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Mazda Tribute ES (2001)

SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Sport-utility vehicles are the hot items in the auto industry today. Nearly every manufacturer, even some very unlikely manufacturers, has one or is planning to sell one. Mazda is no exception. But, think of Mazda and what comes to mind? Sports cars like the Miata and RX-7, perhaps? Quite likely. SUVs? Not so likely. And, is the world waiting for another plain-jane SUV, anyway? Even less likely.

Mazda hasn't had an SUV since the Navajo some years ago. The all-new 2001 Tribute should remedy that problem. It's not just another sport-utility, it's designed to be the Miata of SUVs and put "sport" in sport-utility. After all, if it isn't fun to drive, it isn't a Mazda.

The Tribute is offered in Mazda's usual DX, LX, and ES trim levels. A 2.0-liter, 130-horsepower engine is standard in the DX, with a five-speed manual transmission. Optional in the DX, and standard in the others, is a 3.0-liter, 200-hp V6, offering much more power than is the norm in the small SUV class. All versions may be had with front-wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive.

Like many small "SUVs," the Tribute is really a "crossover" vehicle, combining a carlike unit-construction chassis with independent suspension and the ground clearance and tall stance of a traditional, truck-based SUV. Add the ride comfort and handling of a car to the room, versatility, all-weather traction, and clearance of a sport-utility and get the best of both worlds for the purposes for which most urban and suburban SUV are really used. Such vehicles aren't usually capable of serious off-road action, but that's not their purpose. Interior space and versatility are useful for anyone, anywhere, and all-wheel drive and good clearance can make the difference between being stuck or getting through mud, snow, and debris during a storm.

I took delivery of a top-of-the-line Tribute ES during the first serious storm of the season. With streams across the road, and fallen branches and six-inch rocks in the road, getting home might have been a little trickier in something else. The Tribute's V6 engine, all-wheel drive, and eight-plus inches of clearance made it the perfect bad-weather vehicle. And its comfort and interior versatility should be useful all year 'round.

APPEARANCE: Mazda's "Contrast in Harmony" styling uses car- like styling cues to add interest to the basic two-box SUV shape. The Tribute has the high clearance, short overhangs, and lower cladding of an SUV, with the sculpted hood, jeweled headlights, fender blisters, and plastic-covered bumper fascias of a car. The five- point, chrome-trimmed grille features the new Mazda logo. Like most small SUVs and crossover vehicles, the Tribute is unintimidating and friendly-looking.

COMFORT: The Tribute's slightly larger size compared to other similar vehicles, and Mazda's "OptiSpace" interior design philosophy contribute to its well-designed, generously-sized interior. In ES trim, a contemporary style and amenities including leather upholstery, a power-adjustable driver's seat, and power accessories contribute to an upscale look and feeling. With its flat floor and steering column-mounted gearshift, the interior seems almost minivanlike, and utilizes space very well. The front buckets and rear bench are comfortable, with plenty of room. The rear bench is high for visibility, and split 60/40. Each back portion is adjustable for angle and can also fold forward. Each part of the seat cushion can be flipped up to help make a long, flat cargo area when necessary. There are many useful storage areas inside, highlighted by a large locking glove box and huge center console box. The tailgate flips up easily, and the rear window may be opened separately for quick access.

SAFETY: The Tribute's unibody chassis has front and rear crush zones with a central safety cage. Front side airbags and antilock brakes are available.

ROADABILITY: Given the height and ground clearance that are part of the package, no SUV or crossover vehicle will ever match a true sports car for cornering ability. That said, the Tribute comes far closer than any popularly-priced SUV to sports car-like handling thanks to its rigid unit-construction chassis and well-tuned fully- independent suspension. Much like a good sports sedan, it has a firm but comfortable ride, with no harshness. Unlike many SUVs, the Tribute exhibits very little roll in cornering. It feels very stable, even in strong winds. A small turning circle makes it very useful when searching for the elusive urban parking spot.

PERFORMANCE: Small SUVs are underpowered, right? Not this one. ES, LX, and DX-V6 Tributes have a 3.0-liter V6 engine that produces 200 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque, figures that are far more than any of the small SUVs and crossovers, and very respectable for any mid-sized SUV. So there is never any shortage of power for passing, hill-climbing, or even light-duty towing, with a 3500-lb capacity. The "Rotary Blade Coupling" all-wheel drive system operates primarily as a front-drive system, with torque sent to the rear wheels when necessary. It works very well on wet, slippery roads. The system can be locked into a 50/50 mode for best traction in deep mud and snow. With eight inches or more of clearance and all-wheel drive, the Tribute is a fine vehicle for roads with storm debris, improved dirt fire roads, and even rutted dirt trails. It doesn't have a "4-low" mode to tackle serious technical off-road action, but should work just fine in the everyday world.

CONCLUSIONS: For everyday urban and suburban use, the new Mazda Tribute has all of the advantages of a sport-utility and none of the disadvantages.

2001 Mazda Tribute ES 

Base Price               $ 23,025
Price As Tested          $ 25,475
Engine Type              dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6
Engine Size              3.0 liters / 180 cu. in.
Horsepower               200 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           200 @ 4750 rpm
Transmission             4-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length       103.1 in. / 173.0 in.
Curb Weight              3,455 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    17.3
Fuel Capacity            16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded regular gasoline, 87 octane
Tires                    P235/70 R16 Firestone Wilderness HT
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / drum, antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut / 
                           independent multilink
Ground clearance         8.43 in. with P235 tires
Drivetrain               front-engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      18 / 24 / 20
0 to 60 mph               8.9  sec
Towing capacity           3,500 lbs with towing 
Coefficient of Drag (cd)  0.411

ABS with side airbags            $    495
Luxury Package - includes: premium audio package,
  power sliding glass moonroof   $ 1,090
Towing Package - includes: Class II towing preparation,
  trailer hitch receiver with 3500-lb capacity, engine oil cooler,
  wiring harness                 $    350