The new shibboleth for 2001 vehicle models is “crossover.” Manufacturers are challenging one anotherand consumersto think furthest “outside the box” and to render lines between traditional vehicle categories at their blurriest. Two exemplary cases in point are Mazda’s new Tribute mini-sport/utility vehicle and GMC’s Sonoma Crew Cab pickup truck. Both make interesting advances by combining and compromising several traditional virtues.
Mazda Tribute ES-V6
Since the dawn of the Age of SUV 20 years ago, achieving a so-called “car-like ride” has been the Grail of SUV designers. The very existence of this unrequited goal highlights the essential problem: SUVs are trucks at heart. They ride like trucks; they handle like trucks; they pamper like trucks, which is to say not at all.
While Mazda isn’t the only one preoccupied with “thinking different,” it is certainly at the fore with its new Tribute sport/ute. As design teams sat around brainstorming the Tribute and its fraternal twin the Ford Escape, I can only imagine the idea light flashing bright somewhere as someone realized that the best bet for building a car-like truck might be to design a truck-like car.
The Tribute is precisely that: Its basic pedigree traces back through Mazda’s venerable 626 sedan and Ford’s presumptive world-car, the Contour. In tacit acceptance of the inflexibility of the laws of physics, Mazda designers zeroed in, so to speak, on the Tribute’s center of gravity. The roll center at the front of the vehiclethat point at which centrifugal forces tug their darnedestis just 4.5 inches off the road. That’s the same figure as for Mazda’s spunky, low-slung Miata roadster. The roll-center at rear is 5.5 inches. The actual result as well as subconscious perception is that hard cornering in the Tribute feels flatter than in typical trucks (SUVs or otherwise). Despite a slightly nose-heavy push or understeer, the Tribute seems to shoulder forward into twisty corners rather than lean disconcertingly out of them.
Ride and handling are definitely in the plus column for the Tribute. Just don’t undertake any serious off-roading, even with the optional 4WD version. I tested a front-drive V6 model with an as-tested sticker of $24,275. I’m pleased to say that Tribute’s class-leading, 200-horsepower V6 is a big winner too. A 3.0-liter twin-cam design, it’s more sprinter than puller, but its 200 ft.-lbs. of torque are still more than respectable for a car, er, truckoh, whateverof this size.
And there, alas, is the issue: size. Let’s say seating for the full complement of five is, well, intimate. (Perhaps that accounts as well for the cramped driver’s seat layout, which places the transmission’s column shifter directly, and infuriatingly, in front of the radio.) Rear cargo storage with all seats in use is about the equivalent of a typical sedan trunk, although you get 72 cu. ft. with the 60/40 rear bench folded. So it’s a car with its trunk indoors, then. What a breakthrough idea! And just to distinguish the Tribute from all those old-guard, traditionally trucky SUVs out there, we might as well give it another, more contempo label. How ’bout, let’s see...station wagon?
GMC Sonoma Crew Cab
GMC only builds trucks, so it stands to reason that GMC’s all-new Sonoma Crew Cab has a genuine pickup pedigree. Its Crew Cab concept is hardly unprecedented in a market where Nissan’s Frontier Crew Cab, Dodge’s Dakota QuadCab, and Ford’s SportTrac have long since debuted. Just the same, the Sonoma Crew Cab is a welcome addition to GMC’s lineup precisely because it accomplishes a number of “new things” without really appearing to do so.
In the first place, you have to look closely to distinguish this Crew Cab model from the standard versions of GMC’s Sonoma or its sibling, the Chevy S-10 pickup. Actually, this Crew Cab’s four full-size doors aren’t the main tip-off. What’s so different is the bobtail truck bed that makes it appear as if GMC ran out of sheetmetal roof panels on the SUV assembly line. It appears, in fact, as if Sonoma Crew Cab started life as a five-passenger SUV, but at a late stage in gestation, its designers banished all the interior cargo space to the out-of-doors.
Depending on a buyer’s specific needs, outdoor cargo space can be a godsend. Imagine toting topsoil, mulch, and anything dirty, smelly, or wet inside your fancy-pantsy, leather-upholstered sport/ute. Of course, with its smallish, nearly square layout, the Crew Cab’s cargo box is dimensionally challenged by long and wide things like lumber and furniture. And even “pourable” things like sand and gravel are limited to a bantamweight 1,125-lb. payload capacity.
The compensating tradeoff, however, is the five-passenger seating space accessible through four sedan-style doors. Or, if you prefer, driver and one passenger can hang out up front in comfy buckets while a folded rear bench makes way for valuable or weather-sensitive items.
Ironically, at 4.3 liters, GMC’s pushrod “Vortec” V6 delivers 10 fewer horsepower than Mazda’s 3.0-liter twin cam. But the tables are turned with regard to torque: Sonoma delivers 25 percent more of it with its 250 ft.-lbs. of pulling grunt. While generally speaking I’m a twin-cam fan, GM’s Vortec motor family is so smooth, reliable, and stout that this particular V6 in this particular four-door truck makes a compelling case for the Sonoma Crew Cab. It’s not a car-like SUV by any stretch. But its five-man sedan seating up front and its open pickup bed out back remind me of Dr. Doolittle’s fantastical Pushme-pullyou. Only in this case, I’d say the Sonoma Crew Cab can do lots.
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