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Mazda Tribute is among the sportiest of the small utilities. Sporty handling and brisk V6 performance place the Tribute among the best of the small sport-utility vehicles sold today. Mazda and Ford worked jointly on developing the Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape and together they outclass the other small utilities.
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. The Mazda Tribute ES, the top model, comes loaded with leather seating, a six-disc in-dash CD player and other luxury features.
The Tribute is an agile and powerful little SUV. It handles better than other sport-utilities. Its sharp steering allows the driver to guide it precisely. At high speeds, the Tribute is supremely stable. 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. It handles better on the road the a Jeep Liberty and it's more fun to drive than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4.
Steering response is direct and accurate without a big dead spot in the center. There's enough feeling in the steering to impart a sense of control. The tires provide respectable grip in paved corners. 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 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.
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.
The Tribute is more than capable of heading down remote two-tracks on trout fishing excursions. It isn't not a highly capable off-road vehicle, however. The Jeep Liberty is better for that. Front-wheel-drive (2WD) Tributes may have trouble passing through silt and mud without getting stuck, but 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.
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.
Mazda Tribute offers more power than the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and other small SUVs with four-cylinder engines. On the road, it is more sophisticated than the Isuzu Rodeo, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Nissan Xterra or Suzuki Vitara. And it costs less than a similarly equipped Xterra. It's a joy to drive and is at the top of its class.