The 2005 model line was recast to complement the rest of the Mazda lineup, and little has changed with the 2006 model. The Tribute i model is available with a four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic, while the Tribute s features a powerful V6 and four-speed automatic. Both models are available with a four-wheel-drive system that uses electronics in place of a previous hydraulic system to better split power between front and rear tires according to driving conditions.
The Tribute received a more polished look for 2005 and it continues without alteration, as its redesigned front fascia and other styling revisions already added zest to what was one of the better looking contenders in the class. The suspension had also been revised for improved handling. Available side-impact airbags and curtain airbags enhance safety.
The Mazda Tribute delivers an excellent value for drivers who want the versatility of a sport utility, but with the superior refinement and on-road handling of a car-based utility can offer. Mazda and Ford worked jointly on developing the Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape and they share much in common, but the Mazda offers sportier handling.
Mazda Tribute i 2WD ($20,115); i 4WD ($21,815); s 2WD ($23,200); s 4WD ($24,700)
In terms of external dimensions, the Tribute sits near the middle of its class. Measuring 174 inches in overall length, the Tribute isn't as long as the Honda CR-V or the new 2006 Toyota RAV4 (at 181 inches). However, the Tribute's wheelbase is only an inch shorter than the RAV4's wheelbase (the distance the front and rear wheels). Also, the Tribute has a relatively wide track (the distance between the left and right wheels), about the same as the RAV4's. The CR-V is 6 inches narrower than the Tribute. A longer wheelbase and wider track tends to offer better stability.
The middle ground on exterior size means the Tribute fares about the same inside. It trails virtually all the competition in headroom and hiproom and lands about in the middle in legroom. It feels roomier than it is, however, an indication of good packaging and design. The lower dash flows smoothly around the front-seat knee wells. Interior door panels are economically crafted to yield maximum elbowroom.
The 60/40 split-fold rear seat allows multiple combinations of people and stuff. Folding the rear seat reveals a flat cargo floor and nearly 67 cubic feet of cargo space. The Tribute will accommodate 4x8-foot sheets of plywood, if you don't mind flipping open the rear hatch glass and letting the plywood stick out the back. The glass does not have to be closed when opening the rear hatch.
Up front, the switchgear is straightforward. Radio controls are easy to use, and the heating and air conditioning controls are simple. Cruise controls are mounted on the steering wheel. The instrument panel is straightforward and easy to read. The center panel is matte finish and trimmed in brushed aluminum.
Visibility in all directions is very good. The shape of the Tribute's hood combines with its seating position to allow the driver to clearly see both front corners of the vehicle, an advantage over the Honda CR-V and many crossover utility vehicles. Narrow A-pillars (front) and D-pillars (rear) minimize blind spots. The low bottom edge of the rear window maximizes visibility, and there's no spare tire hanging off the liftgate to block the view.
Steering response is direct and accurate without a big dead spot in the center. There's enough feeling in the steering to give the driver a good sense of control. The tires provide respectable grip in paved corners and transient response in lane-change maneuvers is surprisingly good. In other words, it's relatively tight when turning back and forth on a winding road or in an accident-avoidance maneuver. The suspensions on front-wheel-drive (2WD) and four-wheel-drive (4WD) versions are identical, so there's no ride-quality penalty with 4WD.
Noise, vibration and harshness levels are low when underway, so it feels relatively refined though not luxurious.
The Tribute's ride quality is smoother and more sophisticated than that of most other compact sport utilities. It offers firm damping and a good control of body motions. The 2005 Tribute received increased spring rates and a larger front stabilizer bar to general approval, lending it a sportier character when the roads get twisty.
The V6 in the Tribute s is neither the smoothest nor the roughest V6 on the market, but it's smoother and more satisfying than the four-cylinder engines found on most small sport-utilities. It's more powerful than the V6 engines in the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, but it's about 10 horsepower shy of the heavier Jeep Liberty's new V6 and trails the RAV4's very powerful V6 by 69 horsepower.
The V6 engine and four-speed automatic work well together. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down, appropriately for the situation. A broad power band means the engine never lugs or strains. Mazda tuned the transmission for slightly more aggressive shifting and mapped it for quicker acceleration than in the Ford Escape. Properly equipped, the Tribute can tow trailers up to 3500 pounds, which covers personal watercraft, ATVs, snowmobiles, and small boats.
The four-wheel-drive system improves driver control on wet pavement, ice and snow. The Tribute is capable of negotiating two-tracks, but it isn't designed for true off-road travel. Neither its four-wheel-drive system nor its suspension are up to tackling rugged terrain. There's no traction control system nor is there a set of low-range gears. If rugged terrain is on your itinerary, you might be better served by the Jeep Liberty. Tribute handles well on smooth dirt roads, however, and the four-wheel-drive versions should get to most of the places most of us want to go. The 2WD Tributes may have trouble slogging through silt or mud without getting stuck.
Tribute's four-wheel-drive system works full time, automatically transferring power between the front and rear wheels as needed. The Active Torque Control Coupling, introduced on the 2005 models, features a computer-controlled electromagnetic clutch. The newly developed system can react faster and more smoothly to changing road conditions and driver input than the old hydraulic system.
Tribute i models come with front disc and rear drum brakes, while the s is upgraded with four-wheel disc brakes. The brakes do a good job of slowing the Tribute down in a hurry and are smooth and responsive around town. ABS, which allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time, is standard, along with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which balances brake force front to rear for more stable braking, and Brake Assist, which assists the driver in maintaining maximum brake force in an emergency stopping situation.
The Mazda Tribute is a joy to drive. If you want a little zoom in your compact utility, this is a good place to be. Toyota trumped the V6 Tribute's power with its new 269-horsepower RAV4, but the Mazda V6 still offers more power than the Honda CR-V and other small SUVs with four-cylinder engines, and it costs less than a similarly equipped Liberty.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.