The 3.0-liter/200-horsepower V-6 was deemed eager, responsive, and peppy, if a bit raucous in the upper rev band. Flatfoot the accelerator, let the four-speed automatic click off the shifts, and 60 mph arrives in a respectable 8.7 seconds from a stop. Surely, our undue time spent at those higher rpm--unlike the general public--contributed to this minor gripe as well as our below-EPA-quoted 18/24-mpg fuel mileage. Over our 12-month test, average fuel economy topped just better than 16 mpg.

While at the dealer for the 7500-mile service ($87.20) and a loose parking-brake cable, we asked the tech to look into an incident where the engine died while we were driving under normal conditions. "No problem found," said the report, and we discovered they'd also performed one of the several recall inspections issued for the Tribute. Our wiper module was fine, too. Right after we got back on the road, we started hearing moans and groans from the rear suspension and driver-side B-pillar when going over speed bumps and up high driveway cuts. There were a few instances of drivers having difficulty getting the transmission out of the Park position. Again, the offenses were so minor and sporadic that the extent of their existence was limited to scribblings in a logbook.

Sport/utilities typically aren't as sporty as this one, but they're often expected to be at least as utile. More than once, our staff noticed how large the Tribute was on the inside while being relatively small on the outside. Using its flat-folding rear seats, one six-plus-foot editor hauled an entire full-size dining-room table and four chairs in the ample 64-cubic-foot cargo bay.

Technically speaking, the Tribute is considered a Light Duty Truck 1, and we call it a midsize SUV. Yet staffers characterized the Tribute simply as a "right-size" SUV. Everyone agreed.

When our year with the Tribute expired, we came away with a mostly positive impression of the easily overlooked Mazda Tribute. While there might be other more popular small-to-midsize sport/utility vehicles from both sides of the Pacific at about the same price point--even the Ford Escape--we feel the Tribute's size, packaging, and look are spot on, plus its promise of "the soul of a sports car" has been fulfilled. Yup, there were some unexpected ergonomic and quality detours on the road to the improved '02/'03 models; but when we were working the Mazda Tribute through a wiry canyon road, we didn't mind them much at all.