reviews

2011 Subaru Tribeca Walk Around

The look of the Subaru Tribeca hasn't changed significantly since it was re-styled for 2008. It's a nice-looking vehicle. But if the 2006 original went too far in being funky with its Alfa Romeo grille, the current model looks bland with its Chrysler grille.

The near-rectangular grille is swept back and a little wider at the top, like that of so many other SUVs and crossovers. It flows into a gentle bulge at the center of the hood, while the lights to either side curve back and around into the fenders.

Along the sides, the body panels are mostly vertical, though not slab-like; their expanse is broken by mild fender blisters circling properly proportioned tires and wheels. Beginning at the trailing edge of the front door and even with the door handles, a soft crease grows as it moves rearward, giving the rear portions substance before ending in the wraparound taillights. An understated character line etched into the doors and running between the wheel arches draws attention to the matte-black rocker panels on Premium and Limited and subtly reminds us of the Tribeca's 8.4-inch ground clearance. The steeply raked windshield and A-pillars pull the eye up and over the tall glasshouse to a spoiler laid atop an acutely angled back window. The standard alloy wheels, with their five split spokes, look handsomely sturdy.

At the rear, there's a hint of a defining waistline, thanks to that upper-level crease that joins with the rear door handles with the gentle convex peak across the oval taillights. A sunshade-like spoiler trails the rear edge of the roof, and the bumper dips naturally into a step below the one-piece tailgate. It looks good. The tail lamps and shape of the tail gate are the best clues that it's a Subaru.

We like the monochrome look of the Touring model. The monochrome scheme pulls the design together without making the Tribeca visually taller; it also shows off some interesting detail work, particularly at the front. The bright grille, door handles, and roofrails provide just enough flash and contrast to ensure that the Touring looks like a real machine, and not (as with some monochrome designs) an extruded plastic toy. We like the Touring's new seven-spoke alloy wheels: a clean design with just enough three-dimensionality to suggest dramatic tension.

Interior

Inside is a luxurious and upmarket cabin. We felt comfortable immediately after climbing in. The organic, almost-wholesome sweep of the dash as it flows into the door panels creates cocoon-like comfort zones for driver and front-seat passenger. It's a stunning styling statement. A little more time behind the wheel revealed that it's not perfect, however. The front seat cushions could be deeper for more thigh support, and back support isn't great, especially in the bolstering, especially against slippery leather.

We found getting in and out easy. We didn't have to climb up into it or down into it. We simply opened the door and sat down. Once underway, the relatively high seating position allowed us to check traffic several cars ahead. Outward forward visibility is slightly compromised by the thick A-pillars (on each side of the windshield); thick pillars are the trend as automakers design vehicles to better protect occupants in rollovers. But the sideview mirrors are excellent, so backward visibility is great.

Once buckled in, we found all the controls easy to locate and operate. From behind the wheel, the Tribeca actually feels more like a minivan than an SUV, because of the sloped windshield and the fact that you can't see the hood.

The gauges and panels tasked with communicating important information did so quite naturally. We liked the large tachometer and speedometer, with their organic white lettering, red needles, and silver rims. The fuel and coolant temperature gauges weren't completely intuitive, tucked away in the lower outboard corners of the instrument cluster and utilizing LEDs in lieu of conventional pointers. Arms and hands rest naturally on nicely textured surfaces. The doors are especially good, with nice long padded armrests and terrific long pockets.

The buttons and levers are where they should be. Steering wheel-mounted supplemental controls are styled into the sweep of the wheel's spokes. The shift lever's SportShift slot, which allows the driver to manually select the desired gear, is properly placed to the driver's side of the primary gate.

The steering column is offset a smidgen to the right, toward the centerline of the vehicle. A lot of vehicles have imperfectly located steering wheels, but we were surprised to find this in a Subaru.

The rounded center stack spreads outward onto the dash like in the shape of a Y. The primary audio control knob is centered within ready reach of the driver and front-seat passenger. The heating and ventilation controls are really cool, with big knobs that feature digital readouts. The front passenger's air conditioning temperature control knob is thoughtfully positioned facing the passenger. The stereo handles MP3 media, and includes an input jack in the center console. An elaborate information screen and (optional) navigation system display are centered in the upper half of the dash with controls that are accessible to both the driver and front passenger.

The touch-screen navigation system includes a rearview camera, a great safety and convenience feature. When the driver shifts the transmission into Reverse, the navigation system's center LCD display shows what the color camera detects within its field of vision behind the vehicle. Reference lines help guide the driver. In everyday use, rearview cameras make parallel parking easier and quicker. A rearview camera can help alert the driver to hazards that are difficult to see otherwise, such as a child sitting on a tricycle behind the vehicle. On models without navigation, the image is displayed on the rearview mirror, but the image is smaller and, we think, less useful.

The second row is more comfortable than it looks at first, which we discovered on a daylong round trip between California's Central Valley and the Bay Area and another extended ride in the back seats around wine country. Later we took half a boys' soccer team to their game, and they loved the ride, totally spacious to them, as they usually squeeze into a coach's old Legacy wagon. The second-row seatbacks can be reclined. Indeed, we never even thought about comfort while riding in the back seat for more than an hour, indicating it was roomy and quite comfortable. The second row is one of the most flexible we've seen in terms of configurations and range of adjustments, as we learned on routine trips to the grocery store, the post office and just generally running around town for a week. A new tip-and-slide function eases access to the third row from either side of the vehicle.

The glove box offers enough space for the owner's manual, cell phones, and garage door remotes. Two cupholders are concealed beneath a well-damped cover in the center console aft of the shift lever. Rearward of this is the padded center armrest covering a respectably sized storage bin. Two more cupholders can be found in the fold-down middle seat center armrest. Space for a water bottle is molded into the map pockets on each of the four doors and into the quarter panels in the cargo area. Storage nets are stitched into the back sides of the front seats. There are four power points: two in the front center console, making for a bit of a stretch for radar detector cords, and two in the cargo area. The sound-insulating subfloor in the cargo area has several different-sized bins molded into its top side.

The Tribeca impressed us in routine, daily use. Flipping up the tailgate and dropping the third-row seat to load up a week's groceries or purchases from the neighborhood hardware store for a weekend's chores quickly became second nature.

Cargo space opens up to 74.4 cubic feet after dropping the second and third rows, and it's a nice, flat load floor. That's competitive for the class, though there are plenty of SUVs with more room. By way of comparison, the Toyota Highlander offers 95.4 cubic feet of cargo room, and the larger Mazda CX-9 has 100.7 cubic feet. On the other hand, the Nissan Murano offers only 64.5. Overall, the Tribeca compares well on utility.

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