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 side
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.
The look of success
Mazda’s surveys revealed that thirty percent of buyers care greatly about style, thirty more percent are keep-on-truckin’ types so they go for the machinery, and the remainder waffle somewhere in the middle. All said that bigger was definitely not better.
In response, Mazda’s compact-sized SUV has soft and sharp lines with creases running down the sculpted hood and curved wheel lip moldings and cladding. The Tribute’s quiet, unfussy appearance neither proclaims itself a truck-y mud machine nor a wimpy wagon. It looks like a very capable SUV that can ride firmly and comfortably on or off-road. Since the Tribute has been designed as a global vehicle, cultural differences had to be considered. Americans like straight, centerline handling, probably because our roads and highways are built that way. In other countries narrow, curving roads are more the norm. The Tribute has been designed and engineered to adapt to both.
2001 Mazda Tribute cargo
Cargo space is capacious, 74.4 cu ft with the rear seat folded, thanks to a rear suspension design that allows the spare tire to be stowed under the floor. The liftgate opening is extra-wide, and the rear window doesn’t have to be closed before you can lift the door up. With a short engine compartment, thanks to a transverse engine design, there’s greater than average room in the cabin. There’s room for five people without cramming, due to Mazda’s OptiSpace design that minimizes the amount of space required for mechanical components (they did leave the engine in, though) and maximizes the room devoted to people and parcels.
The interior holds no surprises. The dash is efficiently practical, knobs and switches as ergonomic as all get-out, and there are six grab handles for nervous riders.
The Tribute’s major optional equipment advantage and a first in the automotive industry (aside from the similar but not quite identical system on the Honda CR-V) is an on-demand four-wheel drive system Mazda calls Rotary Blade Coupling (RBC), as opposed to the viscous-coupling units on other SUVs. Distributing up to 50 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels begin to slip, the RBC on-demand 4WD system has a multi-disk clutch combination. The unit is integrated into the rear differential and is compact and lightweight to reduce noise and vibration. With a touch of the RBC button on the dash, you can lock in 4WD, energizing an electro-magnetic clutch mechanism. The result is a 50-50 torque split.
Buyers are offered a choice of two engines and with front-wheel drive or the RBC 4WD system. The DX model has a standard 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter, DOHC 16-valve in-line four-cylinder engine with a five-speed manual transmission, or you can select the optional 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 engine with the automatic transmission. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are an option on LX and ES models. Front de-powered airbags are standard and side airbags are available.
Climbing the Utahns
The spring thaw has come early to Sundance, which meant we couldn’t test on snow but we could listen to the small stream outside condominium windows swell from a gentle babbling brook into a river’s noisily raging torrent.
Instead, we drove over to Brigham Young University and commandeered the parking lot. An autocross had been set up, and we put the Tribute through its performance paces by threading between close-set orange pylons and braking to abrupt stops. It was clear that if you asked for too much horsepower as you careened around tight turns, you’d get some lean on sharp curves. Still, most people don’t normally drive this way unless they’re looking for a huge speeding fine and road rage reaction. Driven within legal limits once we left the autocross, the Tribute handling proved stable, precise and responsive even with a few sudden lane changes thrown in just to keep my passenger alert.
On the dirt hillclimb overlooking Lake Utah the Tribute tackled every deep ditch, the steep grade, the couple of unexpectedly sharp U-turns and the trip back down, brake foot glued to the floor, with total confidence. Although you can’t sit back and take your hands off the wheel and brakes going downhill as you can with