Over-sized sport-utility vehicles have been getting a lot of press lately, with public opinion divided on their wisdom. So when Mazda decided to re-enter the SUV market, they chose to avoid the big fray and focus their design on the small end of the sport-ute spectrum. But that meant taking on veterans like Honda’s CR-V and the Toyota RAV 4. So, will these small, but heavy hitters, soon be paying “tribute”?
Funny word, tribute. On one hand it can be defined as a payment made in acknowledgment of submission. On the other, it can be a gift expressing gratitude or respect. And both definitions could apply to Mazda’s new, mini-ute, the 2001 Tribute. Because while competitors may find themselves unwillingly playing the role of the submissive, buyers will likely look upon the Tribute as a gift.
And that gift comes wrapped in a pretty nice package. And, despite being developed alongside its Ford Escape counterpart, the wrapping is unique. The Tribute’s sloping sculpted hood sits atop Mazda’s signature grille and an aggressive front bumper housing deeply recessed fog lamps. Throw in the 16 inch wheels that support the 103.1 inch wheelbase, which are standard on all three trim lines, and a wide and stable 60 inch track, and the Tribute’s look is one of highly stylized ruggedness.
But there’s more to this gift than just pretty wrapping. The contents are pretty attractive too, as Mazda used a design philosophy called “OptiSpace” to maximize the Tribute’s interior room. Spring for the top-of-the-line ES model like our tester, and you’ll get comfortable and supportive leather-trimmed bucket seats up front with 6-way power adjustments for the driver.
The driver pilots the Tribute via a thick leather-wrapped, tilt steering wheel that fronts a basic and easily read gauge package. While at your fingertips to the right we recommend the optional 190 watt stereo equipped with both a cassette player and an in-dash 6 disc CD changer. With seven speakers, including a 90 watt sub-woofer, it’s fully capable of handling a smorgasbord of musical tastes. And the three, smooth-operating rotary climate controls are equally effective at handling your atmospheric needs.
Throughout the cabin, you’ll not only find plenty of space for your body, there’s also plenty of storage space for your stuff. The rear bench seat will carry three, although two is better, and the 60/40 split seatbacks are independently reclinable. To take advantage of the Tribute’s 74.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity, the biggest in its class, just flip the seat bottoms and fold the seatbacks flat. Leave them upright, and you still have a useable 33.4 cubic feet to work with.
With either a four or six cylinder powerplant to choose from, you’ll have plenty to work with at the other end of the Tribute as well. The four-banger is a Zetec in-line 2.0 liter, twin-cam, 16-valve unit that produces 130 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. It partners with a 5-speed manual transmission, but no automatic. The big news however, is this Duratec 3.0 liter, DOHC, 24-valve, V-6 that pumps out an impressive 200 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. Numbers like that make this engine the “Big Daddy” of the compact class, as neither the CRV or RAV4 currently offer a V-6, and Suzuki’s Grand Vitara V-6 has 45 fewer horses. Only the Jeep Cherokee in-line six comes close with less horsepower but more torque.
The Tribute’s V-6 is mated to a 4-speed automatic, only. And while shooting our test at an altitude of nearly 7,000 feet in the beautiful surroundings of Sundance, Utah, the drivetrain performed admirably. Only long, gradual uphill grades challenged the tranny as it occasionally hunted for the proper gear. The V-6 is also available in all trim lines, as is a choice of two-wheel or all-wheel drive. On that, the Tribute’s all-wheel drive function utilizes a clever Rotary Blade Coupling system that is mounted at the front of the rear differential.
The on-demand RBC unit uses viscous fluid, but only to engage a robust mechanical clutch pack that actually transmits the torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels begin to slip. And while there is no locking rear differential or low-gear offered, a dash-mounted switch engages an electromagnetic pilot clutch that locks power distribution at a permanent 50/50 split for tougher going.
The mountains around Sundance also provided an excellent test of the Tribute’s ride and handling characteristics. The Tribute’s rigid monocoque body rides on a MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension. Through the twisting turns the Tribute remained stable, exhibiting only a minimum amount of body roll. The rack and pinion steering is smooth and precise and delivers a feeling of connectedness to the road. In fact, were it possible to close your eyes and still drive safely, you might swear you were behind the wheel of a 626.
Of course, you’ll need your eyes open to keep out of trouble. And to further aid you in that regard, the disc/drum brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake-force Distribution do a fine job.
At the time of our test, Mazda was pretty mum on pricing, except to say that the Tribute would be competitive with others in its class. To us that means around $19,000 for the base DX two-wheel drive Tribute, and up to about $25,000 for an ES all-wheel drive.
With its powerful V-6 engine, class-leading interior volume, impressive all-wheel drive system, and sport sedan-like ride and handling, the 2001 Mazda Tribute is indeed a gift to small sport-ute intenders. As for the competition, we think they may be forced to pay tribute for quite some time.
Engine: 3.0 Liter Dohc 24-valve Duratec V-6.
Torque: 200 Lb Feet