2009 Subaru Tribeca Limited Review
By Chris Haak
Subaru’s largest vehicle has something of an identity crisis, but not in the way that most cars have one. The Tribeca clearly fits into the midsize crossover class, so it’s not confused about what segment it fits into. It is, however, confused about its identity as a Subaru.
The Tribeca’s identity crisis began a few years ago when Subaru first introduced the B9 Tribeca. It was the largest Subaru sold in the US, had optional seating for seven, and drove like anything but a WRX rally championship car. It also required premium unleaded for H6 engine that had fairly pedestrian power numbers, and was priced fairly richly. On top of all this, in a bid to strike a “unique” look with buyers, the B9 Tribeca had one of the most unusal noses of the 21st century auto industry, with a gaping opening in the center flanked by “wings” on either side. The story was that the grille was a nod to Subaru’s prior aviation heritage, but the B9 Tribeca had a face only its mother could love.
Fast forward a few years, and Subaru dropped the ‘B9’ prefix from the name, leaving it the just the ‘Tribeca,’ and invested money into an expensive mid-cycle redesign of the front and back ends, recalibrated the engine so it would make similar power on regular unleaded, and threw it back onto the market to see if it stuck.
Unfortunately, for all the goodness that the 2009 Forester has (what with its excellent small-on-the-outside, big-on-the-inside interior packaging, relatively low price, and rugged good looks), the Tribeca can’t really check any of those boxes. In its effort to plaster over the B9 Tribeca’s ugliness, Subaru managed to extract nearly all of the old vehicle’s personality, replacing the unique – yet hideous – grille with one that would be more at home on a Chrysler Aspen, and a profile that could be mistaken for the similarly-sized Chrysler Aspen. To be fair, the grille is somewhat reminiscent of the Forester’s, but the overall look is like no other Subaru vehicle. I was next to an original B9 Tribeca at a traffic light one afternoon, and was nearly sentimental for the ugly version. Nearly.
I had always thought the Tribeca looked pretty good in interior photos, with some dramatic swooping curves and nice-looking materials. It’s amazing how the eye can be fooled, however, by photos done with proper lighting (as in, usually photos taken by someone other than me), because the entire dashboard is hard plastic, and the door panels aren’t much better. I don’t have a problem with hard plastic in every vehicle’s interior, but my expectations are higher when the vehicle is priced over $35,000. At least everything seemed to be screwed together tightly and there were no rough edges on the hard plastic pieces.
Ergonomically, the Tribeca seemed to suffer in a few areas in the name of style. The steering wheel was good-looking and felt good in my hands, but the audio buttons were too large and close to the rim, causing me to inadvertently change radio stations more times during my week with the Tribeca as I can remember doing in the previous 17 years I’ve spent behind the wheel. The navigation system was among the most cumbersome that I’ve used. It was operated by a series of loudly-clicking buttons toward the top of the center stack, but also required touchscreen inputs, and the screen is separated from the rest of the center stack by an oddly-placed air vent that directs air upward, presumably to the rear seat passengers by way of the ceiling. The navigation system had some nice trip computer features (such as the ability to save historical fuel economy data and two simultaneous trip odometers/fuel economy average measurements, but was difficult to use. The screen was also of a far lower resolution than nearly all 2008/2009 model year vehicles, with no “bird’s eye” capability and very limited data displayed on it. The voice was that of a male British-accented android, which was just unusual. Finally, the voice guidance did not have the ability to say road or street names, but instead relied on “take the next right” (instead of the more sophisticated, “take the next right onto Main Street.”
