Home » Southern Fried Crossovers: 2002 Lexus RX300 vs 2005 Mazda Tribute

Southern Fried Crossovers: 2002 Lexus RX300 vs 2005 Mazda Tribute

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Welcome back to your favorite way to waste time in the morning, Shitbox Showdown! This morning, we’re traveling south of the Mason-Dixon line to look at a couple of car-based SUVs in an attempt to answer the question: Just what do people see in these things?

First, of course, we need to take a look at yesterday’s results:

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The Taurus wins it, and that’s no bull. It’s just more car than the little Topaz. Neither one is a terrible choice, but the Taurus will give you quite a bit more for your money.

Love ’em or hate ’em, crossovers are here to stay. They already make up a huge chunk of the automotive landscape, and they’re trickling down to the cheap end of the used car market in large numbers. Are they worth checking out if you just need cheap wheels? Let’s look at a pair of them and see.

2002 Lexus RX300 – $3,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter overhead-cam V6, four speed automatic, AWD

Location: Lawrenceville, GA

Odometer reading: 231,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

The Lexus RX300 was one of the earliest luxury crossovers, and it quickly became a fixture of the suburban landscape. And I swear ninety percent of them are this color. You’ll be forgiven if you never noticed that there are a dozen of them in every HomeGoods parking lot, even to this day. It was successful because it works: it’s a comfortable, luxurious vehicle that rides like a car, but sits high like an SUV. For the soccer-mom set, who loved the commanding view over the hoods of their Cherokees and Blazers but hated the trucklike ride, it was a revelation.

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I’ll say this for all of these twenty-year-old RX300s: they’re aging well. Lexus vehicles in general don’t seem to show their age; it’s as if there’s a picture of the car somewhere getting old and rusty and dented while the real thing stays looking new. (Maybe that’s why so many of them are painted Gray.) This one is no exception: At well over 200,000 miles, it looks a little tired around the edges, and that’s it.

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We aren’t given a whole lot of information about this Lexus’s condition, other than an assurance that it has never been in an accident. But it does look clean and well-kept, and as it’s a Toyota under all the leather and power toys, it should be holding up well mechanically. The RX300 is powered by a three-liter V6, and this one is all-wheel-drive. The only available transmission is an automatic, of course.

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And yeah, I know, this is not the sort of vehicle that us enthusiasts are drawn to. But it is practical, reliable, and nice, and for most people who don’t know what an apex is and have never taken something apart on a car for fun, there is a lot of appeal in that.

2005 Mazda Tribute – $2,950

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Lake Butler, FL

Odometer reading: 239,000 miles

Runs/drives? You bet

This is, of course, not the best SUV in the world. This is just… well, you know. The Mazda Tribute is the sister model to Ford’s Escape; it’s a handsome little unibody SUV meant for making Costco runs rather than blazing trails off-road. This one especially is confined to the pavement – it’s only front wheel drive. Tributes and Escapes were available with four or six cylinder engines; this one has Mazda’s well-regarded 2.3 liter MZR twincam four. You could get a Tribute with a stick, but sadly this one only has two pedals.

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This Tribute has a bunch of miles on it, but it looks well cared-for. And despite the bargain-basement powertrain, it’s well-equipped otherwise, and everything still works. This seller has several other listings, including another Escape, which makes me think they’re one of those dealers masquerading as a private seller. It doesn’t matter much, but don’t expect to get any history or service records. Be prepared to check it out carefully on your own.

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Tributes and Escapes were available in some fun colors, which makes it kind of a shame that this one is refrigerator-white. But beggars can’t be choosers at the bottom end of the used car market; you take the car in the color you can find. At least it has the gray plastic cladding to break up all the white, and it looks clean and straight.

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Really, with the four cylinder and the automatic, and only the front wheels driven, this Tribute is hardly an SUV at all. What we have here is a small, tall station wagon. And there’s nothing wrong with that – small wagons are supremely practical vehicles. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to sit up high so you can see clearly. Again, these things are popular because they work.

Every other vehicle on the road is a crossover these days, so there will be more and more of them for sale  cheap in years to come. But for now, these are what you’ve got to choose from. Which one is worth the money?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)


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50 Responses

  1. That era of Escape/Tribute are VERY subject to rot in the rear shock towers and in addition, some breaking from corrosion where the front subframe/engine carrier attaches to the rest of the body. The rear shock towers aren’t too bad to fix, but most shops won’t touch them. A front subframe that has corroded loose totals the car.

