The single-CD player can handle MP3 CDs, which is nice, and the display at the top of the stack shows ID3 tag information. You can cycle through different display options with a button labeled "Text." There is a button for satellite radio, but it is inoperative, as you would need the Grand Touring trimmed model to even have satellite radio as an option. An auxiliary audio input is mounted at the bottom of the stack, so you can listen to an iPod or other MP3 player.
As a standard feature on the Tribute HEV (and on the Mariner Hybrid and Escape Hybrid), you get an AC outlet mounted at the front of the console, useful for plugging in a laptop or cell phone charger. We were also surprised to see digital climate control in this very base Tribute HEV. Instead of turning the dial blindly to a cooler or warmer setting, as in most economy cars, you can set the HVAC system for the actual temperature you want.
Under the hood
The hybrid powertrain in the Tribute HEV is composed of a 2.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine making 133 horsepower and a 70 kilowatt electric motor. Our test car came with front-wheel drive, but it is also available with all-wheel drive in both the Touring and Grand Touring trims. The power from the gas engine and electric motor are combined in a planetary gear system and fed to the wheels through a continuously variable transmission.
Although we generally stay as far from traffic as possible, we almost enjoyed getting stuck in a jam with this car. When traffic stopped, our engine turned off, and our car sat quietly, consuming very little energy and putting out no emissions. As traffic slowly crept forward, our car stayed in electric mode, which gave us some satisfaction to counter the aggravation of being in traffic. We got a similar satisfaction out of using the brakes in the Tribute HEV, as it, like most other hybrids, uses regenerative braking. As we slowed down, our kinetic energy was converted into electricity for the battery, substantially reducing wear on the disc pads.
All this driving produces excellent gas mileage for a car of this size. The EPA rates the Tribute HEV at 30 mpg on the highway and 34 mpg in the city. We wouldn't argue with those numbers, as we saw the mileage hit about 30 mpg on the freeway, even with average speeds of 70 mph, and go up even higher in city traffic.
The one place we saw the mileage dip down to about 24 mpg was while driving on winding mountain roads. We are used to being fairly aggressive on the accelerator while negotiating these types of roads, which accounts for the big fuel economy drop. The Tribute HEV also achieves a SULEV emissions rating from California's Air Resources Board. It's not as clean as a Prius, but it is one of the cleanest SUVs you will find.
Handling is predictably wobbly with the Tribute HEV. You can feel it dive and roll with sharp turns of the wheel. While testing the car, we kept it down to speeds it can handle. And although it does have antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, we could find no mention of an electronic stability program in Mazda's literature about this car.
Our 2008 Mazda Tribute HEV Touring, with front-wheel drive, has a base price of $25,310. We had no options, so the $595 destination charge brings it up to a total of $25,905. With this trim level, it is not a very techie car, but still a good value, considering the mileage and interior capacity. The model with the Grand Touring trim is much more techie than our test model, and it starts at $28,455.
Although we like the hybrid powertrain, and its corresponding mileage and low emissions, the Tribute HEV Touring scores low for cabin tech. You would either have to get the Grand Touring version or look into the nearly identical Mercury Mariner Hybrid or Ford Escape Hybrid. In fact, we would recommend the Ford Escape Hybrid once the Sync option becomes available. The current competition among hybrid SUVs includes the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, but you will pay substantially more for that car, with the main bonus being a third-row seat.