Pushing Subaru’s Buttons

The Four Levels of Stability Control, revealed!

Mr. Z’s nose

Clone the Nose: I admit it—I fell fawningly for the Subaru B9 Tribeca because of another car: the 2003 B9 Scrambler, a roadster designed by Subaru’s new stylist, Andreas Zapatinas, formerly of Alfa Romeo. Like seemingly every other auto manufacturer on the planet, Subaru had been looking for a cartoonish iconic nose to establish its identity. The Scrambler featured an unusual tripartite grille, allegedly an homage to Subaru’s aircraft heritage. It also looked like an Alfa grille turned upside down. But it worked! The rest of the Scrambler prototype was highly attractive, in an unassuming way. It didn’t look like a mad origami project. It didn’t look like something left in the microwave. It didn’t try to forge a new design language. It just looked good the way sports cars have looked good for decades. I figured this guy Zapatinas knew what he was doing.

The Tribeca immediately seemed to confirm this. It’s an erinaceous half-minivan, half-SUV—leading with a brutal version of the Zapatinas nose and ending in swollen haunches. But the surface shaping is appealing in a very familiar way. The wheel arches may bulge out—a concession to contemporary Eurotrash fashion—but they’re smooth 1960s bulges, not expressionist tumors (like a BMW X-5) or galumphing horse-collars (like the Nissan Pathfinder or Dodge Durango). The whole car flows like a Bertone BAT.

When I finally saw an actual Tribeca (at the L.A. Auto Show), the clean visual harmonics suggested only positive things: The Tribeca would be rugged like a Subaru, handle like an Alfa, haul cargo like a Ford Econoline! I read in the early promotional copy that Subaru engineers worked hard to keep the center of gravity low, for stability, and that the Tribeca normally routes 55 percent of the power in its four-wheel drive system to its rear wheels—a good thing for those of us who hate the feel of front drive.

When the first reviews came out, and they treated the Tribeca as if it were just another mom-mobile—measuring the third-seat legroom down to the millimeter and counting the cupholders—I was offended. I felt I needed to drive it and prove them wrong. My editor had the idea of telling Subaru we’d drive their Tribeca in Tribeca, a pathetic hack angle that worked brilliantly to get me a preproduction model on relatively short notice.  It was silver, the better to show off its lines.

Better than merely B9

Then—Stage #1 of my Tribeca Experience—I drove the thing. It was a mom-mobile!  A well-balanced mom-mobile, sure—it didn’t feel at all nose heavy like, say, the tragic Mazda 3. But it slipped and clambered around corners like a big, eager animal with a mind of its own. It wasn’t going to tip over, ever, but it wasn’t exactly locked into a groove either. A certain amount of bounding and rocking accompanied all this, as if there were a big hinge way down there at the bottom where the body connected to the chassis. Subaru boasts that it calls the car the Tribeca to connote its “cutting edge” characteristics—but who were they kidding, I thought to myself. Nobody without children would want this thing. They should call it the Larchmont! Or the Scarsdale. ** At least it had cupholders.

Then—Stage #2 of my Tribeca Experience—I discovered the magic buttons. I’d basically given up on the car, but while trying to turn on the taillights in the dark I hit something on the dash that cause the lighted cartoon of a sedan sliding off the road to appear near the speedometer. Instantly, the steering tightened. The slipping and clambering mostly stopped. The car started following orders, carving turns with authority, holding its line. I realized I’d accidentally disconnected the computerized stability control, which prevents skids by fiddling robotically with the power sent to the various wheels. I had learned something: Stability control sucks! At least it does if you care about the driving feel of your Tribeca.

Soon I discovered another magic button—the “sport mode” for the automatic transmission. It holds the car in lower gears longer and replaces the Tribeca’s vague, leisurely pacing with precise, insistent acceleration (and deceleration). Push both of the buttons, and you have a vehicle with some prana, one that at least approximates the vigor suggested by Zapatinas’ styling. Forget to push them, and you have a weak-kneed kinder-hauler. And you have to push them every time you start up, because when you turn off the engine the Tribeca reverts to mama-mode.

I’m always suspicious of products that require you to press a button to make them good. If a stereo only sounds good with the “mega bass” feature engaged, it’s a bad stereo! You want something that’s good in its normal, default state, if only because that probably means the parts you don’t know about have also been designed for people (like you) who want goodness—not for people who have other priorities (e.g., children) and don’t care, say, if a car feels flaccid in a turn. Decent road feel shouldn’t be an added-on feature, even a free, standard equipment add-on feature. Make the flaccid people push the button!

