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Mazda upgrades the BT-50 to increase appeal across the ute segment

The ute segment is currently the Golden Goose of vehicle sales and continues to grow, along with SUVs, pretty much at the expense of everything else except the small car category. It’s certainly highly competitive, and with the move to Euro 5 compliance, and pending the subsequent introduction of Euro 6 emissions standards, we are already seeing a restructuring of power and torque outputs.

Dependent on your actual usage, it now becomes easier to develop a short list of which ute is the right one for you? Irrespective of the fact that the majority of utes all claim a 3500 kg towing limit, as engine sizes reduce the final choice really does separate the men from the boys (euphemistically speaking).

If you want to carry or tow combined gross weights that can now max out at 6000 kg, you need to steer towards the large capacity engines such as the 3.0-litre Isuzu D-Max and the 3.2-litre five-cylinder engines used jointly by Ford with the Ranger and Mazda with the BT-50.

Irrespective of the power and torque than can be extracted from smaller cubic capacity diesels through dual turbocharging, if you follow the “what goes up must come down” principle the result is that you get stronger, more capable performance going up hills, but you also get better engine braking coming down the other side. Without the cubic capacity the towing vehicle will be relying more heavily on its service brakes, running the risk of overheating and subsequent reduction of braking efficiency.Mazda-BT50-7

With the Mazda BT-50, the buyer gets to choose between the 3.2-litre five-cylinder and the 2.2-litre four-cylinder. Literally, it’s a case of horses for courses. If you tow heavy weights you opt for the 3.2-litre, and if you just want an honest workhorse that may pull a light trailer you go for the 2.2-litre.

Mazda set its own styling course with the introduction of the current BT-50 back in October 2011, at the time going for a more swooping, softer image, especially around the front nose area. The latest upgrades have sharpened up the frontal styling to give a greater impression of toughness, and this has been matched by an ad campaign where now the orientation is more towards work and play, rather than play and possible work.

There are 23 variants of the new BT-50, including 10 with 4×2 and 13 with 4×4 capability, the choice of two engine capacities and either six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.

Pricing starts at $25,570 for the 2.2-litre six-speed manual, single-cab/chassis 4×2 version, heading up the scale through the Freestyle design with its deeper cab and rear half-doors, plus 3.2-litre engine at $32,745, to a dual-cab/chassis for a further $2000. The six-speed auto adds a further $2000.

In 4×4 territory the engine choice is restricted to the 3.2-litre, starting with the single-cab/chassis with six-speed manual at $36,850 and working its way through to the top-of-the-line GT dual-cab 4×4 utility with six-speed auto and lots of extras at $53,790.

The external appearance of the previous BT-50 did polarise public opinion more towards fashion than tough-style off-road function, but with the latest styling changes Mazda has redressed the balance. At the same time the company has introduced some distinct advantages that currently other makes don’t offer in their specifications.

Those amongst us that tow regularly will probably be coping with an auxiliary trailer brake unit mounted usually on the base of the dashboard around knee-strike level.

It’s never been satisfactory to mount a control unit where it can cause injury in the event of an accident, but that’s where most of these brake control units have ended up. Mazda has done some lateral thinking on this and incorporated a unit control into the dashboard itself. Using a RedArc remote head electric brake controller, the over-ride and the brake control are all within the normal dashboard controls, while the actual control unit is mounted behind the dashboard.

Another feature that will appeal to those drivers that do head off into what was previously uncharted territory is the optional availability of Hema topographical mapping, within the onboard satellite navigation system. This opens up the outback as a distinct advantage from conventional bitumen road based mapping systems. The infotainment system, which includes the sat/nav mapping, now displays through a 7.8-inch high screen on XTR and GT models, also including reverse cameraMazda_BT50_2 vision.

There’s an obvious benefit from having a design team that seems to actually drive off-road and experience at first hand what customers need from their vehicle. When the BT-50 and Ford Ranger were first launched it was Ford that took the role of lead engineering team for the project. As Mazda’s programme manager, Takasuke Kobayashi, told Delivery, this time around it’s been Mazda that had significantly more input than before, capitalising on its experience to fine tune the model specifications for this upgrade.

Since 2011, Mazda has sold 50,000 current generation BT-50s into the Australian market, with single-cab, freestyle-cab and dual-cab accounting for 25 percent, 15 percent and 60 percent of sales respectively. XT has been the most popular grade, making up 55 percent of sales, with the XTR taking 35 percent and the GT a further 10 percent. The 4×4 versions have been the dominant players, accounting for 77 percent of sales in 2015.

In line with the Australian preference for automatic transmissions, the majority of sales until now have been with the six-speed automatic. That said, the previous shift quality of the six-speed manual gearbox was notchy to use and was not the smoothest to select ratios.

With the latest BT-50, the company has incorporated upgrades to the shift quality that have removed the notchiness, improved smoothness and general made the manual gearbox more appealing. The first and second ratios have triple-cone synchronisers, third and fourth ratios have double-cone synchronisers and fifth and sixth gears have a mono-cone synchroniser.

