Smoke and Mirrors

The all-new ute from Mazda and Ford offers two styling experiences: the swoopy and sensitive, and the rough and tough

Fifty years ago, when Britain still had a thriving car industry, the various brands of Austin, Morris, MG, Wolseley and Riley indulged in something called “badge engineering”.   By producing models based on a common architecture, but branded with a different identity, the cost of vehicle development was reduced substantially.

While today’s auto industry prefers to use the term, “global technology sharing”, the principle remains the same. Companies share their experiences and technology across common platforms as evidenced by Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda, with Mazda and Ford doing likewise amongst the current players in the industry.

Styling, design, first impressions and lasting memories all result from the personal preferences of the onlooker. In one comparison, they share technology, drivelines, development and support, but in other areas, such as image and presence, they remain poles apart. The trick for future success and profitability is to maintain the difference, and to find unique buyers in markets where the combined sales of the two products don’t impinge on each other’s success, but do impact on the success of their rival competitors.

The new platform for the BT-50 and Ford Ranger was jointly developed by Ford and Mazda. Mazda provided platform chassis architecture and Ford led design and vehicle engineering for both brands.

Interestingly, in the application of global operations, Ford took advantage of its full-line design and product development resources, based at its product development and proving ground facilities in Melbourne and Geelong, to lead the global effort to create the next-generation Ranger and BT-50. In fact, the new global ute development project has been the largest automotive design and engineering export project ever undertaken in Australia, attracting support by both the Australian Commonwealth and Victorian State governments.

Using the term of “One Ford”, rather than admitting to badge engineering, has resulted in Ford investing nearly US$3-billion since 2006 to transform its manufacturing facilities, across the Asia Pacific and Africa region, from low-volume local production to high-volume regional production. Ford is pursuing an aggressive growth strategy, especially in growing markets like India and China, and employs more than 25,000 people across the region.

Talking to Delivery magazine in Sydney, Ford Asia Pacific and Africa President, Joe Hinrichs, said,

“We are in a position to expand production in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. Volume assembly of the all-new pickup is slated to begin in 2011 at the AutoAlliance Thailand (AAT) plant in Rayong, where Ford and Mazda recently announced a US$350-million investment to upgrade the facility. This facility will produce vehicles for Thailand and markets in the Asia Pacific region.

“Ford is investing US$412-million to increase capacity at its South African operations to build the Ranger and the Puma diesel engine, along with additional investments to boost the capacity and expertise of Tier 1 suppliers. Other major investments to grow Ford’s volume production capacity across the broad Asia Pacific and Africa region have included new manufacturing plants in China and Thailand, plus a doubling of capacity at its Chennai, India, plant.

“South Africa will produce Ranger for the home market and Europe, including Russia and Turkey, as well as emerging markets in Africa and beyond. Argentina eventually will begin producing the all-new Ranger for South America, another key region for compact pickups,” added Mr. Hinrichs.

Whether you are a fan of Ford, or prefer the more subtle nuances of Mazda design, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Sydney International Motor Show was the chosen venue for a global release of siblings from both companies. And with our attention firmly focused on these latest products, we need to pause for a moment to look at marketing spin versus reality, and compare the features and benefits of the all-new Mazda BT-50 and the Ford Ranger.

If you believe the marketing teams from each company, there’s a world of difference between both products, and, with a cursory glance showing a difference in styling cues, the average onlooker could be fooled into thinking that only the timing of the reveal happens to be common.

However, increasing familiarity with both products soon reveals the similarities of the overall designs, given the need to maintain identical key design points, to ensure overall efficiencies in terms of development costs.

A basic comparison of each new ute commences with whether you believe it was designed by Mazda, with a little help from Ford, or whether the reverse is nearer the truth. Either way, both companies have new products of which they can be justifiably proud.

Mazda_BT50-36You can rely on the basic key points of both vehicles to be identical. The rake of the windscreen, the positioning and size of the A, B and C pillars, the mechanical components of engine, drivetrain and suspension, plus the dimensions of the load carrying tub all share the same common thread. Any deviation from these controls for the engineers, stylist and designers would result in horrendous additional, and unnecessary, cost.

So, with the underpinning mechanics retaining similarity, the difference can only be cosmetic, rather like two identical twin sisters wearing different dresses to the Year 12 formal. Both look stunning, the overall appearance is different, but the DNA is shared.

Compared to the previous Ranger and BT-50 models, everything is new. The chassis boasts 20 percent greater torsional rigidity, and this alone will result in improved ride and handling, and suspension characteristics. Once the suspension engineers can restrict the opportunity for the ladder-frame chassis to flex, they can introduce tighter controls of the suspension components and consequently improve suspension dynamics.

