DETROIT – Mazda Motor Corp. is ready to go from testing hybrid-electric vehicles to selling them with the ’08 Tribute HEV.

A fleet of less than 40 Tribute HEVs has been on the road, used by a select group of fire departments in California, and the feedback has been terrific, Mazda North American Operations officials say.

But in late spring, Mazda will begin retailing its first hybrids – versions of the redesigned ’08 Tribute cross/utility vehicle, Jim O’Sullivan, MNAO president and CEO, says.

Volumes will be low, probably less than 1,000, O’Sullivan tells Ward’s in an interview here at the North American International Auto Show. But it will depend on demand.

The HEV is built by Ford Motor Co. alongside assembly of the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner HEVs.

Mazda still is working out allocation and share issues with Ford, O’Sullivan says, adding the auto maker will not chase volume for volume sake and is more focused on maximizing capacity to meet demand for hot products, such as the Mazda3.

Mazda could have sold an additional 10,000-20,000 Mazda3s in North America last year if capacity had not been constrained, he says.

The Tribute HEV is powered by a 2.3L 4-cyl. Atkinson-cycle engine making 133 hp at 6,000 rpm and 124 lb.-ft. (168 Nm) of torque at 4,250 rpm. The electric traction motor adds another 94 hp (70 kW) at 5,000 rpm. Combined output is 155 hp.

As for more hybrids for Mazda, O’Sullivan says Ford provides the hybrid technology, leaving the Japanese auto maker free to use its research and development budget to develop innovative new vehicles.

“As HEVs continue to evolve and value to customers improves, we will see the evolution to all brands, including Mazda,” he says.

Meanwhile, O’Sullivan says Ford’s North American restructuring is having no impact on Mazda’s North American operations. “If anything, the relationship (between the two auto makers) is getting even stronger.”

Nor does he lose sleep at night that Ford put Mazda up as collateral in securing financing.

The value of Mazda’s contribution is well known, O’Sullivan says, noting the current heads of Ford’s North American operations, Premier Automotive Group, Ford of Europe and Asia/Pacific all are Mazda alumni from when the Japanese auto maker lost its way and underwent its own turnaround.

“Ford does a great job of letting us be Mazda,” he says, and leveraging what each brand does best.