Subaru's magic buttons, and the Four Levels of Stability Control.

Reviews of cars, trucks, and other autos.
Sept. 19 2005 6:34 AM

Pushing Subaru's Buttons

The Four Levels of Stability Control, revealed!

Mr. Z's nose. Click image to expand.
Mr. Z's nose

Clone the Nose: I admit it—I fell fawningly for the Subaru B9 Tribeca because of another car: the 2003 B9 Scrambler, a roadster designed by Subaru's new stylist, Andreas Zapatinas, formerly of Alfa Romeo. Like seemingly every other auto manufacturer on the planet, Subaru had been looking for a cartoonish iconic nose to establish its identity. The Scrambler featured an unusual tripartite grille, allegedly an homage to Subaru's aircraft heritage. It also looked like an Alfa grille turned upside down. But it worked! The rest of the Scrambler prototype was highly attractive, in an unassuming way. It didn't look like a mad origami project. It didn't look like something left in the microwave. It didn't try to forge a new design language. It just looked good the way sports cars have looked good for decades. I figured this guy Zapatinas knew what he was doing.

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The Tribeca immediately seemed to confirm this. It's an erinaceous half-minivan, half-SUV—leading with a brutal version of the Zapatinas nose and ending in swollen haunches. But the surface shaping is appealing in a very familiar way. The wheel arches may bulge out—a concession to contemporary Eurotrash fashion—but they're smooth 1960s bulges, not expressionist tumors (like a BMW X-5) or galumphing horse-collars (like the Nissan Pathfinder or Dodge Durango). The whole car flows like a Bertone BAT.

When I finally saw an actual Tribeca (at the L.A. Auto Show), the clean visual harmonics suggested only positive things: The Tribeca would be rugged like a Subaru, handle like an Alfa, haul cargo like a Ford Econoline! I read in the early promotional copy that Subaru engineers worked hard to keep the center of gravity low, for stability, and that the Tribeca normally routes 55 percent of the power in its four-wheel drive system to its rear wheels—a good thing for those of us who hate the feel of front drive.

When the first reviews came out, and they treated the Tribeca as if it were just another mom-mobile—measuring the third-seat legroom down to the millimeter and counting the cupholders—I was offended. I felt I needed to drive it and prove them wrong. My editor had the idea of telling Subaru we'd drive their Tribeca in Tribeca, a pathetic hack angle that worked brilliantly to get me a preproduction model on relatively short notice.  It was silver, the better to show off its lines.

It's B9. Click image to expand.
Better than merely B9

Then—Stage #1 of my Tribeca Experience—I drove the thing. It was a mom-mobile!  A well-balanced mom-mobile, sure—it didn't feel at all nose heavy like, say, the tragic Mazda 3. But it slipped and clambered around corners like a big, eager animal with a mind of its own. It wasn't going to tip over, ever, but it wasn't exactly locked into a groove either. A certain amount of bounding and rocking accompanied all this, as if there were a big hinge way down there at the bottom where the body connected to the chassis. Subaru boasts that it calls the car the Tribeca to connote its "cutting edge" characteristics—but who were they kidding, I thought to myself. Nobody without children would want this thing. They should call it the Larchmont! Or the Scarsdale. ** At least it had cupholders.

Then—Stage #2 of my Tribeca Experience—I discovered the magic buttons. I'd basically given up on the car, but while trying to turn on the taillights in the dark I hit something on the dash that cause the lighted cartoon of a sedan sliding off the road to appear near the speedometer. Instantly, the steering tightened. The slipping and clambering mostly stopped. The car started following orders, carving turns with authority, holding its line. I realized I'd accidentally disconnected the computerized stability control, which prevents skids by fiddling robotically with the power sent to the various wheels. I had learned something: Stability control sucks! At least it does if you care about the driving feel of your Tribeca.

Soon I discovered another magic button—the "sport mode" for the automatic transmission. It holds the car in lower gears longer and replaces the Tribeca's vague, leisurely pacing with precise, insistent acceleration (and deceleration). Push both of the buttons, and you have a vehicle with some prana, one that at least approximates the vigor suggested by Zapatinas' styling. Forget to push them, and you have a weak-kneed kinder-hauler. And you have to push them every time you start up, because when you turn off the engine the Tribeca reverts to mama-mode.

I'm always suspicious of products that require you to press a button to make them good. If a stereo only sounds good with the "mega bass" feature engaged, it's a bad stereo! You want something that's good in its normal, default state, if only because that probably means the parts you don't know about have also been designed for people (like you) who want goodness—not for people who have other priorities (e.g., children) and don't care, say, if a car feels flaccid in a turn. Decent road feel shouldn't be an added-on feature, even a free, standard equipment add-on feature. Make the flaccid people push the button!

To demonstrate the idiocy of the safety-obsessed wusses who designed Subaru's stability control, I took the Tribeca out to my favorite your-highway-taxes-at-play S-curves. I went through them once with the stability control off. It was a blast. Then I turned it on. The difference was clear. With stability control on the Tribeca was ... faster. Significantly faster. Not fun—it slipped and shifted and pawed. But the speedometer wasn't lying. I had learned another thing: Computers are amazing things. They can certainly control what power goes to what wheel better than a driver of my limited skill.

But I don't care! About going fast, that is. I care about feeling in control and enjoying the act of driving. If I owned a Tribeca I'd tape the "off" button down. This is odd, because the other drivers who (now that I notice it) are always bitching about stability control are the car magazine guys who care intensely about going fast. That means, when you think about it, that there are not really two kinds of drivers—slow and fast. There are now four kinds of drivers. Here, as a Gearbox Exclusive, are the Four Levels of Stability Control, in order of ascending driver speed and skill:

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