More Than Just a Tribute Act

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.

All images courtesy of the author.

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 apart from the roof, despite their ostensibly similar appearance. Inside, it was roomy and practical, but hardwearing rather than luxurious in any way.

2001 Ford Maverick, UK model – for the purposes of context. (c)

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

15 thoughts on “More Than Just a Tribute Act”

  1. The comparative photo of the Maverick above prompted me to take a proper side-by-side look at both cars:

    Surprisingly, they share no external panels at all. The subtle bodyside crease on the Tribute runs through the door handles on the Tribute but is placed higher on the Maverick. The rear quarter window is completely different and positioned further rearward on the Maverick, altering the widths of the C-pillar noticeably. Ford and Mazda worker much harder than I initially thought to distinguish each from the other.

    Even the dashboards are different:

    The Tribute’s central area is in the shape of the Mazda ‘shield’ grille, unlike the Maverick’s

    I’d better correct my section of the piece above!

    1. Goodness, all that hard work for a moderate degree of difference. They are not the same and are also not very different. You could probably switch the interior with little problem. That would be a fine joke that almost nobody would get.

    2. Mind. Blown. I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of both models on the road over the years and it never even occurred to me that the differences ran to anything more than a grille/tail-light/bootlid pressing change. If someone as, er, ‘committed’ to uncovering this kind of thing didn’t even notice it until it was pointed out, I would love to know the rationale for going to that level of effort for what is effectively no payoff whatsoever.

  2. Interesting article. Looking at the minor differences between the vehicles, I wonder why they bothered with making the panels and dashboard different.

    ‘Hear, hear’ re opening rear windows – I wish more vehicles (of any body style) had them – they’re very useful in confined spaces, plus stuff doesn’t fall out, as the article said. The BMW 3 Series Touring has one, but not all owners realise, or at least so says BMW’s PR department.

    A question for Sarah – what did she replace it with?

    1. In the article she mentions her Tiguan doesn’t haven’t an opening rear window.

  3. Thanks Charles and Freerk – yes I bought a 2012 Tiguan. It took me quite a while to get used to the Tiguan’s clutch, probably because it was a lot more refined than I was used to in the Tribute. But I really miss the big boot.

    Here’s the Tiguan:

    Word-count constraints prevented me including one hair-raising incident that occured during my ownership of the Tribute, but here it is now:

    At one annual service, my mechanic decided to sand down and respray the alloy wheels, which were rather tatty looking. They looked great again, but shortly afterwards I was approaching a queue of cars stopped at traffic lights when the Tribute failed to respond to the brake pedal. I had one second to decide either to slam into the back of the stationary car in front or mount the narrow pavement to avoid a collision. I chose the latter and although I managed to avoid scraping the passenger side of the Tribute along a wall, I clipped three of the cars’ door mirrors with mine. I emerged into the junction in front of the lead stationary car, just missing the traffic lights post, and rolled to an eventual stop. The drivers weren’t pleased at all with what they regarded as a maniacal manoeuvre on my part and I had to pay for their door mirrors.

    A Mazda dealer found nothing wrong with the brakes, but I know I didn’t imagine it. The brakes never misbehaved again, but my husband still recalls the incident to poke fun at my otherwise exemplary and penalty-point free driving record!

    1. That sounds nasty. I would guess that in refinishing the wheels, overspray of paint / chemicals / sealant ended up on the discs, affecting their performance until it had been abraded away by the pads.

      Nice Tiguan.

  4. That’s a good theory Charles, but it wasn’t my first trip in the car since the wheel job.

    Daniel had a similar theory…
    He thought overspray could have got on the ABS sensor causing the system to think the wheels had locked, over-riding my braking. I’ve probably not done justice to Daniel’s explanation so I’ll welcome his input here.

    1. Er, I better leave possible explanations to the more technically literate amongst the DTW commentariat. That would not include me.

      Any ideas, chaps?

