FURNACE CREEK, Calif. -- We prefer to drive the less-traveled road into Death Valley, that vast California sink hole where arid salt flats, rocky ridges and narrow canyons carve rugged contours on a barren landscape.
It's California 178, a sand-swept strip of frayed pavement which heads west from Shoshone and zigzags over Jubilee Pass in the Black Mountains before descending into a blistering desert chiseled between rows of peaks.
This is a severe route with a mix of steep mountain grades, twisty slalom esses plus whoop-de-do pavement heaves on the pancake flats.
But that's the track we want to challenge the temperament of a CUV (crossover utility vehicle) from a company steeped in the production of fun-to-drive cars.
The company is Mazda, the automaker from Japan but allied with Ford Motor Company, and the CUV is called Tribute, as measured up to the compact class of wagons.
In advertisements Mazda has promoted the Tribute as a utility wagon reared by a family of sports cars.
The claim comes from the fact that Tribute differs from the typical lumbering hulk of a sport-utility box built on the platform of a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) truck.
Instead, Tribute rides on the chassis of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) sedan and carries lively independent suspension elements and a crisp rack and pinion steering system to set up a nimble vehicle.
All power from Tribute's four-cylinder or V6 engine goes directly to the wheels in front -- the ones which also steer. This ability of front wheels to both turn and steer the wagon makes Tribute quite agile, and entirely predictable.
Another notable feature is Tribute's monocoque platform, a structure that integrates frame and body to forge a single unit that's extremely rigid when set to the dynamics of motion.
A long wheelbase of 103.1 inches fosters the smooth ride while a generous wheel track of 61.1 inches in front and 60.4 inches in back adds stability when turning.
Out-of-the-ordinary independent suspension components include front struts with nitrogen gas-charged shock absorbers and a multi-link rear design with double lateral supports and trailing arms.
On wiggly 178 we find that Tribute delivers on Mazda's promise of fun-to-drive handling traits because it maintains a tight line through each curve without undue sway or roll of the body as the front tires actually pull the wagon through all benders.
It feels almost sporty, in fact, so agile the posture and smooth the ride that it seems far removed from a typically cumbersome SUV.
Tribute debuted in Mazda's line of 2001 but for 2008 reveals fresh exterior styling, more on-board electronic hardware for safety, and revamped trims.
The new gear includes EPAS -- electric power assist steering -- through a direct rack and pinion system.
The all-electric device eliminates a conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump.
Purpose of the EPAS is to fine-tune the overall steering feel but also raise the fuel economy scores.
Formatted with the two-box body of a four-door wagon, Tribute looks crisp and edgy with fresh exterior elements like new front and rear fascias, a revised hood design and tail-side liftgate, a raised beltline along the flanks, with standard foglamps up front and 16-inch alloy wheels on the ground.
Tribute's issues of 2008 show more upscale appointments in the five-seat cabin.
Bucket seats account for the first row, while a bench on the second row provides space for three with a backrest that splits and folds down to enlarge the cargo area, and that back bay with rear gate access has more useful room because a spare tire tucks beneath the deck.
Designers managed to drop the cabin floor but still maintain a reasonable chassis height for ground clearance. As a result, you don't have to hike up to climb aboard, but simply slip in sideways like you would enter a sedan.
While the Tribute used for our dip into Death Valley drive comes with FWD orientation, a traction system for all wheels is also available and its purpose is to enhance tire grip on slippery pavement or gravel roads.
Tribute's optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) mechanism is a smart traction system which distributes the engine's power between front and rear wheels selectively as changing conditions of road or trail may warrant -- the intent is to maintain a firm tire grip no matter what's happening on the road surface.
The AWD equipment is available across the range for Tribute i (four-cylinder engine) and Tribute s (V6 engine) versions and the three trim grades of each -- Sport, Touring and Grand Touring.
With aluminum block and heads, the plant displaces 2.3 liters and makes 153 hp at 5800 rpm and a torque rating of 152 lb-ft at 4250 rpm.
The dual-cam 3.0-liter V6 generates 200 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 193 lb-ft at 4850 rpm.
An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transaxle works with either engine, but the four-pack lists a five-speed manual on the entry issue, Tribute i Sport.
Front riders have dual two-stage frontal air bags plus seatbelts with load-limiting retractors and buckle pretensioners, while in the rear there are anchors to tether a child's safety seat.
Side-impact air bags mounted on outboard front seats and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above front and back rows are also on tap for all 2008 models.
Gear promoting active safety includes the quick rack and pinion steering and brakes tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) plus a dynamic stability control (DSC) device, traction control system (TCS) and roll stability control (RSC).
MSRP figures set by Mazda for the 2008 Tribute range from $18,900 for a FWD Tribute i Sport model to $26,250 for the AWD Tribute s Grand Touring.