DETROIT – Subaru of America Inc.'s midsize Tribeca cross/utility vehicle still is struggling to gain traction, company executives say.

Against 2008's gloom and doom, Subaru was an industry standout, notching a 0.3% sales increase for the year, thanks to a significant boost from its smaller, redesigned Forester CUV. In contrast, Tribeca deliveries plunged 34.6% to 10,976 units, compared with 16,790 in 2007 when sales fell 9% despite the vehicle's mid-cycle freshening.

Tribeca's sales faltered for a number of reasons, Subaru executives tell Ward's in a recent interview here.

“When we ended 2007, we were doing OK with Tribeca,” Executive Vice President Tom Doll says, noting Subaru was selling 1,000-1,200 units a month. “But when gas prices started to go up in the first part of (2008), that whole midsize (CUV) segment got nicked,” cutting monthly deliveries to about 500-700 a month.

Doll says the midsize CUV segment is beginning to recover thanks to gas-price declines from last summer's $4-per-gallon high.

But Subaru spokesman Michael McHale says the Tribeca also has suffered because it isn't “top of mind” to consumers more familiar with the brand for its smaller, performance-oriented cars. “People don't associate a midsize (CUV) with Subaru.”

Trying to get the word out about Tribeca hasn't been easy.

“It's a brutally competitive segment,” Chief Marketing Officer Tom Mahoney says. “Ford (Motor Co.) spent $224 million launching the Edge. That's a lot of money. We're using a strategy of core models to drive the traffic, so we don't have the resources to advertise every (model) at 100%.”

Because of its $30,000-plus starting price, Ward's classifies the Tribeca in its Middle Luxury CUV segment, where the top-selling vehicle in 2008 was the Lexus RX, with 84,182 units. The top seller in Ward's non-luxury Middle CUV was the Honda CR-V, with 197,279 deliveries.

However, Doll says Subaru's strategy of opening sales offices in warm-weather locales is beginning to pay off. The brand has struggled for years with how to make its all-wheel-drive vehicles appeal to buyers living in markets without snow and ice.

“I know (sales in) the Western zone office (Southern California) are up maybe 20%-22%, and (Subaru's) Gulf States zone office in Dallas is up maybe 7% or 8%,” Doll says, noting some Southern California Subaru dealers now are among the brand's biggest retailers.

“What's nice is they're selling more than (Impreza) WRX performance models,” he says. “They're selling cars; they're selling Outback (wagons) (and) they're selling Tribecas.”

Adds Mahoney: “From a brand perspective, we don't want to be something different in the Sunbelt than we are in the Snowbelt. Equating AWD with safety has been a strategy that has paid off. People in Texas are equally as concerned about safety as people in New England.”

Overall, Subaru buyers are like-minded. “When you look at (Subaru's) customers, it's all in the DNA,” he says. “They're very passionate about their car.”

They also tend to have a high level of education and like to seek out new experiences, Subaru says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com