Mazda Tribute

words - Joe Kenwright
Price cuts, extra equipment and better V6 economy revive ageing Tribute

Australian Launch
Canberra, June 2006


What we liked
>> Honest family workhorse
>> All-road performance
>> Good clearance, short overhangs

Not so much
>> Showing its age
>> Short luggage area
>> Interior still basic

The Mazda Tribute's key selling points on its February 2001 release included extra prestige and reduced depreciation over its equally competent Ford Escape twin and the choice of a four-cylinder engine. In 2006, both of these unique selling points have been pared back as the Tribute and Escape merge into one vehicle in approach, if not detail. Both vehicles are also now sourced from Taiwan after the original Japanese facilities were cleared to build Mazda's advanced new CX-7 soft-roader that will soon come in above the Tribute range (see more here).

To counter the absence of an extensive revamp, entry pricing for the well-equipped Tribute 2.3 starts at $31,990 for a $2500 boost in value over the $34,090 model it replaces. A new V6 grade starting at $36,900 offers $1700 more equipment over the $36,290 Limited Sport V6, now withdrawn. The $40,710 Luxury Pack V6 replaces the previous $43,400 Tribute Luxury model and delivers more than $3000 in extra value.

Unlike the latest Escape (to read review click here), the Tribute features front side airbags as standard at all levels.

While Tribute styling tweaks are extensive front and rear, the overall look is little different to the previous model and the average onlooker would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

The Escape’s more extensive styling changes suggest that it is now more important to Ford’s local outlook than the Tribute is to Mazda.  The reasons for this will become obvious later this year when the new CX-7 arrives. Mazda acknowledged that resources allocated to the CX-7 placed limits on the Tribute facelift.  

Despite Mazda’s claim at the 2001 launch that the Tribute’s tighter suspension and steering tuning was more “zoom, zoom” than Ford’s comfort settings, most owners were hard-pressed to tell the difference. The same applies to the latest upgrade. As early Escape sales struggled and Tribute sales took off, it was obvious that the Escape’s plainer appearance and Ford Australia’s dreadful local reputation in 2001 were as much responsible for the Tribute’s early success as any specification differences.

Not surprisingly, Mazda predicts a conservative 250 Tribute sales a month with the V6 accounting for 60 per cent, Luxury Pack about 30 per cent and the four-cylinder accounting for a tiny 10 per cent -- a far cry from 2001’s boom Tribute sales.

So what has changed?

This market segment has become one of the most fiercely contested. The Tribute’s main rivals have advanced at a pace unmatched at a time that the Tribute itself has changed little. If you were waiting for this critical 2006 Tribute upgrade to make a difference, the short story is not enough has changed.

The Tribute (and its Ford Escape twin) is the last remaining shared Ford-Mazda model to rely on little more than a badge and minor styling changes to separate the two. No one has discredited this superficial badge-engineering process more than Ford and Mazda themselves. The boxy, upright Tribute no longer fits comfortably in a new generation Mazda range built on sleek, rakish models that don’t have the slightest resemblance to equivalent Ford models.

Ford Australia has also completed such a radical turnaround in reputation and product that it now sits close to where Mazda was in 2001. Mazda meanwhile has become the edgy and exciting fashion alternative -- everything the Tribute cannot be when it was designed to be neither a Ford nor Mazda. To many eyes, the latest Ford Escape upgrade is more in keeping with the Australian idea of a rugged family all-rounder while the latest Toyota RAV4 has taken the edgy high ground that Mazda would normally occupy in this segment.

This is the big 2006 Tribute story. The entry $31,990 Tribute 2.3 offers four-speed auto, alloy wheels, roof rails, front and rear mudflaps, electric mirrors, electric windows, bodyside cladding, full instruments, ambient temperature display, front fog lamps, map lights, climate control, power aerial and MP3 compatible single CD sound system but no cruise control.

It defines a neat line over the $29,990 Escape XLS 2.3 which cannot boast alloy wheels, front mud flaps, climate control function, electric aerial, fog lights, cargo blind, external temperature display or map lights.

