Wow, what a trip

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THE award for automotive non sequitur of the year goes to Subaru for its new B9 Tribeca, a handsomely sculpted luxury crossover from a company generally known for putting the “ugh” in ugly.

Just keeping it real, dog. The company catalog is full of weirdly proportioned, arrhythmic and lumpy products such as the Forester and the Baja, whose camp-stove aesthetic appeals to Subaru buyers’ sense of personal authenticity. Subie loyalists are a countercultural lot -- the company likes to think of them as “inspired pragmatists,” though I think of them as liberals -- who have little interest in signing on to what mainstream America thinks is cool or sexy.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 1, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Subaru vehicle -- The Rumble Seat column in Highway 1 in some copies of today’s paper refers to the Forester, one of Subaru’s vehicles, as the Forrester.

Which makes me wonder what they will make of the cool and sexy B9 Tribeca.

Did I see the matinee? In the 1990s, Subaru tried to transcend its niche-product status to contend against Lexus and Infiniti. In due course it produced the Subaru SVX (1992-97), a 230-hp, six-cylinder, all-wheel-drive premium sports coupe designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and beautifully so.


The SVX -- which I consider one of the most restoration-worthy of all recent Asian cars -- just didn’t vibe with Subie-heads, though, and vice versa. Where, they wondered, do you put the kayak?

THE intervening decade was good to Subaru, mainly because the market came ‘round to appreciating the value of all-wheel drive under a car or wagon. Meanwhile, Subaru gained enviable street cred from its rally-racing monster, the WRX STi, which stars in any number of thumb-numbing video games such as Sony’s Gran Turismo 4. Subaru’s U.S. sales last year were 184,000.

So Subaru has a lock on the Humbolt County home cultivator market. Can the B9 Tribeca win over the Orange County Garden Club?

I’m thinking, yes.

Based on a stretched and widened version of the Outback platform and powered by the same 3.0-liter, 250-hp boxer engine and all-wheel-drive drivetrain, the B9 Tribeca is nonetheless a dramatically different vehicle, because it has, well, drama.

Instead of the Outback’s chastity-inspiring wagon styling, with chip-resistant plastic cladding applied prophylactically to the lower half of the car, the Tribeca is wrapped in a sleek, aerodynamic singlet of tinted glass and steel. The polished door handles are integrated into the emerging character line at the shoulder; the projector-beam headlamp assemblies flow like crystalline plasma onto the front fenders, and big 18-inch wheels and tires burgeon from the wheel wells, giving the car an athletic, road-hugging stance.

The most obvious signal that this isn’t your yoga instructor’s Subaru is the three-section grille design, a new corporate face that the company suggests we read as homage to Subaru’s aircraft heritage. Sure, OK, why not? However, to me it suggests either an Alfa Romeo or a Mayan thunderbird.


In any event, the super-Subie’s flowing lines make its badge-mates look like they are carved out of blocks of Velveeta.

As surprising as the exterior is, the interior is a shock. It’s gorgeous, full of organic forms that flow around the cockpit in shimmering metal finishes and high-grade plastics, glowing with electroluminescent dials, hot red backlighting and icy blue area lighting that seem right out of the W Hotel. The centerpiece, visually and otherwise, is a faux aluminum-finish central console with spring-loaded climate controls, a little like those on the Porsche Boxster. This shuttlecraft-style console is topped by a bright, perfectly positioned 7-inch LCD screen, home to the vehicle information or the optional DVD navigation displays.

A little housekeeping: The Tribeca is available in five- and seven-passenger configurations, base and Limited models. Two of the most desirable features -- the nav system and DVD entertainment system with a 9-inch LCD screen -- are optional only on the seven-passenger Limited edition, which goes for $33,895. The base five-passenger model retails for $30,695, while the seven-passenger flagship model with entertainment and nav systems can be had for $37,695.

