The all-new 2001 Mazda Tribute is a compact SUV with standard front-wheel-drive or available full-time four-wheel-drive. Base models come with a 2.0 litre four cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission, but all other models offer a 3.0 litre V6 engine and 4-speed automatic transmission. Prices range from $22,500 to $32,600. The Tribute is expected to compete with the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester.
Mazda’s first SUV is roomy, easy to drive
In the 60’s and 70’s, the compact sport-utility segment was the domain of a few small but rugged off-road vehicles: the Jeep CJ5, Toyota Landcruiser, Land Rover, and Suzuki Samarai – vehicles that were heavy on the ‘utility’, and light on the ‘sport’.
In the 80’s came a greater emphasis on comfort and safety – the updated Jeep YJ, the comfortable 5-passenger Jeep Cherokee, and the thoroughly-modern Suzuki Sidekick – vehicles that set the stage for today’s car-like compact SUV’s.
The 90’s saw the introduction of car-based SUV’s with full-time four-wheel-drive systems, including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and Kia Sportage. Typically, these vehicles offered the driveability of a car with the ride-height and ocassional off-road ability of a 4WD utility vehicle. A couple of truck-based SUV’s, the Suzuki Vitara/Grand Vitara and Nissan Xterra, also made their debuts, but even these SUV’s made significant gains in comfort, ride, and driveability.
For the 21st Century, compact sport-utes such as the new Mazda Tribute and the redesigned Toyota RAV4, will place an even greater emphasis on comfort, roominess, driveability, and versatility – further blurring the traditional lines between car and truck.
Mazda’s first SUV
The all-new Tribute is Mazda’s first sport-utility vehicle. It was designed and engineered by Mazda in Japan, but Ford Motor Company (who owns a controlling share of Mazda) participated in the research and development phase, and will build the Tribute in the U.S.A. along with a Ford version called the Escape.
Though classified as a compact SUV, the Tribute is larger than most of its compact competitors – for example, it is 145 mm (5.5 in.) longer than a Jeep Cherokee and has a wheelbase that is 45 mm (2.0 in.) longer. Mazda claims the Tribute’s roomy interior has more front and rear legroom than a Lexus RX300.
Two engines, three trim levels.
Tributes are available with both four and six cylinder engines, and a choice of front-wheel-drive or full-time four-wheel-drive. Three trim levels are offered: DX, LX and ES.
Base DX models have a 130 horsepower 2.0 litre DOHC four cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission, but are not offered with an automatic transmission. DX-V6, LX and ES models have a standard 200 horsepower 3.0 litre DOHC V6 engine and a 4-speed automatic transmission, but are not offered with a manual transmission. The base engine is a Ford Zetec unit while the uplevel V6 engine is a modified Ford Duratec engine. All models, except the ES, are available with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive.
Befitting its car-like nature, the Tribute has unit body construction, a fully independent suspension, a wide track for stability, and large, standard 16 inch tires. Base models have standard front disc rear drum brakes while uplevel models are offered with four wheel ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution, a system which balances braking forces.
Unique AWD system
The Tribute’s unique all-wheel-drive system uses a Mazda-designed ‘Rotary blade coupling’, a multi-plate clutch which transfers up to 50% of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels start to slip. This is a completely automatic system that needs no input from the driver. However, the 4WD system can be locked in a permanent 50/50 torque split by pushing a button on the dash. This unique feature has important implications for serious off-road driving, as I will explain in a minute.
First impressions are good
In a special preview test-drive of the new Tribute, I was able to spend a day driving a Tribute equipped with the V6 engine and all-wheel-drive. This will be the most popular engine/drivetrain configuration, according to Mazda Canada Director of Marketing, Peter Whalley. He predicts that 86% of Tributes sold in Canada will have the V6 engine, and 75% will have all-wheel-drive.
The first thing I noticed about the Tribute is that it looks bigger and taller than some of its major competitors. It has a generous ground clearance of 200 mm (8.4 inches), yet the step-in height to the interior is not too high and the front and rear door openings are quite wide.
Inside, the driver sits up fairly high with good visibility all around. In particular, the large rear window which slopes down towards the centre, provides excellent visibility to the rear. The spare tire is stowed under the cargo floor, so it doesn’t obstruct rear visibility nor intrude on interior cargo space.
Another thing I liked about the Tribute’s driving position is that the leading edge of the hood is visible, making parking much easier. I hate having to guess where the front of the hood is in tight parking situations.
I found the Tribute’s interior to be wider than average creating a feeling of roominess not found in SUV’s like the RAV4. The Tribute offers plenty of legroom front and rear, and headroom is adequate though not generous.