Moving to the back seat, it’s simply not roomy enough for a vehicle that is sold as a family vehicle. As with the completely different Nissan Pathfinder, the Tribeca’s third row seat (optional in the Tribeca and standard in the Pathfinder) only fits into the vehicle at the expense of second row legroom. Accordingly, the much smaller Forester (12 inches shorter, 5 inches less wheelbase) has 3.7 inches more second row legroom and 0.8 inches more front seat legroom. Another issue with the second row seat is the design of the LATCH anchors for child seats; they are too close to the cushion, and there is something solid under the upholstery beneath the anchor hooks. I spent a frustrating and sweaty 20 minutes inside my garage attempting to connect two Britax Marathon car seats to the Tribeca’s back seat, and in that time was only able to connect ONE of the four anchor straps (two per seat) because the Marathon has easy-to-use, but large LATCH buckles. I abandoned the mission, cursing the design of the Tribeca’s system, and put the seats into my wife’s Sienna. On the Sienna, the anchor hooks on the second row seat have at least a half inch of clearance around them in every direction, and I was able to connect and tighten the seats in about 30 seconds each. The Britax Marathon is probably the best car seat on the market, and a very popular choice among parents (including at the two Autosavant writers with small children), so the fact that the Tribeca couldn’t accommodate the seat was disappointing. Ironically, the cheaper, less comfortable Graco ComfortSport seats that we have as our spares would have probably worked because of a smaller (but harder-to-use LATCH buckle system), but we wanted our sons to be comfortable during a long drive. As it turned out, only my oldest son was able to ride along on a short drive in the Tribeca using a booster seat (pictured above).
Based on the published power ratings (3.6 liter flat-six, 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque) and its standard five-speed automatic, I expected the Tribeca to move fairly quickly. For the first day or two that I drove it, it didn’t. Then, I happened to have the ignition switched to “on” with the engine off, and all of the so-called “idiot lights” were illuminated. I noticed a green “SPORT” light, so intrigued, I realized that the transmission had a sport algorithm in its software, activated by moving the gear selector toward the manual shift gate. As soon as I came across that revelation, the Tribeca’s powertrain seemed to spring to life. One-third throttle would cause the vehicle to downshift to its lowest possible gear; engine wailing – but in its power band – it moved with a degree of haste. The Tribeca’s manual shift gate seemed to kill whatever joy the sport mode added to the equation, because although it allowed for manual shifting, it didn’t shift quickly, so its value was somewhat dubious in my mind.
“Sport” mode is something of a misnomer, however, as 4,190 pounds motivated by 256 horsepower isn’t the stuff that teenage boys dream of. While the power steering was nicely weighted and provided good feedback, and braking feel wasn’t unremarkably great or bad, its fairly narrow width combined with its fairly tall height led me to exercise more caution in the curves than would be necessary in a regular car. However, dividing the Tribeca’s width by its height, it is wider relative to its height (which, of course, helps stability) than many close competitors. In this metric, higher numbers are better, and the Tribeca’s 1.11 is better than the Subaru Forester (1.06), GMC Acadia (1.07), and Toyota Highlander (1.10), for example. Just don’t take it to a racetrack and you’ll be fine. On wet roads, the Tribeca was a champ, with mountain goat-like grip; I never felt wheelspin from a straight line in my entire week with the Tribeca.
Aside from some shortcomings I’ve already mentioned (fuel economy, interior space in the second row, hard plastics throughout the interior), the biggest deal killer for me is the price. The 2009 Tribeca that I tested had a base MSRP including destination of $35,660. Added to that were a $47 rear cargo net, $314 Convenience Group (puddle lights and rear dome/reading light), and $60 all-weather floor mats, for a total MSRP of $36,081. The base Tribeca starts at $30,655, but the Limited model that I tested included a moonroof, 160-watt stereo (which didn’t sound all that great to my ears), navigation system (a $2,400 add), leather trimmed upholstery, heated seats, and XM Satellite Radio. The third row seat would have cost another $1,000 and most of the rear cargo room when open, and the rear seat entertainment system adds another $1,800 to the tab (but can only be purchased with the third row and navigation system, so if you have one or two kids and know where you’re going, you have the choice of shelling out $5,200 for that package or buying a $100 Sony handheld DVD player). Relative to its competitors, it’s priced fairly similarly to the larger and more powerful GMC Acadia and Toyota Highlander, and several thousand more than the Forester, even when the Forester is in the upscale L.L. Bean trim.
While I never managed to really fall in love with the Tribeca, I did appreciate it more as time went on and I was able to understand the cumbersome navigation system and how to extract the engine’s maximum power from Sport mode, while my frustration with the car seat issue gradually subsided. It’s not a bad vehicle, but having driven the Forester and really liking it, I’m convinced that Subaru can and will do a better job with the next Tribeca, if there is a next-generation model. Even taking the price differential out of the equation, if Subaru were the only car company in the world and I had to pick a Subaru model to haul my family around day after day, I’d pick the Forester over the larger Tribeca, and I’m not even a huge proponent of small, four cylinder cars. To continue this fantasy, I think I’d take an STi for my daily driver.
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