According to Yoshihito Nagamoto, the program manager of Mazda’s Tribute, this new compact sport-utility offering from Mazda was designed to be “the sports sedan of SUVs.”

To that end, Mazda outfitted the Tribute with unibody construction, an all-independent suspension, and an optional 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter Ford Duratec V-6 — available only with an electronic four-speed automatic — that is predicted to be the most popular powertrain sold. The base powertrain (expected to power only about one in 10 Tributes) is also from Ford, a 130-hp, 2.0-liter DOHC in-line Zetec four driving through a five-speed manual transmission.

Tributes will be marketed in three trim levels: DX, LX, and ES, with the V-6 engine, four-wheel drive, and a trailer-towing package making up the basic options list. Mazda’s owner, Ford, will also market its own version of the vehicle, which will be called the Escape when wearing the blue oval. Various styling and equipment variations will differentiate the two name brands, but the engineering work was done primarily by Mazda.

One of Mazda’s aims was to provide as much interior space within the overall sheetmetal package as possible. The result, according to company spokesmen, is an interior larger than you’ll find in Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V, or even in some models within the luxury-SUV segment. The numbers bear this out — there are 54 cubic feet of space in the front seats and 46 cubic feet in the rear.

So do the subjective assessments of passengers. We were surprised by the amount of room in the back seat, where the split seatbacks can even recline and where there are two mounting positions for the cargo-cover shade to accommodate their movements. You don’t find that on many full-size SUVs.

From the outside, the Tribute displays its Mazda genes with the company’s usual blend of subtle contours and restrained use of edges. The combination of a long wheelbase and a wide track gives the car a natural stance, and we like the way the designers have softened the typical SUV rear-end rectangularity by rounding the lower corners of the rear glass.

The creased and bulged hood is an example of good surface-detail work, and it makes the view from the front seats look a little like that from a Mercedes M-class. Even if you think the Tribute’s front end is a little too cute, it’s a crisp and tidy variation of Mazda’s familiar visage.

Okay, we admit the car appeals to our feminine side, and it’s obvious from this that Mazda wants to attract female buyers to its friendly-looking compact SUV. The development team went to some lengths to ease access to the vehicle without losing much of the desirable “command seating” altitude. The doors open wide, and the step-in height is fairly low.

Inside the Tribute, we were somewhat surprised by the steering-column-mounted selector (on automatics that is; manual-transmission models get a floor-mounted shifter) and by the minivanlike dashboard layout. Because this is a true multimarket model, the designers in Hiroshima retained a walk-through facility between the front seats for the Japanese consumers who prefer it that way.

Although U.S. models will have a central storage box that effectively blocks the walk-through, the lack of continuity between dashboard and center console seems — like the column shifter — a departure from conventional SUV identity.

Other than that, the interior is tastefully arranged with good ergonomics, and our prototype Tribute had a six-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and optional leather seats and steering wheel. That’s not stuff you see on mini-utes as a rule, and it’s another reason Mazda hopes buyers will come looking.

Our Tribute had the optional 3.0-liter power, and we noticed right away how well Mazda has altered the sound and feel of Ford’s V-6. Even Taurus drivers will have difficulty recognizing the muted burble that now greets the Tribute driver. Power is certainly more than adequate, and the four-speed automatic provides quick kickdown response.

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