Pushing Subaru's Buttons
The Four Levels of Stability Control, revealed!
Level One: Driver doesn't care about going fast—because driver doesn't care about driving. Might as well let a computer prevent any dangerous loss of traction. Turn stability control ON.
Level Two: Driver cares about driving and road feel, but not about speed. Doesn't drive fast enough for wheels to lose traction. Turns stability control OFF for aesthetic reasons.
Level Three: Driver drives fast—fast enough for wheels to slip. Turns stability control ON to help him around the corners faster.
Level Four: Driver is so highly skilled he wants the tires to slip, in order to produce the entertaining high-speed drifts he knows how to control. Turns stability control OFF.
This isn't the stairway to heaven; I don't aspire to Level Four (in part because I'm not sure I'd survive Level Three). I'm happy on Level Two, really I am.
But would I be happy in a Tribeca? At the end of a week, I decided no. The deal-killer, oddly enough, is the interior, which had seemed so modern and appealing at the auto show. The ergonomics are fine—all the switches work, and Subaru has obviously paid a lot of attention to making each operate in a distinct way (so you'll never confuse the simple radio controls with the equally simple heater controls). But the swoops and curves that try so hard, the silver boombox aesthetic of the central console, the comfy living-room layout, the yards of gray polymers—it all begins to seem very Bed Bath & Beyond. Too complicated, too showy, in a congealed, schlocky way—like the interior of a new airliner that's trying to appeal to everyone on the planet at the same time. Worst is the dreary expanse of plastic between the driver and the windshield, which says "minivan" right in your face. New Yorkers, unused to such wasted space, will want to put a dishrack or a toaster there.
Since the assembled-in-America Tribeca I drove was a preproduction model, it would be unfair to judge the fit of the various bits of plastic (which wasn't that bad). But the materials seemed slightly Rubbermaidy. Maybe that's why the car was most appealing on the turnpike at night, when all you can see is the instruments and the headlights behind you gleaming off those swelling haunches—and you can imagine you are driving some sort of mighty Swiss-knife machine instead of a pastel plastic school bus. (The three-row Tribeca, critics have noted, will only actually seat three adults one in front of the other if the passenger-side front seat is pushed awkwardly all the way forward. On the drivers' side even that won't work. But children should fit fine.)
True, the Tribeca did better on the patented and definitive Gearbox Parking Lot test*** than the preceding paragraphs might suggest: I give it a 6.5. That's higher than the too-slow, much cheaper Honda Element (6) and the better-made, much-cheaper Mazda 3 (5), but significantly worse than the much-cheaper Toyota Scion (8), which unlike the benign "Tribeca" actually is edgy and urban. The Tribeca might have scored even higher if it were maybe an inch lower and an inch narrower, abandoning any SUV pretensions in exchange for better handling. And if its cabin were simpler and less lounge-like. In short, if it were a bit more like the Legacy station wagon on which it is based.
The Legacy's due for a new body soon. I hope Mr. Zapatinas sticks around long enough to design it.
** This is the only joke I will make about the Tribeca's name. Promise. Though there is something funny about naming your car after an artificial real-estate designation in a city where nobody drives! What's next, the KIA ToeHo? OK. Sorry. I'll stop.
*** The Gearbox Parking Lot Test measures how happy I am to step out into the parking lot and realize the keys in my hand are for this car. 9/12/05
Drive By Sniping:
As computers make it easier to design new car bodies faster and cheaper, we should be entering a Medici-like age of custom coachbuilding. Here's one attempt to make that happen—the Fisker Tramonto. (Click on "Foto Show.") Not masculine enough! ... But it's better than the absurdly retro Weismann GT. ... 9/14/05
The Future is Opels. Run! Saturn is rapidly becoming just a brand that sells Opels in the U.S., according to no less an authority than GM VP Bob Lutz.
Photograph of Subaru Tribeca (in Tribeca!) by Mickey Kaus.