BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Mazda Tribute is one of the best of the breed of compact 4x4s, a fact not generally recognised by its sales performance. Here is a vehicle that did practically everything you could reasonably demand of a small 4x4 and did it well, but which has been overlooked by British buyers. That may be down to a lack of promotion on Mazda's part. The Tribute's low-key approach may well have some justification. With Ford now owning a good proportion of Mazda, it will come as little surprise to learn that the Mazda Tribute and Ford Maverick are largely the same vehicle. Neither of these cars has exactly enjoyed a high profile. Why? Well, it could be something to do with the fact that Ford also own Land Rover, a premium product with big margins. If customers buy Tributes or Mavericks instead of Freelanders, the corporation's bottom line takes a hit. All of which is great news for the used buyer. Here's a car for which the asking price is relatively low, enjoys the benefits of major manufacturer development, has parts that are available all over the map and isn't exactly the same as what Joe Soap from up the road has on his driveway.
Models Covered: Five-door Compact 4x4 (2.0, 3.0 petrol [GXi, GSi, V6 Auto])
Unlike many of their compatriots, Mazda don't have much of a history in 4x4s, so when Ford proposed the joint venture, the Hiroshima company jumped at the chance to get a beach head in another market sector. First introduced to the UK in August 2001, the Tribute lagged behind its Ford cousin by a clear four months. We already knew what to expect, a Maverick with a Mazda grille tacked onto the front, right? Wrong. Mazda had a little trick up their sleeve. Unlike the Maverick, Mazda offered a budget front wheel drive version that continued a trend resurrected by the Honda HR-V that can be traced all the way back to cars like Talbot's Matra Rancho of the Seventies. 'Faux-by-fours' may be a harsh term for what is ostensibly a mini-MPV on stilts, and the front wheel drive 2.0GXi model was a tribute to Mazda's pragmatism, realising that these cars were often driven exclusively on tarmac. Alongside the 123bhp front wheel drive 2.0GXi version were the all wheel drive 2.0 GXi and a plusher GSi variant, with the range topper being the thirsty 196bhp 3.0-litre V6 Automatic. No diesel version was ever offered, limiting the Tribute's opportunities markedly. Final tributes were paid to the Tribute in early 2004.
What You Get
The major market for cars like the Tribute remains the States, and the plastic slab of dashboard betrays the US-bias more than anything else, the column-mounted automatic gearbox on the 3.0-litre car being probably the least happy aspect of the vehicle, hunting between gears and with detents on the shift that make it difficult to just drop straight into Drive. It's also something of a shame that it's only possible to lock the Tribute into first, second and top (fourth) gear, as third would be the ideal gear to take advantage of the Tribute surprisingly agility. As we've alluded to, the interior, though well equipped, probably won't impress those with an eye for aesthetics. Everything works, seems well placed and well thought through, and yet feels drab, cheap and uninspiring. Interior space and luggage space is well up to the mark, the Tribute is longer than many rivals, evidence of which is instantly apparent the moment you throw the tailgate open. The rear seat is something of a shapeless bench, but the space available is excellent. The Tribute's exterior styling is a little sharper than Ford's Maverick, the beaky grille and shapely headlights making it look a good deal more modern.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Tribute is built to last; certainly a good deal more so than many of its compact 4x4 rivals. No mechanical gremlins have been reported, as both the engines are well-respected units. Inspect the underside of the car for off-roading damage to the exhaust, driveshaft and wheelarches if you suspect that the previous owner took their car off the blacktop. The other thing to make certain of is that your compact 4x4 is just that. Don't let an unscrupulous seller try to pass a 2wd version off as a 4x4.
(approx based on 2001 2.0GXi) A clutch assembly is around £245. Front brake pads are around £60, a rear exhaust about £105, and an alternator around £240. A headlamp is about £165. Should you want to shave a fair proportion off some of these prices, try at your local Ford dealer. Not strictly by the book, but you may be surprised as to how much you can save.
On the Road
The deletion of 4x4 hardware from the base Tribute should have helped the economy figures somewhat, the 2.0GXi 2wd returning an average figure of 30mpg, but strangely the 4wd version can manage 31.4mpg. It becomes apparent at this stage that the Tribute is not always what it seems. Mazda were never going to convince real 4x4 enthusiasts to buy this car. Even the four-wheel drive versions aren't full-time 4x4s and don't feature serious off-road hero essentials like a low speed transfer gearbox and a limited slip differential. Instead, there's a front wheel drive set-up for normal motoring, with an electronically operated clutch engaging the rear wheels when things get slippery. Alternatively, there's the option of selecting full four-wheel drive via a switch on the dashboard. Given this torque split you'd probably expect the Tribute to struggle when the need to transmit power switches from front/back to side to side, for example if the driver's side wheels were on tarmac and the passenger's side in deep mud? Although it tries manfully to make the best of this, the Tribute isn't in the same league as serious off-roaders. But then why should it be? As a result of the Mazda's more car-oriented chassis dynamics we don't get the lurch, wallow and bounce that makes driving a 'serious' 4x4 on the road such a miserable experience. Along with its Ford Maverick sibling, the Mazda Tribute is quite simply, the best handling car of its kind, an off roader you could conceivably enjoy driving on the road. It's no sports saloon of course, but the excellent ride and general lack of body roll you can expect should make for a painless transition from more conventional family fare. There's a choice of two petrol engines - diesel is not yet on the menu. Either a 123 bhp four cylinder 2.0 litre unit or a punchy 3.0-litre V6 with 196 bhp - more power, incidentally, than the old Range Rover 4.0 V8. This version's fast, good for rest to sixty in 10.5 seconds on the way to nearly 120 mph, but it's not too clever against the pumps (expect to average around 22 mpg) with the figure slipping to 15mpg in town.
The Mazda Tribute represents a real opportunity to bag a quality used compact 4x4 for relatively little. It's weak image and utilitarian interior means that demand is not high for these vehicles, all of which spells big savings for the shrewd used buyer who's in it for the long term. With a superb reliability record and satisfying on-road performance, you shouldn't allow the Tribute to be the compact 4x4 bargain that you let slip.