BEFORE TIME | UTE Review -Mazda’s BT-50 retains its appeal as it heads towards future product sharing with Isuzu Ute

Mazda’s BT-50 retains its appeal as it heads towards future product sharing with Isuzu Ute 

Words by Warren Caves, Images by Torque it Up Photography

In a bid to secure continued sales of its popular dual cab ute, Mazda has freshened up the venerable BT-50 with styling and equipment changes in the most comprehensive upgrade of the model since 2011. The next step is a completely new model, badged as a Mazda but developed with Isuzu Ute, and scheduled for release in 2020.

Sales of the 4×2 versions in 2018 put the Mazda in fourth place with a market share of 11.8 percent, behind Toyota HiLux, Isuzu D-Max and Ford Ranger. Its 4×4 version scored a market share of 5.0 percent, again following HiLux and Ranger, but also Mitsubishi Triton,Holden Colorado, Nissan Navara, D-Max, Toyota Landcruiser and Volkswagen Amarok.

The new-look Mazda BT-50 is a joint design upgrade by Mazda Corporation in Japan and the Australian-based EGR group, culminating in a model that will be exclusive to Australian customers.

The core design platform remains largely unchanged. Retained is the MZ-CD 3.2-litre in-line five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine and for our test, the six-speed automatic transmission with normal and performance modes as well as manual and sequential shifting options. Four-wheel-drive activation is via the rotary dial on the centre transmission console, enabling electronic, shift-on-the-fly operation from 2H to 4H at speeds of up to 120 km/h.

Power ratings are unchanged at 147 kw of power at 3000rpm and 470 Nm of torque from a low 1750 to 2500 rpm, and the front suspension consists of a double-wishbone and coil spring set-up on the front, and leaf springs on the rear.

The new-look Mazda BT-50 has undergone significant front-end design changes to achieve a stronger exterior look. To match the tougher stance, Mazda has stepped up the game by offering an impressive list of standard features across the range.

Safety features and programmes have carried over from the previous model to include EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution), DSC (Dynamic Stability Control), TSC (Trailer Sway Control), RSC (Roll Stability Control), HLA (Hill Launch Assist), TCS (Traction Control System), LAC (Load Adaptive Control), EBA (Emergency Brake assist), ABS and more, to deliver  a five-star ANCAP safety rating.

An electronic locking rear differential is standard across the entire 4×4 range, together with a reversing camera.

A bold new bumper and grille have been added to create a wider look and tougher frontal impression, and the popular XTR and flagship GT models feature chrome grille fins paired with dark grey bumper inserts over the satin black found on the lower XT models.

In a first for Mazda, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard across all BT-50 grades, while the XTR and GT feature a larger eight-inch Alpine infotainment system over the seven-inch system in lower-spec models.

The two latest specification offerings of the XTR and the GT have only subtle differences in features to appeal to varying tastes.

BT-50 XTR Dual Cab

The spec here is for cloth trim seats with manual positioning adjustments. Manual lumbar adjustment is included, although I found the range insufficient to gain a good lower back arch. Generally, the seats felt firm and comfortable, and well suited to tall drivers on long distance touring duties. A leather-wrapped steering wheel and transmission selector knob add a touch of refinement.

A soft tonneau was fitted to our test vehicle, which I found clunky and cumbersome to use and feel it would easily scratch the paint in careless hands with its metal lugs at the rear. Disappointingly, there’s no 12-volt power supply as standard fitment for the tub liner.

A low-line, three-inch black nudge bar with spotlight mounts adorns the front of the ute. Black tubular sidesteps allow easy entry for the vertically challenged, although these do little in real-world unsealed road conditions to protect the lower sill from stone peppering. Lower bumper-mounted foglamps, chrome mirror skins, rear bumper accents and 17-inch alloy wheels round out the external styling.

