An SUV with the soul of a sportster Mazda Tribute's performance its strongest points

  • Driver

If you're to believe Mazda's current advertising line, this Tribute is an SUV with the soul of a sports car — a tall all-wheeler that can cut it up with a brace of Miatas on any commercial-fantasy road, the same time as it hauls five passengers and all their stuff in comfort and style.

This is a typically Mazda reinterpretation of the cute-ute mould: Tribute brings a new maturity to the class with its upscale, lux-sedan styling, so contrary to the outrageous bulges and/or blocky, truck-like shapes that seem to dominate small-ute design.

Certainly, Tribute's engine befits the zoom-zoom label.

Propelled by a 200-horsepower, 3.0 L V6, this truck leaps energetically off the line and possesses telepathically quick throttle response that reminds one of a Millenia or Miata.

Highway passing power is superb, and the exhaust note has a delicious snarl. For a small sport-ute, Tribute is downright sporty. It's an impression that doesn't fall apart when the road narrows and curves, either.

Tribute's attractive four-spoke steering wheel controls a precise, well-weighted rack that is surprisingly quick. You very rarely need to hand-cross in tight corners. Traction is excellent (even left to its front-drive devices — unless you push a dash button, Tribute requires wheelspin to send power to the rear), and brake pedal feel is superb.

Body motions are well controlled. There's lean in corners, but it's never disconcerting, and hard braking doesn't pitch the body forward. Most sport-utes feel like they dance on tiptoes when cornering: Tribute seems to dig tenaciously into the ground.

Fitted with Pirelli Scorpion winter tires, my Tribute was louder than I might have wanted, but it always felt surefooted, always went where I pointed it. (Previous experience with a Trib on standard all-seasons tells me the ride is still more sports car than luxo-barge — fine with me).

This trucklet's innards continue the classy theme established by the exterior. It's defined by pentagonal shapes, soft surfaces intersecting at sharp angles, and done up in attractive two-tone plastics.

With unibody construction instead of a ladder frame, Tribute is exceptionally roomy, feeling even bigger than last year's Ford Explorer. There's plenty of room in the back seat for six-footers, the trunk is cavernous and easy to access, and it's a cinch to flip-fold the rear seats flat into the floor.

Storage spaces are numerous and spacious, from big door pockets to three bins under the dash to a console big enough to put a puppy in (not that I ever would — it isn't ventilated).

There are accessory plugs and cupholders everywhere.

But despite the excellent space, feature content and utility, Tribute's interior is its biggest letdown. It's in the details where it falters, feeling less thoughtful, less well made than its Mazda stablemates.

The Ford-sourced front seats, in particular, are squishy, unsupportive and don't even have adjustable headrests like the rears (a Protege has far better chairs). The door handles look like heavy chrome but are lightweight plastic. Some of the buttons, like the locking switch for the AWD and the window controls, are flimsy.

The cruise buttons on the steering wheel are split into two big pads instead of the usual convenient stubby stalk. And the Michigan build quality (and attendant squeaks and rattles) isn't what we've come to expect.

Tributes — $21,750 to start for a 2WD four-cylinder; $26,510 for an AWD V6; $32,450 for an ES-V6 with leather, alloy wheels, six-CD player and sunroof — share their basic platform and powertrain with the similarly good Ford Escape, although there are different suspension and automatic-transmission programming.

It's been, for Mazda, a major sales success, contributing to one of the company's best years ever. So given consumer acceptance of the vehicle, and especially its reasonable price, I guess it's hard for me to fault Tribute for not being a Mazda through and through.

Though its slightly diluted brand identity may not please the hard-driving, engine-screaming Miata/Millenia enthusiast in me, it won't be much of a deterrent to your average sport-ute buyer.

They must be tired of all the cartoonish designs, ride/refinement compromises and elevated sticker prices that traditionally define this category.

A grown-up, right-sized, easy-to-use urban cowboy, Tribute hits all the right notes and well deserves its recent crowning as 2001 Canadian Truck of the Year by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

In summary, Tribute does almost everything well, providing a usefully large interior package and strong V6 powertrain inside a small, attractive, easily manoeuvrable wrapper. Even though some of the pieces pulled from the Ford parts bin — door handles, window switches and dash controls — may feel cheap, they certainly don't diminish this trucklet's everyday usefulness, especially at these prices.

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