The Mazda Tribute was launched twenty years ago. If you don’t remember it, you’re in the majority who overlooked the car when it was on sale, then quickly forgot about it. Time to remember.
The Tribute was significant in that it was Mazda’s first tentative step into both SUVs and four-wheel drive*. It was co-developed with Ford, which held a 33.4% stake in Mazda at that time. The Ford version was called Escape in the US and Maverick in Europe. It was a mid-sized five-door transverse-engined front or four-wheel-drive SUV. The model was based on the Ford CD2 platform, which was itself a development of the Mazda GF platform that underpinned the 626/Capella saloon.
The Tribute was designed to compete with vehicles like the Toyota Rav-4, Land-Rover Freelander and Opel/Vauxhall Frontera in Europe. Engine options were limited to a Zetec 2.0 litre in-line four or a Duratec 3.0 litre V6, both Ford units, as their names imply. Despite its traditional upright 4×4 looks, its monocoque construction and suspension set-up made it more of a road-biased vehicle. The Tribute had stiffer suspension settings than its Ford siblings, but body-roll was still a noticeable characteristic of its handling, although it steered accurately.
The Tribute was distinguished from the Escape/Maverick most noticably by a different front end, featuring the contemporary Mazda ‘shield’ front grille, and a different rear quarter panel treatment. Interestingly, the cars shared no external body panels, despite their ostensibly similar appearance. Inside, it was roomy and practical, but hardwearing rather than luxurious in any way.
The Tribute and Escape/Maverick were given mild updates in 2004 for the 2005 model year, the most significant of which was the replacement of the smaller engine with a 2.3 litre Mazda-sourced unit. The bumpers and side-cladding on the Tribute were now smoother and body-coloured rather than grey. In 2007, a major update with new bodywork was launched, but still based on the CD2 platform and mechanical package. The Tribute remained on sale until 2011 when it was replaced by the CX-5, an all-new model owing nothing to Ford.
Further information on the Tribute would ordinarily be fiendishly hard to find, but we are lucky to have a DTW reader who bought one new in 2002 and ran it for sixteen years and 145,000 miles. That reader also happens to be my sister. What follows is Sarah’s account of her ultimate long-term test on the Tribute:
I had recently been promoted and had the option of a company car or a €15K pre-tax annual allowance in lieu. There were no SUV-type cars on the list, but their elevated seating position really appealed to me. Moreover, I like to keep my cars for a long time, so knew that the allowance, even after tax, would eventually pay for it outright.
Being fully occupied in my new job, I asked Pat, my husband, to research what was available. I knew I didn’t want the vision-blocking and inconvenient bulk of a spare wheel on the tailgate, which limited my choice of SUV significantly. Pat identified the Tribute as fitting the bill, test drove it and liked it. I would happily have trusted his judgement and recommendation but, sensibly, he insisted that I at least sat in one before committing to it. I did so and ordered one in metallic silver. It was not cheap at around €35k, but those were Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years and new cars were expensive luxuries.
I immediately loved the elevated driving position and knew I would never go back to a regular car. I also loved the way it drove and, over sixteen years of ownership, I felt I always knew exactly how it would respond in any circumstance. I had utter faith in it and have never been attached to a car like that before or since.
The boot was a decent size and a nice, regular shape. The split/fold rear seats could be used easily to extend the load space. The rear window could be opened separately to the tailgate, a feature I really miss on my Tiguan as I try to stop the dog leaping out or groceries tipping onto the ground as soon as the tailgate starts to lift. With the Tribute, I could safely organise the dog or the groceries by just opening the tailgate window. Genius!
It was typical of its time, with no touchscreens, just knobs, dials and buttons. It still had more than enough luxuries for me, including an electric sunroof, CD player, electric windows and mirrors, and central locking. Most importantly, it had 4WD, with a differential lock button on the dashboard, which I hardly ever touched as it was supposed only to be used off-road or in slippery mud or snow.
The winters of 2010/11 and 2011/12 were unusual for Ireland as we had heavy snowfalls. My car was the only one in our neighbourhood which coped. Pat reversed his Saab out of the driveway, got stuck, and there it stayed. Even in such conditions, the Tribute felt really safe and secure. It took rocky, unmade roads, sandy beaches and floods in its stride, never getting stuck despite everything I flung at it.
It was, mechanically, extremely reliable too. I was meticulous in having it serviced every year by my experienced and trustworthy mechanic, who also changed the timing belt at 60k and 120k miles. It was only in its last five years with me that mechanical items finally began to fail. It needed a replacement battery, clutch, alternator, power steering pump and spark plug leads (the latter on two occasions).
The only major problem was underbody corrosion, which caused its first NCT** failure at an unlucky thirteen years old. Unfortunately, the inspector chose my car to train a new recruit and they went over it with a fine-tooth comb. Actually, it was a screwdriver, with which they poked holes through various rusty patches in the sills and underbody. Mechanically, they found nothing wrong with the car, so it was still worth spending around €1,500 to get plates welded in to patch the rust spots and new brackets fitted to secure the exhaust.
Over sixteen years, the Tribute became very much part of our family and completed its many and varied tasks with distinction. Pat’s nice company cars came and went, but the children grew up with the Tribute as a constant in their lives. I taught my son to drive in it. He also loved the car and passed his driving test first time in it.
Finally though, a number of potentially expensive wear-and-tear failures started to arise: the electric aerial refused to operate, a rear door handle mechanism broke, another bracket on the exhaust failed, and I knew it wouldn’t pass the next NCT inspection without some serious spending on it. Even at 145k miles, I felt the engine would have gone on forever, but the body was beginning to fall apart.
I very reluctantly sold it on for €500 to a local lady with multiple dogs who needed the huge boot. I still occasionally see ‘Bessie’ driving around today. The greatest compliment I can pay the Tribute is to say that, if a new one (in 2002 specification…but with 2020 standard rustproofing!) went on sale today, I would be first in line to buy one.
* Twenty years ago, these were virtually synonymous, but no longer.
** The Irish equivalent of the UK MOT test.