Made in America

As a bona fide fan of rally reps, Botchi Santos gets behind the wheel of Subaru's American-made SUV in the hopes of finding the spirit of the famed Impreza within
Feb 1, 2009


OKAY, SO I'm slowly being converted to the Subaru camp from the Mitsubishi quarters. I like the STI more than the Evo X now, but for a different reason: The STI seems easier to live with than the X, which still feels a bit too hardcore, punishing my hotdog-fattened tush on EDSA. But the Subaru Tribeca feels quite different from the rally-rep STI that I love, or the all-new Forester which I also just adore.

For starters, it's not made in Japan, but in the good, old US of A - in the state of Indiana, in fact. Subaru designed and built the car with super-sized American bottoms in mind. In America, I'm only an L instead of my usual XXL here in Asia. That already tells you something. The seating position is so upright, for starters, typical of a Ford F-series or a GM truck. The ergonomics are La-Z-Boy convenient, which is always good, and the interior design is so, well, Euro-Jap minimalist - a forward leap from the archaic designs you saw in your granny's American ute.

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It's got good and decent ride height, enough to wade through the worst floods Metro Manila can throw at it. It's also got good-enough ground clearance to overpass most rocks on the driveway of one's hacienda. Just don't give the Tribeca to Beeboy Bargas to thrash in his Tanay jungle base - it's still a car-based SUV, after all. The road-biased 18-inch wheels with HT Goodyear tires show their intentions from the get-go of being an urban crawler rather than a certified trailblazer.

And yet the Tribeca shines precisely on the road. It feels like a grown-up hatchback, allowing you to chuck it around tight bends confidently with some accompanying tire squeal. The suspension, perhaps its best facet, is all-Subaru. Euro-firm but very comfortable, it is compliant enough to tackle EDSA's worst humps and bumps after a signal-three storm has ravaged the city, and to glide through all the flotsam and jetsam brought by the floods.

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Body roll is apparent but definitely not disconcerting, well above par (or well below it, like a 5-under par, as golfers might argue) for an SUV. It transfers its weight on its four wheels confidently and progressively so you always know what the Tribeca is doing.

Inside, the leather is super soft and smooth, and there's a moon roof to add some natural lighting in the SUV's airy cabin. And although the third-row seats are quite tight, flop them down and you get loads of luggage space, protected from prying eyes by the tonneau cover. The controls for the aircon blower and dual-zone climate control system look like bezels from an expensive chronograph, and the way the dashboard curves around both the driver and the front passenger is pleasing.

Dark blue leather helps give contrast to the dominant beige/tan leather interior, so everything is not dreary. Of course, the front seats are electronically adjusted with multiple airbags all around, and usefully, there is a healthy sprinkling of mood lights in the cabin at night.

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It's a pleasant place to be in, something your average car user - even car lover - might like. For me, as pleasant as this SUV seems, there are some things I absolutely detest. The driving position is one. At moderate traffic speeds, all is good, but when you are really canning the beast, you really feel like you are sitting on top of the Tribeca rather than in it. The steering wheel is woefully low, and I can't imagine how the average super-sized American will fit his or her tree-trunk thighs underneath the steering wheel.

Lastly, I absolutely hate the pedal position and movement. Since you are sitting upright, your ankle is at an almost 90-degree angle, which makes stepping on the pedals very tiring. If you have gout, arthritis or a twisted ankle, driving becomes unbearable. Well, maybe that's why I hated it: I twisted my ankle the day after I got the Tribeca, so it was torture. But the car's overall dynamic performance impressed me so much, I just forgot about the pain after a while.

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The tires could be a bit stickier, but heck, this isn't your typical rally-rep STI, after all. It's just that the firm suspension could use a little more mechanical grip to make things even more fun and interesting. That's the thing about the Tribeca - you forget that it's a family-biased luxury SUV.

The grunt from the 3.6-liter long-stroke flat-six is a soft mechanical whir and sounds very real, unlike some engines, in which it feels like the induction and exhaust notes were fabricated to enhance the aural experience. The Tribeca's engine sounds not unlike a Porsche's flat-six. You also get the benefit of a lower center of gravity, keeping the Tribeca's nose pointy, alert and very responsive. The engine itself delivers a powerful 254hp and 350Nm of torque.                     

From low-down all the way to the midrange, the engine with variable valve timing ensures that there are loads of easily accessed power to bring you up to speed quickly. There's not much grunt left at the top, however, but that's down to the engine being a new lump, only having less than 2,000 kilometers on the odometer. Drive a few thousand kilometers more, properly break the powerplant in, and it will run with a little more enthusiasm.

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And the Tribeca wouldn't be a Subaru if it didn't possess the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, enhanced with variable torque distribution. This channels 45 percent of the torque to the front axle and 55 percent to the rear, aiding turn-in sharpness and decreasing its overall turning radius - useful in tight parking lots at the mall. There's also Sportshift manual override control for the five-speed automatic transmission, although the normal transmission algorithm, when left in Sport mode, is more than enough, well-matched to the vehicle's character.

So did I like the Tribeca? Did it help sway me further into the Subaru camp? Yup! It's not perfect for a seven-seater SUV, but with this much fun and practicality, it's hard to beat.

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