The Mazda Tribute is a compact sport utility vehicle with a good choice of powertrains, trim levels, and features that recommend it to a wide audience. It is mechanically and structurally identical to the superb Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner, but is differentiated by its features and its appeal. The Tribute is generally sportier than the Escape. Overall, it offers an excellent value among compact SUVs.
The Tribute has four doors and will seat five passengers in good comfort. The engine choices are a thrifty and responsive four-cylinder available with a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, a strong V6 that comes with an automatic, and a hybrid that teams an electric motor and battery pack with a four-cylinder engine to deliver impressive fuel economy, particularly in city driving.
Tribute is available with front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, the latter designed primarily for bad weather and slippery surfaces rather than off-road use.
Fuel economy is one of the Tribute's strong points, with an EPA rating of 22 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway for the four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. Even the strong V6 with four-wheel drive delivers reasonable fuel economy, 18 mpg City, 23 mpg Highway, which is more than just decent, considering the Tribute so equipped is also capable of towing 3,500 pounds. And the hybrid is rated at 34 mpg City, 31 mpg Highway, which should appeal to those who do a fair amount of driving in and around town.
The four-cylinder dohc engine is 2.5 liters and is rated at 171 horsepower, and is available with either the five-speed manual or six-speed automatic, but four-wheel drive is available with the four-cylinder only when it has the automatic. The 3.0-liter dohc V6 is quite strong and is rated at 240 horsepower and 233 lb-ft of torque; it is available only with the automatic. The Hybrid has a version of the four-cylinder engine that is rated at 153 horsepower, but the combined output of the engine and the electric motor can be as much as 177 horsepower.
Inside is a comfortable cabin and generous cargo space.
Underway, we found the Tribute offers a good blend of a comfortable ride and responsive handling, with a well-tuned fully independent suspension.
Safety equipment includes two-stage frontal airbags, side airbags in front, side-curtain head-protection airbags for front and rear outboard passengers, Dynamic Stability Control (which helps maintain control on slippery surfaces), Traction Control, Roll Stability Control, anti-lock brakes, and tire-pressure monitoring.
For 2010, Mazda Tribute has few changes. The trim level choices are somewhat streamlined, the V6 engine is Flex-Fuel compatible (meaning it will run on E85), and there are some new color choices. There are also some additional features that have been added to various trim levels.
Mazda Tribute i Sport 2WD ($20,090); i Touring 2WD ($23,275); i Grand Touring 2WD ($25,235); s Grand Touring 2WD ($26,850)
The Mazda Tribute has a clean, attractive appearance. The grille is black, in Mazda's wedge shape that suggests a grin, with a chrome Mazda gullwing logo centered in a chrome strip across the top. The halogen headlights, small and simple trapezoids, complement that shape. Under the nose there's a slim valance that contains the halogen fog lamps.
The seven-spoke alloy wheels fit the look well. The flares around the wheelwells look just right, and, thankfully, there's no cladding. There's no chrome for the sake of chrome, except for one wide strip over the rear license plate indent, matching the strip over the grille.
The B-pillar slopes back with a small angle to give the side windows some angularity, but there's no attempt at fancy shapes as with, for example, the Honda CR-V, a competitor to the Tribute. This allows a practical-sized rear cargo window, for better visibility and safety. The liftgate window opens separately, a nice feature. The taillights, like the rest of the Tribute, are no-nonsense: Big and blocky enough to be safe, with just enough shape to be handsome.
The rear bumper has a flat shelf with a rubber strip, making climbing up to the roofrack easier; that rack is standard on all models but the i Sport.
Inside, the Tribute is comfortable, roomy and practical.
Second-row passengers get good legroom and kneeroom, even behind driver whose seat is slid back, and the elevated seating gives them visibility out the windshield. The view to the sides is also broad and open. For the passengers in the rear seat, there are two fixed cupholders on the console between the front seats, a small storage bin, an AC outlet, map pockets on the front seatbacks, and door pockets. There are no reading lights for them, however. The rear doors close easily with a solid hand-hold.