The new chassis is longer, wider and deeper than the previous model, and it plays host to new front suspension systems based on a coil over damper design, rather than the more common torsion bar systems found on many utes. The rear suspension retains semi-elliptical leaf spring design for maximum load carrying and better performance across a wide variation of load weights.

Destined for sale in over 180 global markets, Ford has already stated that it will not be available in either Canada or North America where it might impact on sales of its well established F-Series range that includes the F150.

There are obviously a lot of common design threads happening behind the scenes when it comes to signing off componentry, but it’s only when it comes to the outer skin where individuality manages to show through.

With both Mazda and Ford previewing crew cab all-wheel-drive models at the Sydney International Motor Show, it didn’t take long to determine that these examples were not early production models. In fact, neither had done the run down the manufacturing and assembly line in the factory.

Both models on display were effectively hand built, without actually possessing engines and transmissions. Parts of the underpinning were actually fashioned from wood and composite materials, disguised as metal, forming the backbone for the cosmetic appearance. The ride height equated with the projected specifications, but additional trim covers prevent prying eyes from peering too far into the depths of the construction. Even body panels were hand crafted, and creases on corners were folded over with far more metal tumblehome than would be evident in a production model. To reinforce the need to protect each vehicle from being sat in, prodded and poked, both vehicles came with their own minders to act as personal bodyguards.

Considering the official start of vehicle manufacturing is not scheduled until mid 2011, it’s the view of Delivery that the mere presence of both vehicles at the Sydney Show indicated the concern both Ford and Mazda share of the latest arrival in this segment, the Argentinean built VW Amarok.

Although Australia won’t be seeing Amarok on sale until April of 2011, it’s already rolling off the production lines in South America. For Ford and Mazda, it became imperative to show what was coming far earlier than normal, in order to register an aspirational claim on this growing segment of the market.

Whereas the model being replaced was based on traditional, mechanical drive systems, with levers to select 2WD/4WD Low and 4WD High, the new drivetrain relies more on electronics, losing the mechanical locking front hubs, for example, and introducing electronic stability programmes, ABS and traction control. Also included will be Adaptive Load Control, Trailer Sway Control, Rear Park Assist and a rear vision camera. The system developed by Ford and Mazda does not, however, go as far as the sophistication of the Amarok, which attains its pinnacle of off-road ability through a vast array of, electronically-controlled, power distribution systems.

Unlike Amarok, which currently offers one engine and a drivetrain selection between 2WD and 4WD and is currently without an automatic transmission option, the Ranger/BT-50 brings with it a choice of two diesel engines and one petrol, with six-speed manual and automatic transmissions.

As might be anticipated, both models will be available with three different cab body styles, 4×2 and 4×4 drivetrains, two ride heights and up to five series choices, depending on the market.

At the top of the selection choice is a 3.2-litre, five-cylinder diesel engine, from the Duratorq TDCi range, that produces maximum power of 147 kW at 3,000 rpm. With a peak torque rating of 470 Nm at 2,750 rpm, it can offer payloads of up to 1,500 kg on selected models.

Next engine down the range is a four-cylinder, 2.2-litre Ford Duratorq TDCi diesel engine offering 110 kW at 3,700 rpm, with rated torque output of 375 Nm from 1,500 – 2,500 rpm.

For those preferring petrol engines, this Euro V emissions compliant trio includes a 2.5-litre Ford Duratec I4 petrol engine with maximum power of 122 kW at 6,000 rpm and a torque rating of 226 Nm. It can be configured for E100 flexible fuel capability or retrofitted to run on CNG or LPG, and is only available with the Ford MT75 five-speed manual transmission.

This all-new engine features cast aluminium pistons fitted into the cast iron bore liners. Included in the design is variable intake cam geometry to provide the optimal balance of power output and fuel economy. Fuel delivery is handled through a sequential multiport fuel injection system.

The all-wheel-drive transfer case in the new models is electronically controlled, to allow drivers to shift from 4×2 to 4×4, anytime, via an electronic switch located on the console. If extra torque or additional downhill braking is needed, low-range gearing also can be enabled. Also available, on some models, is either an electric locking differential or a limited slip differential, plus a variation of final drive ratios.

Taking the crew cab model as an example, there are over 20 storage locations throughout the interior, with each of the four doors in the cab able to accept water bottles, and, on selected models, there’s a deep centre console to keep beverages cool. The glove box is large enough to accommodate a laptop computer, and the centre console also provides storage for mobile pMazda_BT50-1hones and other small items.