    This model Lexus has no such weaknesses.

    Plus all the points about the Mazda interior being a much less classy model in merely OK shape, and the Lexus looking like a solid lux car with little wear inside, and a lot of miles left in it.

  2. Count me as a Nostalgia Vote for the Tribute. Between my parents, brother, and I we’ve owned 5 of them plus an escape, 3 purchased brand new for absurdly low amounts of money (I think the last one was under 17k out the door).

    The 04 died when the parking brake failed (or my mother failed to set it) and it rolled off the cliff on the edge of their driveway. It already had one deer strike under it’s belt. 196k, RIP.

    The 08 was the victim of a snowstorm interstate pile-up at 203k. RIP.

    The 2011 is still trucking along at 405k with a clutch and a junkyard motor. It’s been through 3 deer strikes, the last one of which was a total purchased back and reassembled with “close enough” colored JY parts. 257k on the motor. At this point it’s a game to see how long they can limp that chariot down the road, my dad commutes 130 miles a day with it. Currently diagnosing a bad miss but it’s getting it done.

    The 2009 was my mother’s daily, bought used, and only had 109k on it when it was rear-ended and totalled. RIP, you were far too young.

    My brother’s rocking a 2010 with a bunch of zip ties holding it together at 220k.

    The escape died last week in another rear-ending at 260k, all original. RIP.

    They drive a little sportier than escapes in both generations, but the first gen was better than the second. The second had some nice, albeit bland, styling going for it though, and holy crap can you pack some shit into that big two-box design. Luxurious? No. Powerful? No. But damn they were fine cheap useful automobiles, and pretty nails tough for what they were. Hard to find a better compromise between “drives like a shitty car” and “I can treat it like a shitty truck.” And for that they’ll always have a spot in my heart.

  3. If the Tribute had the V6 it might’ve been in better contention. As long as you avoid the rot in the rear, they’re good vehicles. But a Toyota (Lexus) is -expected- to be reliable and its a surprise when they aren’t. The rebadged Ford is the other way around. You have to define it -specifically- as an above-average reliable model.

    Just for that, and the nicer interior, Lexus all the way.

  4. I’ve had both. Both are very reliable and useful crossovers, but the lexus is the easier choice by 100 miles. The tributes were cheap cars when they were new, and feel especially cheap now.

  5. Crossovers had already been around for a little while, but that first-gen RX300 was the first vehicle that made me say, “Wait a minute, that is clearly just a lifted passenger car!”

    I can’t even say that I hated it; it was just a new paradigm. I feel that with this one vehicle, Lexus set a path that the entire industry followed.

  6. Definitely voting for the Lexus here; my mom got a 2004 GX470 a few years after it came out, and that SUV just hit 307k miles. Original transmission, never needed an engine rebuild. The thing is bomb-proof. Don’t know what kind of magic they do over there but early 2000s Lexus cars just want to drive forever

  7. I expected the Lexus to run away with this one and I’m not surprised that it’s happening. These things are absolute tanks mechanically speaking and they’re comfortable to boot. I also agree that the design has aged quite well. I could get why some people might shun these as being the beginning of the crossover takeover but I like the design. You could resurrect it and it would sell as a new car in 2023. This was a great era for Lexus.

  8. The Lexus is the easy pick here. It will be nicer to drive and likely has more life in it. It might have been closer if the Mazda was a manual. But’s not… so I’m contributing to the Lexus’ landslide victory!

  9. My family has had poor experiences with the Ford Escape, so I’ll be voting against the Tribute by association. That, and the fact that the interior and engine are superior in the Lexus.

  10. Lexus just about any day of the week. Bonus that the front seat leather here doesn’t look shredded to hell and requiring an ill fitting seat cover. Hell, what you can see of the seat looks surprisingly nice for 230k miles of action.

  11. They’re pretty much the same price and the Lexus is in better condition and is just generally a much better vehicle than the Tribute. I am sure there will be some contrarian votes or some “nostalgia is a hell of a drug” votes, and perhaps a smattering of people who haven’t shaken their distaste for the RX when they were new (I hated them then, I’m largely ambivalent about them now, and it’s going up against another crossover so who cares) going to the Tribute, but I have hard time seeing it rack up much more than 5% of the vote.

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