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2003 Mazda Tribute

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San Francisco: When you're an automotive critic, your job is to find the best and worst in new cars. Sounds easy, right? Take it from me - some vehicles are harder to criticize than others. Just look at the Mazda Tribute, a cloned version of the Ford Escape.

Assuming you want a small SUV for driving around town - not out in the boonies - there's virtually nothing the Tribute lacks. It's got a rugged-looking body, a high vantage point for the driver, and a nimble, controllable driving feel much like that in small sedans.

There's nothing cute about this mini-ute's body. It looks tough and rugged, but don't let it fool you - the Tribute was designed for driving to soccer practice, not the Rubicon Trail. Like a small or mid-size car, the Tribute's cabin is comfortable and refined. Nice materials, logical controls, and clear gauges make it feel upscale, and cargo space is generous.

As far as weaknesses go, it really only has a couple. Its underpowered if you pick the four-cylinder engine, and it's not made for off-road driving like SUVs were meant for in the first place. Yeah, I know it's picky. Besides, there are plenty of people who like the style and versatility of an SUV but don't want to sacrifice refinement or comfort. The Tribute is tailor made for those folks.

After spending a week behind the Tribute's wheel, it's obvious why the Tribute/Escape has been a hot seller since its introduction in 2001. Its interior is nice and comfortable, even downright supple on high-end models, and it's packed with practicality without the "boring" stigma of a minivan or sedan. The back seat folds flat for hauling cargo, and there's a good amount of storage space even with the seat up. No complaints here.

What really makes the Tribute stand out from its tougher, made for off-road competitors is its car-like ride. It has a fully independent suspension and unibody frame, not solid axles and a ladder-style frame historically found in SUVs. That means it rides like a small car - albeit a tall, tough-looking one - that's easy to maneuver and comfortable on pothole-filled highways.

Power, at least with the 200-horsepower, six-cylinder engine, is more than adequate for climbing hills and accelerating onto freeways. A 130-horsepower, four-cylinder model is available only on the base Tribute with a manual transmission, and the starting price is nice: just over $18,000.

The LX is priced at $21,680 and the ES is $23,270 and both versions come with the much better V6 engine and an automatic tranny. It's one of the best powertrains in its class with truck-like grunt and car-like smoothness. All models can have either front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Best of all, every Tribute is very maneuverable, has great steering, and has good visibility in city traffic. Compared to the competition, like the Jeep Liberty, Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4, the Mazda Tribute offers more refinement and sophistication and at a better price too.

Deciding between the Escape and Tribute could be tough because they're virtually identical. Where the best deal lies depends on the dealership, rebates, warranties, and options chosen. Do your shopping and you could get a bargain no matter which badge you chose.

Why buy it? While it looks tough and rugged, it's designed first and foremost with on-road comfort in mind. A nice cabin, smooth ride and nimble handling set it apart from its relatively unrefined competitors. By Derek Price AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

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Byline:  Syndicated content provided by Tony Leopardo AutoWire.Net
Column Name:  For driving on pavement tribute still among the best
Topic:  2003 Mazda Tribute ES V6 4WD
Word Count:   655
Photo Caption:  2003 Mazda Tribute ES V6 4WD
Photo Credits:  Mazda Internet Media
Series #:   2003 - 39

Download the Microsoft Word version here:   2003 Mazda Tribute

Download the original image file here:  2003 Mazda Tribute 58k

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Publisher - Editor:   Tony Leopardo
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