SUNDANCE, UT - Watching their new midsize sport/utility vehicle (SUV) climb straight up a craggy trail that only a bighorn sheep could love brings smiles to the faces of Mazda Motor Corp.'s Japanese engineers gathered here for the SUV's first press launch.

Mazda is counting on Tribute not only to round off its product lineup but also to better position the brand in the minds of consumers. To do this, Mazda calls upon the virtues of its better-known and well-respected Miata roadster in an upcoming marketing campaign that promotes Tribute as "the sports car of sport/utilities."

Additionally, Tribute has monocoque construction and luxury appointments like the Millenia sedan's, plus its '00 MPV minivan's subtle and efficient packaging, while bragging that it has more legroom than the luxury segment-leading Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus RX300.

Largely with content, the Japanese automaker is looking to differentiate Tribute from its twin, the Ford Escape, also due to debut later this summer. Ford, which owns 34% of Mazda, is expected to position the Escape within its rugged "Outfitters" lineup: the Excursion, Expedition, Explorer and new Explorer Sport Trac.

Mazda is headed in the opposite direction, likening Tribute to a crossover breed - drives like a refined sedan, handles like a sports car and takes on rugged off-roading using what Mazda calls its new advanced Rotary Blade Coupling (RBC) all-wheel-drive (AWD) system.

RBC features an automatic on-demand function, switching from its normal front-drive mode to 4wd as soon as the front wheels begin to slip. RBC also works on command; the driver deciding when to lock in 4wd by pushing a button.

For the Tribute/Escape, Mazda conducted vehicle engineering, while Ford is responsible for vehicle manufacturing at its Kansas City, MO, plant.

Despite earlier reports that the two SUVs are built off the 626 platform, Mazda says the car-based platform was designed from a clean sheet of paper. While the vehicles share the same roof, they are different in body design and interior appointments.

"We used a single platform and separate ground strategies," says Kei Kado, Mazda's managing director of product and powertrain development, noting the two companies spent two years in Hiroshima working with one another's engineering systems.

Tribute is available in three design trim levels - DX, LX and ES, with LX and ES offering 16-in. wheels. It is 5.5 in. (14 cm) longer than a Jeep Cherokee and has a nearly 2-in. (5 cm) longer wheelbase. Its cargo area will accommodate 4-ft. by 8-ft. (1.2-m by 2.4 m) sheets of building materials with the flip-up window open and the liftgate closed. Towing capacity is an impressive 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg) with an optional trailer-tow package.

Options include leather seats, 6-way power driver's seat, a premium audio system with 6-disc in-dash CD changer, leather-wrapped steering wheel, plus overhead storage bins.

With a 173-in. (439-cm) overall length, 71.9-in. (183-cm) overall width riding on a 103.1-inch (262-cm) wheelbase, and a wide front track of 61 ins. (155 cm) and 60.2 ins. (153 cm) at the rear to assist in better cornering, Mazda claims it has invented an entire new class of SUV.

"It's more functional and powerful than a mini-ute and more maneuverable and efficient than a truck-based compact sport-ute," says Richard Beattie, president and chief executive officer of Mazda North American Operations.

Engines include the Ford Duratec 200-hp 3L DOHC V-6 and Ford's 130-hp 2L I-4 Zetec. Rigid monocoque construction provides a solid foundation that incorporates Mazda's hallmark Triple-H body reinforcement in the roof, sides and floor. Mazda officials say they are confident of a 5-star government safety rating for frontal, side and offset collisions.

Mazda expects to sell 20,000 Tributes in North America for 2000 (sales start in July) and 35,000 units in 2001. There are plans to export vehicles to Europe and 167 countries in total, but no export numbers were available.

Additionally, right-hand-drive Tributes will be built at Mazda's Hofu plant in Japan. Although Mazda has yet to announce pricing, officials say it will be competitive with Escape, which starts at $18,160.

While Tribute handily passes muster on the 58% grade mountain trail here, it is more impressive as a spiffy around-town all-weather utility vehicle than a beefy off-road beast, lacking a 4WD low-range and provisional skid plates.

Despite this, it beats out both the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V with its unique RBC AWD lock that splits torque 50:50 between the front and rear wheels.