- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

MODEL: Mazda Tribute
VEHICLE TYPE: Four-door SUV
PRICE-AS-TESTED: $23,025
MILEAGE: 18 city, 24 highway

I concede it. There are some mornings when I hate living in a cold climate.
Yes, the breast of the new-fallen snow is beautiful under the glow of a crescent moon. And, yes, nothing is as bracing as the slap of arctic air as you exit the warmth of your toasty abode. But the reality that you have to go to work in these conditions can take the charm right out of the environment.
First, there is the process of deicing your car. Without a doubt, the best depiction of futility in the face of wintry reality was the scene in the Coen brothers classic "Fargo." After his latest financial scheme hits the brick wall posed by his tyrannical father-in-law, Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard unravels into maniacal helplessness trying to scrape the rime ice off his windshield. I know the feeling, Jerry.
On subzero mornings, what makes the glaze seem so diabolical is that it is impeding progress toward the second undesirable scenario: sharing slick roads with thousands of other cars crawling toward offices and factories.
I have yet to find a car that can greet you on such a morning with a clear windshield and a warm interior. But some are better than others. The new sport utility vehicle from Mazda offers one of the more hospitable forms of transportation when nature starts kicking your shins.
Grandly designated as the Tribute, the Mazda is actually a slightly altered version of the new Ford Escape. One of the advantages Mazda gains with Ford's controlling stake is access to a truck line that leads all others in sales. For Mazda, an SUV of this size makes perfect sense. Few Mazda intenders would be interested in one of the behemoths offered by the other makers.
On my wintry morning drive, the Tribute warmed up nicely and quickly with defroster vents well placed for effective action. And because this vehicle is all-wheel drive (or four-wheel drive in some versions), the crawl to the office was executed with maximum safety.
Because we spend so much time stuck in traffic, the comfort of our cars becomes paramount. And the Tribute is one of the most comfortable vehicles around, with firm, supportive seats, plenty of visibility, a decent amount of head and shoulder room and easily accessible accessories.
When the roads clear and the ice melts, the Tribute gets a chance to show the potency of its personality behind a 3-liter V-6 engine that cranks a best-in-class 200 horsepower. In just 9 seconds, the Tribute can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, a feat that few SUVs can match. Fuel economy is a typical 18 city and 24 highway miles per gallon not great but not embarrassing, either.
One of the most appealing traits of the Tribute is its ride and handling, which evinces no tendency toward body roll, wallow or top-heavy teetering. In pitching this product to the people, Mazda calls the Tribute a sport utility with the soul of a sports car. That may be going a little far, but they're heading in the right direction.
Pricing is appealing, with a range of $17,005 to $23,025 and three trim levels DX, LX and ES. Only the base DX can be equipped with a four-cylinder engine. All others are powered by the 24-valve, double-overhead-camshaft V-6. The midlevel ES is distinguished by four-speed automatic transmission and 16-inch alloy wheels at a price of $21,335 for the front-drive version and $22,535 for four-wheel drive. At the top of the line, the ES comes with leather upholstery, power moon roof, roof rack and power windows for $22,340. Add four-wheel drive and the price rises $1,200.
Despite the gentility of its passenger environment, there is utility in this SUV with a generous cargo bay that ranks among the largest in its class, with easy access through a lift-gate window or tailgate. To expand the cargo capacity, you can flatten the back seats after removing the headrests.
With its packaging, capacity, pricing and performance, the Tribute easily surpasses the so-called car/SUV hybrids with which it competes, namely the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. While the Nissan Xterra is likely to prove the most troublesome competitor, the Tribute enjoys a 30-horsepower edge over the Nissan's V-6. That's a Tribute to the Ford-Mazda alliance.


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