The vehicle that put the Mazda nameplate into the hearts and souls of car enthusiasts everywhere is the RX-7. Introduced in 1978 to accolades from the press and a waiting public, this vehicle revived the sports car market and Mazda's meek image almost overnight. In 1993 the RX-7 was considered the epitome of sports cars with its ultra lightweight design, powerful twin-turbo rotary engine, and racecar-like handling capabilities.
When the RX-7 vanished from the North American shores in 1995, the Miata carried on as the most recognized vehicle in the Mazda lineup. The Miata is the vehicle that started the roadster craze by redefining the British sports car, Japanese style. The Miata mimics an early Lotus Elan but can be driven across the street without breaking down or spewing its oily discharge onto the pavement, unlike the many British roadsters. When the Miata first appeared in 1989 there was no other vehicle like it, convertibles were few and far between and British roadsters had all but disappeared. Mazda is trying to bring some of its sports car heritage into every one of the vehicles that they produce, including the new for 2001 Tribute.
Mazda's goal is to provide a sport-utility vehicle that fits in with the company image of providing vehicles that will move you, and not just from point A to point B, but also emotionally. What Mazda is trying to do is let the world know that they build fun, sporty vehicles that offer more than just dependable transportation. Mazda is building a SUV that puts the sport into the utility vehicle. OK, we know you are saying, "Just what the world needs, another sport-utility vehicle when every automobile manufacturer is either building an SUV or is planning to build one." Mazda is no different from other manufacturers in that it wants to retain its brand buyer that may be looking to move up from one of its smaller vehicles into an SUV as needs change.
For 2001 Mazda enters the sport-utility vehicle market with its first effort, the Tribute. Sure, Mazda previously had the Navajo, but let's face it, that was more Ford than Mazda. With this vehicle Mazda did the lead engineering, and while the Tribute uses major components from the blue oval folks, it is decidedly more Mazda than Ford.
The new design theme is called "Contrast In Harmony"; where sharp contours run across soft curves. Think of it as a softer, more attractive version of Ford's "New Edge Design." The look for the Tribute is both elegant and strong with its clean aerodynamic design that offers a drag coefficient of 0.396 with the 215/70R16 tires and 0.411 with the 235/70R16 tires, which is better than any of its main competitors that come equipped with smaller 205 tires.
The exterior styling theme shares the current Mazda trademark five-point grille. The front headlights are a large multi-reflector design with integrated clear turn signal lamps. Fog lamps are standard on the LX and ES models. The aluminum-vaporized rear combination lamps have crystal lenses, which convey a look that is both elegant and sporty. You can also see the same subtle five-point styling cue in the tailgate glass, although you'd likely have to be told about it to even recognize it. The tailgate glass opens separately from the tailgate with separate release handles hidden under the rear license plate trim panel and the glass is equipped with a standard rear wiper and washer. The fender flares enhance both the rugged looks of the vehicle and also serve as protection from door dings. The standard roof rack can hold up to 100 pounds and can be accessorized with a bike or ski rack attachment that adds to the utility of the vehicle.
The attractive design continues with the interior that features Mazda's OptiSpace design, and maximizes passenger space by minimizing the space for the mechanical components to create class-leading interior spaciousness. Total interior volume is 128.6 cubic feet if equipped with a moonroof and 133.8 without. The optional moonroof provides the usual tilt/open settings, but opens with a button that has a one-touch feature. The front driver's window comes with an auto-down feature, but we would like to see it on the front passenger window as well.
A widespread use of hard plastics is apparent in the cabin. For a vehicle in this price range this is not unexpected, but Mazda carries it off tastefully with a grain leather type appearance on some of the panels for a quality look - if not feel. If the Tribute is anything like our long-term Miata, these plastics should hold up well over the life of the vehicle. The center console has a huge armrest area that can swallow more luggage than an MR2 Spyder, but the rest of the storage areas appear too shallow to hold anything the length of, say, a cell phone, and they don't provide any rubberized material to keep items from sliding around while maneuvering. The center console area also houses the cupholders, which are a nice stepped design to accommodate different sized beverages. An overhead console comes with either the LX or ES models and varies in design depending on if the vehicle is equipped with the optional moonroof. The instrument panel is large and legible, with white numbers on a black background. The heating/ventilation and air-conditioning controls are large rotary knobs that are easy to use and understand. The leather-wrapped steering wheel on our ES felt sports car-like, but the urethane wheel on the other models felt downright plasticky and unimpressive. Two items missing from the option sheet are lighted vanity mirrors and the HomeLink system to replace carrying a garage door opener, though Mazda told us these items would eventually be available.
Visibility from the front seating positions is excellent with a commanding view of the road that makes parking maneuvers simple. Cloth seating is standard for the DX and LX models with leather seating and six-way power adjustment standard, and available only, on the ES model. LX seats have manual height adjustment as standard, allowing adjustment over a 1.3-inch range. Both front seating positions offer two assist handles to reinforce that this vehicle was designed for off-road purposes. During our test-drive of an ES the seats felt comfortable and supportive but could have used a little more side bolstering to be effective for the type of performance-minded customer Mazda is targeting. The seat cushion bottom is a little lacking in thigh support, something we've noticed lately on many new vehicles.
