Tribute s models use Ford's Duratec 3.0-liter V6 that makes 200 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque. It achieves an EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg City/Highway with 2WD and 17/22 with 4WD. It's a smooth engine that works well in the Tribute with its four-speed automatic transmission. Many competitors have (and need) a five-speed automatic, but we found the four-speed in the Tribute to be adequate.
Tribute i models use Ford/Mazda's proven 2.3-liter four-cylinder, the same engine that powers the Mazda3, and is popular in race cars because of its potential to make big horsepower. In the Tribute, it delivers a modest 153 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque. It gets better fuel economy than the V6 and costs about $2000 less. Tribute i Sport is available with a manual transmission. It's EPA-rated 20/26 mpg with two-wheel drive and the four-speed automatic transmission, 22/28 with the five-speed manual (either transmission is standard), and 19/24 with optional all-wheel drive with the automatic.
The interior has been totally redesigned to be convenient, while affording as much comfort as possible for a $20,000 SUV, and that's plenty. The air conditioning is especially effective. All the controls are at hand and not confusing for the driver. This simplicity makes a safer vehicle, because the driver's concentration isn't stolen by problem solving.
The ride, on a retuned suspension, is excellent. We put 272 miles on an Escape s Touring model over familiar terrain that sometimes jags us in other vehicles, but we forgot about those bumps driving the Tribute, with its wide track and four-wheel independent suspension, using MacPherson struts in front and multi-links in the rear.
The handling is steady, tight and nimble around town. One of the few new mechanical features is electric power rack-and-pinion steering, which helps make the Tribute easy to parallel park. The front fenders are more squared off than before, making it easier to see the front corners when parking; and, out the back, good visibility with no blind spots is another virtue. The turning radius is tight enough to make a U-turn in the width of a city street.
The previous Tribute had four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, but the '08 Tribute uses drum brakes in the rear. It might be an issue if you tow.
Safety equipment has been upgraded for 2008: Electronic stability control, rollover control, traction control, a tire pressure monitor, two-stage frontal airbags, side airbags in front, full-length air curtains, and LATCH safety mountings for child seats are all standard. In government crash testing, the Tribute scores five stars in side impact front and rear, five stars in frontal impact for the passenger, and three stars in frontal impact for the driver.
Mazda Tribute i Sport ($18,900); i Touring ($21,090); i Grand Touring ($23,280); s Sport ($21,555); s Touring ($22,330); s Grand Touring ($24,520)
The grille is black egg-crate, 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, either flat black or flat gray, containing the halogen foglamps that are standard with the Touring and Grand Touring models, and an opening for more air to the radiator.
The seven-spoke alloy wheels are okay, neither eye-catching nor detracting from the overall looks of the SUV. The Tribute's clean sides would be a nice canvas for great looking aftermarket wheels, though. The waistline has been raised by 1.5 inches, making taller doors and a safer cabin. The flares around the wheelwells are just right, and the gratuitous cladding of previous models has been erased. The flat black or flat gray of the plastic valance carries along the rocker panels, and the door handles are body colored. There's no chrome for the sake of the 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 that used to be common but is less so, nowadays. 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 having a rubber strip, making climbing up to the roofrack easier; that rack, with crossbars that easily adjust by fingertip knobs, is standard on all models but the Sport. It's little things like this that indicate the thoughtfulness behind any vehicle; you have to pay extra to get the crossbars on most SUV roofracks today, and many of them are a challenge to slide forward or rearward for the size and shape of the load.
The interior color scheme of our Touring model was two-tone black and cream, on the dash and cloth seats. The material is sturdy and stain-resistant, with a ribbed texture on the cream-colored part in the middle of the seat bottom and seat back. It's nice enough, and we have no complaints about comfort, but we wonder why the Tribute doesn't use the rugged sporty material of the Mazda3.
We drove our Escape into the city to see a pro soccer game, one hour each way, loaded with passengers. Three passengers were in the back seat, one adult, two children; they had enough legroom, even enough kneeroom behind the driver whose seat was slid back, and the elevated seating gave them visibility out the windshield, plus the view out the rear windows is broad and open.
The cabin was quiet enough for easy conversation during the trip, without much road noise from tires nor from the V6.
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 notch for the hand.
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 is at hand and not problematic for the driver. The gauges are clean and easy to read, with a neat tach and speedo, split by small gas and temp gauges. 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 a panel that isn't unnecessarily challenging. This simplicity makes for a safer vehicle, because the driver's concentration isn't stolen 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 recently tested a $60,000 Audi Avanti in Phoenix in July, and its AC system couldn't come close to matching the Tribute's.
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 (there's an optional towing package). 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 trim for the center console is a hard shiny black plastic, same as on the doors, where again the buttons are simple and all you need: lock and unlock, four windows up and down, rear window locks, and remote mirror adjustment.
The only thing about the interior we found inconvenient was the parking brake release, tucked so low that your chin nearly hits the steering wheel when you stretch for it.
We didn't, not even with our load of people. The Tribute cruised at freeway speeds, even up long grades, without straining. The engine is smooth, quiet, and doesn't fall back on the transmission kicking down a lot. This is almost surprising, given that it's only a four-speed automatic, and that the full 193 pound-feet of engine torque comes at a relatively high 4850 rpm. We often find that cars with four-speed automatics need a fifth gear, but the Tribute's four-speed is adequate, and smooth.
Regrettably, we didn't have the opportunity to drive a Tribute with the 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine. This is Mazda's bread-and-butter engine, and is well proven. Its 153 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm might be enough for your needs in the Tribute, although it can only tow 1500 pounds. It gets two more miles per gallon and costs $2000 less.
We have no complaints whatsoever with the ride. We put 272 miles on the Tribute, over familiar terrain that sometimes jags us in other vehicles, but we were able to forget about those bumps driving the Tribute, with its wide track and independent suspension, using MacPherson struts in front and multi-links in the rear. The suspension tuning has been refined for 2008, as well. There's no tipping, wallowing, weaving, shaking, or anything like that.
The handling is steady, tight and nimble around town. One of the few new mechanical features is electric power rack-and-pinion steering, which helps make the Tribute easy to parallel park. The front fenders are more squared off than before, making it easier 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.
In terms of brakes, Mazda has taken a technological step backwards. The previous model had four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, but the '08 Tribute uses drum brakes in the rear. It's disappointing, and apparently a cost-cutting move. It might be an issue if you tow.
The tradeoff is that, despite a decrease in the price of the Tribute by about $650, there's more safety equipment, and it's significant. Electronic stability control, rollover control and traction control, a tire pressure monitor, side front airbags and full-length airbag curtains all come standard. None of these things were standard on the 2006.
You can't go wrong with the 2008 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 four-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 redesigned to be comfortable, with good headroom and legroom in the rear, and the instrumentation is intelligent and easy to understand and operate. Maybe best of all, the price is lower than in 2006, while offering all the latest standard safety features.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses test drove the 2008 Mazda Tribute around Oregon's Columbia River gorge.