Pros: Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive standard; named IIHS Top Safety Pick

Cons: Small rear seat; lagging audio and communication technology; poor fuel economy; bland styling

In the universe of seven-passenger vans and SUVs, the 2012 Subaru Tribeca is a bit of a mystery. Its outward appearance is more minivan than rugged SUV, yet it doesn't have the convenience of sliding side doors. Its third-row seat seems like an afterthought, crammed into the vehicle where it is difficult to access, doesn't provide much legroom and basically eats up the entire cargo bay. Despite these shortcomings, the Tribeca still sells, although not in great numbers, mainly to Subaru loyalists looking for something that can better accommodate their growing families.

Like all Subaru products, the Tribeca is equipped with Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, a big selling point for those who regularly cope with winter's worst. There is plenty of room for adults in the front- and second-row seats, and the cabin is filled with nice amenities, such as rear seat A/C and an available DVD entertainment system. The Tribeca also rides and handles better than most of its competitors, chiefly because of its low-sitting boxer engine that helps reduce its high center of gravity.

Still, we wonder what would compel us to purchase a Tribeca over something like a GMC Acadia or a Toyota Highlander? It's certainly not the styling or the fuel economy, or even the price.

Comfort & Utility

Five people can fit comfortably into the Tribeca, but to squeeze in seven requires the added two persons to be either very small or very limber. The Tribeca's third-row seat is a cramped affair and not terribly comfortable or supportive. Fold it down, and you have much more usable space for luggage or groceries. You'll likely find the front seats comfortable. Lumbar support and heating elements are standard for both driver and passenger. The Tribeca's second row features a 40/20/40 folding seat and reclining backrest, while the 60/40 seat cushions have eight inches of fore and aft travel. There is also a fold and tumble feature to help make accessing the third row a bit easier.

We like the look of the Tribeca's curvaceous dash but find that some of the buttons and knobs are difficult for the driver to see at a glance. The culprit is a curving center console that makes it impossible to create a flat surface for the various controls. We also found that some of the LCD readouts would wash out when viewed through polarized sunglasses.

Although the Tribeca seems sufficiently wide from the outside, the opening at the rear hatch is rather narrow, particularly near the bottom half, making it more challenging to load in large or bulky items.

Technology

Although you won't find anything like Ford's SYNC communication system in the Tribeca, Subaru's largest vehicle still delivers a number of the cool electronic features that many modern drivers can't seem to do without. Bluetooth is standard on the Limited and Touring trims, and a navigation package with rear-vision camera is optional. You can also get a rear-vision camera with its monitor built into the rear-view mirror (standard on the Tribeca Touring) when ordering the Limited's moonroof package. We don't understand why something as important as a backup camera isn't standard or a least offered as a standalone option on every model, but Subaru feels compelled to bundle it with the pricey moonroof package, so that's the only way customers can get it.

We aren't big fans of Subaru's navigation unit. The system isn't very intuitive, and its map storage and feature content are somewhat dated. The Limited's 385-watt Harman Kardon audio system is a vast improvement over the Premium's 100-watt radio, but it still lacks a USB hookup for control of an iPod or other portable music device, although there is an AUX input jack.

Performance & Fuel Economy

No matter whether you choose the Premium, Limited or Touring version, your Tribeca will be powered by the same 3.6-liter 6-cylinder boxer engine. With 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque, the Tribeca has more than enough power to manage quick sprints up an on ramp or to rapidly overtake slower moving traffic. Fuel economy will likely suffer as you lead-foot it around town, since the Tribeca can only manage a mere 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway, and that's under ideal driving situations. While you may not be happy with the Tribeca's thirst for fuel, at least it happily runs on the cheap 87 octane stuff.

Power from the 3.6-liter engine is distributed evenly to all four wheels via Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive with Variable Torque Distribution (VTD), which delivers power to the wheels with the best traction.

Safety

The Tribeca garnered a Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It scored well in the institute's frontal offset, side impact and roof strength testing. Standard airbags include side thorax front seat airbags and side curtain airbags. Oddly, the side curtain airbags do not fully extend to the third-row passenger area, a pretty big "oops" in our book.

Other standard safety equipment includes electronic traction and electronic stability control, which Subaru dubs VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control). Stability control monitors the direction a vehicle is heading. Should the car begin to skid out of control, the system selectively applies the brakes while cutting the throttle to bring the car back in line.

Driving Impressions

Despite its nearly 8.5 inches of ground clearance, the Tribeca is remarkably stable and well balanced. The steering feels tight with good feedback, and the Tribeca tracks straight and true at highway speeds. Under normal driving conditions, the VDC distributes more torque to the rear wheels, which helps improve cornering when the Tribeca accelerates out of a curve. The Tribeca's five-speed Sportshift automatic transmission does a good job of finding and holding the right gear. For those so inclined, the Sportshift can be manually shifted by tapping the gearshift. This feature comes in quite handy when you need extra passing power, or to use engine braking to slow the vehicle during a steep descent.

Other Cars to Consider

GMC Acadia - The Acadia is larger than the Tribeca both inside and out, and its third-row seat has more room both in front of it and behind it. But the Tribeca's AWD system is more advanced than the Acadia's, and it holds its value a bit better.

Ford Explorer - The Explorer offers a selectable AWD system that is every bit the Tribeca's equal, plus it offers better styling, more advanced audio and communication systems, better fuel economy and more engine choices.

Dodge Durango - The Durango is more accommodating than the Tribeca and offers the option of a V8 engine, higher tow ratings and airbag protection for all three rows (as do also the Ford Explorer and GMC Acadia).

AutoTrader Recommends

Even though the base Tribeca Premium starts at just over $30,000, we can't say you'd be getting much of deal by going that route. For only $2,500 more, we'd go for the Limited. It offers the most features for the money and can be additionally equipped with navigation and a power moonroof. The Limited also offers more color choices than the Premium, which is limited to just two paint colors.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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