- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

Mazda's goal in developing the 2001 Tribute was to design a sport utility vehicle with the "soul of a sports car."

From the outside, the Tribute has a compact appearance with wide-stance athleticism. Short overhangs, thick bumpers, low body-side cladding, and 16-inch wheels give this new SUV entry a rugged look. Stepping into the Tribute, a driver quickly accesses a few of the carlike characteristics Mazda designed into its first sport utility vehicle: low step-in height and expansive forward visibility.

During my test-drive of the Tribute, I likened the excellent visibility to that which Honda is noted for designing in its Accords and Preludes. Mazda exterior designers point out that they used large glass surfaces to give passengers a feeling of spaciousness and to maximize all-around visibility for the driver. Thin pillars and a low hood shape also enhance the driver's view of the road.

The view from the rear is not handicapped by a liftgate-mounted spare tire (it's stowed under the floor). The bottom ledge of the rear glass is cut low, allowing the driver to see more of what's happening behind the vehicle when in reverse, particularly when the second-row seats are folded forward. For security, Tribute's LX and ES models come equipped with privacy glass.

The smart exterior design of the Tribute pays dividends in the form of aerodynamics. The new Tribute has a low drag coefficiency of just 0.396, while its closest competitors have higher Cds of 0.413. Mazda points to the design of Tribute's front and rear bumpers, which curve at the bottom, suppressing under-body airflow.

On my first day with the Tribute tester, I immediately noticed a design flaw on the steering column. The automatic transmission stalk is mounted on the right side of the steering column. When the transmission is in the "Drive" position, the long stalk juts out at an obstructive angle, interfering even minimally with operation of the audio controls. To eliminate this obstruction, designers could have simply added a bend a "U" shape to the transmission stick, or have made the stalk shorter.

The Tribute comes in three models. The DX is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 130 horsepower. However, 90 percent of the Tributes will be built in LX and ES models. They are powered by a 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 engine. This power plant has a towing capacity of just 2,000 pounds. The roof rack will accommodate cargo of 200 pounds. An optional tow package gives a V-6 model a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds.

My tester was the up-level ES with leather seating and standard four-wheel drive. In normal driving, the Tribute operates in front-wheel drive. I easily engaged the 4WD mode to drive on ice- and snow-covered roads. A button on the console activates the system and lets the driver know the vehicle is in all-wheel drive mode by illuminating a green icon in the instrument-panel cluster.

The Tribute rides smoothly like a car because it's not built as a truck. The Tribute's unitized body construction is reinforced for enhanced torsional rigidity, making it a fine vehicle for handling stability. The Tribute doesn't give a noisy ride, either. Along with the body's aerodynamic efficiency, annoying noise, vibration and ride-harshness factors have been concealed.

The Tribute looks "sporty" and rides like a "car," but it does not possess the "soul of a sports car." The Tribute is a sport utility with the soul of a car.


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