Urban Solution Vehicles

2008, Mazda, Tribute S touring

I´ve had it with America´s blinkered vision of our imminent automotive future. I can´t believe the extent of our addiction to hugeness, for example. And I can´t believe how complacently we settle for abysmal fuel mileage or for a near-total denial of access to diesel-engine efficiencies that the rest of the world takes for granted. Don´t we Yanks deserve similar economies? Don´t we at least want them?

It´s all about choices, of course. Once upon a time, I would have referred to the trio of vehicles evaluated below as compact sport/utility vehicles. No longer. I choose to see them as urban solution vehicles. They´re city-sized for easy maneuvering. They´re versatile with regard to their people-and-cargo layouts. And they armor their compactness with safety engineering. Their combined approach to mileage efficiency is still mired in our North American gas-fueled doldrums, but at least the surprising Chevrolet HHR hints at the way forward.

Dimensionally and in many other ways, Mazda´s Tribute is remarkably similar to the new Kia Sportage. For this review, a front-wheel-drive "S Touring" model is featured; and it´s in the details that Mazda seems to have an edge.

If one remains obsessed with the horsepower wars in categories, like this one, where such rivalry is largely irrelevant, the Tribute´s 200-hp output (from a 3.0-liter V6) is a winner. Harder to appreciate are the 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway fuel economy numbers. Since these are 2008-model year calculations, however, they signify that Tribute makes more power with better economy than Kia's Sportage barely. But it ought to be taken as a matter of principle that any urban solution vehicle worth its salt should deliver mid- to high-20s fuel economy at a minimum. To do that, Tribute will have to wait until it gets access to the hybrid powertrain (34 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway) it will eventually share with its corporate cousin, Ford Escape.

Meantime, there are a few other nuances that polish the Tribute´s luster. Although payload is comparable to Kia´s at 1,145 pounds, Tribute´s towing capacity is 3,500 pounds (versus 2,000 for Sportage). Cargo space behind the back seats is also larger (29.2 cubic feet), whereas maximum cargo of 66 cubes is virtually identical. Tribute is also about 200 pounds lighter than Sportage, which contributes to a slightly perkier overall driving personality. But with front disc/rear drum brakes, the Mazda makes no real pretensions to genuine sportiness. Still, as a compact, versatile city-slicker, Mazda´s Tribute has much to recommend it.

In some respects, the Kia Sportage is a startling success story. Its original appearance on these shores seemed destined to typecast all South Korean automotive efforts as pitifully substandard. As recently at 1995, for example, the Sportage´s four-wheel-drive system employed chain-drive.

For 2007, Kia´s latest Sportage wears its maturity with self-confident sophistication. Still a thrifty buy at $22,775, as-tested, the latest Sportage LX boasts handsome styling, careful fit and finish and solid, stable ride quality. An up-to-date four-wheel-drive system seamlessly transfers engine power between front and real wheels to compensate for slipping traction.

Inside, Sportage is a five-seater that does a good job of maximizing space for rear passengers. Split-folding seatbacks, moreover, make it possible to handle cargo ranging from 23.6 to 67 cubic feet. The payload weight limit, however, is a bit skimpy at 1,162 pounds. With five 160-pound occupants, in other words, there´s only about 350 pounds´ worth of payload capacity left over.

For its Sportage LX model, Kia installs a 2.7-liter V6. The twin-cam engine architecture sounds sophisticated, but the 173 horsepower rating is hardly awe-inspiring. Even more disappointing, however, are the 19 mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway fuel-economy numbers, which will only be downgraded when revised 2008 mileage calculations are implemented for next year´s model.

The Sportage will impress potential buyers with its city-friendly maneuverability and interior versatility. It´s four-wheel ABS disc brakes and six airbags offer much reassurance concerning safety. But until fuel-mileage breaks out of the ´teens for once and for all and arcs towards the 30-mpg goal post, Kia´s Sportage will remain stuck in the minor leagues.

The sheer oddity of Chevrolet´s HHR people pod proves that America´s apple-pie automaker is not as hidebound as many might suppose. Whereas the Kia and Mazda models described above are urban solution vehicles masquerading as sport/utes, Chevy´s HHR is a category-buster that doesn´t seem to care what it looks like.

The HHR "Paddy Wagon" seems to have made a wrong turn out of an old Dick Tracy comic strip, but it´s appealing in a very puckish way. More importantly, its slab-sided, low-slung design camouflages a very clever and multi-configurable interior. In typical layout, the HHR is a five-occupant four-door boasting cargo space expandable from 25 to 63 cubic feet. For this evaluation, however, Chevy´s new Panel LT variant dispenses with both rear seats and rear side windows in favor of what can only be called a cargo-coach extraordinaire.

The Panel HHR is still a four-door, except the rear doors can only be opened by reaching inside and behind the front seats. And, yes, rear visibility is a bummer with those two massive blind spots where back windows used to be. Yet for sheer attitude, the Panel HHR is a head-turner on any city street, and a purpose-built delivery vehicle to boot.

But the breakthrough is Chevy´s 2.4-liter Ecotec inline-four that produces V6-calibre power (175 hp) alongside 23 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway fuel economy. Now that´s what city driving is all about: maneuverability, interior capacity and fuel economy. The HHR, in either five- or two-seater variants, may not be the last word in urban automotive solutions, but it certainly is an important conversation starter.

By Marc Stengel

More Mazda car reviews?

Images of the 2008, Mazda Tribute S touring

2008 Mazda Tribute S touring front view
2008 Mazda Tribute S touring front view
2008 Mazda Tribute S touring rear shot
2008 Mazda Tribute S touring rear shot
2007 Kia Sportage LX front view
2007 Kia Sportage LX front view
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel LT front shot
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel LT front shot