The rear seating is stadium style with good visibility and roominess for three passengers. The bench type rear seat in the DX model is a fixed position one-piece design whereas the LX and ES models offer a 60/40-split bench that can be independently reclined and folded. Height adjustable head restraints come standard on the outboard rear seats for the LX and ES models and are of a compact design for good rear visibility. There's also a flip-fold mechanism that creates a nearly flat load floor with the rear seat cushion flipped up and the seatback folded down. The spare tire is stowed inside the rear tailgate area under the floor to enhance the flat floor design and to keep the cargo area and tire clean. Two 26-inch bicycles can be loaded upright in the rear with their front wheels removed and the tailgate area has a 12-volt power outlet and mesh-net storage pocket as standard equipment. A retractable cover for the rear cargo area, along with a floor mat, is standard on the LX and ES models.
On our test-drive the wind noise seemed to be well controlled with trace amount of turbulence created by the side mirrors. Road noise during the pre-planned route we drove was minimal with a small drone from the passenger-rated tires. An AM/FM/CD stereo rated at 100 watts provides auditory entertainment inside the cabin. An optional 190-watt AM/FM/cassette/six-disc in-dash changer is also available with seven speakers as part of the premium audio package. Our test vehicle was equipped with this sound system and we felt produced a solid sound stage except for the sub-woofer, which seemed to be somewhat flat.
Mazda designed and tuned the suspension settings for this vehicle and they are different than what Ford is using on its sibling model, the Escape. The Tribute is designed more for sports car-like handling than for a smooth ride. A new front MacPherson-strut and rear multi-link suspensions offer a ride that is sport-sedan firm with out being stiff, with the payoff being very good control while cornering. The target vehicle for the steering feel was Mazda's own Miata and with a speed-sensing 15:1 rack and pinion, Mazda appears to have succeeded. The Tribute steers quickly and accurately with limited body roll while cornering. Speeds that would have most SUV's pushing off into the guardrail are handled with ease by the Tribute. We were able to take some 30 mph indicated corners at considerably higher speeds without pushing the vehicle or the tires. It did, however, feel odd to drive a top heavy SUV that can hang corners like a sports car.
Power for all of this fun comes from a 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission or a 2.0-liter I-4 that has 130 horses traveling through a five-speed manual transmission. If you get a 2WD version it is a front-driver while 4WD versions utilize the front wheels until 4WD is engaged. Four-wheel drive can be engaged manually via the switch located on the dash or is done automatically when their is a difference in speed between the front and rear wheels.You might never suspect that it is driven through the front wheels because from the driver's seat, it just plain feels like a rear-wheel-drive vehicle with no noticeable differences in ride or handling between the 2WD and 4WD versions. Power from the V6 was smooth and spirited with engine performance increasing as the revs got higher. The automatic transmission' s shifting was smooth and precise with downshifts coming almost intuitively when the need arose for passing other vehicles or climbing steep hills. The Mazda shift calibration settings are more aggressive than those Ford uses for their Escape. What Mazda uses to transfer power to the rear wheels is called Rotary Blade Coupling or RBC and the complete 4WD system adds only 200 pounds to the vehicle weight. Unfortunately we were not able to test the 4WD system off road as our test-drive area was on high alert for fire hazards and the local fire department understandably banned us from that portion of the route.
With the V6 engine, standard towing capacity is rated at 2,000 pounds and with the optional towing package you can tow up to 3,500 pounds. We did not get a chance to experience the four-cylinder version but would guess that performance would be severely lacking even though the little four is rated to tow an impressive 1,000 pounds. Both of the engines meet California's low-emission vehicle standard, which means they burn lean and clean. With the four-cylinder/ five-speed combo, you can expect 23/28 mpg with the V6/automatic expect about 18/24 mpg. When you get the V6 automatic package you get a column-mounted shifter that Mazda explained is designed for the world market demands for pass-through seating. Our only question is what happens with the five-speed equipped vehicles, which are sure to be a popular choice in countries where fuel prices are on the up and up? How about a five-speed automatic that would allow for better performance at lower speeds and a numerically higher overdrive on the freeway? That would fit into the sports car-like performance image and provide for increased fuel economy as well.
The LX and ES models have four-wheel ABS available, which incorporates Mazda's Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD). EBD working with the four-wheel antilock braking system optimizes the rear-wheel braking force for changes in passenger and cargo weight. While Mazda claims best in class braking for the Tribute, we do find it odd that four-wheel disc brakes are not available, even as an option, given the sporting nature of the vehicle. Other safety features include three-point seatbelts for all outboard passengers, second-generation front airbags and optional front-seat side airbags for the LX and ES models. Front seatbelts also have adjustable shoulder anchors and seatbelt pre-tensioners. Impact absorbing materials are used throughout the cabin, which enables the Tribute to meet the upcoming Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that become effective in September of 2002. Mazda is expecting to get five-star crash test ratings once the vehicle has gone through federal crash testing.
So did Mazda achieve its goal of building an affordable sporty sport-utility vehicle? Yes, especially given the starting price of $17,005. Will it make you replace your sports car? Not likely, but then again you can't take the family on vacation in your Miata now, can you? The Tribute is a nice balance between sport and utility and should be a success for Mazda.