Ford Escape Mazda Tribute Comparison Essay

Which is best? Honda CR-V, Nissan XTrail, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Ford Escape or Mazda Tribute? We reveal all

It is easy to scoff at the current craze of compact 4WDs and why they have become amazingly popular. On the face of things, an off-roader is surely for driving off-road and most of these four-cylinder soft-roaders spend much of their time running around the city on normal urban commuter duties.

Look a little closer and it is obvious these are multi-purpose vehicles with benefits that can far outweigh their perceived reasons for existence. Taking the place of conventional small cars, the compact 4WD is a wagon, a family car, a weekend runabout for the outdoors and a tougher than usual mode of transport in a variety of conditions.

So that’s why we’ve taken the best-selling, half-dozen, light-duty off-roaders and put them through their paces. Not just in the urban and country environments where more normal cars might be found, either; but over a tough off-road course that in the end, proved they are capable of far more punishment than might be believed.

The choice of vehicles was fairly easy, starting with the market-leading Nissan X-Trail, the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. The closely-related Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape, which were launched with V6 engines, now come with four-cylinder power and can fight it out on level ground with the others.

Where possible, we chose the cheapest version of each, but optioned with automatic transmission as is the popular choice. A couple came with extra equipment, but no mechanical advantage, so in the end it was a straight fist-fight between the bantam-weight contenders in the compact off-road wagon brigade.


1. Toyota RAV4
2. Subaru Forester
3. Nissan X-Trail
4. Mazda Tribute
5. Ford Escape
6. Honda CR-V

Assuming any of these cars won’t just be driven around town but taken into the bush for light off-roading duties, first you have to get to those out of the way places. That’s hopefully going to entail driving on more challenging sealed roads than usual, and that’s where handling, ride, steering and braking are important.

If that’s the case, look no further than the RAV4 for dynamic ability. Like the others, the RAV is based on a car-like monocoque body with all-independent suspension but it gets its act together better than the rest on the road. It sits flat in corners, grips the road well — and the Cruiser pack’s wider rubber certainly helps there — steers with precision and has the engine performance to exploit its ability. The trade-off is in a ride quality that is noticeably stiffer than the others, but certainly not uncomfortable and worth it for the better handling.

The Forester rides much better with a degree of built in softness that also leads to some body roll, but not to the detriment of grip and handling. Like the RAV, it feels (and looks) to have a lower roll centre, where the others are jacked higher off the ground for better clearance and the result is car-like handling that cries out for better engine performance. If that’s needed, there’s always the much more powerful and expensive turbocharged XT model as a counterpoint.

The X-Trail is higher, rolls about a bit more and in two-wheel drive mode, can lose grip and traction from its inside tyre though sharp corners. But that can be fixed by switching the dashboard dial to all-wheel-drive mode that improves turn-in and sharpens its line. The pity is the steering that is light and uncommunicative, but over rolling terrain it is still agile enough, and has the added bonus of real engine power, to be comfortable and swift.

The Nissan is on pretty much the same dynamic level as the Tribute and Escape, although the Ford/Mazda twins steer better, even if the steering wheel kicks-back over mid corner bumps. The four-cylinder engine is noticeably quieter than the optional V6 but again, it’s a matter of stirring the auto gearbox for the best results and cross-ground speed suffers.

The CR-V has its issues, mainly caused by too much power being channelled through the front wheels, which are fitted with the skinniest rubber of the six cars. There’s plenty of torque steer, body roll through tight corners lifts the inside front wheel to get it spinning, and there’s more understeer (or lack of front-end grip) as well. Road noise and engine noise are also at a higher level than the others.


1. Nissan X-Trail
2. Toyota RAV4
3. Mazda Tribute
4. Ford Escape
5. Subaru Forester
6. Honda CR-V

If there was any realistic expectation that these compact 4WDs actually perform off road, we set out to find their limits on a course far tougher than most owners would probably challenge their own vehicles. The venue was the Melbourne 4×4 Training and Proving Ground ( with its variety of creek crossing, steep gradients, mud baths and hills where we could go bush bashing under controlled conditions.

The big surprise was that all six acquitted themselves extremely well, never getting stuck on the steepest of climbs, nor running out of traction on slippery surfaces. Even the expected water leaks through the creek crossings didn’t eventuate, and with a little care it became apparent that, taken slowly and with forethought, all could reach some pretty unexpected places.