BT-50 GT Dual Cab

The GT shares a good deal of the features from the XTR, with a few noticeable differences. Standard fitment on the GT includes a tub liner and 12-volt accessory supply socket in the tub, polished alloy sports bars with a high-mount LED brake light, and chrome tubular side-steps accentuated with black step point in-fills.  Leather upholstered seats with electronic adjustment lift the interior space to more opulent levels.

Both grades feature impressive standard equipment levels to include an eight-inch Alpine infotainment system featuring satnav and live traffic updates plus six-speaker sound, reversing camera and parking sensors.

Staying charged and connected is easy with numerous 12-volt sockets front and rear, as well as USB and AUX sockets on the dash top which helps to manage the cabling for windscreen-mounted devices.

Steering wheel controls allow easy operation of the cruise control, phone and audio functions. Dual zone airconditioning is also fitted to both the XTR and GT.

The 17-inch alloy wheels are the same across the two models, although I would have liked to see the GT with a bolder wheel and tyre package to differentiate itself from the XTR and strengthen its pose to a look worthy of the GT moniker. Both models feature a standard rear electronic differential lock.

On the road, performance from the 3.2-litre engine was excellent, and while engine noise levels within the cabin were noticeable and even quite audible when pressed, it was not overbearing.

The closely spaced ratios of the six-speed transmission kept the engine within its optimal torque band, alleviating any undue turbo lag. The manual sequential shift ability allowed for a more spirited drive experience for the adventurous, and would prove a prudent choice to provide increased engine braking when descending steep grades while towing heavy loads.

Handling and cornering were refreshingly controlled for a leaf-sprung vehicle even when empty, with that impression reinforced when covering varying camber corners with uneven surfaces that proved no problem for the BT-50, even at speed.

The ride comfort was a little stiff from the rear springs, as are most utes of this type. A little weight in the back did smooth things out a bit. I can’t help but wonder who will be the first manufacturer to develop an integrated, automatically-adjusting air suspension arrangement to cater for weight differentiation and provide the perfect balance between comfortable unladen ride quality and load-carrying ability? That would surely be a winner.

In the wet on two occasions I found the traction control being pressed into duty under power, taking off from a standstill for a right 90-degree turn. Its activation seemed a little slow, only really settling things down after a reasonable amount of wheelspin and subsequent tail kick-out was sensed.

Claimed fuel economy for the BT-50 on a combined cycle is 10.0 L/100km, which is fairly accurate. The GT returned a figure of 9.5 L/100km for the week-long test period, and the XTR showed a reading of 10.2 L/100km for the same duration but incorporating a long freeway-speed drive in high wind, which no doubt contributed to the increased fuel consumption.

The long-serving, tough, capable all-rounder from Mazda should continue to see strong sales, with styling and equipment upgrades luring potential new buyers until the launch of the new model.

The smooth and powerful five-cylinder workhorse, with up to 3500 kg towing capacity, has been a popular choice as a caravan tow vehicle and tradie toolbox for some time now. The larger displacement engine proves a less-stressed powerplant for the heavy lifting jobs, with potential for greater longevity when compared to some of the competitors’ sub-3.0-litre engine alternatives.

There are a couple things I didn’t like about the Mazda BT-50. Firstly, the rear seating is pretty ordinary for full-sized humans, being too upright and with minimal leg room. The ride unladen was a tad firm, though I could overlook this if I was planning on putting the vehicle to work – a dual functionality always requires a compromise somewhere.

For me, the reversing camera is far too bright at night. I regularly operate vehicles in unlit transport yards in the wee small hours where there is little to no outside lighting. When reverse is selected, the display is too bright and when switching from looking in the mirrors to the display, my eyes could not adjust quickly enough, resulting in temporary blindness when looking outside again. I did try to find an adjustment for brightness, with no success.

While the GT commands a price of $54,990 driveaway over the $51,990 for the XTR, I found the XTR to have a more elegant feel about it (well, as elegant as a ute can be). Or perhaps it was the white colour of the GT tested, which I don’t like (white utes just scream council car to me).

With the only real difference being the leather seats and electric adjustment for the GT, my money would go to the XTR.

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