To demonstrate the idiocy of the safety-obsessed wusses who designed Subaru’s stability control, I took the Tribeca out to my favorite your-highway-taxes-at-play S-curves. I went through them once with the stability control off. It was a blast. Then I turned it on. The difference was clear. With stability control on the Tribeca was … faster. Significantly faster. Not fun—it slipped and shifted and pawed. But the speedometer wasn’t lying. I had learned another thing: Computers are amazing things. They can certainly control what power goes to what wheel better than a driver of my limited skill.

But I don’t care! About going fast, that is. I care about feeling in control and enjoying the act of driving. If I owned a Tribeca I’d tape the “off” button down. This is odd, because the other drivers who (now that I notice it) are always bitching about stability control are the car magazine guys who care intensely about going fast. That means, when you think about it, that there are not really two kinds of drivers—slow and fast. There are now four kinds of drivers. Here, as a Gearbox Exclusive, are the Four Levels of Stability Control, in order of ascending driver speed and skill:

Level One: Driver doesn’t care about going fast—because driver doesn’t care about driving. Might as well let a computer prevent any dangerous loss of traction. Turn stability control ON.Level Two: Driver cares about driving and road feel, but not about speed. Doesn’t drive fast enough for wheels to lose traction. Turns stability control OFF for aesthetic reasons.Level Three: Driver drives fast—fast enough for wheels to slip. Turns stability control ON to help him around the corners faster.Level Four: Driver is so highly skilled he wants the tires to slip, in order to produce the entertaining high-speed drifts he knows how to control. Turns stability control OFF.

This isn’t the stairway to heaven; I don’t aspire to Level Four (in part because I’m not sure I’d survive Level Three). I’m happy on Level Two, really I am.

But would I be happy in a Tribeca? At the end of a week, I decided no. The deal-killer, oddly enough, is the interior, which had seemed so modern and appealing at the auto show. The ergonomics are fine—all the switches work, and Subaru has obviously paid a lot of attention to making each operate in a distinct way (so you’ll never confuse the simple radio controls with the equally simple heater controls). But the swoops and curves that try so hard, the silver boombox aesthetic of the central console, the comfy living-room layout, the yards of gray polymers—it all begins to seem very Bed Bath & Beyond. Too complicated, too showy, in a congealed, schlocky way—like the interior of a new airliner that’s trying to appeal to everyone on the planet at the same time.  Worst is the dreary expanse of plastic between the driver and the windshield, which says “minivan” right in your face. New Yorkers, unused to such wasted space, will want to put a dishrack or a toaster there.

Since the assembled-in-America Tribeca I drove was a preproduction model, it would be unfair to judge the fit of the various bits of plastic (which wasn’t that bad). But the materials seemed slightly Rubbermaidy. Maybe that’s why the car was most appealing on the turnpike at night, when all you can see is the instruments and the headlights behind you gleaming off those swelling haunches—and you can imagine you are driving some sort of mighty Swiss-knife machine instead of a pastel plastic school bus. (The three-row Tribeca, critics have noted, will only actually seat three adults one in front of the other if the passenger-side front seat is pushed awkwardly all the way forward. On the drivers’ side even that won’t work. But children should fit fine.)

True, the Tribeca did better on the patented and definitive Gearbox Parking Lot test*** than the preceding paragraphs might suggest: I give it a 6.5. That’s higher than the too-slow, much cheaper Honda Element (6) and the better-made, much-cheaper Mazda 3 (5), but significantly worse than the much-cheaper Toyota Scion (8), which unlike the benign “Tribeca” actually is edgy and urban. The Tribeca might have scored even higher if it were maybe an inch lower and an inch narrower, abandoning any SUV pretensions in exchange for better handling. And if its cabin were simpler and less lounge-like. In short, if it were a bit more like the Legacy station wagon on which it is based.

The Legacy’s due for a new body soon. I hope Mr. Zapatinas sticks around long enough to design it.  

** This is the only joke I will make about the Tribeca’s name. Promise. Though there is something funny about naming your car after an artificial real-estate designation in a city where nobody drives! What’s next, the KIA ToeHo? OK. Sorry. I’ll stop.