So our rankings were achieved by degrees, with the X-Trail coming out on top only because its combination of ground clearance, engine power, and ability to be locked easily into 4WD made it slightly preferable.

But the RAV4’s constant 4WD system made it a no-brainer to operate, and a better bet than something like the CR-V, which works mainly as a front-driver with rear traction only kicking in during the most dire of circumstances. Given its good ground clearance, the Honda would be much more effective if it could be locked into 4WD.

The Tribute and Escape both have a centre diff-lock so full-time 4WD is an option, and they could scramble into some quite difficult places. Their main problem was the automatic gearbox set-up: with the selector slotted into second gear it would kick back to first, so engine power — limited at the best of times — could die on uphill climbs without manual over ride.

The Forester’s full-time 4WD system is also a bonus but the Subaru’s low stance was iffy on deep ruts, and climbing into and out of creek beds where it was possible to scrape the under-belly. But again, these were extreme conditions and probably not even dreamed of by most owners. For light off-roading, most, including the Forester, worked just fine.


1. Ford Escape
2. Nissan X-Trail
3. Honda CR-V
4. Subaru Forester
5. Toyota RAV4
6. Mazda Tribute

Looking for an indication of how competitive things are in compact SUV-land? Go no further than pricing for any of our six contestants which is so close that differences are only marginal. In fact, the above ranking could pretty well be switched around any which way and the car on the bottom would still come up smelling of roses.

The bottom line is, if you’ve about $32,000 in your pocket, it’s time to go shopping. The Escape, X-Trail and CR-V all start at $31,990, the RAV4 is just $700 cheaper and the Forester about $500 less.

The Tribute is the odd car out with a starting price of $33,990, or $2000 more than the mechanically identical Ford. The catch is that both are offered with automatic transmission as standard, making the Escape especially good value while the extra goodies on the Tribute — side airbag and cruise control among them — might make it worth the extra spend.

The other four in our group all come with manual transmission, so figure on another $2000 or so to bring them up a notch. All get air conditioning, ABS, CD players, power windows and cruise control, with only minor specification differences to set them apart.


1. Nissan X-Trail
2. Mazda Tribute
3. Ford Escape
4. Honda CR-V
5. Toyota RAV4
6. Subaru Forester

There’s no doubt about it: these are family cars chosen for a certain ruggedness against the depravations of small children and a mixture of urban and outdoor lifestyle. So space is important, whether it be for carrying passengers in the rear seat or a heap of paraphernalia in the luggage area and there’s a definite pecking order that comes down mainly to size.

With four decent-sized adults on board it is the X-Trail that wins out by a narrow margin, mainly because its rear seat has better than adequate leg room, and head room is also generous. There’s a big cargo area with a plastic floor, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Chuck a mountain bike in the rear and the floor can be removed and hosed off if necessary, but anything else can slip and slide if not secured. But it at least shows the X-Trail was built to last.

Not surprisingly, the Tribute and Escape are virtually identical in their dimensions and the news is mainly good. Rear leg room is every bit as capacious as in the X-Trail, although our taller rear-seat dummy found head room slightly restricted.

In fact, it was a very similar case to the CR-V in that the back seat was quite roomy although head space was a little more squeezy. Also against the Honda’s favour was its rear tail gate which, although it has glass that lifts separately, has a tailgate that swings sideways, carries the weight of the spare tyre and would lock into place. The floor of the CR-V’s cargo area lifts out to become a picnic table which seems gimmicky, but can be extremely useful for those bush picnics or, in our case, an impromptu coffee stop in a supermarket car park.

The RAV4 and Forester are smaller cars and suffer from a relative lack of interior space because of it. The rear of the Toyota doesn’t have much in the way of leg room and no space under the front seats for feet in the rear, and its boot is noticeably smaller. In its favour, however, is a clever arrangement where the rear seat slides to give either more leg room and less luggage space or vice-versa, and the seats easily fold forward or can be removed altogether.

The Forester might sit comparatively low, but it has a tall body so head room in the rear is quite good. But the rear seat is narrow and really only useful for two occupants, and leg room is tight.

Cars like this give interior designers a blank canvas on which to dream up innovative solutions to storage, packaging and a look designed for a bit of outdoors fun. A couple of our contestants have taken the ball and run with it, others rolled the arm over, and one dropped the ball altogether.

From behind the wheel, for instance, the X-Trail’s interior is a voyage of discovery, especially for anyone who likes plenty of small hidey-holes, bins, cup holders and any other sort of storage space. It’s got plenty, and along with everything in front of the driver is presented with a panache that’s half utilitarian, half funky and sure to appeal to anyone with a bent for the outdoors. It is also high off the ground, and so the seating position is as you’d expect from a 4WD.

