Car reviews - Mazda - BT-50 - utility range
Great capability, interior space, excellent level of standard features, top-shelf safety gear
Room for improvement
Sporty suspension is too firm on bumpy roads, no manual option for smaller diesel, bold car-like design looks awkward
20 Oct 2011
THERE has never been a better time for a tradie to choose a ute, with lots of new models on offer.
Last year, the Volkswagen Amarok arrived, and a new Holden Colorado and Isuzu D-Max are scheduled to lob next year.
Ford has just launched its all-new Ranger and its sibling, the Mazda BT-50, has now arrived. They are both very real alternatives to the Toyota HiLux and Nissan Navara.
The BT-50 was developed alongside the Ranger, with Mazda engineers pitching in at key points and taking on responsibility for some parts. The Mazda ute is not just a rebadged Ranger, but instead has a unique interior and exterior as well as a different suspension tune.
That means this BT-50 represents a dramatic improvement over the last model. Mazda reckons it represents a two-generation jump, and it’s right. This is a vastly better truck than the last model in every way, apart from affordability.
Mazda knows this is a far better vehicle and has adjusted the pricing accordingly, which represents a big jump when you consider how much was being cut from the run-out models. The jump isn’t much at the lower end of the range, but is larger (as is the case with the new Ranger) at the top of the range.
A short time in the BT-50 XT-R dual-cab showed that Mazda and Ford have done a brilliant job.
The positives are many, but the design of the BT-50 could be a problem for Mazda.
While styling is subjective, I haven’t found anyone outside the Mazda family who likes the look of the vehicle. The designers wanted to give the BT-50 ‘car-like’ styling and it looked great in the early sketches, but the final result is far from convincing.
The fussy design jars with the boxy dimensions and the rear lights, which appear to extend onto the tailgate (although the section on the tailgate is only made of reflectors, not lights), make the vehicle look narrower than it is.
Still, the HiLux and Mitsubishi Triton have done fairly well despite having softer designs.
While the exterior design might be an issue for some, the interior is a highlight. All the talk about it being car-like matches the reality here. Apart from all the plastic surfaces being hard, the interior is what you would expect from a mid-level passenger model.
Mazda didn’t go down the same path as Ford, which took inspiration from power tools and manly watches, intentionally shaping the interior to match other models in its range.
The layout of the gauges, the controls and read-outs are all simple but stylish and, importantly, easy to use.
We only drove the XT-R models, which have a high level of standard equipment including an integrated satellite-navigation system.
The cabin is relatively serene, so you can have a conversation with a back seat passenger without having to raise your voice, which is an impressive feat for vehicles such as this.
Like the Ranger, the BT-50 has a seemingly endless list of hidey-holes around the cabin, including under the seats, the huge glovebox can fit a massive laptop and there’s even a clip on the dashboard to hold business cards or fuel dockets.
The headroom and legroom in the dual-cab is excellent (no Freestyle Cab models were at the launch) and access to the rear seats, with big, wide-opening doors, is a highlight.
Capability is obviously very important in this class and it is reassuring that the BT-50 can tow up to 3350kg and carry up to 1271kg in the back.
Our unladen utes certainly did very well up some very steep and rocky climbs, even without the electronic rear differential lock, and the hill descent control made the descents rather easy, too.
A wading depth of 800mm will certainly be appreciated by the more adventurous and meant there were no concerns when it came to crossing a creek on the launch.
At the launch, Mazda only had the range-topping 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel, which is not the gruntiest in the class (that would be the Navara’s ST-X 550) but is among the best with a decent amount of torque spread over a wider range than before.
The engine was relatively quiet, though there was a niggling high-pitch clatter in some circumstances between 1100rpm and 1800rpm, just like the Ranger. It sounds like some kind of impeller noise and can be annoying.
The six-speed automatic is a good transmission and changes gears without fuss while the six-speed manual has a nice light clutch, but feels a little bit notchy when it comes to selecting gears.
Handling may not be a priority for workhorse ute buyers, but Mazda aimed for the BT-50 to have car-like handling. Ford apparently wanted the Ranger and BT-50 to share the same suspension components, to reduce complexity and save money at the Thai plant where they are both produced, but Mazda insisted on a sportier set-up.
Our relatively brief test drive confirmed the BT-50 handles better than most other one-tonne utes, and the rack-and-pinion steering certainly is excellent.
However, it is also clear that the suspension changes mean the BT-50 doesn’t have the same ride quality as the Ranger. The Mazda is more fidgety over bumps on country roads than the Ranger, which still handles very well.
Evident in the BT is its chassis rigidity. The back end doesn’t wobble around as it does with some less-rigid utes.
The traction control and stability control function worked well on slippery dirt roads and it is great that Volkswagen, Ford and Mazda have decided to include it across the board in their new models.
The standard fitment of front driver and passenger and curtain airbags (and additional side bags on all models but the Single Cab) is also welcome.
Standard cruise control and Bluetooth phone connectivity across the range are also likely to appeal to people who use these vehicles as mobile offices.
It might not win any beauty pageants, and there are some question marks over the suspension tune, at least for the model we drove, but the new BT-50 is a very impressive ute.
This is a vehicle that should be on the shortlist for anyone looking for a one-tonne worker or family hauler capable of the odd tough job.
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