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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.
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 Tribute 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 Tribute 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
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.
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