Review: 2008 Subaru Tribeca

"It looks like a puppy," my wife said upon first setting eyes on the 2008 Subaru Tribeca. That's an apt description of any Subaru; they usually feel quite eager from behind the wheel, and they're trusty companions. The new front end on the Tribeca is more bland than the outgoing aviation-inspired look, but that hasn't dulled the inherent goodness of this big CUV.

The power unit has also seen upgrades. B9-era Tribecas (the alphanumeric has been dropped for '08) had 3.0 liters of horizontally opposed 6 cylinder to haul 4300 pounds. Power delivery was on the revvy side, so maximum torque didn't arrive until you wound it up a bit. 2008 brings more than a half-liter capacity bump, making the Tribeca feel more sprightly with not only more grunt, but also revised delivery characteristics that better suit most drivers.

The Tribeca's styling has had much of its polarizing uniqueness beaten out of it with a bland stick. The most dramatic changes are up front, where the original face's headlight tunnels and three-piece grille have given way to a far less distinctive frontispiece. In the interest of quieting detractors, the Tribeca has tiptoed to the precipice of anonymity, but thankfully, some of the interesting detailing in the shape pulls it back. Glance quickly, though, and you may mistake it for a DCX minivan. The rump has also come in for a nip and tuck. Gone is the inset on the lower portion of the hatch, the taillamps have been reshaped, and the rear bumper's facsia has been heavily revised.

Away from the nose and tail, much of the ALFA-esque styling has escaped unscathed. The flanks still carry sculpting that catches light and focuses your gaze. The rear quarter windows have been enlarged, a boon for visibility, and the D-pillar comes away successfully tamed. Even with its funkectomy, we still find the Tribeca interesting to look at, and the vehicle continues to stand apart in a crowded field.

Inside and out, the Tribeca is unabashed about the dashing line it cuts. The sides are hewn in a way that catches light and dribbles reflections like liquid. The more you gaze at the Tribeca, the more you like it, even with the higher nose and more traditional (and large) grille. Inside, the swoopy dash and fresh design still remains. The materials are well done, if more workaday than luxo-plush. Silver plastic trim always raises questions about longevity, but what we saw in the belly of the beast appeared like it'd ward off scuffs and nastiness.

Instrumentation is clean and easily read, with electroluminescent gauge faces. We were less than impressed by the "information center" LCD screen at the top of the center stack; what's so wrong about keeping feedback local to the controls? The speedo and tach sit at the bottom of two nacelles and the temperature and fuel gauges flank the circular tunnels. The treatment adds a bit of levity to the often-blah territory of vital information delivery. The dance that the gauge needles do when you first energize the electrical system is a novel trick, too. Our test car was not equipped with navigation, which would have placed a touch screen where the underwhelming LCD took residence. The display has a tendency to half-disappear when wearing polarized sunglasses, which made it difficult to read quickly, though we're sure part of the reasoning for the LCD in the first place is that it's a central repository for information about what the HVAC and radio are doing. We found ourselves looking at a knob that was bankrupt of any indication of setting, rather than going first to the LCD for information. Looking somewhere other than the control you want to adjust is just unnatural. It's kind of like driving the car via a VT100 terminal, and it's maddening. The HVAC's trio of rocker action knobs take practice, and the digital readouts in the center of the temperature selection knobs look cooler than they are in practice. Since the knobs have a rocker action, there's no way to quickly discern what they're set to without taking your eyes off the road long enough to comprehend the number in the readout. The central fan speed knob would also be better with detents, rather than returning to center. The other ventilation controls hide out just in front of the shifter, and can be difficult to quickly locate since the buttons are all alike, with low contrast markings.

The rest of the controls are easy to figure out, and fall easily at hand. The driving position and provisions are comfortable in that familiar, friendly Subaru way. The seats had tasteful, grippy fabric, and were quickly adjusted to proper posture. There are three rows of seats available in the Tribeca, but we think that the space is better utilized as cargo area, like our two row tester. The 2nd row is also more accommodating without a third row nipping at its heels. Even though the Tribeca carries high style, with its front quarter windows, deeper front airdam and powerful wheel arches, the D-pillars don't bite into useful interior space like in other vehicles such as the Infiniti FX. The load area with just two rows accommodates a long day of consumerism at the temple of the buck without a whimper.

When you finally break free from the joy of beating down your credit score, the drive home is a refreshing respite from the humdrum conveyances that surround you on your suburb to suburb trek. The steering operates with well-oiled precision and is weighted nicely for locking on to straight ahead. The Tribeca is definitely a Subaru from the driver's seat. Wheel motion is well controlled and the Tribeca doesn't have an aversion to rounding corners.

Subaru continues with its uncommon powertrains to good result with the newly-enlarged H6. The 3.0 didn't have enough room in the case for a traditional bore and stroke job to offer the desired size increase, so a slightly triangular connecting rod was developed to facilitate more stroked volume without an increase in deck height. It sounds like a lot of effort to go through when they could have just made the engine a little wider, but by maintaining the same external dimensions, re-cyphering the engine bay wasn't necessary, keeping costs down. There are lots of other detail changes to the mill, including variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cams, and a revised cooling system that drops the octane requirement to 87 R+M/2.

The Tribeca's idle is very smooth and well isolated, and at speed the 3.6-liter flat six is muted. A stomp on the go pedal is rewarded with a snarl starting around 2,700 rpm, and even with more torque available across the rev range, the 3.6 is better when the tach winds around past three. The engine note is sweetly mechanical, but not as thrilling as what you'd hear from that other company that makes horizontally opposed sixes. That's an unfair comparison, though, and the Tribeca's engine sounds good when being caned, and quiets right down when you're not calling for Full Ahead from the engine room.

The Tribeca's driving traits put it in good company, running with effete European breeds dynamically. The interior fitment lacks some of the sumptuousness of those vehicles, but that's not a knock on the big Subie. What you find is a vehicle that carries its size well, offers unique styling and doesn't have to be apologetic for sloppy reflexes. It's no Legacy wagon, but that's exactly the point. The Tribeca exists to fill a hole in the Subaru line not served by the other offerings. It's a big, family-friendly machine that is thoughtfully packaged, rather than being a V8 stuffed in a ladder frame and topped with an SUV body. The new nose will likely find more play in Peoria, and Subaru's apparent mission of turning out ersatz half-price BMWs that sacrifice little is carried through the newly freshened Tribeca.

Subaru Tribeca Information

Subaru Tribeca

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