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Tribute launches Mazda into 4WD fray

Boldly going: Where no Mazda has been before. The Tribute takes on Honda's CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 and others in the booming 4WD market.

Mazda says the Tribute is more stylish and sophisticated than its non-identical twin, the Ford Escape

19 Feb 2001

Mazda Australia has finally entered the booming recreational four-wheel drive market with the launch of the Tribute five-door wagon.

Positioned as the more stylish and sophisticated version of the latest Ford-Mazda shared product program, the Tribute is set to go head-to-head with the high-selling Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 - as well as the Ford Escape after the Blue Oval-branded SUV hits the streets this week.

The Tribute is available in a range of engine and trim levels, starting from $29,990 for the manual-only 2.0-litre four-cylinder Limited.

A 3.0-litre V6 engine mated exclusively to a four-speed automatic transmission powers the remaining models, which Mazda expects to account for 85 per cent of its predicted 7200 sales per annum.

Three tiers are being offered in V6 guise, the $33,990 Limited, $39,390 Classic and $41,800 Luxury.

All Tribute models come standard with air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, power steering, dual airbags, CD stereo, remote central locking, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, 16-inch wheels, tilt-adjustable steering, variable intermittent wipers and multi-reflector halogen headlamps.

The V6 Limited adds anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and an enclosed storage bin in the centre console, while the Classic features alloy wheels, roof-rails, sunroof, front foglights, velour trim, front seat lumbar and height adjustment, cruise control and a six-stack CD stereo.

The Luxury model has exclusive rights to leather upholstery and, in a first for this market segment, front side airbags.

However, no Tribute model provides either a head restraint or a lap-sash seatbelt for the centre-rear occupant. The first upgrade of the vehicle is expected to remedy the situation.

The 2.0-litre 16-valve four-cylinder develops 97kW at 5400rpm and 183Nm at 4500rpm, while the 3.0-litre 24-valve V6 produces 150kW at 6000rpm and 266Nm at 4700rpm.

Kerb weights for the monocoque-constructed Tribute vary from 1466kg for the four-cylinder Limited to a hefty 1582kg for the Luxury V6.

The vehicle uses an on-demand four-wheel drive system, running as a front-driver until slip is detected, prompting a rotary blade coupling system to transfer up to 50 percent of the available engine torque to the rear wheels. A 4WD lock switch is also provided in the cabin for the driver to engage four-wheel drive and run with the torque split 50:50 front/rear.

Ground clearance ranges from 201mm to the 214mm depending on the model and tyre specification, while short front and rear overhangs help create good approach and departure angles for this class.

That said, serious off-roading could be cut short by the fact that the Tribute has no low-range gearing or a full-size spare wheel, among other things.

The Tribute and Escape are built on a common platform, sharing the roof panel, windshield and front glass on the outside and centre console, pillar trim and door trim and speakers on the inside.

All mechanicals including engine, transmission and strut/multi-link suspension are identical, however the tuning for each of these aspects differs.

The Tribute is claimed to have better handling as a result of a firmer suspension set-up, thicker front stabiliser bar and a unique steering gear.

TRIBUTE PRICING Limited 2.0 litre, 5 speed manual $29,990 3.0 litre, 4 speed auto $33,990 Classic 3.0 litre, 4 speed auto $39,390 Luxury 3.0 litre, 4 speed auto $41,800 DRIVE IMPRESSIONS Mazda might have gone to great lengths to distance itself from what it describes as the 'truck-ish' Ford Escape.

But sorry, fellas, there's no escaping the truck-ish Ford feeling as soon as the driver or front passenger climbs in.

The switchgear is reminiscent of the Ford Explorer, as is the huge expanse of uninspiring grey plastic across the dash, on the doors and centre console.

It seems hard to believe Mazda would have been satisfied with fitting a column shift automatic - which on the model we drove had the internals of the steering column exposed for all to see - and then slapping on a big, chunky centre console. No walk-though facility here, folks. This is for America.

Speaking of which, the handbrake didn't make it next to the driver in the right-hand drive conversion - a real problem if bottles are in the cup holders - while similarly the electric aerial didn't make it across to the left-hand side of the vehicle.

There are lots of positives with the Tribute, though, including strong performance from the V6 engine, excellent ride - particularly over rough dirt roads - simple four-wheel drive engagement and excellent traction once locked in 4WD, good accommodation front and rear and good versatility with the double-folding rear bench and split tailgate.

Downsides: The automatic gearbox has a decidedly tall set of gears that prompts plenty of gear hunting at higher speeds and makes crawling down even modest inclines without using the brakes impossible - if damage is to be avoided.

The column shift also makes shifting on the fly more difficult than it need be. Moreover, if second gear is engaged manually, the transmission will not move into first under any circumstances. Going up a 'mineshaft' like we did, it will simply stop partway up.

As far as handling is concerned, the new 'zoom zoom' advertisement showing the Tribute weaving in and out of a gaggle of MX-5s at high speed before spearing off into the long grass was a little too unrealistic for our liking. Bodyroll is kept to a minimum, but this front-driver is certainly no MX-5 on the blacktop.

Of course, that hasn't deterred people in their droves flocking to small four-wheel drives and it should not detract from the overall impression we gained of the Tribute.

This most American of Japanese soft-roaders is certainly worth a look.

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