  5. ABS sensors are magnetic. Optical would be useless due to mud. So highly unlikely overspray caused the problem. My mother managed to drive my Audi Coupe through the open door of my parents’ garage and on into and under the top of the end heavy workshop table. She had been changing cars over in the driveway. $1100 for a new bonnet in 1985, and she was a very good driver in my opinion. I was a bit upset she decided to blame it on the Audi unintended acceleration syndrome all over the news at the time. I decided to keep mum, told the insurance what had transpired and was compensated. In reality, she got the accelerator and brake pedals mixed up; she said it just “kept rolling and wouldn’t stop” — if it never happened again, you have your answer here as well.

    A year later, my pal and I sitting in his 1985 Audi 200 turbo at dusk parked backed-in to a drug store while his wife shopped within, watched in amazement as across the street, a woman hopped into her Audi 100 and proceeded to drive backwards from her parking space clean across the street and strike the drug store twenty feet away. She hit it obliquely at the building’s edge as she steered away, and wiped out a rear tail-light cluster as well as denting things. She hopped out, as we did, and started going on that it was unintended acceleration. I don’t suppose that sort of thing happens very often when two car nuts are present and awake. We had not seen any brakelights during her “ride”, and indeed my pal knelt down and pushed her brake pedal by hand and the undamaged brake light lit up as I observed from the rear. The driver was completely unmollified. We left the woman, the store manager and the police to sort it out after giving them a statement as to what we had seen and done. Never got contacted about it.

    It happens. Whether or not we want to think we’re not at fault. Something slightly different from our norm occurs, a traffic situation, an unfamiliar vehicle, whatever. In that split second when the response is not as expected, part of the brain seizes and repeats the first action, and as they say, Bob’s yer uncle. The steering response seems unaffected, perhaps it’s controlled by another part of the brain. When Toyota went through the same unintended acceleration flap here in 2010, no fault could ever be found with electronics or brakes even after NASA investigation! And then like the Audi situation 25 years earlier the furore all went away, poof, just like that. The conclusion was the same as before: operator error.

    This generation of Escape/Tribute, identical under the skin, was subject here to a recall about five or six years ago for severe rusting of the front subframe due to road salt. Front suspension lower control arms were falling off, which is a bit dangerous. Of course by then, most had already gone to make soup tins, because corrosion is a big problem in eastern North America. Google “ford escape rusty subframe recall”. Rusty sills repaired by a slab of metal aren’t allowed in our MOT-equivalent biannual inspections. A 1998 Cadillac Fleetwood of my acquaintance managed the same rusty subframe trick when it was only a decade old at about 70km/hour on a curve. Interesting result, no injuries. Terminal understeer and luckily no approaching traffic.

    1. Wow Bill, you do have some stories to tell! You must meet my husband 😉

      Thank you for these anecdotes all the same; drivers are always up for a Darwin Award at some stage in their driving life.

      I envy the car owners in the US who live in warm dry States and still manage to drive a 1995 Honda happily every day.

      Thanks for sharing your stories, Bill. Much appreciated.

    2. Thanks for that. People seem to be good at fitting their perception of reality to what they think should have happened! I am guilty of this too. It´s really wierd to sense it out of the corner of your eye, so to speak.

    3. Ah, it is at this point I must confess to something that I had quite forgotten. Back in the 90s I went down to my company car park, to discover that I was boxed in the corner by a Corsavan. On going to the security desk I discovered that it was a pool car, on loan to the guy on security, and as he couldn’t leave his post I said just give me the keys, I’ll move your car out of my way, then park yours in the space.

      Hopped into his car, reversed it out of the way, moved mine, hopped back into the Corsavan, and moved it into the corner. Sadly I hadn’t bothered to adjust the seat when getting in, so as my feet were at an angle, when I pressed my foot hard down on what I thought was the brake, I actually rammed my foot hard down on the accelerator. Result, one collapsed brick wall, one van written off, one incredulous security guard when I went back in with the now useless key.

      Thanks to my honesty there wasn’t an Audi/Toyota-like furore.

  6. I’d have thought the greatest significance of this vehicle is that in 2005, it became the first hybrid SUV, fitted with a 2.3 litre Atkinson-cycle engine and a CVT. At the time, Motor Trend magazine called it “the best-engineered hybrid product to date” and Ford claimed fuel economy of 31 to 40 miles per gallon (U.S.) in city driving and 26 to 31 on the freeway. They were tough enough to be adopted as New York City taxis.

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