SUVs are the new minivans - functional family vehicles for fully functional families.
It's easy to understand their popularity after just one drive: You sit tall in the saddle, the ride is smooth, stable, and quiet, there's plenty of room for cargo, and they look great in your driveway. The Mazda Tribute may be one of the better configurations because of its compact size. True, you can't carry six and luggage on a trip, but for two or three, it's perfect.
The big plus for compact SUVs is that they are easy to enter and exit. The seats are right at hip height so there is no falling in and deep knee bends to get out. The interior was not splashy or high-tech - just modern and competent. And the seats are quite comfortable. Mazda says its new leather provides a more-supple seating surface. They felt good right away.
There is plenty of room front and back. My lanky 18-year old climbed into the back, stretched out, and then confirmed the comfortable seats and ride by dozing off.
The quiet ride and confident handling comes partially from a stiff unibody construction. Mazda says it put "triple-H" reinforcements in the roof, side sills, and floor. The extra rigidity also comes in handy when towing. Our ES model was equipped with an optional towing package that consists of a hitch receiver, wiring harness, engine-oil cooler, and a hitch cover. The company says the car can tow a 3,500-lb load.
Because it's summer, the heated seats and four-wheel drive went untested. But those are welcome options because we live in the potentially snowy Midwest.
The 200-hp, 3.0-liter V6 provided plenty of punch for busy freeway entrances and it turns in about 23 mpg on the highway. Once up to speed, the four-speed automatic shifts into overdrive. At 60 mpg, the engine is turning over at less than 2,000 rpm. Not bad. And the steering was rock solid - no wandering whatsoever.
If mileage is important, drive the base model with a 130 hp, 2.0-liter engine. It only comes with a five-speed manual transmission so it won't pop off the line like the V6 does, but will turn in 28 mpg on the highway.
For safety, the Tribute has detuned front air bags, and our ES version sported side-impact air bags as well. I thought the tires and brakes seemed particularly sticky. One quick stop in busy traffic brought the vehicle to a squeal-free halt in what seemed a rather brief distance. I was impressed.
The six-disc, in-dash CD player provides a venue for your continuing education. Most books on tape are switching over to CDs, so by loading the player with a nonfiction work, driving can become an intellectual experience. You could get out of the Tribute smarter than when you got in.
A Mazda spokesman tells me the significant differences between the Tribute and Escape are in the handling. The Tribute has a sportier suspension to reflect their sports-car reputation. I concur. The Mazda seems a bit more taut with a little less lean in turns than a previously driven Escape. This also gives the feeling of extreme maneuverability. For example, while taking advantage of a yellowing green light, I made a tight turn at an intersection. The Tribute responded with little body lean, no tire squeal, and the feeling of complete control.
So if you have to park a foreign nameplate in your drive, buy one that puts Americans to work. The Tribute, and its sister ship the Ford Escape, are made in Kansas City, Mo., and the 3.0-liter V6 is made in Cleveland. About the only thing that put me off was the $26,720 price tag.