Underneath the rear seats is a convenient hidden storage area for electronic items and small packages, while, on selected Ranger Double Cab models, an armrest in the centre rear seatback fold includes two cup holders.

The designers are also claiming some positive numbers when it comes to achieving improved aerodynamics. The tub position is much closer to the rear of the cabin wall, reducing airflow turbulence and consequently improving fuel economy. Having performed over 1000 full-vehicle aerodynamic simulations, to perfect the shape of the vehicle, the results were included in the hard line at the fender top where wind flow was divided and resistance lowered. The backlight was positioned more vertically, A-pillars optimised and a small spoiler was added to the top of the tailgate. A front airdam plays a significant role in controlling the airflow underneath the vehicle, leading to a significant reduction in the drag coefficient.

The new Ford 6R80 six-speed automatic transmission has been extensively tuned to deliver smooth, quick shifts, almost imperceptibly to the driver, and reinforcing the car-like refinement of the new model. In Normal mode, the calibration focuses on comfort and fuel economy. For sportier driving, a quick flick into Sport mode provides later shift points and manual gear selection. It also features Grade Control Logic, which automatically downshifts on a downhill grade when sufficient brake pressure is sensed.

The Ford MT82 six-speed manual transmission can cope easily with the higher torque output of the diesel engines, and drivers striving for the best levels of fuel economy will be assisted by an upshift indicator in the instrument panel to advise the optimum time for gear shifting.

The new six-speed also has the ability to adapt to the driver’s style through Driver Recognition software. By determining the current driving style, including acceleration and deceleration rates, brake and throttle applications and cornering speeds, the transmission ensures the vehicle is in the right gear at the right time, without undesired gear shifts.

Off-road performance has been improved as a result of the stiffer frame, ground clearance of up to 232 millimetres and driveline components that have been strategically mounted above the frame rail and out of harm’s way. There’s also been work completed in keeping components out of harm’s way when wading through water.

Despite an increased 3220 mm wheelbase, and wider track for the 4×4 model of 1560 mm, and 4×2 model of 1590 mm at the front and rear, the all-new Ranger’s turning circle of under 12 m makes it easily manoeuvrable. Its rack and pinion steering unit replaces the previous recirculating ball system to deliver more precise steering.

Engineers used sophisticated computer modelling to hone the crashworthiness of the all-new ute, with more than 9000 full-vehicle crash simulations before the first prototype vehicle was subjected to a physical crash test. Also included for the first time are new passive safety technologies, including the availability of side curtain airbags on all cab styles.

Measuring 1549 millimetres long, 511 millimetres high and with a maximum cargo width of 1560 millimetres, the cargo box of the crew cab is more than 100 millimetres wider, and offers a volume of 1.21 cubic metres.

Width between the wheel arches is 1139 millimetres on all models, and special provisions are provided in the cargo box to locate timber struts in pockets that are located above the wheel arch. This allows plywood or gyprock to be stacked flat. Width at the rear tailgate opening, at the top of the box, is 1330 millimetres.

A variety of final drive ratios, from 3.31 to 5.3, will be available depending on the drive configuration and whether the vehicle is a low- or high-ride model. This helps owners configure the new ute when it is heavily loaded, provides strong off-the-line acceleration and excellent pulling characteristics, and optimises fuel economy.

Having discussed all the commonalities, we now turn our attention to the differences, which come down to look and feel. Each design team had their own people working on interior trim levels, fabrics and colours. Ford’s stylists looked at capitalising on the strength and robust appearance of the F 150, and its bigger brothers, while Mazda’s Japanese design team went for swoopy styling, as a cross over from its current car and SUV models.

The front wings, bonnet, grille and headlamps of the Ranger and BT-50 look totally different. Mazda has also been rather more adventurous (some might say foolhardy) in wrapping the rear lights into the sides of the tailgate. It’s great, from a styling point of view, for Tokyo street cruising, but local Aussie users might find it’s an instant damage magnet once the vehicle joins the rough and tumble of daily work.

The full specification and variation between both brands will not be confirmed until their official launch in mid 2011. There’s always the possibility that Mazda will distance itself from Ford by using its own engines and transmissions, but, at this stage, we see that as unlikely, due to the need to maintain commonality wherever possible to keep costs under control.

It also worth remembering that Mazda is well advanced in its technology for stop/start engine idle control, and might also be considering regenerative braking systems and even a possible hybrid version in its line-up. Either way, with all manufacturers turning their attention to the humble ute, the customer is not going to be starved for choice.

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