DETROIT – Subaru of America Inc.’s ’10 Tribeca cross/utility vehicle is offered only with 3-row seating, but officials don’t expect the additional passenger space to boost consumer demand.

The slow-selling Tribeca, first introduced in ’06 to grab a piece of the emerging large-CUV segment, previously was available in a 5-seat configuration as well.

However, Subaru’s desire to separate the CUV from the brand’s other people-haulers, the popular Forester and Outback, led to the exclusive 3-row version.

“For (the) customer that wants to move up and needs that 7-seater, they’ve got to go up to the Tribeca,” Tom Doll, president and chief operating officer-SOA tells Ward’s in a recent interview here.

Doll predicts Tribeca sales this year will stay even with 2009’s 5,930 units, partly because the CUV is in short supply right now.

“We could probably sell a lot more Tribecas if we had them available,” he says. “(But) to produce a Tribeca, we’re giving up an Outback or a Legacy, and we’d rather produce the Outback and Legacy.”

Subaru’s hot-selling midsize Outback wagon and Legacy sedan were redesigned last year, going on sale in late summer. Their combined deliveries rose 29.1% in 2009 to 86,330, Ward’s data shows, while Tribeca sales tumbled 46%.

Subaru builds all three vehicles on the same line at its Lafayette, IN, plant. As a result of favoring the Legacy and Outback, dealer inventories of the Tribeca are low, Doll says, which means customers must wait for delivery.

Doll admits the vehicle’s low profile isn’t helping. “It’s a shame,” he says. “I think (the) Tribeca is one of the best cars we make. We just don’t have the advertising or marketing resources to put behind it.”

Doll also says Subaru is pleased with its new role as the safety leader in the U.S. market, according to the latest rankings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“(IIHS) changed their criteria this year,” he says. “Last year, there were 94 or 97 models that were top-safety picks. This year, there are only 27; Subaru has five of them. Nearly 20% of the total top-safety picks is a Subaru. So every one of our car lines are top safety picks.”

Subaru won the top-safety crown from the Volvo brand in the U.S., which had four models selected as IIHS top picks for 2010. Doll doesn’t mind that Subaru’s time at the top could be fleeting, as safety is becoming less of a differentiator due to government regulations.

“It’s still good to be best,” he says.

SOA spokesman Michael McHale likens Subaru’s IIHS safety-pick rankings, as well as top ratings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., Automotive Lease Guide and Consumer Reports as the brand’s own “reassurance program,” referring to Hyundai Motor America’s well-known plan by the same name that allows buyers to return a vehicle if they lose their job.

“I’m not being glib about that, because our owners do their research,” McHale says. “It’s really important for us to rank well on those (web) sites, because that gives (consumers) the reassurance to come buy us.”

Subaru was one of only three brands in the U.S. to post a gain in 2009, up 15.4% to 216,652 units, according to Ward’s data. The auto maker is predicting sales to remain strong this year, as well.

“We’re optimistic about 2010, because we didn’t start selling the new Outback and Legacy models until August,” Doll says. “There’s really no reason why we can’t continue (to see gains).”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com