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It's a well-worn cliche, but the Mazda Tribute puts some sport in sport utility. Responsive handling and brisk performance from the available V6 engine make the Tribute one of the sportiest of the compact SUVs.
The 2005 model line has been recast to complement the rest of the Mazda lineup. A new Tribute i model comes with a new four-cylinder engine that's available with a new five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. The Tribute s features a powerful V6 and four-speed automatic. Both models are available with a new four-wheel-drive system that uses electronics in place of last year's hydraulic system to better split power between front and rear tires according to driving conditions.
The 2005 Mazda Tribute gets a more polished look, as well. A new front fascia and other styling revisions add zest to what was already one of the better looking contenders in the class. The suspension has been revised for improved handling. Available side-impact airbags and curtain airbags enhance safety.
Mazda Tribute delivers an excellent value for drivers who want the versatility of a sport utility, but with the superior refinement and on-road handling of a car-based utility can offer. Mazda and Ford worked jointly on developing the Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape and they share much in common, but the Mazda offers sportier handling.
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. Noise, vibration and harshness levels are low when underway.
Steering response is direct and accurate without a big dead spot in the center. There's enough feeling in the steering to give the driver a good 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-wheel-drive (2WD) and four-wheel-drive (4WD) versions are identical, so there's no ride-quality penalty with 4WD.
The Tribute's ride quality is smoother and more sophisticated than that of the other compact sport utilities. It offers firm damping and a good control of body motions. The 2005 Tribute benefits has increased spring rates and a larger front stabilizer bar.
The V6 in the Tribute s is neither the smoothest nor the roughest V6 on the market, but it's smoother and more satisfying than the four-cylinder engines found on most small sport-utilities, including the Toyota RAV4. It's more powerful than the V6 engines in the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, but is about 10 horsepower shy of the Jeep Liberty's new V6.
The V6 engine and four-speed automatic work well together. 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 personal watercraft, ATVs, snowmobiles, and small boats.
The four-wheel-drive system improves driver control on wet pavement, ice and snow. The Tribute is more than capable of heading down remote two-tracks, but it is not designed for true off-road travel. Neither its four-wheel-drive system nor its suspension are up to tackling the Rubicon Trail. There's no traction control system nor is there a set of low-range gears. If rugged terrain is on your itinerary, you might be better served by the Jeep Liberty. Tribute handles well on smooth dirt roads, however, and the four-wheel-drive versions should get to most of the places most of us want to go. The 2WD Tributes may have trouble slogging through silt or mud without getting stuck.
Tribute's four-wheel-drive system works full time, automatically transferring power between the front and rear wheels as needed. The 4WD system on 2005 models features an electromagnetic clutch. Because it relies on the engine-control computer instead of hydraulics, the new system, called Active Torque Control Coupling, can react faster and more smoothly to changing road conditions and driver input than the pre-2005 system.
The brakes do a good job of slowing the Tribute down in a hurry and are smooth and responsive around town. The i model has disc/drum brakes, the s has four-wheel discs.
The Mazda Tribute is a joy to drive. When equipped with the V6, it offers more power than the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and other small SUVs with four-cylinder engines, and it costs less than a similarly equipped Liberty.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.