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Mazda Tribute (2001)

SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide

by John Heilig


MODEL: Mazda Tribute 
ENGINE: 3.0-liter V6 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 200 hp @ 6000 rpm/200 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm 
TRANSMISSION: Four-speed automatic 
WHEELBASE: 103.1 in. 
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 173.0 x 71.9 x 69.3 in. 
STICKER PRICE: $23,025 (base) 

Zoom, zoom. If you've been watching television commercials lately, you know that the Mazda Tribute is "the SUV that was raised by a family of sports cars," and it's loaded with "zoom, zoom." I like the commercials, and think they're a ton better than the sedan ads Mazda ran through most of 1999 and 2000.

But as most of you know, SUVs are more than just zoom, zoom. Any SUV worth its salt must be able to negotiate off- as well as on-road situations. It must do well in inclement weather and must be reliable. But primarily, it must be the type of vehicle that can get its owner/driver from point A to point B safely and capably.

The week we had the Mazda Tribute was, like most weeks in the Heilig house, an interesting one. Two other road test cars filled the driveway -- a Jaguar and a 4WD pickup. The calendar called for us to go to a Friday night wedding. So with the natural Heilig luck, it snowed on Friday, about two inches of wet, slippery snow. There went the opportunity to drive the rear-wheel-drive Jaguar to the wedding, and we certainly weren't taking the pickup truck (it was a slightly higher class than a pickup truck wedding). So we took the Tribute.

For most of the ride the Tribute was too much car for the weather. The wet snow was rain on the Interstates and proved to be of no challenge. But once we headed down local roads, the snow got deeper and more treacherous. In the church parking lot, it was fairly deep and the Tribute handled itself admirably.

The road to the reception was also snow-covered, and we harbored thoughts of looking for a hotel to spend the night. But we didn't need it. The Tribute handled itself perfectly throughout the entire trip, and brought us home safely.

Tribute and its stable mate, the Ford Escape, are small sport utility vehicles, in the manner of the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, among others. It enters one of the most hotly contested segments in the automobile market.

Powered by a 3.0-liter V6 rated at 200 horsepower, the Tribute is a capable performer on dry roads as well as slippery ones. When the roads cleared after the storm, we found that we could zip around with anything else on the road. Sort of like zoom, zoom. Almost the entire small SUV segment is comprised of vehicles that are fun to drive. In most cases, they are more fun that the mid-size and large SUV, simply because they're more manageable.

I classify sport utilities with many other hybrid vehicles, and I believe that hybrids of all sorts are the future of the industry. The more highly promoted hybrids are, of course, the multiple fuel vehicles like the Honda Impact and Toyota Prius. But I also consider vehicles like the Explorer Sport Trac and Dakota Quad Cab as hybrids because they serve more than one purpose.

The Tribute falls into a hybrid class of its own. It's a capable 4WD sport utility that can serve as the vehicle to get you out of a jam. It can serve as a small cargo/people carrier with its full-size back seat and decent carrying capacity. And it can serve as a decent sedan when all you're interested in is driving on a nice highway or back road.

Dimensionally, the Tribute, which is also sold as the Ford Escape, is about four inches shorter than the Honda CR-V on a similar-sized wheelbase. It's bigger than the RAV4 and about the same size as the Santa Fe. Its 200 horsepower V6 gives it more power, though, than any of the other vehicles, giving it a decided advantage in that department.

But where I think the Tribute has it over the competition is in the comfort department. As I said, we used it to go to a wedding, so we were dressed more formally than we usually dress in our house (sneakers and jeans simply wouldn't cut it). So we wanted something special, which is why we first thought of using the Jaguar. But the Tribute wasn't a big step down, once we got used to it. It offered comfort, a small degree of luxury, and the security of knowing that we just might make it back home, no matter what the weather was.

I'm not sure how the Tribute would handle a severe off-road situation, but most SUV owners don't expose their vehicles to that kind of use anyway. All I know is that in normal driving, with the challenge of crummy weather, the Tribute did its job.