Mazda Tribute Review

Mazda Tribute Review

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.

Mazda Tribute is available in two pairs of trim level: Tribute i 2WD ($19,630) and 4WD ($21,330), and Tribute s 2WD ($22,890) and 4WD ($24,390).

Tribute i is powered by a new 153-horsepower four-cylinder engine. It comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic is optional for both the 2WD ($605) and 4WD ($405) models. The Tribute s is fitted with a 200-horsepower V6 and a four-speed automatic.

Tribute i comes standard with air conditioning; power windows, mirrors and locks; remote keyless entry; tilt steering; a roof rack with cross bars; 16-inch alloy wheels; four-speaker AM/FM/CD satellite-ready stereo; rear privacy glass; delayed accessory power; and two power points. Seats are upholstered in cloth, the rear seat is a 60/40 split fold-down bench, and there's full carpeting and front and rear floor mats.

The s model adds cruise control, fog lights, upgraded cloth trimmed seats, n upgraded driver's seat with adjustable lumbar, and sundry appearance items.

Options for both i and s include a cassette player ($200), an in-dash six-disc CD changer ($500), a DVD entertainment system ($1,200), various cargo area accessories, a perimeter alarm ($115), side step tubes ($400), and wheel locks ($30). An option package ($1,825) for Tribute i automatic features leather-trimmed seats, a six-way power driver's seat, cruise control with leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lamps, overhead console with storage bins, wood-grain center stack and center console, and assorted exterior trim and paint schemes. The s is available with any one of three option packages: The first ($1,380) adds six-way power driver's seat, seven-speaker premium audio with six-disc in-dash CD changer, power moonroof and retractable cargo cover; the second package ($1,645) adds to the first leather-trimmed upholstery, the wood-grain center stack and console and leather-wrapped steering wheel; the third package ($2,495) adds heated front seats and outside mirrors. The s is also available with a Class II trailer tow package ($350) and a moonroof wind deflector ($50).

Safety features that come standard include anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist. Side-impact airbags, designed to provide torso protection for driver and front-seat passenger, and curtain airbags ($565), designed to offer head protection, are available only on the Tribute s models.

The Mazda Tribute has an aggressive look due to its forward-tilted stance, short overhangs and wide track. Thick bumpers, side cladding and wheel lip moldings, all tweaked and massaged for a slightly different look for 2005, are smoothly integrated into the bodywork to give the Tribute a sense of stability and refined ruggedness. Large multi-reflector headlamps with clear lenses and rear combination lamps with crystal lenses add a sporty dash.

In terms of external dimensions, the Tribute sits in the middle of its class. The Honda CR-V is the longest overall (at 181 inches) with the RAV4 the shortest (167 inches), leaving the Tribute smack in the middle (174). Tribute's wheelbase is five inches longer than the Toyota RAV4's wheelbase (the distance from front tire to rear tire). Similarly, the Tribute's track (the distance between the left and right tires) is wider than the RAV4's. A longer wheelbase and wider track tends to offer better stability. The CR-V is six inches narrower than the Tribute.

The middle ground on exterior size means the Tribute fares about the same inside. It trails virtually all the competition in headroom and hiproom and lands about in the middle in legroom. It feels roomier than it is, however, an indication of good packaging and design. The lower dash flows smoothly around the front-seat knee wells. Interior door panels are economically crafted to yield maximum elbowroom.

Tribute's front bucket seats are comfortable and of higher quality than those found in many SUVs. New for 2005, all five seating positions have three-point seatbelts and adjustable head restraints. However, rear-seat passengers will discover that the Tribute's rear windows do not roll down all the way, as in many small sport utilities.

The 60/40 split-fold rear seat allows multiple combinations of people and stuff. Folding the rear seat reveals a flat cargo floor and nearly 67 cubic feet of cargo space. The Tribute will accommodate 4x8-foot sheets of plywood, if you don't mind flipping open the rear hatch glass and letting the plywood stick out the back. The glass does not have to be closed when opening the rear hatch.

Switchgear is straightforward. Radio controls are easy to use, and the heating and air conditioning controls are simple. Cruise controls are mounted on the steering wheel. The instrument panel is straightforward and easy to read. The center panel is matte finish and trimmed in brushed aluminum.

Visibility in all directions is very good. The shape of the Tribute's hood combines with its seating position to allow the driver to clearly see both front corners of the vehicle, an advantage over the Honda CR-V. Narrow A-pillars (front) and D-pillars (rear) minimize blind spots. The low bottom edge of the rear window maximizes visibility, and there's no spare tire hanging off the liftgate to block the view.

Driving Impressions
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.

Summary and Specifications
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.
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