Mazda has joined the fast growing band of manufacturers to offer a competitor in the light/medium segment of the four-wheel drive market. Mazda's Tribute enters the field with car-like comfort, ease of operation, off-road ability and the flexibility to handle both commuter and leisure operation.
Although co-developed with the Ford Escape, the two vehicles are claimed to be quite different, with the Tribute being the more stylish and sophisticated of the two.
With a high driving position, good vision, solid feel and roomy interior, Mazda has managed to maintain some of the desirable aspects of the more serious off-road vehicles and produce it in a package that is affordable and easy to manage for the average small family.
Mazda believes its main competition will come from Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V. However, there are many other Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) vehicles of comparable size such as the Frontera, Santa Fe, Korando, Freelander, Forester and Challenger that would be similarly classed and should not be overlooked.
There are three levels in the Tribute range consisting of the base model 'Limited' with either a four cylinder or a V6 engine, the mid-range V6 'Classic' and the top-of-the line V6 'Luxury'. Prices start at $29,990 for the four cylinder manual 'Limited' and rise to $33,990 for the V6 automatic 'Limited', $39,390 for the V6 automatic 'Classic'.
Features and equipment
The Tribute is well equipped with power mirrors, tinted glass, velour seat fabric, variable intermittent wipers, power antenna, air conditioning, power windows, remote central locking, engine immobiliser, CD player, height adjustable front seatbelts with pre-tensioners, dual front airbags, power steering and full-time four-wheel drive as standard on all models. The mid-range 'Classic' has alloy wheels, body side cladding, roof rails, front fog lamps, power sun roof, driver's seat lumbar adjustment, cruise control, CD stacker, and the top-of-the-range 'Luxury' model adds leather trim and side airbags for front seat passengers.
The four cylinder engine that powers the base model 'Limited' is a 2.0-litre DOHC, 16 valve unit that delivers 98kW of power and 186Nm of torque. This engine was developed to maximise power and fuel efficiency, with an emphasis on performance at low and mid-range road speeds.
The Tribute's 3.0-litre, V6, DOHC, 24 valve engine, as fitted to the test vehicle, is available in all models. It boasts class-leading engine performance and features high-tech induction manifolding, optimising low speed torque, high fuel efficiency, cleaner emissions and optimal performance with low noise, vibration and harshness across its entire operating range.
The engines were developed from existing Ford Zetec and Duratec power units and were re-engineered to provide the attributes that best suited a SUV.
The five-speed-manual transmission is only available in the basic 'Limited' model with the two litre four cylinder engine. While it is conventional in operation, the ratios have been selected to optimise smooth take-offs as well as top-end performance for overtaking and highway cruising.
The four-speed-automatic transmission is the standard unit used with all models fitted with the V6 engine and features a column-mounted shift lever that has obvious advantages of access and space saving, although some would consider it is not as convenient or easy to use as a console mounted lever. This transmission also features a 'slope control' that enables more efficient operation on uphill grades by using inputs from the accelerator, vehicle speed and load, to control and minimise unnecessary shifting and excess throttle operation.
Both engines drive all four wheels through their respective transmissions and Mazda's Rotary Blade Coupling (RBC), which is situated at the input of the rear axle housing. This unit incorporates separate input and output shafts that are interconnected by a set of blades or discs and an electromagnetic clutch, fitted inside a casing filled with silicone fluid. When a difference in speed between the front and rear wheels occurs, the slippage in the RBC causes the silicone fluid to heat up, locking up the discs and providing optimal torque transfer. Alternatively, the driver can choose to lock-up the RBC unit using the dash-mounted 4WD switch to apply the clutch pack by means of solenoid activated cams.
The Tribute's front suspension uses McPherson struts with an 'L' shaped lower arm and a stabiliser bar linked to the strut housing. The rear suspension is an all-new multi-link design with the coil spring and the damper mounted on the trailing arm in front and behind the rear axle, respectively. The power assisted rack and pinion steering is speed-sensitive, and mounted on the front cross-member to gain rigidity and reduce vibration and noise levels.
While ventilated brake discs are used on the front of all models, the rear wheels are restricted to conventional drum systems. However, all V6 cars are fitted with anti-lock brake units (ABS) and Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) that automatically adjusts the ratio of braking between the front and rear wheels.
In addition to the above ABS and EBD, the Tribute is fitted with dual front airbags on all models with side airbags provided for the front seat occupants in the top-of-the-line 'Luxury' model. Other safety features include pre-tensioners and load limiters in the front seatbelts, energy absorbing 'B' and 'C' pillars and a shock absorbing steering column.