Like other Mazda’s, the Tribute has a well-finished interior with an attractive dashboard which has easy-to-use controls. The AM/FM/CD stereo is mounted high in the centre dash and has big buttons for ease of use. Below that, the heater has easy-to-use rotary dials which are large enough to be operated with gloves.
Between the comfortable front bucket seats is a folding centre armrest with a roomy storage bin, and there are door pockets and seatback pockets. My only complaint was that the door armrests are made of a hard plastic that feels uncomfortable on long drives.
Base DX and DX V6 models have a one-piece folding rear seatback, but LX and ES models have 60/40 split folding rear seats which flip and fold, creating a very roomy cargo area. In addition, the rear seat cushions are removeable which creates even more space. The rear seatbacks also recline for more comfort on longer drives. The carpeted cargo floor is flat and has four tie-down hooks. There’s even a special place to put the rear head restraints when the rear seats are folded down.
A rear privacy cover is standard on LX and ES models. The rear hatch is easy to lift, and includes a separate flip glass panel for loading light items. With the flip-glass open, a 4′ X 8′ sheet of plywood will fit into the cargo area.
Standard safety features include dual front airbags, side airbags (in the front seats), three-point seatbelts, and front head restraints. Rear head restraints are available on LX and ES models only.
Pleasant road manners
Typically, small SUV’s corner, accelerate and brake better than mid-sized and full-sized SUV’s which often feel heavy and unwieldy. The new Tribute is even more car-like than other compact SUV’s. Its wide stance, fully independent suspension, strong unit body construction, and standard 16 inch tires provide a high level of stability and steering control when cornering. There is minimal lean in tight corners, and minimal dive and pitch when braking and accelerating. The suspension is a tad stiff over small bumps and freeway cracks – Mazda tuned the suspension to be slightly firmer and sportier than the Ford Escape.
On the highway, the ride is generally smooth and comfortable, and the V6 engine is very quiet, doing less than 2000 rpm at a steady 100 km/h on a flat surface. With 200 horsepower and 200 ft-lb of torque available, the Tribute accelerates quickly from both a standing start and during passing and freeway merging situations. The V6 Tribute is one of the few compact SUV’s available with a six cylinder engine, and offers class-leading horsepower. I hardly noticed the 4-speed automatic transmission, a testament to how smooth it was.
Off the highway, the all-wheel-drive Tribute has some pluses and minuses. On the plus side, tire grip is excellent on loose surfaces, wheel articulation over large rocks and sudden dips is pretty good for a car-based sport-ute, and the engine has plenty of power for the steepest hills. The all-wheel-drive system works well up to a point, but on steep, slippery surfaces, the automatic transfer of torque from the front to the rear wheels is hesitant, causing a momentary jerk. This is not an uncommon situation in an AWD vehicle which runs in 100% front-wheel-drive until front wheel traction is lost and power is transferred to the rear wheels.
Fortunately, the Tribute has a 4WD Lock which locks the system in a permanent 50/50 torque split front to rear. In my off-road test-drive, this eliminated the power transfer jerkiness, and provided seamless traction at all four wheels.
Tribute’s do not have a Low Gear which can be used for engine braking when travelling down a steep hill, or when travelling slowly up a very steep hill. Mazda Canada expects Tribute buyers will be heading to the mall more often than they’ll be heading into the mountains.
Prices and features
Base DX models, which start at $22,500, include the following standard features: 2.0 litre four cylinder engine, 5 speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive, power steering, air conditioning, tachometer, P215/70R-16 inch tires, grey bumpers, rear flip-up window with 2-speed rear wiper and washer, AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers, front and side airbags, engine immobilizer, tilt steering wheel, intermittent wipers, mini centre console, front and rear cupholders, three power points, one-piece folding rear seatback, map lights and cargo area light. All-wheel-drive is available for another $1,400.
DX V6 models, priced at $25,400, have basically the same equipment but add the 200 horsepower V6 engine and 4-speed automatic transmission. DX V6 AWD models are $26,800.
LX V6 models, which start at $27,900, add painted bumpers, tinted privacy glass, roof rack, power windows, power door locks and power mirrors, cruise control, keyless entry, a larger centre console/armrest, chrome inside door handles, better quality seat fabric, overhead console, height-adjustable driver’s seat, 60/40 folding rear seats, reclining rear seat backs and height-adjustable rear head restraints. With AWD, LX V6 models are priced at $29,300.
Top-of-the-line ES models for $32,600, add standard all-wheel-drive, anti-lock brakes and Electronic Brake Force Distribution, leather upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 6-way power driver’s seat, 6-disc CD changer and 7 speakers, and power glass moonroof with sunshade.
The only significant option on the ES is a trailer towing package which allows the Tribute to tow up to 1588 kg (3500 lb.).
The Tribute is expected to be available in late June or early July.