The RAV4 also has its own distinct personality but in a more enclosed way that hints at a more sporty character revealed by its driving characteristics — which we’ll get to in a minute. Instruments are nestled in circular pods, major controls for stereo and ventilation in a separate binnacle placed high on the dashboard, and it all looks good and works well.

The Tribute and Escape have different dashboards, instrument panels and interior trim, and while there’s nothing ergonomically flawed, neither are they particularly exciting to look at. Perhaps the Mazda’s use of dimpled plastics adds some extra flair, but on the whole it’s a case of passenger car interior design being shipped straight into SUV territory. Both have column shift automatics that aren’t too easy to use for manual shifting, and their handbrakes are positioned awkwardly down and to the left, presumably not with right-hand-drive in mind.

The Forester has a similarly functional but somewhat drab interior, but it is still preferable to the weirdness of the CR-V. In an effort to provide a walk-through facility between the front seats — for what reason, you’d wonder, given everyone should be firmly secured in their seats belts — the gear shift and parking brake have been moved to the dashboard. The handbrake in particular is difficult to use, and the folding tray that takes the place of a conventional centre console is shallow and doesn’t secure loose objects well.


1. Nissan X-Trail
2. Toyota RAV4
3. Honda CR-V
4. Mazda Tribute
5. Ford Escape
6. Subaru Forester

Big four-cylinder engines are all the go here, with engine capacities ranging from 2.3 litres (Tribute and Escape) through 2.4 litres (RAV4 and CR-V) to the 2.5-litre powerplants of the X-Trail and Forester.

The Nissan has a clear power advantage with 132kW, and that translates into spirited performance that is very useful in a variety of conditions. The one point to note is that this particular X-Trail was a manual, where our five competitors were automatics, but the sheer grunt of the Nissan engine made it preferable by far for standing start acceleration, overtaking, or tackling a test hill with its steep incline and sharp corners.

Toyota’s move from 2.0 to 2.4-litre power in the RAV4 has paid off in spades. Where once the RAV was spirited but somewhat thrashy, it now has enough grunt to pull from low revs and works particularly well with the four-speed automatic transmission. Pulling power is never a problem, and, together with the RAV’s tight dimensions, makes it especially easy to drive around town and comfortably cruisey on the highway.

The CR-V also gets plenty of performance and a good power output, even if the engine is noticeably more noisy than the others. As with the X-Trail and RAV4, it gives a good argument that a six-cylinder engine isn’t a necessity in a compact 4WD, with ample acceleration either from standstill or for overtaking and hill climbing on the open road.

The same can’t be said of either the Tribute or Escape twins, both of which are incidentally the only two available with V6 options. The 2.3-litre four (also used in the Mazda6 and Mazda3) has been tuned for torque and actually works well enough around town with smooth and gradual acceleration. On twisting or steep sections of road the automatic saps power, however, and it’s a struggle to keep speed constant without digging deep into the throttle pedal.

It’s a similar case with the Forester, whose flat-four might have plenty of capacity, but it struggles when the going gets tough. Part of the problem can be laid at the feet of the Forester’s automatic transmission, which at times flatly refuses to downshift even with the throttle fully depressed. It is quite okay being driven gently, but when asked to really perform with a full load on board, lacks the sparkle of the Nissan, Honda or Toyota.

Fuel consumption in all six is more than reasonable, with the X-Trail, Escape and Forester all returning a handy 10.6 L/100km over a mixture of city, country and off-road driving. The RAV4 was surprisingly thirsty with an average of 11.9 L/100km, the Tribute commendably frugal at 10.1L/100km, and the CR-V also quite economical given its performance, with a return of 10.2 L/100km.


1. Mazda Tribute
2. Toyota RAV4
3. Subaru Forester
4. Ford Escape
5. Nissan X-Trail
6. Honda CR-V

Buyers of any 4WD wagon often site safety as a big influence on their purchasing decision, and it is a theory with quite a bit going for it. Not only do you get all-wheel drive for a better grip on the road, but even these compact SUVs have a generally more robust construction than small cars of equivalent size, and their height might just let them come off a little better in a collision with a lower car.

It is as difficult as ever to determine safety levels without access to manufacturers’ crash-test data but a scan through the features list can help us come up with some sort of order. For starters, all have anti-lock brakes so they are already on a high level of active safety. Dual frontal airbags are also fitted on all, and while that’s not unusual these days, it is welcome.

