Motor Skills

Tow Test: Mazda Tribute

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.

The use of unitized body and frame construction trims weight and cost while maximizing space. The Tribute provides ample room inside for a crew of five; a split, fold-back seat; and a spare wheel and tire under the cargo floor. The rear door is a two-stage lift-glass/liftgate design for easy loading.

LAST WORD. Can a truck built with car parts pack enough gusto to tow your boat? You bet! The Mazda Tribute's 200 hp, efficient construction, and reasonable price provide a capable alternative to truck-based SUVs.

MODEL Mazda Tribute
Engine 3.0-liter DOHC V-6
Net hp/rpm 200/6000
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 200/4750
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Front suspension struts, coil springs
Rear suspension independent trailing arm, coil springs
Wheelbase (in.) 103.1
Length (in.) 173.0
Width (in.) 71.9
Height (in.) 69.9
Brakes (front/rear) disc/drum; optional 4-wheel ABS
Tires Firestone Wilderness HT, P235/70TR-16, M+S
Curb weight (lbs.) 3,540
Towing capacity (lbs.) 3,500
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 74
Fuel capacity (gal.) 16.4
Estimated city/highway towing fuel economy (avg. mpg) 10.5
Price (as tested) $25,980