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Subaru's first full-size SUV has hit the US. Is it worth waiting until 2007 for?

19 Apr 2005

SUBARU fans will have to wait until the early 2007 for the Japanese company’s first sports utility vehicle to arrive in Australia.

Unveiled in early January at the Detroit motor show, the all-wheel drive B9 Tribeca will initially go on sale in the United States (where it is built) in June, followed by Canada and Chile a little later this year.

Only these and perhaps a few other countries in the Americas will see the ‘Tribeca’ moniker, with Australia and the rest of the world most likely to stick to just ‘B9’.

"The name (Tribeca) won’t export," said Subaru Australia managing director Nick Senior, adding "We’re 99 per cent sure of B9 (being the name)." There isn’t even official confirmation as to if – let alone when – Subaru in Japan will get the car.

While left-hand drive versions commenced production earlier this month at the joint Subaru and Isuzu facility in Lafayette, Indiana, Subaru is keeping mum on when right-hand drive B9s will begin to roll off the line.

It appears it has yet to complete various safety, emissions and other mandatory design and engineering regulations needed to market the B9 worldwide. Further feasibility studies are also being undertaken.

The local B9 must comply with Australian design standards for the spare wheel and seatbelt anchorage points.

According to the B9 product manager, Mr Masaaki Owa, Australia will receive a slightly different looking model to the US Tribeca.

A revised front bumper, expected to feature different air intakes to the controversial items found on the Tribeca, is also in the pipeline.

Punters can also expect a redesigned bonnet and front mudguards, since Subaru is working flat-out to engineer the B9 to comply with new European pedestrian-impact regulations.

Only the single engine – a 186kW/297Nm version of the 3.0-litre horizontally opposed six-cylinder unit found in Liberty and Outback – and gearbox (a five-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode) will be offered.

It is enough to propel the 1925kg seven-seat B9 Tribeca past the 100km/h mark in 8.5 seconds on the way to a 195km/h top speed, helped by a relatively clean aerodynamic shape for a 1686mm-high SUV (0.381Cd).

Front suspension is by coil springs similar to the Liberty/Outback duos, but the rear receives a new double wishbone set-up that Subaru says greatly enhances the B9’s dynamics and ride compared to rival SUVs.

Giving this a boost is a stronger and stiffer body than its smaller brethren that is reportedly 50 per cent more torsionally rigid.

As it will be elsewhere, the B9 will be positioned above the Liberty/Outback models, which currently tops out at $58,990 for the GT variant.

The base B9 five-seater model should open somewhere in the $60,000 region, with the salubrious bells-and-whistles seven-seater version expecting to hit the $80,000 mark.

That puts it in the firing line against the Lexus RX330, BMW X3, Honda MDX, Volkswagen Touareg and Volvo’s XC90, as well as basic versions of the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML, which will be renewed late this year.

Ford’s lower-priced but slightly larger Territory is also a target, particularly for the popular higher-specification variants. On the safety front there’s Subaru’s stability-aiding VDC Vehicle Dynamics Control, anti-lock brakes with brake-force distribution, dual front airbags, front side airbags and side curtain airbags in every model.

According to the press blurb, VDC "...distributes torque to the appropriate wheel based on input from steering wheel angle, yaw and lateral g-force sensors.

"It also monitors input from the ABS, adjusting individual wheel braking as needed." Another worthwhile safety feature is the engine’s ability to slide underneath the passenger cell in a serious front-end collision, dramatically decreasing trauma-inducing mechanical intrusion.

This is an upshot of the boxer engine’s compact design. That’s also why pedestrian impact safety is already high for an SUV. The European changes mentioned above will only improve that for ‘our’ cars.

Equipment levels should be lavish even for the opening B9s, while GPS satellite-navigation and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system are amongst the options.

However, for now, there is no sign of Lexus’ buyer-baiting parking radar, reversing camera or electrically operated tail-gate.

There is still plenty of scope for performance and economy variations on the B9 theme.

Surprisingly, considering Subaru’s massive success with turbocharged performance and competition cars, no 2.0 or 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo engines are slated for the B9 - for now.

However, this - and the non-availability of a diesel engine - may change in order to increase the B9's saleability in Europe, where smaller capacity engines enjoy tax breaks).

It is no secret that Fuji Heavy Industries – Subaru’s Japanese overlords – is well advanced in the development of a diesel engine, believed to be a turbocharged four-cylinder unit.

