- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2005

In a marathon, winning isn’t everything. The challenge is so formidable that incremental improvement, and often simply finishing, is almost as important.

The automobile business is something like that. It’s extremely competitive and there are a large number of contestants vying for position and advantage.

Some falter along the way, as witness Japan’s Mitsubishi and, to an arguable extent, even the American giant General Motors. Others run steadily, not at the front of the pack but moving forward.

Japan’s Subaru, which has made a virtue out of doing much with little, is such a competitor. At one time a builder of sturdy economy cars, Subaru made a conscious decision to move up and away to a more profitable realm.

Nearly 20 years ago, it decided to make all-wheel drive standard on all of its cars — a decision that in retrospect looks prophetic in view of the current infestation of all-wheel drive across the automotive spectrum.

Subaru’s decision was made easier because the company used horizontally opposed engines — also called boxer engines because the cylinders lie down, feet to feet, on both sides of the crankshaft. The design, used by Volks-wagen in the old Beetle and currently by Porsche in its sports cars, is suited to all-wheel drive because a driveshaft to the rear wheels can be fitted directly to the back of the engine.

Over the nearly two decades since Subaru went all-in on all-wheel drive, it has had but two basic platforms on which to build new models. As the truck-based SUV craze went into full flower, Subaru had no truck. So it took its Legacy sedan and station wagon platform and created the Outback, a semi-SUV that satisfied a lot of needs. Then it developed the WRX sports sedans, Outbacks and the Forester SUV from its Impreza platform.

With increasing gasoline prices and buyers moving away from truck-based SUVs, fortune smiles again on Subaru. But new products are everything in today’s fiercely competitive environment, so Subaru needed something new to stay on top of its upscale-trending game.

Once again, with its new flagship — the B9 Tribeca — the company has managed to squeeze out yet another new car from the Legacy/Outback platform.

Like those siblings, the B9 Tribeca is a car-based crossover SUV — but now with seating for seven. The 9 in the B9 designation is an internal reference to the model, and the B refers to the boxer engine. Tribeca is a neighborhood in New York City.

The B9 Tribeca sports a new grille that — love it or hate it — looks like nothing else and is instantly recognizable. It is intended to become a theme for other Subaru vehicles, much like the “double kidney” grille on BMWs.

With a price tag that starts north of $31,000, the B9 Tribeca is the most expensive Subaru. Some of its natural competitors include the Toyota Highlander, Nissan Murano, Honda Pilot, Volvo XC90, Mitsubishi Endeavor and Buick Rendezvous. But Subaru says it also is targeting luxury SUVs such as the Lexus RX330 and the six-cylinder BMW X5.

Inside, the B9 Tribeca certainly has the classy look of an upscale SUV, with pleasant and functional design, nice textures and burnished aluminum-look trim.

Though it is taller than the Outback, the B9 Tribeca is only about an inch longer, which makes it longitudinally challenged as a seven-passenger vehicle (it also is available in a five-passenger configuration). There’s only 8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third seat.

To minimize the effect of the short interior, the second-row seat has 8 inches of fore and aft travel. Slide it all the way back and the passengers have ample room. But that leaves the third seat bereft of any space for legs or feet.

Slide the seat forward and two average-sized adults can sit in the third seat, although getting back there is a chore. But the knee and foot room in the second row then becomes severely restricted. With a full seven-passenger load, second- and third-row passengers must compromise.

The tested B9 Tribeca was the top-of-the line Limited model with traction control, antilock brakes, leather upholstery and heated seats. It also had a navigation system and a DVD rear entertainment system, which brought its sticker price to $38,320. Satellite radio is not yet available.

The B9 Tribeca uses Subaru’s 3.0-liter six-cylinder boxer engine, which is rated at 250 horsepower. It’s enough to propel the B9 to 60 mph in slightly more than eight seconds.

But the engine is short on torque, which causes the five-speed automatic transmission to hunt up and down for the right gear in uphill driving. However, there also is a manual-shift mode, so the driver can select a gear and hold it there.

The independent suspension system produces sharp handling and a ride that is taut and well controlled, but far from plush. With the bloom fading from truck-based SUVs, the B9 Tribeca gives Subaru yet another credible entry in the all-wheel-drive galaxy.

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