current Subaru stable starting at $31,320.

But let’s talk about the styling, because that could be the deciding factor for a lot of folks who may otherwise find the Tribeca an interesting alternative in the car-based SUV market.

From the side it is attractive, if somewhat unusual, with a high beltline, flared wheel arches, wide rear pillar and a curving roof. The back features a narrow, recessed window and horizontal taillights that wrap around the side. The profile styling is no further off the charts than the Nissan Murano, for example.

It’s the prominent nose that has caused a stir. One national magazine writer called it “ugly-stick ugly.” We aren’t sold on the front-end treatment, but ugly is a bit strong. The airplane-shaped grille is indeed different, and not necessarily good different. Some say it’s a face only a mother could love.

The American-buying public has started voting this summer with their pocketbooks. In June – the first full month of sales Subaru counted up 1,540 sales and a 0.8-percent share of the mid-size utility market. In August sales reached 2,022 for 1.3-percent of the segment. Not exactly setting the world on fire but it is still very early in the game.

We were instantly intrigued by the interior, which has as much styling quirkiness as the exterior. But we like the radical swooping dashboard, which curves down into the center console, making a small M shape from door-to-door.

The curving stereo controls and the dual-zone climate controls immediately below are well marked and easy to use. The round climate knobs toggle temperature and fan speed in precise fashion. The temperature is displayed large in the center of the knob. It’s a neat and effective idea.

The gauges are back lit for excellent daytime viewing. And the multi-colored lights are attractive at night.

The front seats are supportive and comfortable. And in our test car they came with perforated leather for better breathing quality, particularly in hot weather.

The new Subaru comes with an excellent navigation program. The software showed virtually all the streets and highways in our area. The street name is prominently displayed along the bottom portion of the screen. Even the off-ramp on a four-lane road was displayed as “ramp.”

We programmed the navigation system — a very simple task— to take us back to the office from a spot about 20 miles out on the county backroads. Amazingly, it took us on the shortest route to the nearest highway and then shot us right to the front door.

There is a downside to ordering the navigation system. The only clock in the cabin is bundled into the screen. So the only way to see the clock is to hit the “accept” disclaimer each time you crank up the car. Subaru needs to fix that malady.

Although the Tribeca can be purchased with an optional third-row seat, it’s useless except for the very young. And when in use, it robs legroom from the second-row passengers. But when the third seat is folded flat, the second-row 30-70 split seats can be slid back on a track giving second-row passengers large-sedan space. The seats also recline for added long-distance comfort. Reading lights, cupholders in the pull-down center arm rest and magazine pockets on the front seatbacks offer second-row passengers a comfort zone found in few mid-sized vehicles.

The third-row seat also robs the car of storage space, leaving only eight cubic feet between the seat and the rear hatch. Space expands to a generous 37 cubic feet with the seat stowed.

It seems that Subaru’s 3.0-liter 6-cylinder developing 250 horsepower would offer the performance commensurate with an over-30-grand vehicle. But surprisingly, we were a bit underwhelmed, especially with the lack of low-end torque.

The torque problem can be overcome to a certain extent by putting the shifter into sport mode, which holds the transmission in gears longer. But we found no fix for the slow response to kickdown, when a surge of power is desired for passing or merging. The delay is annoying and can cause a split-second of apprehension in tight situations.

Otherwise, the five-speed automatic shifts smoothly through the gears and gives the engine a lusty feel at most speeds.

The Tribeca comes loaded with a lot of good stuff as standard equipment including such safety features as traction and stability control, antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags for rear-seat passengers.

The five-passenger model starts at $31,320 and the seven-passenger model begins at $33,020. The window sticker can hit 40 grand when all available options are included. Our test vehicle, which included the rear DVD entertainment system and navigation, carried a sticker price of $38,320.

So, you may be wondering, how did Subaru come up with such a weird name as B9 Tribeca? The B stands for the boxer engine found in the car and the 9 is Subaru’s internal designation for the platform. Tribeca is short for Triangle below Canal Street, a popular area of Manhattan.

Subaru hopes its new product will soon be as popular as New York City’s trendy neighborhood, which by-the-way has little or no room to park more than a handful of its namesake vehicles. That’s downtown for you. Maybe Subaru should have called this suburban centric vehicle Scarsdale; now that’s uptown.