Such an engine, if made available, would be a likely starter for Australia.

"Two years ago I would not have been too excited about a diesel engine but if one was available (today) we would certainly have our hand up," Mr Senior said.

"Diesel is the flavour of the month at the moment, but given Subaru’s strong affiliation with the rural market we would relish the opportunity to be able to market a diesel, particularly in those rural markets." Subaru expects that upwards of 60 per cent of B9 buyers will be conquest sales for the brand.

"There is currently nowhere for Liberty or Outback owners to go from here within Subaru, so they seek vehicles from other makers," a Subaru spokesman told GoAuto. "With the B9 they now have a Subaru to go up to." Even at this early stage Subaru is expecting to sell 100 B9s a month when launched, probably at the Melbourne motor show in March 2007.

"The current best scenario is very, very, very early in 2007," says Nick Senior.

Although no definitive line-up has yet been devised for Australia, Mr Senior says there will probably be base and luxury versions of both the five and seven-seat B9s, bringing the initial total to four.

Exact pricing is obviously a long way from being ascertained, but Mr Senior did have this to reveal: "It may go up to 80 and a little under 70 ... that’s the sort of range we’re looking at." Subaru may also reduce the number of Outback variants when the B9 finally makes it here, depending on the final pricing for its new SUV.

"You’d be crazy to say there won’t be any cannibalisation but I think it will be minimal," said Mr Senior.

"There will be a nice step right through the range in terms of positioning and pricing. There will be enough breathing space (for B9).

"I actually think they’re going to complement each other (Liberty/Outback and B9) as owners of a (range-topping) Outback 3.0R will see it as a logical step to move further into the Subaru range." Asked about whether there might be buyer resistance to a $70K Subaru SUV when Ford sells a similarly sized and equipped Territory for up to $30,000 less, Mr Senior had only this to say: "Ford buyers aren’t Subaru buyers."

Everything but the grille

Whether Subaru likes it or loathes it, the American B9 Tribeca’s biggest talking point is its very Alfa-esque grille and bumper treatment.

Subaru has already confirmed that the nose you see here will be subtly altered for our B9. Ours will adopt the still-secret European pedestrian-impact friendlier proboscis.

Subaru Australia managing director Nick Senior would not be drawn on any details.

"Without seeing or knowing the extent of the bumper bar changes – and bearing in mind that some of this work is still being done now – it’s a bit premature to say there are any differences," he says.

"But we could say that within that (almost two-year gap between US and local B9 launch) time scale – as with any Subaru there are continual updates, and two years are when Subaru does slight changes – there may be slight variance to the (US) car.

"But it’s a bit too early to speculate what they are," Mr Senior added.

The B9’s basic design was already locked-in when ex-Fiat/Alfa Romeo designer Andreas Zapatinas came on-board at Subaru in April 2002.

He did manage to influence some of the smaller styling details (which may or may not include the bumper and grille – Subaru wasn’t saying), but they are very similar to the Alfa Giulia circa 1962 while the tail-lights recall more modern Alfas like the 147.

Zapatinas did, however, take control of the cabin and dashboard design.

Far from trying to connect to Alfas past and present, the grille and air-intakes are actually ‘wings’ that are meant to recall Subaru’s history as an aircraft manufacturer.

Drive impressions:

BEFORE you judge the Subaru B9’s styling, consider what Penelope Cruz’s passport photo may look like.

Staring gormlessly at the camera, her long proboscis that pays lip service to that voluptuous mouth probably makes Penelope look like a portrait by Picasso.

But you know in reality the Spanish actress is gob-smackingly striking because somehow, in totality, her face and body gel beautifully. Her looks shouldn’t work, but it does.

Now, after a period in the B9’s presence, I’m prepared to give its controversial design the same latitude.

Seen as a whole, in the flesh, by the road and on the move, the Subaru’s standout styling starts to make sense.

Study the ribbed swage line across the mid-rift, taut sides, muscular wheelarches, eye-shaped tail-lights and sharp cut-lines and suddenly ‘striking’ (but not stunning) suits the SUV too.

The B9 is nothing if not bold. In a crowded segment it stirs in a pinch of Porsche’s Cayenne about the nose, a modern Alfa Romeo posterior and a lick of Lexus RX330 in profile.

And the latter’s influence is pretty profound inside too.

Stepping inside the B9 is easy because although it is a large car in the (current) BMW X5 mould, you slide in, rather than clamber up, to the inviting cabin. That’s because of the low Liberty-derived drivetrain.

