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MSRP Range: $20,550 - $29,570
Fuel Economy: 19 MPG city / 24 MPG highway

Cleaner styling, improved interior, more safety for 2008.

The 2008 Mazda Tribute has been redesigned on the outside and inside, although the engines and chassis are the same. Built by Ford with Mazda tweaks, and a fraternal twin to the Ford Escape, the Tribute took model year 2007 off but it's back for 2008 and offers more value than before.

Tribute s models use Ford's Duratec 3.0-liter V6 that makes 200 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque. It achieves an EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg City/Highway with 2WD and 17/22 with 4WD. It's a smooth engine that works well in the Tribute with its four-speed automatic transmission. Many competitors have (and need) a five-speed automatic, but we found the four-speed in the Tribute to be adequate.

Tribute i models use Ford/Mazda's proven 2.3-liter four-cylinder, the same engine that powers the Mazda3, and is popular in race cars because of its potential to make big horsepower. In the Tribute, it delivers a modest 153 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque. It gets better fuel economy than the V6 and costs about $2000 less. Tribute i Sport is available with a manual transmission. It's EPA-rated 20/26 mpg with two-wheel drive and the four-speed automatic transmission, 22/28 with the five-speed manual (either transmission is standard), and 19/24 with optional all-wheel drive with the automatic.

The interior has been totally redesigned to be convenient, while affording as much comfort as possible for a $20,000 SUV, and that's plenty. The air conditioning is especially effective. All the controls are at hand and not confusing for the driver. This simplicity makes a safer vehicle, because the driver's concentration isn't stolen by problem solving.

The ride, on a retuned suspension, is excellent. We put 272 miles on an Escape s Touring model over familiar terrain that sometimes jags us in other vehicles, but we forgot about those bumps driving the Tribute, with its wide track and four-wheel independent suspension, using MacPherson struts in front and multi-links in the rear.

The handling is steady, tight and nimble around town. One of the few new mechanical features is electric power rack-and-pinion steering, which helps make the Tribute easy to parallel park. The front fenders are more squared off than before, making it easier to see the front corners when parking; and, out the back, good visibility with no blind spots is another virtue. The turning radius is tight enough to make a U-turn in the width of a city street.

The previous Tribute had four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, but the '08 Tribute uses drum brakes in the rear. It might be an issue if you tow.

Safety equipment has been upgraded for 2008: Electronic stability control, rollover control, traction control, a tire pressure monitor, two-stage frontal airbags, side airbags in front, full-length air curtains, and LATCH safety mountings for child seats are all standard. In government crash testing, the Tribute scores five stars in side impact front and rear, five stars in frontal impact for the passenger, and three stars in frontal impact for the driver.

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