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Tribeca adds to functional Subaru fleet

Road trip
by: JIM CLARK, Sharing a name with a Manhattan neighborhood, Subaru’s Tribeca performed well on wet city streets. The design isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely practical.

For many Portland-area drivers, Subarus are the most practical cars on the market.

Their standard all-wheel-drive systems are ideally suited for our wet roads, while their relatively good fuel economy encourages weekend outings. Even the high-performance Impreza WRX model grew out of something functional - the company's rally program, which races heavily modified cars on slippery mountain roads.

So it was something of a surprise when Subaru entered the luxury crossover SUV market three years ago with the Tribeca, its largest model yet. With its sculpted lines and stylish wrap-around dash, it almost looked too high-end to be a genuine Subaru.

Our test model was a fully loaded Limited version, which added to the upscale feel with sumptuous leather seats, a navigation system and a DVD player for back-seat passengers.

In a weeklong test through mostly rainy weather, the 2008 Tribeca proved to be the real deal, however. The tires provided fantastic grip, even during fast launches encouraged by the torquey engine and responsive five-speed automatic transmission. Performance was even better in the transmission's 'sport' mode, which allows clutchless manual shifts.

At the same time, both the second and third rows of seats can be folded completely flat, producing enough storage space for lengthy camping trips. And the optional rear-facing camera makes backing up easy.

When the shifter is placed in reverse, a clear view of everything behind the Tribeca pops up on the dash-mounted view screen - complete with grid lines that change from green to yellow to red as the distance shortens.

In fact, Subaru has historically introduced models that confound market expectations. The original small all-wheel-drive station wagons (1975-1982) created a cult following, despite driving and riding like trucks.

The 1983 BRAT (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter) mini-pickup came with two plastic seats bolted into the bed to qualify as a four-seater for import purposes. A number of early turbo models featured Pop Art fabric interiors. The SVX (1992-1997) was the first mass-produced luxury AWD sports car.

AWD became standard on all Subaru models in 1997, making it the first car company to do so (second only to Jeep, which has never produced a full line of coupes, sedans and wagons).

Despite its mainstream crossover appearance, our test Tribeca had several features rooted in Subaru's history of practicality. The rearview mirror includes a small electronic compass that tells you what direction you're driving.

The entire front seats are electrically heated, including the backs. The fitted plastic floor mats will be appreciated in the rainy months. The console between the front seats features three storage trays - one beneath a nifty trap door that springs open to reveal cupholders and coin bins, and two different ones beneath the arm rest.

Even the transmission's clutchless sports mode has a practical side. The driver can manually shift up and down through the gears to increase acceleration or use the engine's compression to slow the Tribeca on downshifts. It allows drivers to keep the transmission in first while driving through snowdrifts or deep mud - much like using the 'low' gear on manual transmissions.

The real question for many potential buyers, however, is how the Tribeca compares to such competitors as the Mazda CX-9, the Honda Pilot and the Buick Enclave. The answer is, very well, especially considering Subaru's reputation for reliability. Despite its size, the Tribeca actually is based on the tried-and-true Legacy car chassis.

Despite that, the Tribeca has a number of design flaws. The entertainment center controls on the steering wheel are easily brushed during sweeping turns, producing abrupt and distracting volume changes. Some heater controls are obscured when the shifter is in park.

Wind noise is noticeable - although far from deafening - at speeds over 60 miles per hour. Second-row passengers much over 6 feet tall will find limited headroom, while the third-row seats are best reserved for children.

The Tribeca's sports mode works as advertised, but the shifts are not crisp enough to justify the effort, especially since acceleration in the normal mode is already more than adequate. Most drivers probably will end up using the sport mode to hold the Tribeca in first gear while crawling through high snow or deep mud.

Mileage is typical for comparable AWD crossovers, with an EPA-rated average of 16 to 21 miles per gallon. Suggested retail prices range from around $30,000 for the entry-level five-passenger version to nearly $40,000 for the fully equipped seven-passenger Limited, which was our test version.

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Subaru Tribeca

Class: Midsize crossover SUV

Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive

Style: Five-door

Engine: 3.6L Boxer V6, rated at 256 horsepower and 247 pounds-feet of torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Mileage: EPA estimated 16 city and 21 highway

Price: $30,640 to $39,678, depending on options