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Mazda’s BT-50 – a good ute that could be a great on

Ford’s Ranger and Mazda’s BT-50 have much in common. After conception by a joint design team, they shared the same birth factory as well as much of their vital DNA – chassis, engine and transmission. However, these two utes have different parents and compete against each other for market share. And this is where the sibling rivalry begins.

According to VFACTS 2015, Ford sold 29,184 Rangers last year, while Mazda sold only 13,500 BT-50s. The Ranger was Ford’s top-selling model and made up 41.42 percent of the 70,454 vehicles (all segments) sold by Ford in 2015 on the Australian market. On the other hand, the BT-50 comprised only 11.84 percent of Mazda’s total sales (all segments), which, at 114,024 units, was considerably higher than Ford.

With a five-star safety rating, the BT-50 is a very safe vehicle and has curtain airbags (front and rear), front airbags (driver and front passenger), side airbags (front), ABS, EBD, dynamic stability control, emergency brake assist, emergency stop signal, hill descent control, hill launch assist, load adaptive control, switchable locking rear diff, remote central locking, roll stability control, seat-belt pretensioners and load limiters, side impact door beams, traction control and trailer sway control.

However, the Ranger has all this plus some extra veryclever safety options, as well as some tweaks to the engine and transmission that the Mazda missed out on. On the other hand, the BT-50 is more than $5000 cheaper for equivalent models – Ford Ranger 3.2-litre XLT PX MkII auto 4×4 (extra-cab), and Mazda BT-50 3.2-litre XRT Freestyle (extra-cab) 4×4 auto, which was our test vehicle.

This all boils down to the simple fact that we have two almost identical utes on our market, yet the Ford outsells the Mazda by more than two to one!

 

Ford is very serious about its Ranger, but where does the BT-50 actually sit in the realm of things for Mazda?

 

“Zooming” up to overall second place in the new car sales chart for 2015 (VFACTS) saw the Mazda2 as the best-selling light passenger car under $25,000, and the Mazda CX5 as the top-selling medium SUV under $60,000.

Yet, while competitors are pouring technology, safety and effort into their utes, Mazda seems to be content to let the BT-50 sell itself, with little other than mild cosmetic changes. That said, getting rid of the overly-cheesy smile of the front grille probably has helped sales.

Toyota and Ford have proved that this is indeed a lucrative segment of the market, with the HiLux recording the third highest sales for cars (in all segments) for 2015, and the Ranger recording the fifth highest sales (VFACTS). Yes, two of the five top-selling vehicles in Australia last year were utes!

Delivery’s 560 km evaluation of a Mazda BT-50 XRT 3.2-litre auto Freestyle (extra-cab) 4×4 ute confirmed that Mazda has the goods, but perhaps lacks the commitment in this segment.
The 3.2-litre turbodiesel connected to a six-speed auto transmission puts out a very impressive 147 kW at 3000 rpm. An equally impressive 470 Nm of torque is reached within a realistic 1750-2500 rpm range.

 

At 100 km/h on the highway the unstressed diesel ticked away at just over 1750 rpm, and rose to slightly under 2000 rpm at 110 km/h – demonstrating the real-world applicability of the torque range. Once the auto box was cruising in sixth gear it just stayed there, up and down any hills the Hume had to offer as it climbed from Sydney to the Southern Highlands and beyond. With 3.2 litres of compression, engine braking was excellent – unlike many competitors’ smaller engines.

There was a slight transmission lag when accelerating quickly from around 80 km/h to overtake. The engine rpm spikes instantly, but the gearbox is slow to react. This is an issue that definitely needs attention, as the 1.5 second lag can be quite significant, and dangerous, in some situations.

 

The BT-50’s engine is truly efficient and has a claimed fuel economy of 9.2 l/100 km. The quoted usage would seem realistically achievable considering that Delivery’s seven-day evaluation covered all road and traffic conditions – heavy stop/start city congestion, highway cruising, dirt roads, paddocks, around town and a steep mountain pass – and only used 8.3 litres per 100 km for the 560 km covered (with only a slightly higher balance towards open roads).

The tub on our test BT-50 measured 1800 mm long and 1510 mm wide, with sides that were a considerable 513 mm high. There was a commendable balance of only 58.5 percent of tub length behind the rear axle, but, unfortunately, the distance of 1115 mm between the wheelarches was not enough to accept a standard Australian pallet. As with almost all utes these days, there are no tie-down rails or loops on the outside of the tub, but there are six strategically placed loops on the inside.