The Tribeca price structure means it covers a lot of bets in the market -- vehicles like the five-passenger Nissan Murano and Lexus RX 330 and the eight-passenger Honda Pilot.

The Tribeca is nicely equipped, starting with its eager flat-six, five-speed automatic and electronically controlled all-wheel drive, augmented by traction and stability control and four-channel anti-lock brakes. Also included are front and front-side air bags and side-curtain air bags. The Limited package adds leather seats and a stereo upgrade; seven-passenger models get the third-row seat with rear air-conditioning control; and, as I said, the seven-passenger Limited model offers the optional rear-seat entertainment system (with wireless headphones and remote control) and the nav system.

I drove a maxed-out seven-passenger Limited edition from San Francisco to Los Angeles and then for a week afterward, and rarely have I been so sorry to see a vehicle go home. This thing works like a charm. The middle-row seats, split 40/20/40, fold flat easily and also slide 8 inches back to provide extra legroom. The extra-wide second set of doors and the low step-in height makes this a very passenger-friendly vehicle.


BUT for all the effort to make the third-row seating livable -- the Outback’s multi-link rear suspension was swapped out in favor of a more compact double-wishbone setup -- it isn’t quite. It’s for occasional use only, and for me, just under 6-foot-2, that occasion is visiting the osteopath.

Dynamically, the Tribeca drives like what it is: a slightly bigger, heavier and reinforced version of the Outback 3.0 R, and that’s a good thing. At 4,225 pounds, the Tribeca has got some poundage, but thanks to its low center of gravity and relatively low polar mass (the engine is lower and closer to the center of the vehicle) it drives more like a sport wagon than the minivan you might take it for in your more cynical moments.

The Outback’s front strut suspension is abetted with thicker front stabilizer bars; the rear wishbone setup is attached to a steel subframe, and things that go “buzz” in the chassis, such as the lower suspension pieces and differential, are isolated from the body structure with liquid-filled bushings. The result is that the vehicle has an agile, level, well-planted feel when driven hard; turn-in is crisp and the steering is direct and communicative. Considering its 8.4-inch ground clearance, that’s no mean feat. Much of the credit goes to the vehicle’s wide stance -- track is 62.2/62.1 inches front/rear, nearly 4 inches wider than the Outback -- and its clodhopper 18-inch tires. The Outback’s four-wheel disc brakes are also super-sized for the Tribeca’s application.

The neatest thing about its drivetrain is also the hardest to appreciate. If you get too frisky with the throttle and exceed the mechanical grip of any one wheel, the Vehicle Dynamics Control will reduce power directed to the slipping wheel through the center differential. Other all-wheel-drive systems will engage traction control first to pulse the brakes and then cut engine power, which can bog down the vehicle.

The Tribeca doesn’t have a lot of horsepower to spare. While the engine behind the mono-nostril is a great piece -- putting out 83.3 hp per liter of displacement -- those horses have a lot of weight to drag around. The 219 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm feels pretty watery. If the car’s handling weren’t so capable you might not find the power wanting, but the vehicle feels somewhat underpowered.

Will the Tribeca have sex appeal or SVX appeal? Time will tell. If any vehicle can broaden Subaru’s market horizons, it’s got to be this one: sleek, sophisticated and elegant, chock full of premium features, and yet faithful to the brand.


In the Tribeca, beauty is only skin deep, but the Subaru goes right to the bone.

Contact automotive critic Dan Neil at



2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca

Base price: $30,695 (plus $625 destination charge)

Price, as tested: $38,320 (delivered)

Powertrain: 3.0-liter flat-six boxer engine, dual-overhead cams, variable-valve timing and lift; five-speed automatic with manual-shift mode; all-wheel drive with limited-slip center differential

Horsepower: 250 at 6,600 rpm

Torque: 219 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm

Curb weight: 4,225 pounds

0-60 mph: 8 seconds

Wheelbase: 108.2 inches

Overall length: 189.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Uptown luxury, downtown address