A keyless remote door locking system featuring a rolling code that is automatically changed each time the system is operated, combines with an inbuilt engine immobiliser to provide a reasonable level of security.
Body and finish
At first glance, the Tribute gives an impression of agility and muscle with its high bumpers, large wheels and tyres, wide track and compact body. Its overall styling is pleasing with smooth clean lines that border on the conservative. Panel and paint quality is of usual Mazda high standard.
Galvanised and high tensile steel is used extensively throughout the body structure and panels, with special attention to anti-corrosion materials in suspect areas. As with all modern vehicles a high percentage of plastic materials is used in non-structural areas, internally and externally, to reduce corrosion, noise, weight and cost.
Comfort and space
Considerable effort has been made with the Tribute to combine the comforts of a sedan car with the ruggedness of a four-wheel drive. Comfort in the front seats is quite acceptable with sufficient space for the majority of drivers. Although the rear seat is fairly bench-like, it provides reasonable head, leg and shoulder comfort for three average adults, with a 60:40 split that allows flexible seating and storage options.
Luggage space is fairly generous in the rear section with a roll-out security blind to keep stored items out of sight. The two upper level models are fitted with roof rails that extend the available storage space. Ample cabin storage is provided in the large console storage bin and a lockable glove box, plus door, dash, seat, and rear compartment pockets.
Behind the wheel
The steering column tilt and driver's seat height are adjustable, enabling a comfortable position behind the steering wheel. Instruments and controls are clearly marked, within easy reach and function well with the exception of the column gear selector as previously mentioned. The cruise control switches, conveniently mounted on the steering wheel, enable speed settings of two km/h increments per click of the set and coast buttons.
Being higher than a normal sedan, vision from the driver's seat is better than average and the rear vision is clear of major obstruction, thanks to the underfloor spare wheel compartment.
On the road
The 3.0 litre V6 engine as fitted to the test vehicle has more than enough power to cope with any on-road situation and while the throttle is very responsive, it is difficult to drive smoothly in slow urban traffic conditions.
The automatic transmission is quiet and responsive with a smooth and positive shift pattern, although the downshift on uphill gradients can be over enthusiastic at times. The column selector lever is smooth and positive and works as well as that type of system can. However, it is not as pleasant or convenient to use as the more common console mounted selector.
The conventional disc/drum brake system works well both in wet and dry conditions, ably assisted by the ABS as fitted to the test vehicle. Braking distances in our performance testing were very good for a vehicle of this size and weight, and there was no fade or excessive heat evident, assisted in part by the large open style alloy wheels.
Although it is not possible to attain sports car handling with a vehicle such as the Tribute, its responsive steering, firm suspension, all-wheel-drive and limited body roll enabled it to competently handle both on and off-road conditions. Its large diameter wheels and supple suspension helped to smooth out the potholes and corrugations that are normally an annoyance in vehicles with smaller wheels.
Off the road
Although described as a four-wheel drive vehicle, the Tribute was never intended to cope with serious off-road situations. However, with ground clearance, wheel size and power in excess of most vehicles of this type and size, its ability in the rough is quite acceptable. Its ability for more serious off-road encounters is limited by the transmission, ground clearance, wheel travel and enthusiastic throttle response.
The RBC unit worked well when a more positive drive to all four wheels was required, although there was some noise evident when turning either left or right in this mode. I found the Tribute's off-road ability to be quite adequate for the average weekend adventurer who is neither equipped nor experienced to cope with anything other.
The Tribute's 3.0L V6 is mounted low in the engine compartment with obvious advantages for low centre of gravity. However, it does little to assist the technicians with access for regular servicing. Items such as engine and transmission oil, battery and washer water, engine coolant and brake fluid are readily accessible, but for more involved items it is not service friendly. Servicing is scheduled at 10,000 km or six monthly intervals and the manufacturer's warranty extends for three years or 100,000 km.
Although a first-time entry to the light/medium SUV market, Mazda's Tribute has already earned a position up there with the segment leaders. With a style that's easy on the eyes, class leading performance, space and comfort plus handling to match, the Tribute appears poised for success. With more space in the rear than most vehicles of this size, it offers reasonable comfort for four adults or a family with older children. Mazda has successfully achieved a compromise between sedan comfort and four wheel drive versatility and for prospective purchasers requiring those features, the Tribute is certainly worthy of consideration.