First impressions are new-for-Subaru levels of quality and refinement, and a decisive step up from the good work found in the current Liberty and Outback.

Nicely finished plastic and metallic accents form a distinctive ‘Y’ dash design that flows around both sides of the front occupants to form part of the door trim and centre console. It looks good and works well too.

Details like the twin-lidded console bin, protruding instrumentation binnacle and GPS/information screen are clearly RX-inspired, with a big dose of Honda Odyssey/Accord thrown in with the central switchgear – and that’s no bad thing either.

Top marks go to a hidden drawer big enough to swallow several DVDs as well as CDs, lovely ambient interior lighting and a refreshingly thin steering wheel that’s great to hold.

On the other hand, the satellite fuel/temp gauges are too-easily obscured by the steering wheel, the glovebox is too small and the foot-operated park brake is an unwelcome anachronism.

The third row, not surprisingly, is a kids-only area, although game adults should be rewarded with reasonable short-trip comfort, aided by face-level vents, audio/visual outlets and an easy-slide middle seat for almost-elegant entry and egress. It isn’t claustrophobic either.

Like many Japanese seven-seaters, the two rearmost pews fold in a single step each into the floor for a flat load surface, without the need to fiddle with headrests.

So far then, the B9 is on the ball as a premium SUV.

On the road, only the Ford Territory and BMW X5 convey a sportier feel.

The 3.0-litre Boxer unit found in the current Liberty/Outback produces 186kW of power at a fairly high 6600rpm, yet it does an honest job of jetting the heaviest (1925kg top-line model with seven seats) B9 about.

2 center image It certainly likes a rev, sounds great doing it, and delivers lively off-the-line acceleration thanks to 297Nm of torque (developed at 4200rpm) and an eager five-speed automatic gearbox that has three driving modes – normal, sporty auto and Tiptronic-style manual shifts.

Over some steeper roads the transmission in both auto modes did seem a little too keen to hunt for lower gears, resulting in a very busy sounding engine, but overall the B9’s performance proved pretty punchy.

However, neither a full load nor urgent overtaking manoeuvres availed themselves over the drive route so a broader engine assessment couldn’t really be ascertained. Few should find fault with it.

Fuel consumption, by the way, averaged a sound 10.1L/100km over the 300km stretch (or so said the trip computer). This included a little city driving but mostly twin-carriageway highway cruising.

Subaru makes quite a song and dance about its symmetrical constant AWD system, and it appears to be even more fleet-of-foot as a result of the new-design wishbone rear suspension.

In concert with the drivetrain’s low centre of balance, it assists the B9 in delivering surprisingly athletic handling, cornering and braking characteristics – and not ‘just for an SUV’ either.

Grip levels, in beautiful dry conditions admittedly and riding on Goodyear Eagle LS2 255/55R18 tyres, are reassuringly limpet-like, and add to a feeling of confidence and control.

Another welcome upshot of the honed undercarriage is a very well-sorted ride, displaying the sort of pliancy and absorption levels (over a mildly rough and meandering hill) you might expect from a prestige sedan.

But it isn’t quite a dynamic home-run for the B9. In its 2006 American Tribeca specification, the steering feels disappointingly detached.

There’s a lazy lightness to the helm that, really, shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that (a) Americans build it and (b) it’s an SUV.

Perhaps most disappointingly for keener drivers, it all brings the B9 closer to the Lexus than BMW for steering feel (or rather a lack of it). It’s in no way RX330-vague though - just not X5 (or Territory)-sharp.

The B9’s chief engineer says a European suspension tune is on the pipeline for the right-hand drive models, so let’s hope that translates to a more communicative tiller.

This, and the other minor quibbles, shouldn’t be enough to stop putting the Subaru B9 near the top of any short-list of affordable premium SUVs.

At its current $60,000 to $80,000 price projection the Subaru should entice more than a few RX330, VW Touareg, Volvo XC90 and Honda MDX buyers.

The thing is, though, that since most of these are due for a refresh in the next two years, will the B9 remain a competitive proposition by the time of its early ’07 launch here? Conversely, with edgier and bolder models coming out all the time, the progression of the B9’s styling should become even more apparent.

So there’s plenty of time to familiarize and contextualize its looks.

If the Australian models maintain the quality, refinement and dynamic strengths of the pre-production cars sampled in San Francisco, then Subaru should pretty much Cruz it in with this one.

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