Ford owns a controlling interest in Mazda, which accounts for the close kinship between the popular Ford Escape sport utility vehicle and the related Mazda Tribute. Both SUVs were introduced for the 2001 model year. Subtle styling differences can be seen between the two, and interior features are not identical.
Claimed to be the sportier member of the pair, Mazdas car-based SUV has been attracting considerable interest. Available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the Tribute exhibits a conventional SUV profile. Changes for 2002 are minimal, apart from a reshaped gearshift lever, wiper-control stalk and the addition of a modular audio system. New front seats have separate, adjustable head restraints, and rub strips have been deleted from the Tributes roof rack.
Jointly developed by the two companies, the SUV is based on the front-drive platform of Mazdas 626 sedan but is powered by Ford engines. Like the Escape, the Tribute is designed to lure buyers out of cars by offering the look of an SUV with carlike driving ease and the security of four-wheel drive. Neither model is considered to offer true offroad capability.
Though it has the same overall shape as the Escape, Mazdas Tribute features a different grille, front fascia and headlamps, as well as unique exterior trim. Dimensions also are similar. The Tribute sits on a 103.1-inch wheelbase and has an overall length of 173 inches 8 inches longer than the Toyota RAV4. The four-door SUV has a rear liftgate that includes a flip-up window.
The Tribute carries five occupants with twin bucket seats up front and a three-place seat in the rear. The folding rear seat on the LX and ES models expands cargo room from 17 cubic feet to a more useful 70 cubic feet. Leather upholstery and a power drivers seat are standard on the top-of-the-line ES.
Under the Hood
Mazda offers the same powertrain choices as those of the Escape. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 130 horsepower, while a 200-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 is optional. Only a five-speed-manual transmission is available with the four-cylinder engine, while a four-speed-automatic gearbox is used with the V-6. The Tribute can have front-wheel drive or a Ford four-wheel-drive system that engages automatically. Antilock brakes and side-impact airbags for the front seats are optional.
Mazdas small SUV gets a mixed reaction, with its sporty nature earning the highest marks. Although its related to the Escape, more flaws surfaced while driving the Tribute than its Ford cousin. Noisier than some rivals, a test Tribute emitted a low growl from its driveline while accelerating at low speeds, as if sound insulation was lacking. Additionally, a touchy gas pedal made it difficult to start off with a smooth acceleration.
Energetic and overly eager, the throttle response is satisfying, automatic-transmission shifts are barely noticeable, and downshifts for passing and merging come swiftly. Steering with a somewhat light touch, the Tribute displays a floating sensation at times, feeling less than fully connected to the highway surface. Ride comfort is pleasing on the highway, but wavy pavement produces a lot of up-and-down motion. Around town, the Tribute aptly copes with bumps and holes and exhibits no raucous behavior.