The latest wrinkle in the SUV fabric is the hybrid model that strives to blend the best of cars and trucks in one do-everything design. Ford and Mazda have teamed up to enter this competition. The result is fraternal twins-the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute. To see if intertwined car and truck genes can provide the intestinal fortitude required for serious towing, we borrowed an early-production 2001 Tribute for a week and hitched up an 18'6"-foot Javelin bass boat carried by an EZLoader single-axle trailer. The total package weighed 2,740 pounds, well within the Tribute's 3,500-pound capacity when equipped with the optional Class II towing package ($350).
What the Tribute brings to the party is an optional V-6 engine. Borrowed from the Ford Taurus, the 200-hp 3.0-liter DOHC engine growls with enthusiasm as it pulls you ahead of traffic. Without a boat and trailer, the Tribute accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds. Automatic transmission calibrations allow the engine to rev past its 6000-rpm power peak, benefiting performance and fortifying the Tribute's energetic personality.
An on-demand, single-range, all-wheel-drive system comes standard with the Tribute's V-6 engine. (The base powertrain is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive.) During normal driving, the front wheels provide all the propulsion. When it's time to haul a heavy load out of the water and up a slippery launch ramp, the rear wheels join in. A viscous coupling in the driveline automatically engages the rear axle if the front wheels begin to spin. To handle truly nasty ramp conditions, there's a Lock button on the dash that engages the rear axle electronically. In this mode the Tribute hauled our boat out with ease. A key difference between the Mazda Tribute and its brother, the Ford Escape, is suspension settings. The Escape's ride is softer and more appealing to mass-market tastes. The Tribute has firmer shock absorbers and tauter steering, providing a more athletic temperament. The Escape is more comfortable over rough pavement, whereas the Tribute shines on well-maintained roads and seamless highways. The Tribute's stiff legs can be annoying over tar strips and potholes, but the payback is a smooth, jiggle-free ride when the cargo hold is loaded and your mirrors are full of boat and trailer.