The Subaru: aimed at urbanites and suburbanites

It's very odd. Subaru cars win rallies on the roughest of roads - but here's a 4WD made for the city and the highway. So is it a match for the other Chelsea tractors? Sean O'Grady finds out

Price: From £28,995 on the road
Engine: 3.0-litre petrol; 245PS at 6,600rpm and 297Nm at 4,200rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic/manual sequential gearbox. Permanent four-wheel drive
Performance: Top speed, 121mph; 0-60mph, 9.7 seconds
Will it fit in your garage? 4.9m long, 1.9m wide, 1.7m high
Seating: Base models have five seats; higher spec "Limited" versions have a choice of five or seven (in 2-3-2 formation).

Emerging from the launch of the Subaru B9 Tribeca (I'll come to that odd nomenclature in a moment), something occurred to me. No one from Subaru mentioned taking this four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle off the road.

That's not just because the launch was held in Venice. It's because the SUV has become so nancified that you're now not really supposed to take this car off-road at all. It'll manage a few dirt tracks, I suspect, but so, probably, would an old Mondeo. Yet even these mild pretensions to ruggedness were not highlighted by the Subaru suits. No: this is an SUV "crossover", so it's about on-road ability, style and driving enjoyment.

Strange, that, considering that Subaru has spent so many years perfecting the art of making rugged all-wheel-drive saloons capable of winning World Rally Championship titles.

But maybe not so strange when you consider the market this vehicle is aimed at; urbanites and suburbanites all over the world. Subaru is pitching its car against such upper/middle-class benchmarks as the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90, the current wheels of choice for the Chelsea tractor brigade.

Or should that be the Tribeca tractor brigade, in this case. This Subaru is named after the dead-cool district of Tribeca in New York. The B bit of the B9 designation refers to the car's "boxer" engine design, where the cylinders are horizontally opposed, so when they're working it's a bit like boxers punching each other. The 9 is Subaru's internal designation of the Tribeca's market sector. Hence B9. It won't catch on, even if it does sound like "benign".

It's telling that the car is named after the very urban Tribeca rather than, say, Colorado or Montana - or even Indiana, where it is made. Why bother pretending? Subaru was at least honest enough not to pretend that this is some Land Rover rival. It isn't. Think "four wheel drive" as in an Audi quattro or, indeed, a Subaru rally car, rather than a Land Rover going up Kilimanjaro.

Apart from the obvious waste in engineering a four-wheel-drive car that will never be used as such, there's something to be said for this Subaru. The main point in its favour is that, as a five-seater (or optional seven-seater), it seems good value. The downside is that it comes only with a petrol engine, probably because it is aimed at Americans, and Americans aren't much interested in diesels.

Actually, there's worse news, which is that the combination of that engine and the five-speed automatic transmission isn't a happy one. Driving it round hilly Italian roads, the poor old Tribeca spent far too much time trying to decide what gear it was or should be in, and by the time it had made its mind up, it was time to think again. It could only accelerate by having a good old kick-down, which did unleash a nice sort of growl, but it isn't the sort of effortless progress you are supposed to enjoy in a "premium" SUV.

It would help if the 3.0-litre boxer unit could draw on a little more low-end torque. The engine does very well in the much less heavy Legacy and Outback models (which probably have more off-road ability than the Tribeca, by the way), but it is not ideally suited to this installation.

The Subaru guys are a proud bunch, keenly aware of their traditions and unwilling to sacrifice their trademark boxer design, but it might have been better if they just swallowed their pride and bought a diesel in from Toyota or someone. A diesel boxer engine is coming, we're told.

The low-speed ride can be a little unsettled but the handling isn't bad, considering. The Tribeca has been given double wishbone suspension, which counts for something, as well as the usual range of electronic driver aids, so you shouldn't wallow around helplessly every time you hit a corner. Even so, if you want sports handling you shouldn't buy a sports utility vehicle, or at least one this side of a Porsche Cayenne or a Range Rover.

On the motorway, the Subaru is a much more accomplished performer. The Tribeca does retain an extraordinary amount of refinement at speed, marred only by some wind noise from the ridiculously big door-mirrors.

The big question is: will it tempt the soft-roaders out of their Volvos and BMWs? I wonder. It isn't as "car like" as they are inside, although the swoopy dramatic look to the dashboard works quite well. But the car doesn't have an edge even there, and it is worse to drive than its rivals. It's also not as "bling" - it could do with some bigger, "sportier" alloys.

Subaru has modest plans for its new SUV, with a UK sales target of 1,000 in a year, or about 1 per cent of the SUV market here. It does enjoy something of a price advantage over the rivals, especially if you go for a lower-specced five-seater Tribeca. On the other hand, you may well find that it depreciates more than its competitors, although there's no way to know yet.

Subaru is one of those brands perched precariously on the margins of "premium" and "mass market". So the Tribeca's problem is its badge, reinforced by the vehicle's distinctive front end. It's Subaru's new "corporate face" for their cars. It is, if you were wondering, based on a forward view of an aircraft fuselage and wings, recalling Subaru's origins.

By an odd coincidence, that was also once the basis of the Saab badge design - and, spookily enough, this SUV was once destined to be a Saab (and thus a more desirably badged vehicle). That idea went back to the days when Saab and Subaru were both part of the General Motors family.

So, when Saab's parent GM wanted to develop a medium-sized highly lucrative premium SUV for their Swedish subsidiary, they turned to Subaru, the all-wheel-drive people, who were tasked with the job. But that project fell to bits when GM, skint, had to sell its 20 per cent stake in Subaru and the Japanese firm spun out of the GM orbit.

Now Toyota has an 8 per cent share, and the factory where the Tribeca is made will also have to churn out Toyotas to make up for the "lost" Saab production.

You see, the Tribeca is a product of a broken home, although we'd hesitate to call it a bastard. Subaru will now have to make a go of its offspring as a single parent. It's a tough world out there. With no diesel option on the horizon, such well-respected competition and with little appeal to badge snobbery, I don't envy them their task.

The rivals

Nissan Murano, £29,995

Like the Tribeca, it's only available with a petrol engine, at least for the time being. Much more avant-garde styling than is the norm in this sector, but not quite as nice to drive as it looks. If style matters more than substance...

BMW X5 3.0 SE, £36,775

On paper, its performance isn't that much better than the Tribeca's, but it feels a lot more composed as it goes about its business. Still has the advantage in cabin ambience. Classy, but perhaps rather too common now.

Volvo XC90 3.2 SE, £36,328

The most "car like" of the big SUVs. Trendy (probably because it's not quite as brash as a BMW), and Volvo has a formidable reputation for safety, so it's perfect for the school run. Overall, a highly desirable image.

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