Review: 2011 Subaru Tribeca Limited

By Kevin Miller

Subaru made a name for itself selling rugged, capable passenger cars and crossovers featuring horizontally-opposed engines and all-wheel drive. After more than a decade of selling just two sizes of sedans and wagons, the automaking arm of Fuji Heavy Industries jumped on the crossover boom and unleashed the B9 Tribeca into the market for model year 2006. Featuring unusual styling and a 3.0 liter H6 that required premium fuel, the B9 Tribeca wasn’t a huge sales success, and the vehicle was restyled shortly thereafter for the 2008 model year, when its name simply became “Tribeca”.

The restyling for the 2008 model year was able to be done so quickly after the initial vehicle launch, in part, because it adopted an exterior design which had been developed with Saab in parallel to B9 Tribeca development for sale as a Saab model which was to be called 9-6. When the business relationship between GM and Fuji Heavy Industries dissolved, the production of 9-2x-badged Imprezas was halted, and the stillborn 9-6 was mothballed. This worked in Subaru’s favor to allow a hasty redesign of their awkward-looking crossover.

Development of the (B9) Tribeca took place in the early years of this century, and used mechanical parts from the contemporary Outback, including that vehicle’s H6 motor, five-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive system. Subaru’s six-cylinder motors from that era never felt as quick as their ratings suggested (my mother owned a 2001 Outback H6 LL Bean whose H6 felt like it added weight to the car rather than power), and even the switch in 2008 to 3.6 liters running on regular unleaded in the Tribeca did very little to help. That being said, the powertrain that felt outmatched even when new seems even less competitive today.

For 2011, the Tribeca soldiers on with the same styling it was given in 2008, and pretty much the same “everything else” too. While seven seats are now standard (the current Outback is a much more satisfying five-passenger crossover), the interior layout and the powertrain remain unchanged. The Tribeca has a fairly conservative, anonymous appearance, especially in the silver hue of the vehicle I tested.

Inside, the Tribeca’s dash is most notable for is highly-styled curves, which flow up the dash from the center console and around the driver and front passenger. While it is a unique design, it highlights big swaths of inexpensive-looking, textured hard plastics and silver-painted plastic. The markedly-convex center stack has a big collection of small rectangular buttons with too-small text which are arranged artfully rather than ergonomically. Because of the curvature of the dash, half of the buttons are canted away from the driver, making them somewhat awkward to identify and use.

Autosavant’s Chris Haak reviewed the Tribeca in 2008, and was unimpressed then by the low-resolution display on the dash for audio, navigation, and trip computer functions. The unit has surely not been updated, and three years later feels even more out of date than ever. Roads and street names appeared pixellated (and disappear when polarized glasses look askance at it), and the navigation system is the type that does not speak street names. The system does not have an integrated Bluetooth phone interface; instead Subaru has installed a BlueConnect system which mutes the audio, but has the sound comes from a small separate speaker mounted on the ceiling console behind the rearview mirror. There are four buttons (volume up/down, answer, and voice command) to control the phone system. The audio system features a six-disc changer and XM satellite radio in addition to AM and FM terrestrial radio.

The front seats- though heated and power-operated, with manual lumbar adjustment and two memory positions for the driver- are not particularly comfortable. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope. There are two cupholders in the center console, plus bottle holders in the front doors. The exterior mirrors are taller than mirrors on most midsized crossovers, which provide plenty of visibility. Overhead, a standard-sized sunroof is fitted.

The Tribeca’s rear doors are long, providing easy access for passengers. Second row seats are 40/20/40 split, and are rail-mounted, so they can be adjusted fully rearward for plentiful legroom, or can be farther forward to allow occupants in the third row. A secondary release must be used to position the seat fully rearward, probably to prevent amputating the legs of third-row occupants. The second-row seats also have manual backrest-angle adjustment. The center armrest has two cupholders, and there are also bottle holders in the rear doors, a bin that slides out from under the center console, and pockets in each of the front seatbacks. There are LATCH attachments in the second row, though the lower anchors are very difficult to use due to limited clearance between the bottom and back cushions. At night, there are amber-colored ambient lights visible under the front seats, as well as on the bottom of the doors when they’re opened to illuminate the ground.

The third-row seat is positioned very close to the floor, making it suitable only for small children or short distances. Access is tight between the second-row seatback and back of the door frame. When the middle seating position in the second row is occupied, the seatbelt comes from the ceiling just above the right passenger’s head in the third row, which is disquieting. No lower LATCH anchors are present in the third row, and the upper tether locations for that row are at the rear of the luggage compartment near the tailgate, which would make loading cargo difficult.

Around back, the cargo area is average size, with only a small bin underfloor for tire-changing tools; the spare tire is stored outside of the vehicle. The cargo area is carpeted, and the hatch opened tall enough for me to stand under it at 6’4” tall.

Once underway, I was surprised by the amount of understeer the Tribeca exhibited. On wet streets at moderate speeds, quick steering input resulted in the Tribeca continuing to travel straight ahead. That was a surprising handling trait; it seems as though none of the DNA from Subaru’s rally cars made it in to the Tribeca.

The 256 HP, 3.6 liter H6 motor seems to make a lot of noise, especially in relation to the amount of acceleration it produces. The first few times I merged onto the freeway in the Tribeca, I was surprised to find myself not yet traveling 60 MPH, as both the amount of time I’d been on the onramp and the amount of noise coming from underhood hinted that I should be there already. The five-speed automatic transmission has a SPORT mode as well as manual shifting available on the console, but neither of these hasten the transmission’s shifts, nor do they change engine mapping for better throttle response. The transmission’s operating characteristics were such that when underway on the freeway, letting off the accelerator caused engine braking dramatic enough to remind me of a hybrid car’s regenerative braking. Too, the transmission too often clunked/thumped unexpectedly when changing gears.

The Tribeca has a fuel economy rating of 16/21 MPG city/highway, with 18 combined. I covered just 160 miles during my time with the Tribeca, mostly around town and in heavy freeway traffic, and managed to get just 15.9 MPG. That is about average for other seven-passenger crossover vehicles, though most of those vehicles offer a bit more space or power to go along with that rating.

The Steel Silver Metallic 2011 Tribeca Limited tested here has an MSRP of $32,495 which includes standard such as all-wheel drive, stability control with rollover sensor and vehicle dynamic control, 18 inch alloy wheels, rear air conditioning, Harman/kardon 10-speaker stereo with six-disc CD changer, Bluetooth phone system, dual-zone automatic climate control, and power-operated heated, leather-trimmed front seats with driver memory for the driver. The tested vehicle also included “Option Package 08” for $3700, which added the power moonroof and navigation system with rearview camera. With the $725 destination charge, the Tribeca Limited total price is $36,920.

The Tribeca is a solid, older vehicle competing in a hot vehicle segment, with most of its competitors offering slightly more space, slightly better fuel economy and more recent launch dates. Subaru has been on a roll with new products, including the new Outback and Legacy last year, and the new Impreza which just launched. Applying the spacious, modern, efficient platform of the Outback to a new Tribeca would be the ticket to a phenomenal new crossover. For now, the solid, evergreen Tribeca continues to faithfully provide Subaru a toehold in the seven-passenger crossover segment, but not much more.

Subaru provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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3 Comments

  1. Agreed regarding the engine – it is definitely an underachiever and the paradox is that it could easily be so much more, considering the design parameters.

  2. We had the New Yorker, the Park Avenue, now we the Tribeca, what’s next, the Brookyn or the Manhattan?

  3. That engine probably wouldn’t be any noisier at 350 horsepower, look what Porsche gets out of their flat six!

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