What's New for 2008
In addition to being heavily revised for 2008, the Mazda Tribute receives a new hybrid model, officially known as HEV, in its lineup. Virtually identical to the redesigned Ford Escape Hybrid, the Tribute boasts excellent fuel economy, refreshed styling and a more attractive, functional and better-constructed interior.
It's good to share. Our mothers and Big Bird taught us that, and it's a lesson the 2008 Mazda Tribute Hybrid can appreciate. Outside of its badges and a few minor styling details, there's not much that separates the Tribute from the Ford Escape -- in fact, the disparity between the two has grown even smaller after last year's thorough revision of the two compact crossover SUVs. Therefore, if the two already share so much, it's only fair that this Mazda gets the same hybrid powertrain that its Ford corporate cousins, the Escape and Mercury Mariner, have enjoyed for a few years now.
Like the regular Tribute, the hybrid version (officially known as the HEV for Hybrid Electric Vehicle) features revised styling and a greatly improved interior that make it more competitive in the rapidly expanding compact-to-midsize crossover SUV field. Despite these changes, though, the gasoline-electric drivetrain that powers the Tribute is essentially carried over from the original Escape/Mariner hybrids. A 2.3-liter inline-4 provides the gasoline part of the equation, while a pair of electric motors (three with all-wheel drive) produce enough juice to allow the Tribute to travel up to about 30 mph on battery power alone. This lends a tremendous advantage in an urban environment, where stop-and-go driving leads to greater electricity use and generation (by way of regenerative braking).
Compared to the last Tribute, the 2008 model is a big improvement. Inside, there are some important upgrades, with a tidier layout for the climate and stereo controls, and the instrumentation has a more upscale, modern appearance -- complete with ice-blue lighting at night. This time around, however, Mazda didn't really do anything to differentiate the Tribute from the Escape. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the Tribute will certainly have that "one of these things is not like the other" look about it in the Mazda showroom. Sadly, Ford chose not to share its nifty new Sync electronic integration system with Mazda.
The non-hybrid Tribute is a little stale in comparison to newer competitors like the Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4. However, with its hybrid powertrain and significant fuel economy advantage (8-10 mpg difference in EPA combined estimates), the Tribute HEV Hybrid is much more compelling. Depending on equipment levels, the Tribute can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 more than its aforementioned crossover combatants, but with up to $3,000 in federal tax credits for 2008, the economics of buying this hybrid makes some sense.
Unfortunately, Mazda is planning a limited release of the 2008 Tribute Hybrid in the state of California only. So if you're shopping for a hybrid SUV, you might have to go with the Ford or Mercury version. Alternately, the similarly priced Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid trades 4 fewer mpg in the EPA combined cycle for a higher-quality interior, better overall refinement and more attractive styling.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Mazda Tribute HEV Hybrid is a five-seat compact crossover SUV available in two trim packages. The Touring comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, foglights, rear tinted windows, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, a 60/40-split rear seatback, dual-zone automatic climate control and a four-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Grand Touring trim level adds dual heated power mirrors, automatic headlights, six-way power driver seat with lumbar control, heated front seats, leather upholstery and a seven-speaker stereo with in-dash six-CD changer and satellite radio. A touchscreen navigation system is optional on the Grand Touring.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2008 Mazda Tribute HEV Hybrid is powered by a combination of a 2.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine (133 horsepower and 124 pound-feet of torque) and two electric motor/generators. Together, net output is 155 hp. Mazda calls the transmission a continuously variable transmission, but there's no rotating belt as in a conventional CVT. Instead, the motors work in concert with the gas engine through a planetary gearset to provide seamless power and maximum efficiency. On all-wheel-drive Tribute Hybrid models, a third electric motor steps in to drive the rear wheels when extra acceleration or traction is needed. It's not a true all-wheel-drive system, though, and buyers needing a serious snow vehicle will be better served by the regular gasoline-powered Tribute or by one of its four-cylinder competitors. Fuel economy is 34 mpg city and 30 mpg highway for the front-wheel-drive Tribute HEV, while all-wheel-drive models get 29/27.
Standard safety equipment on the 2008 Mazda Tribute Hybrid includes antilock disc brakes, front side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Stability control is not available. In government crash tests, the Tribute Hybrid achieved only three out of five stars for driver protection in a frontal crash. It earned a full five stars for passenger front protection and side impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Tribute and its Ford cousins the second-highest rating of "Acceptable" in the IIHS frontal-offset crash test. It got the highest rating of "Good" in the side test.
Interior Design and Special Features
Like the Tribute Hybrid's exterior, the interior features little Mazda family resemblance apart from the badge on its steering wheel. Besides that and unique two-tone color combinations, the Tribute is virtually identical to the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. Unless you're a devout Mazda fan, this isn't really a bad thing, as the control layout and build quality are generally good. The HVAC and stereo controls are split like in other Mazdas, with readouts placed high atop the dash in legible blue letters and numbers. The controls themselves are a huge improvement over the unattractive cookie-cutter units found in most other Ford family products.
One annoyance particular to the Tribute Hybrid and its Ford cousins is the fact that the air-conditioner only cools the cabin when the gasoline engine is running. Using the "max A/C" setting keeps the engine from shutting off in stop-and-go traffic, but prevents you from reaping the fuel savings of electric-only propulsion in these situations. (Other hybrids get around this problem by using an electric A/C compressor.)
The front seats are well bolstered and comfortable, but the rear seat, although roomy enough for adults, is flat and devoid of recline or fore/aft adjustments. Folding that seat down is a bit of a chore, too, as the headrests must be removed and the bottom cushions tipped forward before the seatbacks can be flipped down. Cargo space stands at 29 cubic feet behind the second row and 66 cubes with the second row folded down.
Although the gasoline engine makes too much racket during hard acceleration, the 2008 Mazda Tribute Hybrid feels nearly as quick as the V6 Tribute, while returning outstanding fuel mileage. Ride quality is acceptable for this class but handling is a bit of a letdown, especially considering Mazda's penchant for giving every vehicle they sell a sports car feel. With an extra 300 pounds of curb weight compared to a regular Tribute, the hybrid model exhibits considerable body roll around turns and generally feels less agile than most small SUVs. The Tribute Hybrid's regenerative brakes provide solid stopping ability, but can be difficult to modulate due to the brake pedal's excessive stiffness at the top of its travel.