MAZDA BT-50 REVIEW
by KARL PESKETT
Price: $46,240 plus options and on-road costs
Engine/Trans: 147kW/470Nm 3.2-litre twin-turbo 5-cylinder diesel / 6-speed Automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 9.2 l/100km combined
Construction: Body On Frame
Suspension: Independent coil sprung front / Leaf sprung solid axle rear
Towing: 750kg unbraked / 3500kg braked
If ever a company is going to get harangued, it’s when it launches a car that looks nothing like the concept.
Subaru is a case in point – the current WRX was lampooned for not even remotely resembling the sheet metal that sat on the New York motor show stand in 2013.
Mazda suffered something similar when it published concept drawings of its forthcoming ute. The replacement for the previous, bland BT-50 had been eagerly anticipated, so when the sketches hit the internet, everyone began salivating. Swoopy lines, massive wheels, and an aggressive front end.
The production version, however credible, was a definite disappointment in the styling department. The huge wheels made way for tiny rims and the aggressive styling ended up looking dopey.
Mazda’s advertising agency must have realised this; in its original promotional video, the ute closest to the camera donned a massive bullbar to cover its less-than-pretty face.
The universal truth still stands though – it’s unwise to judge a book by its cover. So it’s time to take a look over Mazda’s workhorse and see if it cuts the mustard as a tradie’s best mate – a dual-cab ute.
With development being undertaken by Mazda and Ford in a joint project, the engines and transmission between the Ranger and BT-50 are the same. That means a decent-sized donk; a 3.2-litre, five-cylinder turbo diesel putting out 147kW and 470Nm.
Importantly, the torque figure peaks at 1750rpm, so it’s very tractable. In fact, it’s able to tow a braked weight of 3,500kg with a towball down weight of 335kg. Yep, it’ll pull your boat.
But the engine isn’t all roses. While able to haul impressive loads, smoothness isn’t one of its finer qualities. Five cylinders at idle can’t hide the fact this is a compression ignition motor. Even when on the roll, the thrummy growl of the off-beat five is prevalent, especially when overtaking.
While there’s a small amount of lag, the torque delivery doesn’t build progressively. In fact, it feels like the engine is being restrained until you push the pedal to the firewall, and only then does it take on the personality its figures suggest.
Couple that with an auto that feels a bit too solid during shifts and the drivetrain certainly isn’t the highlight of this car. You also won’t quite be getting the ADR-tested economy figure of 9.2 l/100km. The BT-50 normally sits just under the tens, and if you’re towing, quite a bit more.
Step inside and it’s clear Mazda has tried to make the BT-50 less “tradie” and more car-like, however some compromises had to be made. The centre stack has far too many buttons, especially with the number pad on the right hand side and the window switches up high and central is a bit unusual for this segment.
Still, despite the hard plastic that swathes the dashtop, the fit and finish is generally good.
USB, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity with a decent six-speaker stereo will keep workers happy on their drive home, or you can go old-school and plug in a 3.5mm audio jack. The steering wheel has audio controls on it and the climate controls are easy to understand and adjust. The cup holders are big, too, and there’s enough room to hold bottles in the door pockets when the need arises.
On the road the BT-50 feels quite at home. Despite being leaf-sprung at the back, it doesn’t bounce too much without a load (though it’s not a patch on the Amarok), and although the ride is quite stiff, it’s bearable. Load it up and it gets a lot better, with excellent damping even when weighed down.
Throw it into a corner and it reminds you it’s a four-wheel-drive work ute with plenty of loud tyre scrub, but it’s able to turn in and handle bends quite well. The very good steering portrays what’s going on underneath so you don’t get too ham-fisted with proceedings, and though the brakes feel a little wooden, they work well when they’re pushed.
So, on the road, it’s above average for a dual-cab ute. But what about off-road?
Mazda’s made changing ratios fairly easy, with a small switch on the centre console which allows you to change between 2-high and 4-high on the fly. Only extreme conditions will require a shift to 4-low. But there’s the added safety net of a rear diff lock; handy when you’re clambering over rocks and hanging wheels in the air.
For the most part, the traction control is very good. It’s perhaps a fraction slow in challenging conditions (i.e. sand-covered boulders, where physical grip is far more important), however it plays catch-up when the tyre pressures are dropped enough to allow the tyres some give and more purchase on the surface.
In fact, the BT-50 benefits when the tyres are let down a bit, especially on rocks or in sand. And the automatic’s quicker shifts are a real bonus when tackling talcum-like dust bowls.
The hill descent control works a treat, keeping progress to a steady walking pace, no matter what the angle is; sometimes to the frustration of the driver who’d like to be going a little quicker down the hill. No problem – just tap the accelerator a little and it’ll override the HDC.
Like its on-road performance, the BT-50 is above average off-road. And overall, the BT-50 is very good for a dual-cab. It’s got the towing capacity to match the best in segment, is safe enough, has enough grunt to get through everyday traffic, has a more car-like interior than most, and is fairly comfortable both on road and off it.
But is it better than the much better-looking Ford Ranger, which is effectively a twin dressed in different clothes? That all comes down to personal taste.
Looks are a subjective thing, so for most people, it’ll come down to dollars and cents. Mazda is quite competitive with the BT-50, which means for the dollars, it makes sense.