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2011 Mazda Tribute

By Justin Pritchard - 27 Apr 2011

Mazda’s SUV can tackle light to moderate off-road duty, if you’re so inclined

Though still technically a 'cute ute', the Mazda Tribute, like the Ford Escape on which it's almost entirely based, exists as one of the 'truckier' machines in its class. Competing with the Forester's, RAV4's and Rogues of the world, the Tribute stands somewhat apart with its generous height, blocky styling and compact but potent available V6 engine.

Best of all, it's a soft-roader that can actually be slogged through some rough stuff with reasonable confidence.

Once upon a time, 4x4 models were intended for use on the road less travelled. Statistically speaking, today’s owner of a four-wheel drive ute won’t tackle anything much more serious than a snowy sideroad or a gravel parking lot-- though it’s always nice to know you could if you wanted to.

Should you be inclined to visit the dirt in your Tribute, and a number of factors work together to help impart confidence and capability in the process.

Thanks to a tall ride height, generous clearance and a relatively flat underside free of dangling hardware, Tribute can crawl over even moderately-sized obstacles without teeth-gritting scrapes from its underbelly. The fully-automatic 4x4 system works well in virtually any situation too-- diligently extracting traction from even fairly slippery surfaces and operating with little of the dimwitted wheel slippage put forth by less intelligent systems. For a system that works with no driver involvement, Tribute's 4x4 system knows what’s up-- and almost always sends engine power where it’ll do the most good.

Add in the generous snap for on-demand wheelspin, short overhangs and a light, easy and quick steering system, and drivers should have little issue making their way over, through or around obstacles with ease. In the process, the suspension feels solid, tough and robust-- not cheap, brittle and car-like. After all, confidence and enjoyment are bolstered generously during off-road driving if it doesn’t feel like your rig’s about to cough up a ball joint or blow a strut.

Note that there’s no manual mode for the transmission and no traction-enhancing ‘locking’ mode for the 4x4 system-- but on your writer’s moderately-challenging off-road expedition, these features weren’t missed. End of the day, if moderate levels of mud, rocks and dirt separate your Tribute from its destination, chances are it'll get you there without any major headaches.

Mainly good news on the road, too. Tribute isn't out to set any precedents where refinement or comfort are concerned, but handling and ride quality are both compliant and largely car-like, visibility is good as SUV’s go, and the entire package feels firm, heavy and lively driving down the road. Despite its relative prowess in the dirt, Tribute doesn't suffer any major penalties in the ride and handling department.

Under the hood, the tester got a recently-revised three-litre, 240 horsepower V6 engine paired to a six-speed automatic. The powertrain proved to be one of the tester’s most surprising and welcomed assets-- boasting smooth performance, a great sound at wide-open throttle and enough sauce to rocket the Tribute along with authority when required. Tightly-spaced gears mean the engine spends more time in its sweet-spot at full throttle, enhancing performance even further.

Ultimately, dispensing with slow-moving 18-wheelers, motor-homes and Buick LeSabres on the highway proved a non-issue, and your correspondent observed highway mileage of around 10.5L / 100km during steady cruising at real-world speeds.

It’s all taken in from a cabin that’s relatively simple with a smattering up upscale flare thanks to some piano-gloss trim and premium fabrics. Materials selection and build quality are presented with the same nicely assembled hard plastics typical of the price range. Chunky, edgy and largely squared-off, the interior execution reflects the truck-like looks presented outside. Decent cargo and at-hand storage facilities, too.

Gripes are mainly ergonomic in nature. The turn signals, high beams and wipers share the same stalk, which can result in accidental engagement of one or more functions if drivers aren’t careful. The dome-light is above and behind (rather than ahead of) the driver, and the headlight switch and instrument dimmer control can be awkward to locate and track down in the dark. Some will find the bright red instruments garish at night, too.

Ergonomics aside, the Tribute should stand out as an attractive choice in its marketplace to test-drivers after actual off-road capability and a little something extra from the powertrain. A four-cylinder engine is also available, as is a front-wheel drive model.

Pricing for a Tribute with V6 power and four-wheel drive starts at $28,745.