RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- So we're cruising along the palm-studded boulevards of Rancho Mirage, ritzy oasis in the California desert by Palm Springs, in a new version of Tribeca, the mid-size crossover utility vehicle (CUV) from Subaru of Japan.
It was only two years ago that the first of these wagons rolled out Subaru's USA assembly plant in Indiana with chrome letters on the tailgate identifying the vehicle as the "B9 Tribeca."
Fitted with seats for five or seven, the B9 Tribeca as a 2006 model presented a bold design for the prow featuring triangular headlamp clusters on front corners with a prominent forward-jutting grille which conjured an image of Italian sports cars by Alfa Romeo.
By contrast, the new 2008 Tribeca we're steering along the El Paseo shopping district of Rancho Mirage deletes that "B9" designation in the nameplate and also sheds the provocative styling on the prow.
Instead, Subaru's CUV shows an elevated hood line with revised front fenders and fresh headlamps plus a tall and flush grille integrated into the smooth front bumper.
These modifications plus a conventional redesign of the tail-side liftgate create the impression of a broader and taller version of Tribeca.
Subaru's revisions don't end with the exterior treatment because Tribeca also scores a larger engine with increased power and torque numbers.
Subaru's horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine expands from 3.0-liter displacement in the original edition to 3.6 liters for the 2008 Tribeca.
The plant still features dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder with AVCS (active valve control system) variable valve timing to optimize efficiency.
But it romps now with a punch - a robust 256 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 247 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
The new plant works with a five-speed electronic automatic transmission which adds Subaru's SportShift mode for manual sequential shifting.
And like every vehicle from Subaru, Tribeca also employs a symmetrical all-wheel-drive (AWD) system that operates quite simply, as power from the engine moves directly through an electronically-controlled transfer case to whichever wheels support traction, with scant loss of energy or reduction in fuel efficiency in the process.
The AWD device for Tribeca is biased toward the rear wheels with torque normally divided 45 percent for front and 55 percent in the rear.
It employs high-tech electronic controls like variable torque distribution (VTD) in conjunction with a stability system under Subaru's label of Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) plus a four-wheel traction control system (TCS).
Like a SUV, Tribeca conforms to a wagon's format with four doors for passengers plus the liftgate in back for access to the cargo bay.
Yet like an agile sports sedan, Tribeca rides on the chassis of a car.
The platform, which underpins Subaru's Legacy and Outback models, has been stretched and stiffened for Tribeca to forge a wheelbase that's 108.2 inches long with the four wheels pinned at the four corners of the chassis.
Pushing wheels to edges of the platform promotes stability in the stance of Tribeca and sets up its nimble handling characteristics.
Subaru's CUV carries an independent suspension system with MacPherson-type struts in front with internal rebound springs and a double wishbone design in back plus stabilizer bars fore and aft to check excessive lateral roll of the body when running down a wiggle route.
And the steering system, through a rack and pinion arrangement, is tuned for rapid responses and a precise on-center feel at the wheel.
A vented disc brake stands at every wheel and all tie by computerized links to a sophisticated anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD).
We log seat time driving a 2008 Tribeca along the broad boulevards of Rancho Mirage before pointing it into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains -- climbing high over switchbacks of wiggly California 74, the Pines to Palms Highway.
What we discover is the CUV's dual disposition as both a smooth and comfortable boulevard cruiser and an aggressive performer on a curve-kinked course.
Tribeca's ride quality on the road still feels smooth and comfortable, yet it's also firm enough to run through the curves without excessive tipping or dipping or rolling of the body.
The spacious passenger compartment in Tribeca incorporates a design theme of curvaceous lines with a dash in two-tone pattern and two rounded areas defining space for front bucket seats.
The second-row bench, with backrest split 40/20/40 for fold-flat sections, slides fore and aft by eight inches to vary the legroom as well as space for the rear cargo bay.
A new feature for 2008 editions is the tilt-and-slide controls added on both sides of the split bench and a new assist spring which reduces the effort to slide the second row seat section.
A third-row bench, with 50/50 split and fold-down seatback sections, is optional on Tribeca. Space in this rear compartment suits children rather than adults.
Styling for the cabin is decidedly upscale in tone with clean lines and clever touches like built-in storage compartments and numerous cupholders plus several 12-volt power points to drive various electronic gadgets.
Extensive safety gear shows up in Subaru's CUV, including frontal and seat-mounted side air bags for the front row and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above outboard seats on first and second rows.
Two trims define the level of on-board luxury gear for the CUV -- Tribeca the base edition or Tribeca Limited.
A lot of equipment shows up on the base model, with deluxe electroluminescent gauges in the instrument panel, an automatic climate control system and a nice audio kit with CD deck, plus power controls for front buckets -- eight-way for the driver's seat and four-way for the passenger's seat.
The Limited adds perforated leather upholstery and a premium stereo with subwoofer and a six-disc CD switcher.
Of course, there are options, like a DVD navigation system or a rear DVD entertainment system with nine-inch LCD screen and a pair of wireless headphones.