By Joe Bruzek
Subaru is on a roll, with recent redesigns of the Forester, Outback and Legacy earning recognition from Cars.com editors and consumers alike for their value and how competitive they are within their segments. Another all-new Subaru -- the 36-mpg 2012 Impreza -- will debut this summer, leaving one Subaru that seems to have been forgotten: the seven-seat Tribeca crossover SUV.
The 2011 Subaru Tribeca shines when it comes to ride quality and safety ratings, but its smaller size and outdated interior hold it back compared with three-row crossover rivals.
In fact, the Tribeca doesn't seem to be quite the value other Subarus are. (See three-row crossovers compared.) Tribecas come in base Premium, midlevel Limited and loaded Touring trim levels. I drove a Touring. All come standard with a six-cylinder engine, automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
The interior's design has aged well over the years, with a smooth, curvy flow that wraps around front passengers. That's quite the feat considering it's essentially the same design used when this car was introduced as the B9 Tribeca for 2006.
However, the quality of the materials in there is far from the segment's best. There's an overuse of silver plastic that's meant to imitate aluminum -- a cheap-looking trick. The dashboard and center console are carved out of the stuff, and they don't do the unique design any justice.
The most disappointing part of the interior, though, is the lack of a telescoping steering wheel, which is found in just about every other three-row SUV on the market. What may seem like a small oversight made it impossible for me to sit comfortably in the driver's seat. At 6-feet tall and with a slender build, I had to move the seat back pretty far to get a comfortable distance from the steering wheel. In that driving position, my elbows couldn't reach the armrest. Combine this with the Tribeca's high seating position, and I was not a happy commuter during my 90-minute drives to and from Cars.com's offices.
Fit, of course, will vary from person to person. Some people may not have any issues, but I was not the only editor to experience frustration over the steering wheel. And the front seating problem snowballed into issues for the second and third rows, too, partly because of the Tribeca's small size. Legroom is already mediocre in the second row, at 34.3 inches, but with the driver's seat where I had it positioned, the second row lost heaps of that space. Then, with the second row slid all the way back to compensate, the third row was left with literally no legroom.
Very few crossovers have enough room in their third row to make adults feel comfortable, and the Tribeca isn't close to breaking that mold. The seat is so close to the floor that my legs and thighs were positioned uncomfortably off the seat cushion.
We test a standard assortment of grocery bags, golf clubs and luggage in every car we drive, and there wasn't much -- or any, really -- room to spare behind the Tribeca's third row; there's only 8.3 cubic feet of storage back there. That's significantly less than the Pilot's 18 cubic feet, and it's even less than a small sedan's trunk.
With both rows folded flat, the Tribeca has 74.4 cubic feet of total cargo space. Again, it's an unexceptional amount considering the Pilot has 87 cubic feet, the Highlander has 95.4 and the CX-9 boasts 100.7. What's more, I can't imagine trying to fit seven people in this car, especially seven people I like. What's truly revealing is that Subaru's Outback wagon doesn't require a huge concession in overall cargo space (it offers 71.3 cubic feet) even though it seats just five.
One of the Tribeca's redeeming qualities is Subaru's trademark symmetrical all-wheel drive. It's one of the best systems available for tackling the slippery snow- and rain-covered city roads on which I drove the Tribeca. Even in aggressive starts in these conditions, the car accelerated seamlessly from stoplights. The Tribeca's all-wheel drive distributes power to all four wheels all the time, helping with a smooth delivery of traction.
Now here comes Debbie Downer: Unlike the Forester and Outback, the Tribeca's all-wheel drive doesn't come at much of a discount compared with the competition. The Pilot, Highlander and CX-9 come really close to or beat the Tribeca's starting price when equipped with all-wheel drive.
Our fully loaded Touring came in at an as-tested price of $37,995. The only option missing was a rear DVD entertainment system. The Touring trim level comes with xenon headlights, a power moonroof, a backup camera and Bluetooth for its $35,795 starting price. Our tester had the optional touch-screen navigation system for another $2,200.
The navigation system suffered from a fundamental flaw: The touch-screen is beyond arm's reach -- or at least it was beyond mine. To enter an address or check the gas mileage, I had to lean very far forward to reach the screen at the top of the dashboard. The navigation itself felt outdated, with graphics that are easily bested by many of today's smartphones and portable GPS devices.
Acceleration, ride and handling
One engine is available in the Tribeca, and it's a solid one. The 3.6-liter, horizontally opposed six-cylinder makes 256 horsepower and offers punchy acceleration around town. Even the lightest tap of the throttle results in quick acceleration. The engine does, however, seem to lose some of its gusto at highway speeds when trying to pass.
With only one engine, transmission (a five-speed automatic) and driveline configuration, the Tribeca's gas mileage is a somewhat unimpressive 16/21 mpg city/highway -- take it or leave it. Other crossovers have the option of more efficient front-wheel-drive models, and the Highlander has a base four-cylinder engine for the gas-conscious.
One of the Tribeca's strongest driving attributes is its ride quality; the suspension absorbs road imperfections with ease, making for a very comfortable commute.
Like the rest of Subaru's current lineup, the 2011 Tribeca is a Top Safety Pick at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It scores the agency's best rating, Good, in front-, rear- and side-impact crash tests, as well as in a roof-strength test.
As of publication, the 2011 Tribeca has not been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration using its revised testing procedures.
Tribeca in the market
In April, new-car sales of the Tribeca totaled a lackluster 241 units. Sales numbers aren't always an indication of a good or bad product, but in this case, it seems seven-seat crossover shoppers are buying elsewhere.
The Honda Pilot sells around 8,000 a month, and even the more niche, sporty Mazda CX-9 crossover sells around 2,800 units. To be competitive, Subaru needs to give the Tribeca some serious attention. Given its smaller size, its entry-level price doesn't give it much of an advantage over the competition, and there are also some very good products competing from within Subaru -- including the Outback, which sold 9,400 units in April.
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