Full 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid Review
What's New for 2009
For 2009, the Mazda Tribute Hybrid gets a larger, more powerful engine, stability control, an economy mode for the air-conditioner, satellite radio, front and rear stabilizer bars and automatic headlights. Oddly, it also swaps its rear disc brakes for drums.
Saying the words "SUV" and "fuel efficiency" in the same breath may seem as ridiculous as doing the same with "Big Mac" and "healthy diet." But not all SUVs are gas-guzzlers. The evidence is in the form of the 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid which, in two-wheel-drive versions, earns an EPA combined estimate of more than 30 mpg. Perhaps, then, it's not so far-fetched to believe that someday double cheeseburgers could be good for us, too.
Essentially a clone of the Ford Escape Hybrid (and its cousin, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid), the Tribute Hybrid shares the Ford's platform and most of its sheet metal. As such, the Tribute HEV receives most of the same improvements as the Ford this year, including a larger, more powerful engine, stability control, an economy mode for the air-conditioner and a new processor to smooth out the transition between gas and electric modes. Sadly, the Escape got a few features that the Tribute didn't; namely, Ford's Sync system, which allows users to control the audio and navigation systems, as well as cell phones and MP3 players, via voice commands.
Mazda has labeled the latest version of its hybrid cute ute as the 2009 Tribute HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle). As with other "full" hybrids -- the kind that can run up to 30 mph or more solely on their electric motors -- the Tribute HEV offers surprisingly sprightly acceleration. Thanks to the nature of electric motors (they make peak torque almost immediately) and this year's stronger engine, the 2009 Tribute provides "have your value meal and eat it, too" performance that is more akin to that of a V6 than an inline-4.
Having said all that, consumers who cross-shop the 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid with regular compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 may be disappointed in the Mazda's comparatively noisy power delivery, mediocre braking performance and somewhat sluggish dynamics. And because both of these rivals are priced at thousands of dollars less and are capable of returning average mileage in the mid-20s, there's really no immediate cost benefit to choosing a hybrid over a gasoline-powered small SUV. Another interesting alternative is Volkswagen's new diesel-fueled Jetta wagon, as it's cheaper and boasts better highway mileage. However, if you compare the Tribute Hybrid to its closest competitors -- the less refined Saturn Vue Green Line and the more expensive Vue Green Line Two-Mode and Toyota Highlander Hybrid -- the Mazda becomes a much more attractive candidate.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Mazda Tribute HEV is a compact crossover SUV available in two trim levels: Touring and Grand Touring. Both come in a choice of either front-wheel or all-wheel drive.
The Touring comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, foglights, rear tinted windows, full power accessories, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, a 60/40-split rear seatback, dual-zone automatic climate control and a four-speaker stereo with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and steering-wheel controls. The Grand Touring trim level adds heated side mirrors, a six-way power driver seat, heated front seats, leather upholstery and a seven-speaker stereo with an in-dash six-CD changer. A touchscreen navigation system is optional on the Grand Touring.
Powertrains and Performance
The Tribute hybrid power plant consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and two electric motor/generators. Their net output is 177 hp, and they're mated to what Mazda calls a continuously variable transmission, but there's no rotating belt as in a conventional CVT. Instead, the electric motors work in concert with the gas engine through a planetary gearset to provide seamless power and maximum efficiency. If you're not a car buff, you needn't worry about figuring that out -- as with a regular automatic transmission, all you have to do is move the shift lever to "D" and press the gas pedal.
On AWD Tribute Hybrid models, a third electric motor drives the rear wheels when extra acceleration or traction is needed. It's not a true AWD system, though, so buyers needing a serious snow vehicle will be better served by the regular gasoline-powered Tribute with its more traditional AWD setup.
The front-wheel-drive Tribute Hybrid posts impressive mileage ratings of 34 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined. The AWD version is rated at 29/27/28 mpg.
Antilock brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags with a rollover sensor are standard.
In government crash testing, the 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid scored five (out of five) stars for both the driver and passenger in frontal crash tests. In side impact crash tests, the Tribute HEV again scored a perfect five stars for front and rear occupants. In frontal offset crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the '09 Tribute received an "Acceptable" rating (the second highest on a scale of four). In that agency's side impact testing, it received a "Good" rating (the highest).
Interior Design and Special Features
Like the Tribute HEV's exterior, the interior features little Mazda family resemblance apart from the badge on its steering wheel. In fact, 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 climate and stereo controls have a tidy layout, and the instrumentation has an upscale and modern appearance.
A new feature this year is an "economy" setting for the air-conditioner, which allows the auto-shutoff feature for the gas engine to function even while the A/C is on (such as when you're stopped at a red light). But unlike those of a few other hybrids, this system won't allow the A/C compressor to run with the gas engine off, so you might have to endure a temperature increase inside the cabin while waiting to get going again.
The front seats will accommodate adults of all sizes, and the backseat is roomy enough for adults and children, even if its cushions are a bit flat. There are 28 cubic feet of cargo space behind the 60/40-split rear seats, which fold down to open up a total of 65 cubic feet -- a decent figure for this class. Be forewarned that it's not a one-step process, however. You must first remove the headrests and flip up the seat bottoms before folding down the seatbacks.
Although the gasoline engine can get noisy under hard acceleration, the 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid feels like it's powered by a peppy V6, yet it returns outstanding fuel mileage. Ride quality is fine for this class, but handling is a bit of a letdown for a Mazda. Even with this year's suspension changes, the HEV exhibits more body roll around turns and generally feels less agile than most small SUVs due to its extra 300 pounds of curb weight.
The Tribute Hybrid's regenerative brakes feel solid enough in everyday driving, but we have to question the decision to fit them with rear drums. In a simulated panic stop from 60 mph, we tested a Ford Escape (the Tribute's twin) with the same brakes and recorded a dangerously long 154-foot stopping distance -- a good 25 feet longer than expected -- and that was without the Hybrid's added weight.