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Set against the Ute Indian country backdrop of Robert Redford’s rustic ski resort (which is smaller and more eccentric than one would imagine from its glamorous reputation), the compact Tribute ES model, the top of its line, looked very much at home next to Toyota RAV4s, Honda CR-Vs, Nissan Xterras and other vehicles in this largest segment of the SUV market.
Reasonably rugged but without buffalo bars or heavy roof racks, the Tribute’s appearance seems a bit too civilized for off-roading. But after climbing and descending a twisty half-mile dirt trail on part of a 6,100-ft high Traverse Mountain range that had a steep and rutted 58-percent grade, it has my vote as a capable SUV — as long as you recognize its limits.
Mazda may have come late to the SUV market, but company executives believe the trend is here to stay. Though it may have peaked, they say, people will keep purchasing SUVs for a long time to come.
2001 Mazda Tribute sideEnlarge Photo
It has taken an incredible ten years from concept to showroom for Mazda to create the Tribute. During that time they learned many lessons from other manufacturers’ SUVs, particularly from its partner, Ford, and determined that buyers want passenger-car ride and comfort, sport sedan performance and the functionality and versatility of an SUV.
This is not quite as tall an order to accomplish these days since many competitive makes lay claim to offering similar attributes. Mazda’s version, however, has the advantage of not being a truck-based SUV. It has gone one better with a lightweight car-like monococque construction, sharp, precise steering, a 200-horsepower V-6 engine and upscale features normally found in more expensive, luxury-class SUVs. Unlike truck-based sport-utes, the Tribute, in two-wheel drive mode, drives its front wheels to achieve top traction and fuel economy. The optional four-wheel drive system (priced around $1500) comes into play by transferring power to all four wheels to grip slippery pavement or uneven surfaces. All for under $20,000.