*** The Gearbox Parking Lot Test measures how happy I am to step out into the parking lot and realize the keys in my hand are for this car. 9/12/05

Drive By Sniping:

As computers make it easier to design new car bodies faster and cheaper, we should be entering a Medici-like age of custom coachbuilding.  Here’s one attempt to make that happen—the Fisker Tramonto. (Click on “Foto Show.”)  Not masculine enough!  … But it’s better than the absurdly retro Weismann GT. … 9/14/05

The Future is Opels. Run! Saturn is rapidly becoming just a brand that sells Opels in the U.S., according to no less an authority than GM VP Bob Lutz.

Saturn, in general, will have the same vehicles as Opel and Vauxhall.

“The difference between Opel and Vauxhall in Europe and Saturn in the U.S. was a difference that wasn’t producing any benefits for us,” Lutz said.

The problem with this new approach, historically, was that Opels sucked. But the Saturn L-series, which was basically an Opel Vectra, bizarrely managed to achieve good reliability in its final years of production, according to Consumer Reports. Gearbox will therefore suspend its usual anti-Opel ranting . … except to note that the zoomy future Saturn Vue (i.e., the Opel Antara) doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of room inside. …  9/14/05

Die Banglerdammerung: BMW sold 9,159 of its new, bigger, more powerful, redesigned bread-and-butter 3 series cars in August—but that’s only 919 more than the August 2004 total for the old, smaller, less powerful, unredesigned 3 series. Granted, BMW moved a lot of the older-model 3 series cars in 2004 by offering favorable prices. But the pattern of contrived, pretentious Bangle-era BMWs—at least as exemplified by the Z4 sports car—is that they sell well enough at first but fall off rapidly once the shock of their radical styling fails to wear off.  If I were BMW CEO Helmut Panke, with the future of my company riding on the 3-series with its gracelessly clenched rear end, I’d want a bigger first-year cushion than 919. … P.S.: Why does the new  Z4 coupe look better than the Z4 roadster? One theory: They made it look like it has rear haunches. Second theory: Hardtops have permission to be brutal … 9/14/05

Skoda Yeti Roomster: “The critics call this car the answer for all active people looking for a car that can take them exactly where they want to be.” 9/15/05

Certified pre-run items:

My Zeta Jones: This Autoweek report  suggests GM’s decision to cancel its rear drive “Zeta” cars—only to later revive them in another form—has been more damaging than I thought. It’s delayed their introduction by three years—from 2007 to 2010 (“at the earliest”) in the case of Buick’s Roadmaster. But, hey, with a gas crisis looming I bet GM is glad it chose instead to rush its new full-size SUVs to market! …Update:Why is rear drive more fun? A couple of years ago I claimed that there were actually  five big reasons. I was wrong. There are six! The sixth is the superior steering feel of rear-drive, which Motor Trend attempts to explain here. It involves geometry, the “scrub radius,” the “kingpin axis,” and the interplay of the mechanical and “pneumatic trail.” I’ll take their word for it. 9/01/05 [originally published in kausfiles]

New Jaguar : It’s astonishingly uninspired, as feared. If Jaguar were a separate stock, you could short it. … 8/26/05 [from kausfiles]

Still the easiest way I can think of to become the richest person in the world: Buy one of the two weak U.S. brand names General Motors is reportedly thinking about killing off—that would be Pontiac or Buick—and start making Pontiacs (or Buicks) in China for sale in North America. … Update: Malcolm Bricklin has a head start, without the brand name. But he’s close—he plans to import a car called the “Chery,” which GM is not happy about).[Via Autoblog] … More: Ford may have half this strategy. The Detroit News reports Ford executive Mark Fields remarks that by 2010

50 percent of Ford’s parts in Europe will come from low-cost countries—twice what it’s buying today, according to a report by Merrill Lynch’s John Casesa. [Emphasis added]

Fields has just been made head of Ford’s North and South American operations. Presumably he will pursue a similar strategy here. [Thanks to reader S.B.] 8/15/05 [from kausfiles]

That Was Fast: Last year Ford introduced its long-awaited new big car, the Five Hundred, and a wagon/minivan variant, the Freestyle (advertised in Southern California TV spots featuring Brooke Shields). Now, after only 10 months in production, Ford has decided to discontinue the Freestyle, according to news reports. In the automotive world—where it costs a lot of money to build the tooling for a new model—this is a stunningly rapid demise. It may be the first time in recent memory that a major Detroit vehicle has been killed off like a movie because it ‘didn’t open.’ Faster Flops!  I suppose that’s progress of a sort. … [link via Autoblog] 7/19/05 [from kausfiles]

Your permanent get-the-latest-“Gearbox” link is here.6/19/05