PALM SPRINGS, CA – When Subaru of America Inc. introduced its B9 Tribeca in 2005, the cross/utility vehicle was widely panned for its unorthodox front end, featuring a triangular horse-collar grille reminiscent of the infamous Ford Edsel of the ‘50s.

Less than a year after the vehicle launched, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., which owns Subaru, replaced much of the chrome accents on the grille with black plastic and offered some additional upgrades as well.

Another year later, another re-do. For ’08, the CUV gets a significant facelift, a modified engine, yet another (more conventional) front end, less curvaceous body panels – and a new name to boot (B9 has been dropped from the Tribeca badge).

Subaru’s willingness to tweak its product portfolio to meet market demand is admirable.

But the result of the latest makeover is a CUV that looks, well, like most other CUVs.

That may not prove to be a bad thing, as the segment has become the hottest in the industry and shows no signs of slowing down.

The styling of the ’08 Tribeca is less polarizing than its predecessor, with a wider, taller grille and new front fenders and hood design.

Its raised hood line and vertical headlamps give the Tribeca a more muscular, SUV look than most CUVs, which may help set it apart from competitors.

But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Where the Tribeca really shines is beneath its fresh sheet metal. A newly modified and more powerful engine, coupled with Subaru’s trademark Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system, delivers admirable performance, at least for a CUV.

During a recent test drive here, the Tribeca proves more than capable on steep, winding desert roads, gobbling up asphalt with car-like ride and handling characteristics.

The unique configuration of its 3.6L 6-cyl. boxer engine (a design found in all Subarus) provides more balance. And because the horizontally opposed cylinders allow for a compact design, the mill sits lower in the engine bay, giving it a lower center of gravity and resulting in superb road grip and responsive handling.

Interestingly, the ’08 Tribeca’s 3.6L fits into the same area as the 3.0L engine found in the previous generation. To accomplish this, engineers increased the engine’s bore and stroke, which had no effect on overall width, and added only a minute 0.83 in. (21 mm) to its length.

The increased displacement and a few other tweaks help the new 3.6L produce 256 hp and 247 lb.-ft. (335 Nm) of torque, up from 245 hp and 215 lb.-ft. (292 Nm) in the 3.0L, placing it among the most powerful in the CUV segment.

The new engine also is able to run on regular unleaded gasoline, rather than the premium required by its predecessor. At a time of ever-escalating fuel prices, Subaru officials say the new Tribeca is more “value conscious” than previous models.

The impact on fuel economy, however, remains unclear, as Subaru has yet to share its Environmental Protection Agency numbers for the new 3.6L. The old engine achieved 18/23 mpg (13/10.2 L/100 km) in city/highway driving.

The new mill is mated to a smooth-shifting 5-speed automatic transmission. During the drive here, the tranny rarely hunted for gears.

Offering a 5-speed gearbox in a segment populated with 6-speeds seemingly puts the Tribeca at a competitive disadvantage, but officials dismiss that notion, saying anything over five gears delivers diminishing returns.

Antilock braking comes courtesy of 4-wheel vented discs with electronic brake-force distribution. During some of the more challenging turns around Palm Springs, the brakes were spectacular, bringing the Tribeca’s more than 2-ton (1.8-t) mass to a standstill with surprising ease.

’08 Subaru Tribeca
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5- or 7-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.6L (3,630 cc) DOHC horizontally-opposed 6-cyl., aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 256 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 247 lb.-ft. (335 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Bore and stroke 92 x 91 (mm)
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 108.2 ins. (275 cm)
Overall length 191.5 ins. (486 cm)
Overall width 73.9 ins. (188 cm)
Overall height 66.4 ins. (169 cm)
Curb weight 5-passenger, 4,140 lbs. (1,878 kg); 7-passenger, 4190 lbs. (1,901 kg)
EPA fuel economy N/A
Market competition Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano, Toyota Highlander, Ford Edge

Carried over for ’08 is an optional third row designed for two passengers. But unless a passenger is shorter than 5 ft. (1.5 m), the third row is an impromptu lesson in contortionism.

Even Subaru execs reluctantly admit the third-row, which folds flat in a 50/50 split, is best suited for children.

For customers preferring extra cargo space rather than a third row, Subaru offers a 5-passenger version of the Tribeca, with 40/20/40 folding and reclining second-row seats and a 60/40 split seat cushion.

Inside the Tribeca, gadgetry abounds, including a 7-in. (18-cm) touch-screen navigation system that is simple to operate.

Subaru was wise to separate climate controls from the navigation system, placing them directly beneath the screen. Other vehicles that integrate the controls into the navigation system can make the simple task of adjusting cabin temperature unnecessarily confusing.

Interior materials are topnotch, with soft surfaces, pleasing colors and splendid fit and finish. Subaru says the new Tribeca has earned 5-star safety ratings for frontal and side impacts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

Subaru officials won’t disclose how many units they plan to sell annually, saying only they hope the new Tribeca betters its predecessor, which has sold 35,000 units in the U.S. since its introduction two years ago, making it the auto maker’s best-selling vehicle.

Pricing starts at $29,995 for a 5-passenger Tribeca and tops out at $37,795 for the fully loaded 7-passenger model, plus a $645 destination charge.

Subaru might have a winner with prices that are comparable to the ’07 model, as well as a number of design features that may prove enticing.

If it were priced too high, the new Tribeca would be lost in a crowd of CUVs that are just as competent and more affordable.

At that point, another facelift would be in order.

bpope@wardsauto.com