Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $17,005
As Tested (MSRP) $25,475
Mazda's commercials show its new Tribute zooming around with a pack of Miatas. This new sport-utility, we are led to infer, is just as prepared to zoom around a twisting road racing circuit as it is to veer off into the woods on a primitive two-track. Fortunately, it's an accurate characterization.
Sporty handling, luxurious refinement and brisk V6 performance make the new Mazda Tribute the best small sport-utility vehicle sold today (assuming most of your driving is done on pavement). Mazda and Ford worked jointly on developing the Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape and together they outclass the other small utilities.
The Mazda Tribute ES, the top model, comes loaded with leather seating, a six-disc in-dash CD player and other luxury features. It has been considered by some to be a poor man's Lexus RX 300, which costs another $12,500. Nearly 6 inches longer than a Jeep Cherokee, the Mazda Tribute comfortably seats four people. Indeed, the Mazda Tribute delivers an excellent value for people who want the image and versatility of a sport-utility coupled with refinement and better on-road handling than truck-based utilities.
Three trim levels are available: DX ($17,005), LX ($20,820) and ES ($21,825).
The base Tribute DX is powered by a 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission; it is not available with an automatic.
All other models are fitted with a 200-horsepower V6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. In fact, 90 percent of all Tributes will come with the V6 and automatic, including the DX-V6 ($19,140).
All models are available with either front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive; four-wheel drive adds $1200-$1400 to the above prices.
Overall, the Tribute's external dimensions are comparable to those of the Jeep Cherokee and Honda CR-V. It is longer than a CR-V and wider than a Ford Explorer. The Tribute offers an aggressive look, due to its forward-tilted stance, short overhangs and wide track. Thick bumpers, side cladding and wheel lip moldings smoothly integrated into the body work convey a sense of stability and refined ruggedness. Large multi-reflector headlamps with clear lenses and rear combination lamps with crystal lenses convey a sense of sportiness. A two-tone color scheme and minimal use of chrome create a clean appearance. The Tribute is aerodynamically superior to the CR-V and 2000 RAV4.
The Tribute offers seating for five. In fact, the Tribute offers more front and rear legroom than the Lexus RX 300 luxury SUV. It's more comfortable with four people, however, and no shoulder belt is provided for the rear center position. The front bucket seats and the rear bench seat are comfortable and of higher quality than what's found in many SUVs. Like many smaller SUVs, the rear windows do not roll down all the way.
The second-row seat folds down revealing a flat cargo floor and more than 74 cubic feet of cargo space. It will even accommodate 4x8-foot sheets of plywood, if you don't mind flipping open the rear glass hatch and letting the plywood stick out the back. The lift gate window does not have to be closed before opening the rear hatch. A 12-volt power outlet is located in the rear of the cargo compartment.
Radio controls are easy to use with big volume and tuning knobs and the heating, air conditioning and ventilation controls are simple. Cruise controls are mounted on the steering wheel. The instrument panel is straightforward and easy to read. Noise, vibration and harshness levels are low when underway. Visibility in all directions is very good. The shape of the Tribute's hood and the seating position allow the driver to clearly see both front corners of the vehicle, an advantage over the Honda CR-V, while narrow A- (front) and D- (rear) pillars minimize blind spots. A low bottom edge maximizes visibility out the rear window and there's no spare tire to block the view.
Leather seating surfaces and a six-way power driver's seat are standard on the ES model. An available 190-watt AM/FM/cassette/six-disc in-dash CD ($505) stereo with six speakers and a subwoofer delivers excellent sound system for LX and ES models.
Calling it the sports sedan of SUVs, Mazda's advertising features the Tribute zooming around a circuit with a pack of Miatas. After flinging it around an autocross course, we don't think the Tribute handles as well as a sports sedan, but it does handle better than other sport-utility vehicles. Its sharp steering allows the driver to guide it precisely. Controlling it is easy, even when sliding around a parking lot full of pylons. At high speeds, the Tribute is supremely stable, something we learned during extensive driving through the mountains and prairies of Utah. Handling response is relatively taut without that mushiness that characterizes SUVs with big off-road tires and long-travel suspensions. The ride quality is smoother and more sophisticated than that of the other small sport-utilities in its class with firm damping and a well-controlled ride. The car-based Subaru Forester is among the few vehicles in this category that offer better handling.