The Tribute goes a step further by also have side airbags for front seats passengers, so it has to be rated highly. The RAV4 and Forester have full-time 4WD systems for greater grip levels, but if the Toyota owner wants added safety, it can be optioned with the Cruiser pack that has side airbags at the front, curtain airbags at head level, and is the only car offered with traction and stability control.

The Escape, X-Trail and CR-V are further down the pack, but that’s not to say they are unsafe. Only that their specification without side airbags or full-time 4WD puts them at a disadvantage on paper to their main rivals.

CarPoint has ranked the six vehicles based on 12 months servicing costs and comprehensive insurance estimates. Please note these figures are correct as of May 2004, and should serve as a guide for comparison only. Any person seeking to purchase one of the six vehicles should conduct their own research closer to the time of purchase.

1 Honda CR-V
2 Subaru Forester
3 Nissan X-Trail
4 Ford Escape
5 Toyota RAV4
6 Mazda Tribute


Ford Escape$31,990 / $31,990
Honda CR-V$31,990 / $33,990 (auto)
Mazda Tribute$33,990 / $33,990
Nissan X-Trail$31,990 / $32,445 (Tow pack, auto adds $2000)
Subaru Forester$34,590 / $36,940 (auto, metallic paint)
Toyota RAV4$31,290 / $38,490 (Cruiser pack, auto)

RRP – Recommended retail price as set by the importer or manufacturer. Note: dealers may choose to set their own pricing. As tested refers to the price for the vehicle tested, including options fitted.

On road costs differ due to state insurance and taxes, and dealer delivery fee. Dealer delivery fee will vary from dealer to dealer, the average that buyers can expect to pay is $1495.00

Twelve month comprehensive insurance estimate based on 35 year old male, garaged off street in Balwyn (Victoria). Assumes no finance on vehicle and driver has Rating One and clean licence.

Ford Escape$873.33
Honda CR-V$759.73
Mazda Tribute$806.59
Nissan X-Trail$759.73
Subaru Forester$782.91
Toyota RAV4$899.83

Estimated resale value after three years and 60,000km expressed as a percentage of recommended retail price. All figures correct at May 2004.

Ford Escape75
Honda CR-V62
Mazda Tribute76
Nissan X-Trail64
Subaru Forester65
Toyota RAV464

These figures were achieved during our two-day comparison test, where each car was driven over the same city and country roads. Figures are quoted in litres per 100km.

Honda CR-V10.25
Toyota RAV411.89
Nissan X-Trail10.62
Mazda Tribute10.03
Ford Escape10.44
Subaru Forester10.60

Assuming 20,000km pa, however recommended service points vary from 10,000, 12,500 and 15,000km. All prices correct at the time of printing, and include parts and labour.

Ford Escape

Service Intervals 10,000km
10,000km Service $108.00
20,000km Service $108.00
Total $216.00

Honda CRV

Service Intervals 10,000KM
10,000km Service $82.22
20,000km Service $121.87

Mazda Tribute

Service Intervals10,000km
10,000km Service $130.52
20,000km Service $221.15
Total $351.67

Nissan X-Trail

Service Intervals10,000km
10,000km Service $142.32
20,000km Service $151.67
Total $293.99

Subaru Forester

Service Intervals12,500km
12,500km service $173.26

Toyota RAV4

Service Intervals10,000km
10,000km Service $112.56
20,000km Service $128.62
Total $241.18


1. Nissan X-Trail
2. Toyota RAV4
3. Honda CR-V
4. Ford Escape
5. Mazda Tribute
6. Subaru Forester
Lay all six sets of keys on the table, which would I take? The Nissan X-Trail; its mix of power, on and off-road performance, rugged good looks and unrivalled interior space make it unbeatable in my book.

It was a tough decision sorting out best to worst in this test, mainly because in many categories the differences between vehicles were marginal. It didn’t help that stiff competition meant pricing points were also much the same, so the value-for-money equations were not far apart.

It’s almost a shock to see the Forester last on the list. In its favour are reasonable fuel economy, good value for money, a sensibly simple to operate 4WD system and agile handling. But it loses out on interior space, lacks ground clearance off road and performance with the automatic transmission is worryingly ordinary.