The rear of the tub also contains a clever and useful 12-volt worklight that also houses two 12-volt sockets. These sockets will continue charging or running your fridge, drills, lights or whatever else is plugged in until the battery drains to the minimum safe level – it will then automatically turn off to ensure you are not caught without enough power to start your engine.

As seems to be the fashion these days, the top edge of the tub is at an extreme height of 1330 mm above the ground (unladen). This feature will definitely affect this BT-50s fit for purpose (FFP) characteristics, and, unless you are over two metres tall or have the arms of an orangutan, you will be hard pressed to retrieve tools sitting in the centre of the tub without climbing in.

The front suspension uses an independent double wishbone system with coil-over dampers and anti-roll bar, while at the rear you get rigid (live) axles with heavy-duty leaf springs. Brakes are ventilated discs on the front and drums on the rear.

Standard wheels for this model are very flash-looking five-spoke 17-inch alloys with black highlights, and Dunlop AT22 265/65R17 tyres kept a nice cushion between the rims and the road.

A tubular step is another standard addition, but is mostly aesthetic as it is too close to the body to fit the toe of a work boot, although it would help prevent damage to the bottom of the doors when off-road. With a ground clearance of 205 mm and easily selectable four-wheel-drive, this ute is probably aimed at weekend warriors.

The Freestyle cab is realistically a two-seater with emergency seating behind for two more over short distances. Entry to the back is via the narrow “suicide” doors and the back-seat passengers will not be in for a comfortable ride, but these seats will suffice for the morning run down to the bus or to get a couple of tradies from A to B, as long as A and B are not too far apart and the tradies have followed a healthy diet. There are two anchor points for child seats, but the little windows in the rear doors do not open, so your hound will be forced to slobber over your shoulder to stick his nose out the front window.

The front seats and cabin are very comfortable – not quite car-like, but close. The seats have manual height and reach adjustment, but the steering-wheel is height adjustable only. Cruise control and audio can be set and adjusted from the steering-wheel using your thumbs, so that your hands do not have to leave their safe position.

The standard 7.8-inch infotainment touchscreen is set below natural eye level in the centre of the dash and requires a lowering of the driver’s line of vision – it is also prone to glare reflection. This unit manages all audio inputs and outputs (iPod, Bluetooth hands-free phone, CD, AM/FM tuner, 3.5 mm input jack, audio streaming, six speakers and USB input) as well as the very effective sat/nav system.

Dual-zone climate control air conditioning does a great job of keeping things comfortable and the auto rain-sensing wipers, auto lights, auto-dimming rear-vision mirror, and electric windows and side mirrors are all welcome bonuses.

Manual gear selections can be made by moving the auto transmission selection lever to the side and then pushing forward or pulling back to select a gear. I found this a little tricky as pushing the lever forward dropped down a gear, which to me felt wrong.

It is great to see that this model includes a reversing camera. The image appearing in the rear-vision mirror when reverse is selected is small, but clear, and gives a good view of the towball and everything else rearward. Ambient glare does affect the image clarity in the mirror, but this system means that the driver has peripheral vision in the rest of the mirror as well as through the windscreen and side windows, which is not available if the driver has to drop their line of vision to look at a low-set screen in the dash.

When the first attempt to forklift a loaded (400 kg) standard pallet failed through the lack of sufficient width between the wheel arches, the boys at Marulan Rural Supplies repacked the load of bagged cement onto a narrow Asian pallet. The FFP of this ute again came into question, as the use of extended tines on the forklift was the only safe method of avoiding damage to the tailgate, other than doing the job manually. Unladen, the distance from the centres of the wheelarches to the ground measured 950 mm (rear) and 910 mm (front). Laden, the front stayed the same and the rear dropped 50 mm.

This ute will accept a payload of 1144 kg, so our load was a bit less than half the maximum and did not have any detrimental effect on power, handling or road manners, but did make the ride a little more comfortable. With 400 kg in the back, the BT-50 was beautiful to drive.

While a lower purchase price gives BT-50 owners a considerable head start over Ranger owners for total cost of ownership (TCO), some of this advantage is lost due to more expensive and more frequent services – every 10,000 km compared to Ford’s 15,000 km.

This is a good ute that could easily be a great one with a little imagination from Mazda, whose motto is Imagination Drives Us.

Just imagine the results if Mazda became truly inspired and drove the BT-50 to join the Mazda2 and CX-5 at the top of its segment – placing Ford and Toyota under greater competition.

 

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