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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Ford Escape / Mazda Tribute
Ford Escape SUV

Despite its "no boundaries" designation, this SUV probably won't climb the tallest mountain. If that's your ultimate destination, there are truck-based vehicles that will do a better job.

Still, Ford's compact five-passenger Escape and its Mazda Tribute cousin are no slouches when it comes to traversing the wilds of, say, a nearby freeway, or even leaving pavement behind for awhile. Despite Mazda's Japanese origins, it comes under Ford Motor jurisdiction and the two compact sport utility relatives were designed jointly -- with some differences.

Despite an all-wheel-drive capability, vehicle underpinnings are more car than truck, made with what manufacturers call a strengthened "unibody" construction system designed to build in rigidity for some off-pavement pursuits.

Mazda is the more driver-oriented version of the two, "with the soul of a sports car," like every Mazda vehicle, according to company spokesman Jeremy Barnes. (Remember those "Zoom, Zoom" television ads?)

Differences are subtle, yet noticeable with changes coming from different suspension tuning and different tires. How the rubber meets the road can make a difference.

The lower volume Tribute gains a performance road feel from what Barnes calls "more aggressive" tires. By contrast, as the high volume staple of the pair, Escape can handle demands of more off-road -- or at least off-pavement --

With '04 an off-season of sorts for both vehicles, adding only minor changes from last year's version, that isn't expected to last too long, at least on the Mazda side.

A new, refreshed Tribute is due as early as late February or sometime in March, as a early '05 model. Among differences are engine changes, with the MZO from the Mazda 6 and Mazda 3's 2.3-liter four-cylinder coming on board at that time. And Mazda gets some styling revisions as well, with revised front and rear, including new head and tail lights, a new hood and different vehicle rear.

Whatever Ford has in mind, it wasn't saying as of press time, but since the vehicles are "mechanical twins," with both built at Kansas City, it's likely changes will apply to the Escape as well.

Will the vehicles retain current pricing? That's not yet clear, but Mazda at least doesn't expect major differences at a time auto makers have been holding down price increases.

Stay tuned.