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Second-hand: 2000-2005 Mazda Tribute, Ford Escape

The Ford Escape and corporate twin Mazda Tribute arrived in mid-2000 as five-door wagons exclusively, built with a smorgasbord of parts borrowed from other products.

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“Like father, like son” was a foreign concept to the Ford family in the 1880s.

Henry Ford despised the family farm and left it for the bright light (there was only one at the time) of Detroit to work as a mechanical apprentice. Disappointed in his son’s choice of vocation, Ford’s father lured him back by promising him 40 acres of timberland if he gave up the trade.

Ford accepted his offer, then proceeded to build a machine shop on the land.

It was there that he honed his skills as a machinist and inventor, driven to mechanize the American farm. His Fordson tractors would become immensely popular, and Henry earned a reputation as a truck maker, too.

That the Ford F-150 pickup, Explorer SUV and Escape compact SUV came to dominate their respective segments is a lasting testament to Ford’s better idea.

CONFIGURATION

The Ford Escape and corporate twin Mazda Tribute arrived in mid-2000 as five-door wagons exclusively, built with a smorgasbord of parts borrowed from other products.

Like the Mazda 626 sedan upon which it was based, the SUV employed a unibody platform, rack-and-pinion steering and fully independent suspension.

Ford used two familiar engines: the 125-horsepower 2.0-litre Zetec four cylinder out of the Focus and the 3.0 L Duratec V6 from the Taurus, making 200 hp.

The four could only be mated to a five-speed manual transmission, while the six came only with a four-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive was standard, with on-demand all-wheel drive optional.

Like many car-based SUVs, power was directed to the rear wheels when the computer detected slip. The drivetrain could be locked into a 50/50 split, but there was no rock-climbing low range.

The Mazda Tribute had different styling cues, transmission shift points, steering gear and suspension settings to deliver a slightly sportier experience.

The twins offered a surprisingly roomy interior, with lofty headroom and a folding rear bench that was broad enough for three. The floor was minivan-flat, which enhanced legroom.

“Ford understands large people (I’m 6-foot-4 and 300 lbs.) and the Escape is comfortable,” read one owner’s blog.

For 2005, the Escape got a larger Mazda-sourced 153-hp 2.3 L four cylinder as the base engine, along with updated styling and additional safety features. The four got an optional automatic for the first time.

The engine was also stout enough to handle a hybrid conversion. Modified to run on the Atkinson cycle (late valve closing to reduce pumping losses), it inhaled less air and fuel, with output dropping to 133 hp.

The gas engine was supplemented by a 70-kilowatt electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that allowed the Escape to be driven solely on electric power at low speeds, like the Toyota Prius.

The electric motor drew its power from a 330-volt battery pack that lived under the cargo floor, charged through regenerative braking or via the gas engine. It improved fuel economy and emissions in stop-and-go city driving, as well as provided extra thrust to bolster the four-banger.

Ford made headlines by mating the hybrid powertrain to an all-wheel-drive system, creating the world’s first hybrid SUV. But its off-road capability was compromised.

“I was surprised to find out that I was unable to back up over a 6-inch rock. It turns out that the electric engine alone is engaged in reverse – severely limiting power and acceleration in reverse,” remarked one driver on the Internet.

Owners noticed they lost their air conditioning temporarily when the gas engine shut off at traffic lights. Select “Max Air” and the gas engine stayed on, negating the benefits of driving a hybrid altogether.

The Escape got a more extensive facelift for 2008, including an interior renovation to address the cheap, plasticky cabin appointments.

ON THE ROAD

In a major magazine road test of 11 compact SUVs in 2001, the Escape/Tribute twins shared the gold medal. Editors loved the V6 power, commodious cabin and genuine tall SUV stance and view.

The V6 Tribute could sprint to 96 km/h in 8.2 seconds, while the 2.0 L four-cylinder wheezed to the same threshold in 11 seconds. The Escape Hybrid was almost as sluggish as its four-cylinder gasoline equivalent, taking 10.2 seconds to reach 96 km/h.

In a 2008 rematch, the Escape finished seventh out of nine – demonstrating just how hotly contested the compact-SUV segment had become. A V6 model took 9.0 seconds to reach highway velocity.

Plenty of owners were disappointed with the twins’ fuel consumption. Even hybrid drivers weren’t getting the government ratings. About the only people who seemed happy with their mileage were the handful who drove manual-transmission models.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Beyond the disappointing gas mileage, many Escape/Tribute drivers have been pleased with their rides. Owners cited the tall-in-the-saddle views, spacious cabin and handsome styling. Most liked the reliability of the twins.

The most common problem was frequent brake service on both conventional and hybrid models. The brake rotors were the subject of a service bulletin.

There were wonky door locks, headlights that filled with condensation, a cacophony of squeaks and rattles, and generally high noise levels at speed. Some cursed the slow-filling gas tank and a few had transmission woes.

On the other hand, almost 1,000 Escape Hybrids work as taxis in one of the most hellish cities on earth – New York – and are holding up well.

Henry would have been proud. His old man, not so much.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Nissan Titan, Chevrolet Epica and Mazda RX-8. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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