Against the Escape XLT 2.3 at $33,490, this single Tribute 2.3 model misses out on cruise control, overhead sunglass holders, leather wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel audio controls and a six disc dash-stacker CD player. Assign an individual option price to each of these and the $1500 premium for the Escape XLT 2.3 starts to look cheap when some aftermarket cruise controls can account for $1000 in their own right.

Ford and Mazda have combined to generate a three-tiered 2.3 range that can’t be compared in price and specifications.

The V6 models are harder to differentiate. The Tribute V6 entry grade starts at $36,900 compared to the Escape XLT Sport V6 at $37,190. The Escape’s leather wrapped steering wheel and sunglass storage are the main distinguishing features. The entry Tribute V6 is very similar to the Tribute 2.3 except it features cruise control and audio and cruise control buttons on the steering wheel. 

The $40,710 Tribute Luxury Pack V6 is up against the range-topping Escape Limited V6  at $41,990. Both have leather trim and electric sunroof while the Escape Limited’s sound system is upgraded from four to six speakers.

There is a further distinguishing feature that makes a direct comparison impossible. Mazda fits front side airbags to all Tribute models as standard. You can’t order them in a Ford Escape even as an option unless you buy an Escape Limited V6 where they are standard. Suddenly the extra value that appears in the extra Escape features becomes expensive if you are a safety-conscious buyer.

The Tribute gets a bolder grille, new headlights, different bumpers, new wheels and side repeater lights in the exterior mirrors at all levels. These repeater lights are only offered in the Escape at Limited level.

Four-cylinder Tribute models have basic body cladding in Storm Grey while the V6 models have more elaborate cladding in painted Mineral Grey or Medium Platinum depending on the main colour. Ford paints the Escape plastic at all levels and matches it to body colour at Limited level.

As with the Escape, the big news is the upgrading of the Tribute’s cheap feeling interior.

It still falls short of the class leaders and is more disappointing when combined with a Mazda badge than Ford. Depending on level, there are piano black or alloy look highlights, raised audio unit, simple controls for the automatic climate control, larger graphics, orange back lighting and silver instrument surrounds. Ford has opted for blue backlighting on the Escape which some might find easier to read.

The column shift lever has been moved to the floor, the floor console has been redesigned, the door trims revised and seat patterns upgraded with a black keynote and grey highlight scheme for both the leather and the cloth trim.

The handbrake is also now on the driver’s side of the transmission tunnel.

Like the Escape, the Tribute’s front discs are boosted to 303mm from 278mm while the new rear discs are 302mm solids compared to the previous rear drums. ABS is standard and Emergency Brake Assist is now standard on both four-cylinder and V6 models.

A lap-sash centre seat belt and extra headrest has been added for the centre rear passenger. Driver and front passenger airbags plus front side airbags are standard. Like the Escape, the lack of curtain airbags even as an option is exposing the age of the design.

Because the Ford Escape does not offer the Tribute’s side airbags on any level except the over $40,000 Escape Limited, local buyers must be concerned that Mazda and Ford are playing with such a fundamental safety feature to generate a key point of distinction between models that for all intents and purposes are one and the same.

As for the Escape, the 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine gains a single kilowatt for a 109kW total while torque drops 2Nm back to 199Nm but it peaks 500 rpm earlier at 4000rpm.

The addition of variable valve timing for the inlet valves has totally changed its previously weak-kneed feel at low engine speeds. The auto has been recalibrated, a more efficient alternator added and a drive by wire electronic throttle replaces the previous system.

Fuel consumption increases slightly to 10.5lt/100km (previously 10.2), a product of Euro III compliance. It is a small price to pay for an engine now more than adequate for cost-conscious buyers who don’t need the reserves of a V6.

Quoted figures for the 3.0-litre V6 remain the same at 152kW/6000rpm and 276Nm/4750rpm but a major rework of the transmission has transformed this package with new shift points, a more efficient torque-converter and lock-up mechanism. Together, these have dropped fuel consumption from 12.2 to 10.9lt/100km.

As for the Escape, V6 refinement has been lifted by a switch from a dual to single-piece electric fan, an aluminium engine head cover and a water pump shift from the intake to the exhaust side. 

The previous all-wheel drive system continues. It features a clever electro-magnetic coupling that allows the driver to lock it into delivering traction equally to both axles at the push of a button.

