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.
The tach needle had to stay in the green during our test.
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.
The display shows track information for MP3 CDs.
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.
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.
With the AC outlet, you can make coffee in the Tribute HEV.
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.
The hybrid powertrain works very well, delivering great mileage for a car of this size.
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.