SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide
It's no secret that sport-utility vehicles are the hottest automotive items around today. Because of their popularity, virtually every automaker has one, or is planning one. Mazda is no exception.
But mention "Mazda" and what do most people think of? Sports cars like the Miata or late RX-7? Quite possibly. But "Mazda" and "SUV"? Mazda hasn't had an SUV since the Navajo, a rebadged two-door Ford Explorer. The all-new 2001 Tribute should remedy that problem. The Tribute is not just another sport-utility, it's designed to be the Miata of SUVs.
Miata of SUVs? Well, according to Mazda, the rationale goes like this: If it isn't fun to drive, is isn't a Mazda. And so, the 2001 Mazda Tribute has been designed and built to offer a much more enjoyable driving experience than the average SUV. With a rigid chassis and sport-tuned suspension, and quick steering, it is meant to feel more like a sports sedan than a sport-utility. It has Mazda's "design DNA" – it incorporates the aforementioned sporty chassis tuning with "Contrast in Harmony" styling and "OptiSpace" interior design.
A cursory glance at the Tribute will show a decided similarity to the recently-introduced Ford Escape. No surprise there – after all, Ford owns a controlling interest in Mazda, and Mazda would be hard-pressed to create its own SUV from scratch. But the Tribute is much more highly styled, with prominent creases character lines in the hood, noticeable fender blisters, and contrast-colored bumpers and lower cladding. And, of course, the current Mazda face, with large headlights flanking the chrome- trimmed, five-sided grille.
The Tribute and Escape are basically the same vehicle, but this time major development was in Mazda's hands. That's right, the Ford Escape as much a version of the Mazda Tribute as the Mazda is a Ford. And, Mazda has significantly differentiated the Tribute from its Ford cousin. Officially, the name "Tribute" is just a name. But it could well be thought of as a tribute to Mazda's engineering and development talent and to the synergies between Mazda and Ford.
The Tribute fits into the same size category as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV 4, and the Subaru Forester. Like those vehicles, it uses a carlike unit construction chassis for the rigidity necessary for good suspension behavior and ride compliance, with a carlike lack of the squeaks and rattles that can come from body- on-frame truck construction.
Like the other import-brand small sport-utes, the Tribute is basically a front-engined, front-wheel drive vehicle, with available single-range four-wheel drive. Its main competitors use four- cylinder engines with 2.0 to 2.5 liters of displacement. Although the base DX-level Tribute has a 2.0-liter, 130-horsepower four- cylinder engine matched to a five-speed manual gearbox, mid-level LX and upscale ES versions come only with a 3.0-liter, 200- horsepower V6. The V6 is available in the DX as well. The four-cylinder engine is the Ford twincam "Zetec", familiar from the Contour. The V6 is also a dual overhead cam, four valve-per cylinder unit, the "Duratec" found in the Taurus. Kind of. Compared to the Taurus engine, that of the Tribute has different heads and intake and exhaust manifolds, all developed by Mazda. These changes help the Tribute engine to develop its power at lower engine speeds, for better performance in inclement conditions and much better towing ability than its competitors. Most other small SUVs can tow less than a ton; with the optional towing package, the V6 Tribute is rated for 3500 lbs.
Mazda was also responsible for the design of the Tribute's suspension and chassis. The "Triple H" unibody frame design combines rigidity and collision protection, with front and rear crush zones and frame members designed to disperse impact energy and prevent cabin deformation. The frame itself is comparable in rigidity to that of a sedan such as Mazda's own 626. This allows the fully-independent MacPherson strut front / multilink rear suspension to be tuned for the sort of responsive handling and compliant, controlled ride associated more with sports sedans than with trucks. It is tuned very differently from that of its cousin, the Ford Escape. A relatively long wheelbase and wide track contribute to ride smoothness and stability as well.
That long wheelbase and wide track do more than help the Tribute's handling characteristics. Remember Mazda's "OptiSpace" design philosophy from its sedans and MPV minivan? This minimizes the space required for mechanical components and maximizes space for passengers and cargo. Small outside, not so small inside. The Tribute's front buckets and rear split bench provide ample space for five people. The rear seat backs recline, and the seat itself flips and folds to make a flat cargo floor. The space-saver spare is hidden under the rear load floor, allowing a flip-up window in the rear liftgate. It can be opened to transport long loads, like lumber and the industry standard four by eight foot sheet of plywood. Even with its high ground clearance, getting in or out is little harder than getting in or out of a sedan. Three trim levels, Mazda's typical entry-level DX, well- equipped LX, and premium ES, are offered. Base prices vary from $17,005 for a two-wheel drive, four-cylinder DX to $23,025 for a four-wheel drive ES-V6. Look for a late August introduction date.
Specifications: 2001 Mazda Tribute Length 173.0 inches Width 71.9 inches Height 69.9 inches with P235/70 R16 tires Wheelbase 103.1 inches Ground Clearance 8.43 inches with P235/70 R16 tires Engine: four-cylinder 2.0 liters 130 bhp @ 5400 rpm 135 lb-ft torque @ 4500 rpm V6 3.0 liters 200 bhp @ 6000 rpm 200 lb-ft torque @ 4750 rpm Curb weights, lbs I4 2WD 3091 I4 4WD 3245 V6 2WD 3291 V6 4WD 3455