Among the Mazda model lineup, the 2008 Mazda Tribute HEV looks a little out of place. If it noticed the curvier bodies of its siblings, it might figure out that it was adopted and that its real lineage lies at Ford Motor. Yes, its real siblings, actually identical triplets, are the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. The boxy Mazda Tribute HEV offers the same kind of advanced hybrid powertrain in an inexpensive and practical package. But it looks nothing like the CX-7, the closest Mazda model in size.
Our Tribute HEV came in with the Touring trim, short of the Grand Touring trim, and no options whatsoever. And there aren't many worthwhile tech options for the Touring trim--you have to go up to Grand Touring to get features such as navigation or a six-disc changer. The Touring trimmed model is limited to a four-speaker stereo system with a single-CD player.
Test the tech: Hybrid speed test
When we reviewed the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, we tested it by seeing how long we could drive under electric power only, without the engine turning on. This test involved a certain amount of skill from the driver, as any hard acceleration would cause the engine to kick in. For the Tribute HEV, we had editors Wayne Cunningham and Kevin Massy see how fast they could get the car going under electric power only. Again, this test would require that each driver be careful about how hard he hits the gas pedal.
We took the car to a nice, flat straightaway. The rules were simple: each driver would start at 0 mph, and we would record the highest speed at the point the engine kicked in. The Tribute HEV uses the same powertrain as the Mariner Hybrid and Escape Hybrid, and is also similar to that found in the Toyota Prius. When you start off with moderate to low acceleration, the car's electric motor propels the car forward. The gas engine comes on only under heavy acceleration, higher-speed driving, or when the battery needs charging.
For the first run, Cunningham took the wheel, creeping the car forward with very light throttle. The Tribute HEV rolled silently forward under electric power. With a continued light touch on the pedal, the car slowly gained speed, crossing the 10 mph tick on the speedometer, then the 20 mph tick. With this slow acceleration, the road was running out as the car got above 25 mph, but right as the needle went over 30 mph, the gas engine shuddered to life, giving the car the power it would need for real driving, but ending the run.
Massy took over the wheel for the next run, after we spent some time driving the car in such a way as to recharge the battery. From 0 mph, he applied slightly more aggressive acceleration, and the car rolled quietly forward under electric power. Again, the car hit 10 mph, then 20 mph without intervention from the engine. It passed the 25 mph mark and seemed ready to keep on going, but right at 30 mph, the engine kicked in again.
We had to conclude that much of this test was out of our hands, as the hybrid system seemed to automatically turn on the engine at 30 mph. That's not to say you can't go faster under electric power. In our general test driving, we saw the speedometer go up to 40 mph before the engine kicked in, but that occurred on downhill slopes, when we could coast.
In the cabin
The general dashboard shape and interior dimensions of the 2008 Mazda Tribute HEV are similar to what you would find in the 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid. But Mazda puts its stamp on this car with piano-black glossy plastic panels around the console and stack. The dashboard uses hard plastics that have a rugged look, though we didn't care for the two-tone color scheme. Beige on beige is still beige.
As we pointed out above, the Touring trimmed model offers virtually no cabin tech. The stereo has a 100-watt amp and four speakers. It doesn't sound terrible, but it's not going to make your music shine. We got some fairly sharp bass out of it, but little separation, as we would expect, and muddy highs.