"The SUV with the soul of a sports car" is how Mazda introduced the all-new Tribute to distinguish it from Ford's fraternal twin, the Escape. While both competed in our 2001 Sport/Utility of the Year event, we were pleased to find more than a handful of positive, unique traits in the Mazda that weren't found in the Ford. We took delivery a Galaxy Blue metallic over gray ES V-6 model with all-wheel drive to see how well it lived up to our favorable first impression, as well as Mazda's claim.
Base-model 2WD/four-cylinder Tribute DXs were priced from the mid-teens; however, even our top-of-the-line AWD V-6 came in fairly priced at $23,025--roughly the cost of some smaller mini-utes available only with overworked inline-four engines. Standard equipment on an ES V-6 already included leather seating, AM/FM/CD, foglamps, roof rack, anti-theft system, along with most power accessories. We added a short list of options: luxury package 1LX including power, glass moonroof, and premium audio ($1090), four-wheel ABS/EBD with side airbags (a steal at $495), class-II tow package (hitch receiver, oil cooler, and wiring harness for $350), locks for our spiffy 16-inch alloy wheels ($30), and destination charge of $515. That made our total of $25,505 seem a better-than-fair price for a well-equipped midsize V-6 sport/utility, especially when some commuter sedans are priced in this range.
But a mere week into our year-long evaluation, "Headliner rattling" appeared as the first entry in the logbook. Uh-oh, poor tidings. Not long thereafter, staffers started complaining about the interior's general lack of tactile qualities, while praising its overall layout and appearance--with few exceptions. For instance, the location of the ignition cylinder was difficult to find at the first stab of the key, especially at night. Selecting Drive with the column-mounted shifter proved almost as frustrating as it was annoying: The audio controls/display were obscured by the too-long lever once in Drive. Finally, the low-buck-leather seating and inexpensive-feeling switchgear had few fans, to say the least. Small gripes, to be sure, but the '01 Tribute was obviously experiencing growing pains in its debut year.
Fortunately, Mazda has since addressed nearly all these complaints with both its '02 and '03 models (see "What's New, Changed, Different").
The Tribute's true assets came to light with any driver's first foray on canyon roads. The competence of the sport-tuned suspension and sheer pleasure it delivers were apparent after wielding any other SUV or truck in a similar fashion. Almost without Mazda's intended provocation, staffers began using "sport-sedan handling," "sporty feel," and "tight, responsive, nimble--a joy to drive" to describe their on-road experiences. Certainly attributable to a rigid unibody construction with Mazda-tuned MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension, a sport-sedan-fast run through the 600-foot-slalom course at 61.5 mph proved it. The steering weight and quickness were unexpectedly sporty, too. When the weather turned foul and the roads less-than-ideal, a few of us had the opportunity to note how well the all-wheel drive worked to underscore the Tribute's already-confident demeanor.