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It's a well-worn cliche, but the Mazda Tribute really puts some sport in sport-utility. Responsive handling and brisk V6 performance make Tribute one of best of the small SUVs sold today. Mazda and Ford worked jointly on developing the Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape, and together they outclass the other small utilities, at least on dry pavement.
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 can offer.
Tribute ES, the top model, comes loaded with leather seating, a six-disc in-dash CD player and other luxury features. Upgrades for the 2003 Tribute ES include dash trim designed to look like carbon fiber, side-impact airbags that come standard, and available heated seats and mirrors.
The Mazda 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. Tribute handles better on the road than 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 offers surprisingly good transient response in left-right-left lane-change maneuvers. (The suspensions on front- and four-wheel-drive versions are identical.)
The Tribute's ride quality is smoother and more sophisticated than that of the other small sport-utilities in its class, also, with firm damping and a good control of body motions.
About 90 percent of all Tributes 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. 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, including the Toyota RAV4.
The V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission communicate well. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down, appropriately for the situation. A broad power band means the engine never lugs or strains. Mazda tuned the transmission for slightly more aggressive shifting and mapped it for quicker acceleration than in the Ford Escape. Properly equipped, the Tribute can tow trailers up to 3500 pounds, which covers lightweight ski boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, and small boats.
The Tribute is more than capable of heading down remote two-tracks on trout fishing excursions. It is not offer off-road capability, however. The Jeep Liberty is better for that. Though it performs well on primitive unpaved roads, the Tribute is not intended as an 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. The four-wheel-drive versions should get to 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. Front-wheel-drive (2WD) Tributes may have trouble slogging through silt or mud without getting stuck.
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 you stomp the gas at a traffic light on wet pavement and front wheels start to spin. On some models, a switch allows the driver to lock the torque split 50/50, which is useful when driving off road or on snow-covered roads.
Smooth and responsive, the brakes do a good job of slowing the Tribute down in a hurry. 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 Nissan Xterra, Isuzu Rodeo, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, or Suzuki Vitara. And it costs less than a similarly equipped Xterra. Tribute is a joy to drive and is at the top of its class.