A lot happened in the four years since we last drove the second-generation Subaru Tribeca. Two new countries declared sovereignty, more than 40,000 species were discovered, and an exuberant Antoine Dodson rose to YouTube fame in mere days. But unlike the ever-evolving globe it traverses, the 2011 Subaru Tribeca remains roughly the same mid-pack contender it was when it debuted as a 2006 model. And after a week behind its three-spoke wheel, we have a better understanding why.

But before all the juicy details are revealed, some important data must be considered. If an ever-changing lineup of contenders incuding the Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, and Dodge Durango wasn't enough reason for a major mid-cycle revitalization, consider the Tribeca's sales figures.

Dealers moved 16,790 Tribecas in 2007, when a revamped model was introduced with a more efficient 3.6-liter flat-six, updated five-speed automatic, and a less offensive snout. A year later, that mark fell to 10,975 units. In 2009, sales dwindled to 5930 units. Last year, Subaru sold just 2472 Tribecas in the U.S. By comparison, industry giant Toyota sold 92,121 Highlanders. The good news for Subaru is the rest of its lineup is selling relatively well.

Subaru's product planners implemented a few packaging readjustments for the 2009 and 2010 model year Tribecas, which included dropping certain trim designations and establishing a standard seven-passenger seating configuration. The changes obviously have had little effect on sales.

Back to the juicy details. Looking at the mid-range 4219-pound Tribeca Limited, it's easy to mistake it for an overgrown Outback. Most staffers did. Since seeing a Tribeca "in the wild" is as rare as spotting a Yeti at the mall, a brief moment of surprise when encountering one is normal. This brings us to a major sticking point: its confusingly plain styling. It isn't unattractive, but it garners no second looks and even a few stern stares. No showiness, dynamic character lines, or bold wheel arches here.

Inside, the exterior's plain, generic theme carries through, although the front dash's modern layout provoked plenty of pokes and prods. The futuristic bird-inspired console feels space age-y, and not necessarily in a good way. The tan/beige/grey/silver color scheme, the extra-large pixilated climate control temperature readouts, and the navigation screen flanked by enlarged car status icons had some staffers wondering if they had just strapped into the Starship Enterprise. On the plus side, the dash's buttons are clearly and easily placed for quick access by the driver; its heated/cooled front seats are very cushy; and the overall interior space is plenty roomy.

My three weekend cohorts fielded no complaints when it came to backseat entertainment. Our Limited trim arrived with Option Package 17, otherwise known as the Power Moonroof/Navigation Package, the one with the huge 9-inch rear DVD display attached to its ceiling. Other amenities include black roof rails, rearview camera, and wireless headphones. That's in addition to the standard rear air conditioning, Bluetooth phone connectivity (which doesn't link to the center display and takes a while to pair), leather upholstery, and an impressive harmon/kardon 10-speaker sound system.

Loading two riders in the hilariously diminutive third seat can be difficult. The act of sliding the rear seat forward then folding it to allow for ingress isn't hard. But the subsequent process of reclining the seat halfway upright, then pushing it in line with the rest of the bench, then searching for a bright orange lever (it repositions the seat to its original place) located under the thigh padding takes time. You practically need an instructional class to master the whole series of events, and some nicely developed biceps.

On real-world streets, the Tribeca rides comfortably and quietly. (Turn up the very loud and clear stereo system if all that silence gets boring.) Front seats provide a commanding view of the road ahead, while the steering is somewhat light, but direct. During an unexpected light snow storm in the mountains east of San Diego, the all-season Goodyears stuck sufficiently and inspired nothing but confidence, albeit at a tortoise pace.

The 3.6-liter's lack of low-end power and torque merits substantial spurring and downshifting to get the all-wheel drive Tribeca moving. (The five-speed automatic shifted so smoothly that a few of us mistook it for the brand's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission.) Mashing the Tribeca's throttle from a stop means 60 mph comes in 7.7 seconds. All 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque pull the Subie to a quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds at 86.8 mph. Braking from 60 mph takes 126 feet, an exact match to four years ago. What's significant is the 0.81 g average attained on the skidpad. During our last test, the CUV pulled just 0.76 g.

Drive just a half day and you'll notice another sticking point: The tiny 16.9-gallon fuel tank gets really old really fast. The Tribeca's EPA-rated 16 mpg city, 21 mpg highway fuel economy is on par with segment competitors, but its 274-mile single tank range isn't. In contrast, the 2011 Honda Pilot and Chevy Traverse have EPA-estimated one-tank ranges of 340 and 376 miles, respectively. Of course, ultimate range depends on a driver's inputs, but even so, you'll be a constant sight at local filling stations in a Tribeca.

For the handful of drivers wanting a relatively rare CUV that ruffles few feathers, has room for seven, and proudly touts 74.4 cubic-feet of cargo capacity (with the rear seats down), the current Tribeca should stay on their Potential Buy radars.

But a handful of buyers only goes so far.

Stylish, modern physiques surrounding well-appointed, dapper cabins sell cars and crossovers. Usually, droves of them. Two years from now, when a new Tribeca is built in collaboration with Toyota, significant changes will come to the eclipsed model. Will they be worth the wait?


2011 Subaru Tribeca 3.6R Limited
BASE PRICE $33,220
PRICE AS TESTED $38,720
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.6L/256-hp/247-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve F-6
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4219 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 108.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 191.5 x 73.9 x 66.4 in
0-60 MPH 7.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.0 sec @ 86.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 126 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.8 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 16/21 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 211/160 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.08 lb/mile
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