2006 Mazda Tribute S 4WD Review


PHOTO
Mazda Tribute (2005 Shown)
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD

WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mazda

2006 Mazda Tribute S 4WD

Consider the juxtaposition of words in ``sport-utility vehicle.'' Most in the category are primarily utility vehicles. ``Sport'' is something done at the destination; it has little or nothing to do with the driving characteristics of the vehicle. The factors that increase utility - ground clearance, the size necessary for useful cargo space, and the heavy-duty construction and four-wheel drive systems for off-road use - work against sport.

Mazda is well-known as a maker of sports cars. Its MX-5 Miata is the best-selling sports car ever. And Mazda also has several generations of Wankel rotary-piston powered RX-7s and the current RX-8 to its credit. The company likes to say that it puts the soul of a sports car into each of its vehicles. That rings true for its midsized Mazda6 and compact Mazda3 sedans, but for its Tribute SUV?

True there, too.

While it's unlikely that a Tribute could best a new MX-5 around a race track, it has been one of the better-handling small SUVs since its introduction five years ago. Credit that to its well-designed car-like unibody construction and a fully-independent suspension that has always been tuned to a more sporting specification than is the norm in the SUV class. The Tribute's size works in its favor, too. It's small enough to be maneuverable, but large enough to fit four or five people and cargo inside with comfort and ease. And the powertrain choices, an economical but relatively powerful four-cylinder and 200-horsepower V6, help, too.

Introduced for model year 2001, the Tribute got its first major upgrades for the 2005 model year. Trim levels were reduced to two - four-cylinder ``i'' and V6 ``s'' - in keeping with Mazda's current practice. Freshened styling may have been the most apparent change, but the most notable improvement was under the hood of the i: a new four-cylinder that improved on the old by 23 horsepower and 17 lb-ft of torque, with 40 lbs. less weight as a bonus. Both trim levels could be fitted with a new electronically-controlled single-range full-time four-wheel drive system, and antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution were standard across the line.

Unsurprisingly, there are no major changes to the 2006 Tribute.

It's been five years since the last time I drove a Tribute, so I was glad to have the opportunity to spend a recent week with a well-equipped 2006 ``s'' model. The original Tribute suspension tuning was firmer than the SUV average, for very good maneuverability with a sporty ride quality. Mazda has refined that, for even flatter cornering for improved handling. As before, the newest Tribute strikes a near-perfect balance in size, with good interior space in a conveniently small and easily parkable package. With the improved handling, it's even sportier, and proves that there are indeed some sport-utilities in which ``sport'' is not just in the name.

APPEARANCE: Although the Tribute's overall design is unchanged from the original styling, the details differ. It's a typical two-box SUV, moderately small in size with normal proportions, short overhangs and lower protective and decorative cladding. The front shows the most change. The grille has been reshaped, but is still highlighted by a chromed top bar and a central crossbar with the Mazda logo. The bumper fascia has likewise been restyled, with a sportier foglamp treatment on the ``s''. The headlights are also new. The plastic ``skid plate'' underneath does more for looks and perhaps aerodynamics than protection against rocks. There are minor differences in the side cladding panels, and a new rear bumper fascia and taillights.

COMFORT: An efficient interior design makes good use of the available space inside the Tribute, and upscale contemporary styling makes it a pleasant place in which to spend time. My test model had the ``Option Package III,'' a pricey - $2,595 - but comprehensive interior upgrade with a power driver's seat, leather-appointed upholstery and steering wheel, fancier interior trim with the look of aluminum and black maple, heated front seats and outside mirrors, a seven-speaker premium AM/FM/cassette/6 CD changer audio system that is prewired for Sirius satellite radio, a moonroof, and more convenience features. Allied with standard additional soundproofing and improved engine mounts, it makes for an upscale driving experience. Seat comfort in front is very good, and the rear seat has plenty of room for two adults, or three for more limited times, width being the constraint. It's split 60/40, with flip-and-fold cushions for a flat load floor, and flip-up glass in the tailgate is convenient for loading lighter items. The space-saver spare is located outside, underneath the rear, as in a ``real'' truck, improving interior space.

SAFETY: ``Triple-H'' unibody construction provides a strong central safety cell around the passenger area, with front and rear crumple zones. Variable-force front airbags are standard, with seat-mounted side airbags and side head-curtain airbags available. All Tribute models have antilock brakes; the s's are four-wheel discs.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The Tribute is admirably designed and built for its intended use and environment - the everyday real world of urban and suburban streets and highways and traffic, with an occasional uncrowded backroad thrown in for relief. It's not meant for serious off-road use, although its 8.4 inches of clearance should be plenty for reasonably-maintained forest roads - and protection from highway debris. The firm, sporty tuning of its fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension and quick rack-and-pinion steering make it an enjoyable vehicle, with much better handling than the typical small SUV. It feels much more like a car than a truck. In standard trim, a Tribute is a front-wheel drive vehicle. The optional four-wheel drive system uses computer control to predict wheelslip, and preemptively adjust the front/rear torque split. It operates transparently, with no driver intervention necessary.

PERFORMANCE: With a 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower (at 6000 rpm) engine in a 3,500-lb vehicle, the Tribute s is one of the quicker small SUVs. 193 lb-ft of torque at 4850 rpm, and good low-rpm effort, make the four-speed automatic a good match. Acceleration is better than average for the small SUV class, and fuel economy, at EPA 19/23 and real-world 20 mpg, is better than from larger SUVs. For those with an eye for better economy, the new four-cylinder engine should improve on that. And its standard five-speed manual transmission offers a sportier driving experience, although most buyers will opt for the automatic.

CONCLUSIONS: Mazda has refined its Tribute SUV, keeping it at the front of the small SUV class.

SPECIFICATIONS

2006 Mazda Tribute S 4WD

Base Price	  $ 24,700
Price As Tested	  $ 28,450
Engine Type	  Dual overhead cam 24-valve V6
Engine Size	  3.0 liters / 181 cu. in.
Horsepower	  200 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)	  193 @ 4850 rpm
Transmission	  4-speed electronically-controlled
			  automatic
Wheelbase/Length   103.1 in. / 174.4 in.
Curb Weight	  3490 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 17.4
Fuel Capacity	     16.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement	 89 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires		 P235/70 TR16 Continental Contact
Brakes, front/rear   vented disc / solid disc,
		            ABS and EBD standard
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson strut /
			       independent multilink
Ground clearance   8.4 inches
Drivetrain		       front engine, single-range 
                               four-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 23 / 20
0 to 60 mph				8.9  sec
Towing capacity 			3500 lbs.

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Side airbags and side curtain airbags	    $   565
Option Package III - includes:
  leather-trimmed seat upholstery, leather-wrapped
  steering wheel, black maple look center panel,
  6-way power driver's seat, 7-speaker premium audio
  system with in-dash 6-CD changer, retractable cargo
  cover, overhead storage, heated front seats and
  mirrors, power moonroof		    $ 2,595
Destination charge			    $   590

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