Mazda also lists new damper settings that seem to bring it closer to the Escape as they improve ride comfort quite noticeably. The Tribute has a unique layout for the anti-roll bar links for a sharper on-centre steering feel to maintain the key difference in the way the Tribute drives.

Mazda also specifies a skinnier, less baggy tyre on a narrower rim for the 2.3 models as Ford does for the Escape.

At 4400mm, the Tribute is 70mm shorter than the Escape while a 1785mm body width for the Tribute 2.3 compared to the 1825mm listed for the V6 Tribute and all Escape models is probably a product of the different plastic add-ons. Mazda’s approach angles are slightly better as the Escape’s new nose generates extra length and overhang.

Where a buyer might rate the Escape against the cheaper Koreans and entry level Japanese models, it is fair to expect the Mazda buyer will benchmark the Tribute against the latest Japanese models.

The latest Toyota RAV4 (read CarPoint's launch review here) takes this category up a notch in size and presence. Even if it is generally more expensive and doesn’t offer a V6, it is a more polished effort which is reflected in its strong sales. Yet the Tribute is usefully more compact for certain applications and still holds its own in certain offroad situations.

The Honda CR-V offers a better compromise between luggage and passenger space when it hangs its spare outside but it doesn’t offer a V6 and is not as composed over a wide variety of surfaces as the Tribute.

The Nissan X-Trail is a worthy contender but the Tribute’s V6 and AWD system gives it a big advantage in some conditions.

The Mitsubishi Outlander 2.4 was an also-ran until power was boosted from 100kW to 120kW in the current series and is now a very strong rival if you don’t need a V6. Under Mitsubishi’s regular incentives, it can be good buying.

The Subaru Forester, a vehicle that sits much lower and is generally more car like in finish, refinement and high speed handling has benefited enormously from constant updates and a major model change since the Tribute was first launched. Its 2.5-litre four offers a compromise between the Tribute four and V6.  It also offers a manual with dual range.

The upper Ford Escape levels are now closer to the Tribute than ever before with styling that is far more polished than the previous model. It is a case of weighing up whether the absence of those side airbags is a critical issue if you are spending less than $40,000. 

The shortage of Tribute 2.3 models on the launch drive prevented a direct comparison with the Escape 2.3 however it is fair to assume there wouldn’t be enough in it to swing a sale either way.

The difference in plastic cladding on Tribute 2.3 and V6 models highlights the lower wheel and tyre spec more so than with the Escape once on the road. It makes the Tribute 2.3 level appear more of a poor relation than the basic Escape 2.3 models.

The more aggressive front and almost overwhelming plastic cladding seems to leave the latest Tribute at odds with the more sophisticated looks of other Mazda models. When the Escape has just been given a more mainstream Australian “face” personal preference may prove to be a bigger factor in sales than previously.

Apart from these superficial external differences, the cabins are so similar (including the cheap feeling interior door handles), that it doesn’t matter. The Tribute cabin, despite the latest tweaks, is simply not good enough for a 2006 model wearing a Mazda badge.

However, all is forgiven once the Tribute is thrown in at the deep end. Mazda let testers loose on closed rally trails around Canberra where the Tribute’s sharp handling, balance and traction were as impressive as ever. The latest suspension tweaks have ironed out any harshness and the Tribute’s ability to deal with the worst holes and camber changes can make a nasty drive pleasurable.

It is hard to quantify any real difference over the Escape when the test roads were very different but I found myself enjoying the Tribute drive more than expected. In two-wheel drive, it was getting a little taily in fast gravel sweepers but a simple touch of a button locked in drive to both axles. This benchmark system will allow you to drive in this mode as long as there is some slip in the surface.

The Tribute V6 was unbelievably quick when all four wheels were supplying traction and very sure-footed. It would be difficult to think of another vehicle of this type at this price that has so much useable performance on poor road surfaces.

The Mazda Tribute won its early stripes and helped launch Mazda’s “zoom, zoom” campaign with its competent all-round roadholding, ride and accurate steering. Even if there are a few wrinkles now showing inside, it is still one of the best of its kind as soon as you go beyond the school run.




Published : Saturday, 8 July 2006
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

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