When we named Lexus' RX 300 as our Sport/Utility of the Year for 1999, we praised it as an acknowledgement that many, indeed most, SUV buyers don't do heavy-duty off-roading-if any off-roading. The RX capitalized on this fact, offering sport/utility attributes and all-wheel drive, along with a more carlike driving experience. Now, Mazda has accomplished much the same thing with its new Tribute.
Don't classify the Tribute as a mini-ute. It's nearly 6 inches longer than a Jeep Cherokee and has as much cargo room as the aforementioned RX. And even though its platform will be shared with the Ford Escape, Mazda was responsible for most of its design and engineering aspects. A 130-horsepower four is standard, but we'd recommend heading straight for the 200-horsepower, DOHC V-6. It's a smoothie, offering better-than-expected low-end torque, and is well mated with its four-speed automatic transmission, the only trans offered in the V-6.
Though the Tribute's all-wheel-drive setup doesn't offer a low-range transfer case, it's a relatively sophisticated unit. Mazda's Rotary Blade Coupling system operates in front-wheel-drive mode under normal driving conditions; when it senses slip, it can instantly transfer up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. There's also a dash-mounted switch allowing the driver to lock the system in full-time all-wheel drive. We tested it on moderately hilly, gravel-strewn trails, and the Tribute had no trouble sorting out where the traction was and wasn't. Should also be quite popular among those in snowy climes.
On-road is where the Tribute shines. It's easy to get in and out of, has great visibility, and offers plenty of room in all dimensions for its five occupants. Tallish tires, high ground clearance, and a truck-style frame give most SUVs their less-than-confidence-inspiring levels of understeer and body roll. Not so the Tribute. It corners flatter, turns sharper, and sticks better than most traditional 'utes. The ride quality is quiet and freeway happy; thank the fully independent suspension for that. The optional four-wheel disc brakes with both ABS and Electronic Brake Force distribution make some of the disc/drum combos on other sport/utilities look a bit under-engineered.