There is no comparison in engineering terms with competing utes from the Chinese manufacturers. Build quality issues aside, the Chinese interpretation of safety is totally different from those of Mazda, Ford, Toyota, Isuzu and the other leading brands. Buyers have the expectation of five-star ANCAP safety crash protection and this is what you are aiming for when buying vehicles such as the BT-50.

There’s also the ratheMazda_BT50_1r important matter of product support, with a parts and service infrastructure that reinforces the brand strength for the main team players, being a direct contrast to the lack of investment, commitment and simple parts availability that is a common feature of the Chinese brands. If you need any further reinforcement of the reasons not to buy Chinese, take a look at resale values as these reflect the discontent experienced by those trying to offload what seemed to be a good idea at the time, when judged on purchase price alone.

With the purchase of a BT-50 comes a high degree of safety initiatives, with ABS, DSC, EBD, EBA, ESS, HLA, LAC, RSC, TCS and TSC. Of these inclusions we should single out Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Electronic Brake Distribution and Brake Assistance (EBD and EBA), Roll Stability Control (RSC) and Trailer Sway Control (TSC), as being noteworthy for on-road driving. Personal protection includes driver and passenger frontal and curtain airbags.

Those travelling off-road will benefit from the sophistication and ability of the traction control system (TCS), which apportions power to the wheels with grip, reducing power to the wheels with less grip and enabling the vehicle to maintain progress.

As a personal preference, the 2.2-litre powered BT-50 should not be overlooked simply because of engine size. As mentioned, much of the purchase decision is dependent on usage, such as towing, but for a likeable workhorse the 2.2 has a lot going for it.

The 2.2-litre produces 110 kW of power at 3,700 rpm, peak torque of 375 Nm rated at 1,500-2,500 rpm, and returns a fuel consumption reading of 7.6 l/100 km (4×2 six-speed manual combined). The 3.2-litre lifts the performance and torque results to 147 kW at a lower 3,000 rpm, and 470 Nm at 1,750-2,500 rpm, adding a further cylinder and consequently a little more tare weight to achieve 8.4 l/100 km (4×2 six-speed manual combined).

As a workhorse, the 4×2 XT Single Cab comes with steel 16-inch rims, halogen headlamps, power windows, air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth compatibility for phone and audio connectivity, steering-wheel mounted audio controls and a four-speaker AM/FM CD and MP3 compatible audio system.

The Freestyle fits the bill where occasional space is needed behind the front seats, with access provided by rear-hinged forward opening half doors. Yes, you can put kids in the back for short distance or adults for even shorter distances, but it is ideal for absorbing shopping, tools and equipment that you don’t want sliding around in the tray or tub.

Featuring all the inclusions of the XT, the Freestyle 4×4 also comes with Hill Descent Control (HDC) for 4×4 models, plus a locking rear differential (LRD), probably the most beneficial addition available for off-road travel over slippery grass or rocky terrain where wheelspin can halt progress.

As the prospective buyer works their way through the specifications of the upper grade models to the XTR, they will find alloy wheels, fog lamps, dual-zone air conditioning, side steps, carpet, leather-wrapped steering wheels and gear knobs, plus more speakers and better sound from the audio system.

What you will also find on selected models, as an indication of Mazda doing its research on local preferences, is the availability of a bench front seat. While those in the city might ponder on the attraction of a bench seat over an individual bucket seat, for the country owner it’s a no brainer. The dual front passenger seat absorbs two kids for the run down the farm driveway to meet the school bus at the front gate. And, if you don’t have kids, it gives the blue healer more room to lounge.

There are some major specification differences that separate the Mazda BT-50 from its Ford counterpart, such as the decision not to offer Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Departure Assistance, that is an optional feature on the top spec’ Ranger. According to Takasuke Kobayashi, it remains a topic for further discussion. “Right now we don’t believe it is necessary in this vehicle category, but it can be considered in the future,” he said.

When it comes to servicing and maintenance, Mazda shows its focus on the customer by already having in place fixed pricing displayed on its website, meaning there shouldn’t be any surprises at the time of payment. Servicing intervals are every 10,000 km, with current costings of $373 for the 2.2-litre 4×2, and $395 for the 3.2-litre 4×4. The major service intervals are at 40,000 km periods where the cost rises to $510 and $532 respectively.

Mazda in the past has focused more on the private customer, which has proven to be its core business, especially with its car and SUV range. The appointment by Mazda Australia of Tim Crilly as corporate and business fleet senior manager could well change the ground base of BT-50 customers, as the company looks for incremental sales gains through appealing directly to small and medium fleets.

“We are not aiming at the major fleets such as those of the mining industry, rather we are looking at how we can better appeal to local tradies and inner city fleet operations where our dealer coverage has a strong reputation and the best footprint,” said Mr. Crilly.

The initial launch programme of the new BT-50 provided a brief opportunity to drive a selection of models, but our full analysis will appear in the next issue of Delivery. First impressions, though, show a continuing refinement for the brand, a well-developed driveline and very low interior noise levels that are common throughout the range, irrespective of the model selected.

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