PALM SPRINGS, California - Some brand-new models catch on quickly and keep drawing customers. Some don't. Subaru's B9 Tribeca "crossover" sport-utility vehicle, launched as a 2006 model, falls into the latter category.
To date, some 36,000 B9 Tribecas have been sold. But as sales vice-president Tim Colbeck explained, "it had a polarizing design." Some people liked the look; others shunned it.
Styling has changed considerably for 2008, tossing out the B9's unique but curious grille in favor of a wider unit with horizontal bars. Overall frontal appearance is "more blunt," according to product public-relations manager Dominic Infante, and the 2008 Tribeca has a very clean side look. Roof rails have been reshaped, and the entire vehicle looks longer than its predecessor.
Visibility has improved, helped by larger rear quarter windows. A rear-vision camera is available, too, with superimposed lines that are intended to make parallel parking easier. Tribeca may be either a five- or a seven-passenger vehicle, and either second-row seat slides forward to ease third-row access. Moving to the driver's seat, the instrument panel spreads out from the long center console.
Developing what Subaru calls "significantly more torque" this time around, the horizontally-opposed ("boxer") six-cylinder engine, enlarged to 3.6-liter displacement, now runs on regular-grade gasoline. Rated at 256 horsepower, the engine produces 247 pound-feet of torque.
For the technically-minded who might wonder about the revised powerplant, car line manager David Sullivan explained that adding displacement without enlarging the engine's dimensions was accomplished by reducing space between cylinders, and using asymmetrical connecting rods. The cooling system also was revised, so all cylinders are cooled at the same rather than sequentially.
Again equipped with what Subaru calls "symmetrical" all-wheel drive, the Tribeca uses a five-speed automatic transmission with newly revised gear ratios. Using the revised ratings for 2008 models from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Tribeca gets a fuel-economy estimate of 16 mpg in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway.
In testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Tribeca earned five-star ratings for both frontal and side impacts. Side-impact and curtain-type airbags are installed, along with a rollover sensor.
Acceleration is just about as impressive as promised in the new Tribeca, accompanied by some sensation of leaping ahead. Still, performance is not quite as exuberant when the Tribeca reaches higher speeds. Even on rather steep upgrades, though, there's no shortage of power.
Operation of the five-speed automaic transmission shows definite improvement. Gear changes are quick and extra-smooth. Even on upgrades, the transmission doesn't shift excessively. Downshifts take place promptly, too. Most of the time, the automatic transmission is barely noticed. If you didn't hear the slight engine noise, you'd barely notice the automatic at all. Manual mode works well but isn't especially compelling, partly because a sizable motion is need on the gearshift lever to select the next ratio.
Ride comfort is particularly appealing, except for roughness when the pavement turns into a washboard-like surface, which can happen even on expressways. Steering feel is close to normal or a trifle light. Although the Tribeca responds well to steering inpurts, it does tend to feel just a bit twitchy some of the time, as if it would be too easy to turn the wheel too far. Body lean is modest in quick curves, but the Tribeca could be just a trifle more surefooted.
Front occupants get plenty of head and elbow room. Leg space isn't quite as abundant, but satisfactory. Ample side glass in the new design, with larger quarter windows, definitely improves visibility.
Quietness is another bonus, though our test model was plagued by an odd "clunking" sound in the rear. Otherwise, when engine blare does occur, it's rather well controlled.
Sales of the 2008 Tribeca began on June 1, with prices starting under $30,000.
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