- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

With sport utility vehicles sprouting like dandelions in springtime, some succulent little shoots are getting overwhelmed.

Something like that has happened to Mazda’s small SUV, the Tribute, which is nearly identical to Ford’s Escape. Despite the fact that the Tribute comes with a better warranty — four years or 50,000 miles — Ford dealers delivered more than three Escapes for every Tribute sold in 2002. Of course, Ford has more stores.

The Tribute, like its Escape sibling, is a (relatively) small car-based SUV that competes against the likes of Honda’s CR-V and Element, the Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and the Mitsubishi Outlander.

Though it looks like a truck-based SUV, it doesn’t have the same demeanor as the Jeep Liberty, the Suzuki Vitara and Grand Vitara, the Land Rover Freelander and the Nissan Xterra — all of which are capable off-roaders.

The SUV revolution is growing so fast that the Tribute, introduced in 2001, has been caught in a jungle of competitors. But that has not changed its essential goodness. It is suited to consumers with modest budgets who want a rugged-looking vehicle with V-6 power that can do modest towing and off-roading.

For true budget-crunchers, a base Tribute, with a 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission, has a suggested sticker price of under $20,000. But not many customers are likely to so choose that model.

The test vehicle was a top-of-the-line Tribute ES with full-time all-wheel drive, antilock brakes, V-6 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. At $25,330, the standard equipment also included leather-trimmed upholstery, power driver’s seat, remote locking with a security system, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, a rear window that opens independently of the hatch, fog lights and alloy wheels.

With that, and a few options that included a motorized sunroof, a towing package with an engine oil cooler, wiring harness and trailer hitch, and heated mirrors and front seats, the test Tribute had a suggested delivered price of $27,040.

While that’s well above the average new-car price these days — and more than you’d pay for a top-line Honda CR-V, for example — it’s a lot less than most people pay for SUVs, which have skyrocketed in price as more buyers opt for machines with luxury equipment and off-road capability — even though they may never leave the pavement.

The all-wheel drive is one of those full-time setups that sends most of the power to the front wheels under normal circumstances, then transfers some to the rear wheels as needed. But it also has a lockup mode, controlled by a button on the dash, that sends power to all four wheels all the time for better traction off-road.

Although the Tribute is thought of as a small SUV, it actually rivals midsize cars and some midsize SUVs in its interior space. The front bucket seats can accommodate almost anyone short of NBA basketball-player size, and the back seat is surprisingly commodious for a vehicle with less than 100 cubic feet of passenger room.

It shames some more expensive SUVs because three people 6-feet-tall and under — as long as they’re not overly corpulent — can sit in reasonable comfort in the Tribute’s back seat, thanks to a floor that is almost flat and a seat design in which some attention was paid to the center position.

The passenger space is similar to that in a midsize automobile, and the cargo area behind the back seat totals 33 cubic feet.

Even with all that, you don’t have to crawl under the Tribute if you have a flat tire. A space beneath the cargo area floor houses the spare wheel, tools and enough room for knick-knacks and other small items.

There’s 200 horsepower emanating from the 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which has two additional cylinders and at least several score more horsepower than you’ll find in other small SUVs. It’s mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, which doesn’t offer a great deal of flexibility with a column-mounted shifter, but which nonetheless gets through the gears with fluid transitions between the shift points.

Handling and ride are within expected parameters for this class of vehicle, which is to say the Tribute is no sports sedan but won’t cause any driver trepidation either.

The test Tribute came with a high-end stereo system.

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