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by Steve Siler

Ford Escape / Mazda Tribute
2003 Ford Escape

Ford's Escape is to the compact SUV class what the Explorer is to the mid-size SUV segment: the sales king. The Mazda Tribute, on the other hand, is somewhat overlooked, despite being the a virtually identical twin to the Ford. Both, however, boast the same positive attributes that make them so popular with so many folks around the country.

Styling, of course, is subjective. But it's hard to find fault with the aesthetics of this dynamic duo, particularly in the case of the sassy Tribute. The Escape wears spunkier, boxier duds, completely appropriate for this class of vehicle. Both feature rear liftgates with glass windows that open independently.

Inside, the two are barely distinguishable from each other, which isn't a bad thing considering how straightforward their ergonomics are, as well as how nicely equipped they are for the money. Both offer leather seats, premium sound systems and power amenities. Materials have been upgraded for 2003, and new this year on the Escape is a Limited trim level which adds big wheels, side air bags and color-keyed bumpers.

Under the hood is your choice of two powertrains mated to either front- or four-wheel drive. A 130-HP four-cylinder comes only with a five-speed manual transmission, delivering fuel economy but not much performance. The torquey 200-HP V-6 comes with an automatic transmission only, making it the one to get if you do a lot of city driving. Noteworthy is that this fall, America's first hybrid-powered SUV comes to market in the fall as an '04 model, boasting V-6-level performance whilst returning up to 40 mpg.