Poor old Tribeca: originally conceived for and built in the United States, specifically for American tastes, it was happy there. But, around 18 months after launch, Subaru decided that the big crossover might also do big things in export markets.
New Zealand’s turn came in late-2006: the Tribeca, with its controversial aviation-inspired three-part grille (Subaru’s styling template du jour at the time), 3.0-litre boxer-six engine and American-quality cabin materials, was certainly something different from Subaru’s more familiar offerings. But not that impressive.
Not that it mattered, because no sooner had the car launched than it got a major facelift and upsized engine, in 2007. The look was much more conservative – perhaps too far the other way, really – but the bigger 3.6-litre boxer-six engine was a welcome addition, giving the 1.9-tonne Tribeca the 190kW/350Nm it needed.
Tribeca is still with us. In fact, during the tsunami-enforced product drought of 2011, it was basically the only thing Subaru dealers had in good supply. A worrying situation, as it’s still not exactly on the cutting-edge of SUV-dom.
That’s perhaps a bit unkind, as Tribeca does offer plenty of engine character, a wealth of comfort/convenience equipment and seating for seven, for $69,990. Working backwards on that list, all chairs are upholstered in nice leather, the rear-seat passengers get a DVD entertainment system and up front there’s a Harmon Kardon audio setup, touch-screen with sat-nav and a Bluetooth cellphone system.
Those last two items are great on paper but hit bum notes in practice. The sat-nav suffers from chunky graphics and staccato operation, while the Bluetooth is simply a post-factory add-on: the answer button is stuck onto the dashboard. Still, better than none at all.
The cabin clearly has aspirations of high style, with enormous curves and bold features, but it suffers from low-quality plastics and fit/finish that’s merely average. This is the American origin showing through: Tribeca’s quality is fine in those terms, but certainly not up the standard of Subaru’s Japanese-sourced Impreza/Legacy models.
It can be quite entertaining to drive, though. The boxer-six makes interesting noises and offers a decent spread of torque, although it could do with another gear. Maybe two. It’s all too easy to catch the five-speed automatic out in brisk driving, as it dithers around on hills trying to decide whether to use the available torque or kick down and employ extra revs. Tribeca is a heavy vehicle and requires a more committed gearbox.
That weight doesn’t hold the Tribeca back in corners, though. The boxer engine helps lower the centre of gravity, and is really is quite assured in tight corners. It stays nicely planted and all-wheel drive traction helps you out the other side of demanding corners – even when the gearbox won’t.
Shame the ride isn’t up to scratch. It bumps and thumps too much for a family vehicle, although some of the blame might lie with our test car’s optional 20-inch alloys. Which look fantastic by the way, and if it were my car I’d probably be willing to accept the opportunity cost, because the car looks pretty ordinary on the standard rims.
Tribeca is now certainly better than it has ever been, but in current company not quite good enough. It’s certainly something a bit different and excellent value. But this is a competitive segment full of great vehicles, and the big Subaru has never quite come together in the right way.