In four-cylinder guise, the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute are also less than impressive, especially as no manual gearboxes are available. There’s nothing exciting about either of these cars but they get the job of carrying a few people done well in comfort, if not style. The Ford has been ranked ahead of the Mazda only because it is cheaper to purchase; if the extra equipment (including some safety items) are important, the Tribute is every bit as good.

The Honda CR-V might not be particularly wieldy on tight roads, but it shines through in other areas. Performance is strong, even with an auto, it has a roomy and practical interior for families, is well equipped and priced and has the ground clearance to tackle light off-road duties with ease.

The RAV4 is the driver’s choice with ample reserves of engine power and the best handling of the group. It also looks good and has a proper 4WD system, but loses out on rear seat room and ground clearance.

Which leaves Nissan’s X-Trail as our winner. It isn’t a perfect car, let down by light steering and average dynamics, but in other areas it shines. Sparkling performance, manual selection of 4WD modes, a roomy and carefully thought out interior, good off-road ability and all at a good price are enough to get it over the line as the best choice among a seriously well qualified bunch of compact 4WDs.



Compare 2004 Ford Escape vs 2004 Mazda Tribute

2004 Ford Escape

2004 Mazda Tribute

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4-Door 103" WB XLS Value

StyleMPG CityMPG HwyInvoiceMSRP
4-Door 103" WB XLS Value 23 28 $17,391 $18,710
4-Door 103" WB XLS 19 25 $18,929 $20,400
4-Door 103" WB 4WD XLS 18 23 $20,431 $22,050
4-Door 103" WB XLT 19 25 $20,981 $22,655
4-Door 103" WB 4WD XLT 18 23 $22,482 $24,305
4-Door 103" WB Limited 19 25 $22,764 $24,615
4-Door 103" WB 4WD Limited 18 23 $24,243 $26,240

Select style

2.0L Manual DX

StyleMPG CityMPG HwyInvoiceMSRP
2.0L Manual DX 23 28 $17,567 $18,797
2.0L Manual 4WD DX 22 25 $19,152 $20,497
3.0L Automatic LX 19 25 $20,726 $22,182
3.0L Automatic 4WD LX 18 23 $21,984 $23,532
3.0L Automatic ES 19 25 $22,208 $23,772
3.0L Automatic 4WD ES 18 23 $23,466 $25,122





$312 / month

$313 / month

23 mpg 23 mpg
28 mpg 28 mpg
2WD Sport Utility Vehicles 2WD Sport Utility Vehicles
55.9 55.7
42.7 41.7
53.4 - TBD -
133.1 100.69
36.4 36.9
40.4 40.3
49.0 - TBD -
56.3 55.9
5 5
39.2 38.9
41.0 - TBD -
69.1 69.3
- TBD - - TBD -
60 59.8
103.1 103.1
34.9 - TBD -
70.1 70.8
61 60.6
7.8 7.9
173 173.0
NA - TBD -
40.8 - TBD -
35.9 - TBD -
33.1 - TBD -
- TBD - - TBD -
38.9 - TBD -
59.0 - TBD -
69.2 - TBD -
NA - TBD -
Power Pwr
9.0 x 1.65 9 X - TBD -
Yes Yes
10.9 x .5 10.9 X - TBD -
Yes Yes
16.0 16.4
35.4 17.7
Variable Pwr Pwr Rack & Pinion
3.0 2.7
38.7 - TBD -
16.0 - TBD -
T135/90R17 P145/90R17
- TBD - NA
P225/70R15 P215/70R16
P225/70R15 P215/70R16
100 N/A
NA - TBD -
1000 N/A
NA 1000
3019 3050
Steel Aluminum
15 x 6.5 16 x 6.5
Steel Aluminum
Steel - TBD -
15 x 6.5 16 x 6.5
17 x 4.0 - TBD -
5.3 8.4
110 110
550 - TBD -
135 @ 4500 135 @ 4500
99B NA
2.0L/121 2.0L/121
127 @ 5400 130 @ 5400
Gas I4 Gas I4
28 28
23 23
NA -
3.67 3.666
8.86 - TBD -
1.31 1.310
5 5
NA -
0.84 0.837
Front Wheel Drive Front Wheel Drive
3.45 3.454
2.06 2.059
443 NA
4.59 4.588
1.03 1.030
Manual w/OD Manual w/OD
4 Door 4 Door SUV
Ford Escape Mazda Tribute
Multi-link Double Lateral
NA Link
- TBD - - TBD -
MacPherson Strut Independent
NA Strut
- TBD - - TBD -
- TBD - - TBD -

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