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Sibling SUVs Deliver for Ford and Mazda

First Drive / JOHN O'DELL

Reviews * New Escape and Tribute, not too big and not too small, have the look and feel of winners. They'll hit the showrooms this summer.

May 31, 2000|JOHN O'DELL

Ford's newest SUV ought to be called Attack, not Escape; its Mazda sibling not Tribute but Torment.

That's what the two smartly sized, well-packaged and nicely balanced vehicles will be doing to the competition once they begin rolling through dealerships this summer.

Ford has discovered that there is at best a limited market for big, lumbering, oversize sport-utility vehicles--the brute utes that exhibit the road-holding grace of a three-legged pachyderm and the thirst of a dromedary stocking up for a Saharan safari. Indeed, after bragging that it was selling more 19-foot, 4-ton Excursions than it could make, Ford earlier this month announced a 25% cut in production. Demand, it said, had weakened.

That's not likely to be the case any time soon, though, for the 2001 Ford Escape. Nor for the 2001 Mazda Tribute, if Ford's Japanese stablemate gets its marketing right. This is Mazda's first SUV since it dropped the upscale (but slow-selling) Navajo version of the Ford Explorer Sport in 1994. A year later, the two-door SUV market exploded.

Unlike those larger predecessors, the Escape and Tribute are not identical twins, though they do share most components under the skin. The external differences alone should make it easier for Mazda to move quite a few.

Though jointly developed by Ford and Mazda, with Mazda taking the lead in engineering, the two SUVs offer distinct styles and market missions. They share almost no sheet metal or glass, the instrument panels and front seats are unique to the individual brands, and ride and handling characteristics have been carefully tuned to differentiate.

Another benefit for Mazda is that the Tribute, sleeker than the Ford and styled to compete in the near-luxury, sporty-ute category, is the crisper of the two, with tighter steering, more aggressive shift points in the four-speed automatic transmission, stiffer shock absorbers and larger, 16-inch standard wheels and tires.

On a recent weekend drive around Southern California--everything from freeway commutes to a brisk romp through the foothills and canyon roads of the Cleveland National Forest--the Tribute performed with almost Teutonic precision. The 200-horsepower V-6 won't threaten the boys from BMW, but there's plenty of acceleration, a stable, comfortable highway ride and a deft suspension and steering setup that makes tight mountain curves fun to navigate.

Tribute brand manager Gary Roudebush says Mazda is positioning its truck to be "an upscale, sophisticated SUV with the soul of a sports car."

The blunt-nosed Ford Escape bears a distinct family resemblance to the current Explorer--although one of its myriad available exterior colors, a vivid Lifeguard Yellow, gives it kinship with Nissan's quite successful Xterra--and has more middle-of-the-road breeding. The driver has to push a little to put it through its paces.

Ford wants it to say "truck" and to bask in the glow of the brand's hot-selling truck line, says chief platform engineer Keith Takasawa.

Rest assured, though, that the Escape is a whole lot smoother than, say, an F-150 pickup. With its independent rear suspension, the Escape still handles and rides like a well-balanced car.

Mazda has not announced pricing, but a spokesman said the Tribute will be comparable to similarly equipped versions of the Escape, which starts at $18,160 for the base model and climbs to $21,335 before options. A fully equipped Escape with V-6 engine and all-wheel drive will run about $25,500.

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The Escape and Tribute share a new, front-wheel-drive unibody platform jointly developed by Ford and Mazda engineers. They also share engines.

Ford's 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower Duratech V-6 is standard in the Tribute's LX and ES trim levels, an option on the base Tribute DX model and on both Escape models, the XLS and XLT. It provides plenty of power and torque (200 foot-pounds) for the relatively lightweight vehicles (3,065 to 3,460 pounds, depending on equipment).

Another Ford engine, the 2.0-liter, 130-horsepower Zetech inline-4, is standard in the Tribute DX and in both Escape trim levels. The Zetech is mated to a five-speed manual transmission; the V-6 comes only with the automatic.

Both makers provide front-drive and all-wheel-drive versions. The latter are equipped with a switch that lets the driver select full-time automatic AWD, which sends up to 50% of drive power to the rear wheels as needed, or manually lock into a 50-50 traction split between front and rear--useful in deep snow or on wet, muddy or very loose and slippery road surfaces.

Ford calls it Control Trac II, the second generation of the manual system used on the Explorer and other Ford four-wheel-drive vehicles; Mazda calls it by its technical name, rotary blade coupling.

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