This writer had the opportunity to be part of a media contingent tasked to probe Mazda's newest offerings sometime last 2004. The hosts offered the Mazda 6, the RX-8 and the Tribute. However, it was the passenger cars that hogged the limelight and the desire of the scribes that time, leaving the Tribute almost begging to be driven.

It's not that the Tribute is that bad or deserves no attention. During that time, the Mazda Tributes sampled out were the 3.0-liter V6 variants, which was the default choice if a sporty and a powerful SUV were on one's criteria. Hugged the road it did, in conjunction with the outpour of V6 power. Nothing was really very SUV with the Tribute except for its size and stance. That's why it was never hard for the Tribute to earn its moniker as "The SUV with a Soul of a Sports Car".

With the rising cost of fuel almost every day, it was really a nice and good move for Mazda to provide its Zoom-Zoom cult of a much attainable but still soul-packed Tribute variant, this time with a 2.3 liter, 4-cylinder DOHC 16v engine. It's really an understatement and quite blasphemous to call it underprivileged brethren of the top-spec, six pot iteration, for it also had some bragging rights, especially on the aesthetics side.

In Mazda's effort to differentiate the 2.3-liter from the 3.0-liter, they introduced new, swirl-design alloy wheels, and new design taillights that's akin to the Ford Lynx. Personally, these cues go also well with the 3.0-liter. In short, ditch the old design taillights and wheels of the 3.0 and replace it with ones coming from the four-pot variant!

With the 2.3-liter variant, obviously, the first ones to go are the first (or was that last, depending on your point of view) two cylinders. But it doesn't mean that the Tribute 2.3 DOHC 16v engine does not measure up when its power figures are questioned, except if one finds 157 Hp maximum power and 203 Nm torque as puny. This writer does not; it's a lot definitely.

Inside, the tilt and slide moon roof is definitely in the Blue Oval tradition, and probably one of the best selling points of this SUV. Unique but shared to other Ford/Mazda models is the 2-DIN cassette-radio system with in-dash 6 disc changer. Although it's obvious that it's a model for the right-hand drive market, it didn't matter really for the steering wheels came with audio controls that one could fiddle with while driving. At nighttime, illumination is a green and red glow that is directly different with the all-red scheme of the Mazda 3 and 6. Ventilation and air conditioning was excellent thanks to the larger vents, but the somewhat odd controls require a little bit of catching with what the owner's manual had to say regarding this.

One personal dislike of this writer was the column-mount position of the automatic transmission lever. In some overseas markets, the Tribute comes with a floor-mounted shifter. Need this writer say more? Again, ditch the column mount and in with the floor-mount shifter for a more car-like experience. There's not so much disgust really interior-wise, it just needs a little of catching up with its other Mazda folks. Maybe when facelift time comes these issues will be addressed.

As all others would say, A Mazda is not a true blue Mazda sans its newfound Zoom-Zoom motoring tradition. As with all Mazda vehicles, dynamism and agility characterize the Mazda Tribute. The 2.3 liter engine, despite the Tribute's bulk, never fell short of breath even with spirited driving, and is ably complemented by the smooth shifting automatic transmission. The Tribute's suspension system is well damped and absorbs road imperfections, albeit on the sporty, stiff side. Truly sporty it is; during spirited driving stints body roll is much lesser and it returns good feedback. Steering is excellent for a vehicle of this class, as well as braking.

Light moments with the Tribute also yield some great results. Estimate consumption on mixed cycle driving yield an 8-9 km/liter, which is a very excellent and remarkable figure for a car of this size, and also makes for a perfect companion for the daily grind.

Mazda may be late in the Compact Utility Vehicle category with their development of the Mazda6-based Tribute, but, just as they say, it's better to be late than never. They also had some less stellar SUVS in the past, but this time they are confident that the Tribute is an epitome of what a Mazda Zoom-Zoom tradition is, and must be. Pricetag is set a Php1,120,000.