The rear seats fold easily enough, although not totally flat. The seat bottoms slide forward, and the seatbacks then flop down. We carried a bunch of windsurfing equipment without a problem, including masts that extended between the front seats to the dashboard, and one sailboard that was nine feet long, which obscured vision out the right front window, but still fit. It could have easily been strapped to the roofrack, but we were tired after windsurfing and too lazy.
Everything the driver needs is easy to see, reach, and operate. The gauges are clean and easy to read, with a neat tachometer and speedometer, split by small fuel and temperature gauges. It's all clean and simple. The center stack contains everything that's needed, with dials for the main controls of the sound system and climate system, and buttons that have simple standard icons and are big enough to see and use. It's a blessed relief, nowadays, to find controls that aren't unnecessarily challenging. This simplicity makes for a safer vehicle, because the driver's concentration isn't interrupted by confusion or problem solving.
The air conditioning is powerful. We drove off on a 100-degree day and the cabin was comfortable within two miles. We have driven much more expensive vehicles that had air conditioning systems that did not match that of the Tribute.
Under the center stack, there's a forward tray with a grippy rubber liner, the right size for CDs. The shifter has positions for 1, 2, and D, and a button that turns Overdrive off, for towing. Beside the shifter there's a slot for a pen, and behind it there are two deep fixed cup holders. The center console compartment is a deep box, with a small removable tray and three slots for coins. It's covered with grippy ribbed rubber that works for an armrest. Rubber liners in the cup holders and front bin keep things in place and quiet and are removable for easy cleaning.
The only thing about the interior we found inconvenient was the parking brake release, which we felt was tucked away and low and difficult to reach.
The all-aluminum 3.0-liter V6 engine gets the job done, and its 240 horsepower is plenty for the Mazda Tribute. Realistically, we don't feel it needs more. The Tribute cruises easy at freeway speeds, even up long grades, without straining. The engine is smooth, quiet, and works well with the electronically controlled six-speed automatic transmission, which has a ratio for any driving situation.
The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder is Mazda's bread-and-butter engine, and is well proven. Its 171 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque might be plenty enough for many owners, although it can tow only 1,500 pounds. It delivers better fuel economy than the V6 and costs less to purchase, and if you don't plan on towing or carrying heavier loads, the four-cylinder engine should be just fine.
We have no complaints whatsoever with the ride. We put 272 miles on the Tribute, over familiar terrain that sometimes bumps us around in other vehicles. We were able to forget about those bumps while driving the Tribute, with its wide track and independent suspension, which has MacPherson struts in front and multi-links in the rear. The suspension tuning feels quite refined, and there's no uncomfortable little tipping, wallowing, weaving, shaking, or anything like that. Underway, the Tribute is quiet enough for easy conversation, without much road noise from either the tires or the V6 engine.
The handling is steady, tight and nimble around town. The Tribute has electric power rack-and-pinion steering, which helps make it easy to parallel park. The front fenders are squared, which makes it easy to see the front corners when parking; and good visibility with no blind spots out the back is another virtue. There's a tight enough turning radius, which we tested once to catch a parking space on the opposite side of the street.
We haven't driven the Tribute HEV hybrid, but we have driven the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner in their hybrid versions (which are identical to the Tribute), and we think it's a very good system. It's essentially seamless, and all you have to do is drive it. The electronic controls take care of managing everything, including when the gasoline engine is shut off to conserve fuel, and it requires no special care or attention on the part of the driver. Plus, it delivers great fuel economy, particularly in city driving.
The Tribute has a significant level of standard safety equipment. The Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control and Roll Stability Control will all help to reduce the chances of a crash before it happens. And occupant protection is well covered by the frontal airbags, side airbags, and side-curtain airbags for all outboard passengers.
You can't go wrong with the Mazda Tribute. For the price, it offers all you can expect from a small SUV, with excellent engineering and mechanical execution. Both the four-cylinder and V6 engines are proven, and gas mileage is good. The six-speed automatic transmission is smooth. The suspension offers a tight and comfortable ride, and the handling is nimble and steady. The interior has been carefully designed to be comfortable, with good headroom and legroom in the rear, and the instrumentation is intelligent and easy to understand and operate. Perhaps best of all, the price is very competitive, and the Tribute offers all the latest standard safety features.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses test drove the Mazda Tribute around Oregon's Columbia River gorge.