Ignore that grille and enjoy the rest of the Tribeca, says Nick Gibbs

Model: Subaru Tribeca
Price: £30,000-35,000; (on sale in 2006) Engine: 3,000cc flat six cylinders, 250bhp at 6,600rpm, 217lb ft at 4,200rpm
Transmission: five-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 120mph, 0-60mph in 8.5sec, 25mpg estimated average
CO2: not yet quoted

There's a scurrilous story about the responses of a US focus group to this car, which is appearing in both Saab and Subaru forms in some markets (although the Saab version is not likely to be sold in Europe).

Those viewing the Saab version gave it a so-so response, and the company went back to the drawing board. Those staring at the Subaru roundly panned it, and it became the Tribeca.

No prizes for guessing who tells that story (Saab), but you do wonder who thought that the nose would work, not only for Subaru's first full-sized off-roader, but also for the company's new corporate face.

It's supposed to evoke Subaru's aeronautical past (cars aren't the only thing the two GM-linked companies share), but anyone who can picture the infamously ugly Ford Edsel might predict disaster.

That's a shame, because otherwise the styling presents the right amount of streamlined muscle for a sports off-roader. Just as well, too, because when the Tribeca goes on sale in the UK next year, it'll cost from £30,000 to £35,000.

That's a shark-filled price band, but the Tribeca can pull one trick that the BMW X5 and Lexus RX300 can't manage: it's a seven-seater that doesn't look like one.

Behind the streamlined rear lie two flip-up back seats that will take a couple of adults with some adjusting, while the rest of the interior is just as practical. The roomy middle seats fold, slide and recline, and you can fold the front passenger seat flat.

Beside the driver, the swoopy, silvery dash loses posh points for being too hard and in-your-face, but the car is terrifically well built. The equipment will be excellent too, with the base five-seater offering climate control, electric seats and a good stereo system as standard.

Above that, the £35,000 top-spec seven-seater will throw in leather trim, a DVD player with drop-down screen and full-colour sat-nav. It truly feels like a proper executive car, helped by touches like the downlighter that bathes the auto gearshift in a red glow at night.

There's just one engine for the Tribeca: a 3.0-litre six-cylinder petrol unit lifted from the Legacy. It's smooth enough, if lacking a meaty soundtrack, and it can gather up the Scooby's skirts to claim a decent 8.5-second time to 60mph - but don't expect more than about 25mpg. Thanks to a healthy US market, Subaru doesn't feel the need to make a diesel just for us overtaxed Europeans.

But the best bit about the Tribeca is the handling. It's built on a Legacy platform, and Subaru has kept much of its more grounded sibling's agility in the bends without lumbering it with a harsh ride. In that respect, we'd say it comes very close to matching the master of the class, the BMW X5. Subaru says this is partly because the trademark "boxer" engine lies flat, like a Porsche's, giving a lower centre of gravity. We'd like a slightly heavier feel to the steering than the US palm-touch you get, but it moves the car just as soon as you ask. That's pretty rare among two-ton 4x4s.

If the profile looks more like a magnified hatchback, the resemblance is more than skin deep around town, where the Tribeca is almost as easy to manoeuvre as a Focus. Visibility is pretty good in an age of ever-widening pillars, and the turning circle is excellent. With parking sensors as standard, the Tribeca ought to shrug off the Chelsea tractor jibes. This one's much easier to drive than most 4x4s.

If you do want to go off-road, you've only got the four-wheel-drive and higher ground clearance to see you through. There's no low-ratio gears or electronic gadgetry like hill descent control, just a clever form of traction control to reassign power when you slip off line. It's probably best to stay on the hard bit - there's no way you'll get proper off-road tyres on those standard 18in wheels anyway.

So it's talented, but don't worry if you don't like the nose. Saab says its own 4x4 will be ready to show by the winter, and that means it'll not only come with a turbocharger, but also a new dash and, crucially, a new front end.

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