Mazda's engineers say the Miata inspired them when they tuned the Tribute's steering response. It feels direct and accurate without a big dead spot in the center. There's enough feeling in the steering to impart a sense of control. Though this is not a sports car, the tires provide respectable grip in paved corners. When pushed beyond their limits, the front tires start slipping before the rear tires just like nearly all SUVs and most front-wheel-drive sedans. Called understeer, this means the Escape will describe a wider and wider arc through a corner as it is driven harder into a turn. So it's expected and predictable. Simply back off the throttle and it tightens its line. The Escape provides surprisingly good transient response (in left-right-left lane-change maneuvers). The suspensions on front- and four-wheel-drive versions are identical.
About 90 percent of all Tributes will come with Ford's 3.0-liter V6. Similar in design to the Duratec V6 used in the Ford Taurus, this specially tuned 200-horsepower engine gives the Tribute a distinctive advantage in performance over the other small utilities, including the all-new 2001 Toyota RAV4 that's powered by a four-cylinder engine. It isn't the smoothest V6 on the market, nor is it the roughest. But it is smoother and more satisfying than the four-cylinder engines found on most small sport-utilities. (We have not yet had the opportunity to test drive the base Tribute DX with the four-cylinder engine.)
All V6 Tributes come with an automatic transmission. Engine and four-speed automatic communicate well. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down appropriately for the situation and the engine's broad power band never lugs or strains. Mazda tuned the suspension for slightly more aggressive shifting and mapped it for quicker acceleration than the Ford Escape. Properly equipped, the Tribute can tow trailers of up to 3500 pounds, which includes lightweight ski boats, ATVs or snowmobiles.
Head off the highway and the Tribute will take you places you may be reluctant to go in a sedan. While front-wheel-drive (2WD) Tributes may have trouble passing through silt and mud without getting stuck, the four-wheel-drive versions should get through most of the places most of us want to go. More important, the four-wheel-drive system improves driver control on wet pavement, ice and snow. Specifically developed for the Tribute, the four-wheel-drive system works full time, automatically transferring power between the front and rear wheels as needed through a gadget called a rotary blade coupling. This coupling (similar to a torque converter in an automatic transmission) will, for example, send more power to the rear wheels if the front wheels start to spin when you're sitting at a traffic light on a rainy day and stomp on the gas. A switch on some models allows the driver to lock the torque split 50/50, which is useful when driving off road or on snow-covered roads.
Though it performs well on primitive unpaved roads, the Tribute is not intended as a serious off-road vehicle. There is no traction control system nor is there a low-range set of gears. Neither its four-wheel-drive system nor its suspension is up to tackling the Rubicon Trail; a Jeep Wrangler will leave the Tribute way behind over truly rough terrain. But the Tribute is much better suited as a primary, everyday vehicle than the Wrangler.
Smooth and responsive, the brakes do a good job of slowing the Tribute down in a hurry and Mazda claims they are the best in the class. The optional anti-lock brakes (ABS) come into play just when expected and are detectable by the familiar pulsating sensation. We highly recommend opting for ABS; just remember to keep your foot hard on the brake pedal in an emergency stopping situation and don't forget to steer around any hazards. If that doesn't prevent an accident, the Tribute should offer good crash protection; Mazda is expecting it to earn top marks in government testing. Side airbags are optional.
Mazda's new Tribute is more sophisticated than the Isuzu Rodeo, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Nissan Xterra and Suzuki Vitara. It delivers more power than the Toyota RAV4 and other small SUVs with four-cylinder engines. And it costs considerably less than a similarly equipped Xterra. It's a joy to drive and is at the top of its class.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.