What: Mazda's little hybrid gives big-mpg benefits with little zoom-zoom
How Much: Base price, $29,570; as tested, $32,200
What's Hot: Upgraded interior materials are designed to set the Tribute apart from a crowded field. It works. Powertrain delivers on the solid fuel-economy promise with wonderful melding of battery, Atkinson-cycle engine, and CVT technology. The new exterior bodywork makes the vehicle look more substantial, too.
What's Not: No sharp edges to the CVT reminds you it's all about the smooth, unexciting takeoffs. Not much fun to drive-all about the mpg. HEV screen graphic never lets you know you have an AWD. Becomes exceptionally sluggish with passengers in the car. Heavy for a 2.3-liter.
On the Road: I'll say right up front I don't get these things. I appreciate the exceptional technology and R&D that's gone into them, but beyond the fun of watching the "energy" screen and keeping track of the battery levels or where the power is going to or coming from, there's nothing here to enjoy. I suppose it's nice that a normal interior package can have $6000 worth of technology to make about 10 mpg in the city and 10 mpg on the highway better than a regular four-banger mini SUV. So this appliance gets better fuel economy. This CVT seems to do a good job of sucking the excitement out of the little guy, and it took me a while to get used to the engine hovering around 3000 and 4000 rpm when driving up into the mountains. Sometimes it got annoying. Still, this will probably be a popular choice for the high schooler because it will make those quiet runs up the driveway after curfew much easier due to the electric mode that takes over under 25 mph. I agree with editor-in-chief Angus MacKenzie when he wonders why anyone would choose a boring hybrid appliance when you can have a sporty turbodiesel rocket (like they have in Europe) that gets better fuel economy. Final thought has to do with where this fits in with the huge crossover push of the CX-7 and CX-9. This is the throwback. Might be cool technology in the CX-7, with a turbo on the little four.
Bottom Line: Nothing too inspiring here but does a nice job of getting drivers to see how smooth or slow they can go for maximum electric-mode or max-mpg mode.