"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.

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.

What's New, Changed, Different
For 2002, the interior of the Tribute received new front seats with separate adjustable head restraints, a reconfigured center-dash storage box/switch unit, and a modular audio system. Also, its palate was expanded with four new colors. This year, the Tribute is receiving its most significant interior upgrades since its introduction. Model-year 2003 modifications include new, softer, and more supple leather seats (ES), a two-tone dashboard in either gray or beige, a brushed-aluminum finish to the center-dash panel (DX, LX), a carbon-fiber finish to the center-dash panel (ES), and dual-illuminated sun visors (LX, ES). To complement the Tribute's standard interior changes, Mazda has added a Cold Package option, complete with heated seats and mirrors (ES). On the exterior, the rear key cylinder has been removed and a remote key fob now accesses the rear liftgate. Four new colors also make their debut.

From the Logbook
"The Tribute's 'just-right' size offers carlike size and handling for day-to-day driving, but it's just big and rugged enough to haul supplies and do light off-roading."— John Kiewicz

"I've been driving more than my share of SUVs lately, and the Tribute is certainly the most nimble and fun. It's sport-sedan-like up the canyon roads."— Brian Vance

"It's not hard to spot cost-cutting in the cabin. While the exterior looks rich, with chrome accents, glossy cladding, deep metallic paint, and nice headlamp clusters, the cabin is drowning in a sea of cheap plastics. Even the leather feels like vinyl."— Matt Stone

"First impression? It's much better than I anticipated: sporty feel, taut steering and suspension, and superb wet-weather handling."— Thomas Voehringer

"If manufacturers are going to go to the trouble of offering a moonroof, then make the size count--like in the Tribute. Look at that huge opening!"— John Matthius

"At first, the Tribute struck me as un-Japanese, more Euro-flavored, but now there are so many SUVs out with lines as clean and stylish. It's too bad the good-looking Mazda gets overlooked after just a year." — Chris Walton

2001 Mazda Tribute ES
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layoutFront engine, awd
Engine type60* V-6, alum blk/heads,DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, LEV
Displacement, ci/cc181.1 / 2967
Max horsepower @ rpm200 @ 6000
Max torque @ rpm200 @ 4750
Transmission4-speed automatic
Suspension, front; rearMacPherson strut, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs
Brakes, front; rear10.9-in vented disc; 9.0-in drum, ABS, EBD
Wheels16x7.0, cast alum alloy
Tires235/70R16 104T M+S
Firestone Wilderness HT
Traction controlNo
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase, in103.1
Length, in173.0
Width, in71.9
Height, in69.9
Curb weight, lb3455
Seating capacity5
Cargo capacity, cu ft33.1 / 63.9 (up/folded)
Fuel capacity, gal16.4
TEST DATA
0-60 mph, sec8.7
1/4 mile, sec @ mph16.4 @ 83.8
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft126
Skidpad, g0.73
600-ft slalom, mph61.5
Total mileage13,471
Avg test mpg16.6
Problem areasRattling headliner, rear suspension squeak, stalled engine--once
Non-warr cost$311.25 (7,500-mi + 15,000-mi service)
CONSUMER INFO
Base price$23,025
Price as tested$25,505
Current value, wlsl/rtail$16,570/$22,250
(IntelliChoice valuation)
AirbagsDual front, front side
EPA mpg, city/hwy18/24
Range, city/hwy, miles298/398
Basic warranty3 yrs/50,000 miles
Powertrain warranty3 yrs/50,000 miles
Roadside assistance3 yrs/50,000 miles
Recalls6: rear hubs (4x2 models only); speed control unit; fuel line; wiper module; owners' manuals; steering column.
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