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Car reviews - Mazda - Tribute - V6 Classic 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, ease of driving. A slightly hard-edged soft-roader
Room for improvement
Column-shift auto, touchy accelerator, steering a little too light

27 Jun 2001

JUST when you thought it was safe to make a selection from the vast range of "soft roader" 4WDs on offer, along comes another car company with yet another name to add to the list of contenders - Mazda Tribute. In fact, along too comes Ford with its version of the Tribute, the jointly developed Escape.

The new Mazda fits into the light-duty off-road category and offers more than a few temptations for the aspiring 4WD buyer. It tends, for example, towards an apparent generosity of size when compared with some highly visible competition - for example, Toyota's RAV4.

Although the wheelbase is no longer than a Honda CR-V, the Mazda sits high and wide, with a commanding on-road presence. Inside, a large interior features the odd design cue from the full-size, Patrol-style 4WDs. There's a sort of no-frills, businesslike flavour to the Tribute its utilitarian values seem to take precedence over the more frivolous, designer-look apparent elsewhere.

Not that the Mazda isn't stylish. It's good-looking for a 4WD with a decent glass area to help visibility and is clearly a Mazda with its front end adopting the now-corporate styling used across the board.

In size, it's probably closer to Hyundai's new Santa Fe than anything else. In fact it shares a similar brawny presence with the Korean car, although it doesn't subscribe to the slightly over-styled panel work.

The Mazda tips the scales somewhere between CR-V and Santa Fe, ranging from 1466kg for the entry-level Limited four-cylinder version to 1582kg for the top-of-the-line Luxury version. In between sits the Classic version at 1576kg (the Tribute lineage goes thus: four-cylinder manual, Limited V6 auto, Classic V6 auto and Luxury V6 auto).

A peculiarity is that the Tribute's wheelbase is the same as not just the CR-V and Santa Fe, but also the Mercedes-Benz M-class (the Honda, at 4520mm from bumper to bumper, is longer than Mazda or Hyundai and not that much short of the Mercedes).

The differences that count, though, are the height and width, and here the taller and broader Mazda and Hyundai are quite close (and so, for that matter, is the Mercedes), explaining why they look and feel like much larger vehicles.

This shows up in road presence, and in interior space. The Mazda feels very roomy inside, with adequate legroom for tall adults in both front and rear, plus a commodious luggage area that can be extended by rearranging the double-fold 60-40 rear seats.

A Ford feature missing on the Mazda is a double tailgate in which the rear window can be opened separately to allow smaller items to be slipped in without opening the main top-hinged door.

The large, functional interior is something that will win the hearts of many 4WD shoppers who want the size, but not the truck-like bulk of the serious off-roaders.

The Mazda has a slightly basic look to it that fits with the expectations of many buyers in this category although it doesn't run to rubber floor mats and manual window winders. Everything seems on a slightly larger scale than a regular Mazda sedan, from the way the instruments are presented to the detail trim on the doors.

The centre glovebox between the front seats rivals LandCruisers and Patrols in its capacity, easily swallowing things like full-size street directories, plus the odd bottle of red, and still leaving space for more.

The Tribute of course uses unitary construction rather than the full chassis of a workhorse 4WD and so gets a lower floor level than you might expect, although it's still a slight step up for most passengers.

The drivetrain uses familiar design strategies to direct power to all four wheels when needed. It is no serious off-roader and doesn't have a dual-range transmission to provide cliff-climbing ability.

Fundamentally it operates as a front-wheel drive in normal conditions, but will quickly engage 4WD at the slightest suggestion of wheel slip at the front. This it does via a hydraulic sensing device that actuates a multi-plate clutch connected to the rear driveshaft to bring all wheels into action.

As a concession to those who might want to explore a little further, the Mazda has what a lot of others of its ilk don't - the ability to lock the drivetrain into permanent 4WD. This is done by simply pressing a button on the dash, and should only be contemplated on slippery surfaces. Try using it on dry bitumen and drivetrain wind-up, where the whole system tries to wind itself into a knot, is a distinct possibility.

However, take the Tribute off road and the locking facility is a handy way of maintaining forward progress. In fact the Mazda proves to be something of a surprise here as it will easily traverse impressively steep and rutted tracks that would stop many other 4WDs of this genre.

The V6 - a bored-out, 3.0-litre version of the 2.5-litre twin-camshaft, multi-valve V6 used in the Mazda MPV - has the sheer grunt, and the four-speed auto transmission has the benefit of its torque converter to deliver power progressively, allowing the Tribute to go places other soft-roaders may not.

There comes a time of course, as the track steepens and the surface deteriorates, when the Nissan Patrol - or the Suzuki Grand Vitara - will continue steadily grinding forward and the Mazda will come to a stop.

But this sort of terrain is no longer the domain of the soft-roader and, truthfully, nor is it likely to be the domain of most people who buy even the heavy-duty 4WDs. The Tribute is in its element storming along a forest road, or charging the odd sand hill, or hauling that 16-foot catamaran to the beach (it can tow up to 1600kg).

It is here that the high-riding seating position, the interior space and the relaxed gait of the 3.0-litre V6 all come into play. The Tribute steers lightly and easily, slipping into parking spaces with minimal effort (although the steering hampers things here with an unwieldy turning circle of 11.2 metres) and handling the open road more like a sedan than a 4WD.

For some reason, the V6 Tribute's four-speed automatic gearbox is controlled by an unpleasant column shift that seems to offer no benefits at all. The instrument panel readout is often obscured by the steering wheel centre pad and manual shifting is mostly a hit and miss affair when it comes to selecting ratios. The transmission itself shifts smoothly enough but is a fairly basic system with no dual-mode operation and only an overdrive lockout on the end of the shift lever.

The Tribute was designed to be the more dynamic of the jointly developed Mazda/Ford duo and, on dry bitumen, this certainly seems the case with its ready response to the steering and general feelings of stability - as well as a good, absorbent ride.

But sprinkle some water onto the surface and the Tribute betrays its front-wheel drive essentials, its relatively heavy weight and its high centre of gravity by running wide in corners without much provocation. Here it begins to feel less like a sedan and more like a regular 4WD.

Thankfully, anti-lock brakes - intriguingly using discs at the front and drums at the back - are standard on all V6-engined versions of the Tribute.

But the new Mazda appears close to understanding what people seeking a semi-utilitarian vehicle are really after. It looks quite impressive on the road and gives those feelings of strength, solidity and security that attract many buyers to 4WDs.

It has the interior space without the weight or the bulk, it has a quite impressive off-road ability, and yet it is very capable and sedan-like on the road, swallowing fuel at a fairly conservative rate by any standards (In fact the automatic V6 is only marginally less economical than the manual-only, 2.0-litre four-cylinder version).

Yes, it is a soft-roader, but anyone who samples the Mazda Tribute will be pleased to find it has a slightly harder edge than most.

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