Vehicle Overview
Because Ford owns a controlling interest in Mazda, there’s a 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 between the two are noticeable, and interior features are not alike. The Tribute also has different suspension settings.

Claimed to be the sportier member of the pair, Mazda’s car-based SUV has been attracting considerable interest, though its sales lag well behind Ford’s version. Automotive News reports that 45,270 Tributes were sold in 2001 vs. more than 164,000 Escape sales during the same period. Both models compete against such rivals as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

The Tribute is available with front-wheel drive (FWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD), and it is offered in DX, LX and upscale ES trim levels. Several interior upgrades have been added for 2003. A two-tone dashboard is installed, and the ES gains standard side-impact airbags. A new cold-weather option group for the ES includes heated seats and mirrors.

Jointly developed by the two companies, the unibody SUV is based on the FWD platform of the Mazda 626 sedan but is powered by Ford engines. The Escape and Tribute are designed to lure buyers out of cars by offering the look of an SUV with the security of 4WD and carlike driving ease. Neither model is considered to offer true offroad capability.

The Tribute has the same overall shape as the Escape, but it features a different grille, front fascia and headlamps, as well as unique exterior trim. Both exhibit a conventional small-SUV profile, and the SUV cousins’ dimensions are also similar. The Tribute sits on a 103.1-inch wheelbase and measures 173 inches long overall — that’s 7 inches longer than the RAV4. Standing 69.3 inches tall, the four-door SUV has a rear liftgate that includes a flip-up window. A fully independent suspension and 16-inch tires are used.

The Tribute carries five occupants with twin bucket seats up front and a three-place seat in the rear. The 60/40-split, folding rear seat on the LX and ES models expands cargo room from approximately 17 cubic feet to a more useful 63.9 cubic feet. Leather upholstery and a power driver’s seat are standard on the top-of-the-line ES.

Under the Hood
Mazda offers the same powertrain choices that Ford does in the Escape. The standard engine in the DX is a 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and a 200-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 is optional. The V-6 goes into all LX and ES models. 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 may be equipped with FWD or a Ford 4WD system that engages automatically but has no Low-range gearing.

Antilock brakes are standard. Side-impact airbags for the front seats are standard in the ES and optional in other models.

Driving Impressions
Mazda’s small SUV earns mixed reactions, and its sporty nature earns the highest marks. Even though it’s related to the Escape, more flaws surfaced while driving the Tribute than its Ford cousin. The Tribute is 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. In addition, 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. The Tribute steers with a somewhat light touch. It handles adeptly but sometimes displays a floating sensation that makes the driver feel less than fully connected to the highway surface.

The SUV’s ride comfort is pleasing on the highway, but wavy pavement produces a lot of up-and-down motion. The Tribute aptly copes with bumps and holes around town and exhibits no raucous behavior.

Reported by Jim Flammang  for
From the 2003 Buying Guide
Posted on 12/30/02