The skinny: MAZDA'S BT-50, THE ONE WE'RE TESTING HERE, COMES WITH A GUTSY 3.2 LITRE TURBO-DIESEL, SIX-SPEED MANUAL OR AUTO AND A PROVEN HEAVY DUTY DUAL-RANGE 4X4 SYSTEM DOWN BELOW. Add an immensely robust ladder-chassis, and, in any way you care to look at them, its specs read like a vehicle that's built for a life of hard graft.
Priced mid-pack in the 'commercial 4X4 ute' segment, it costs more than the new Mitsubishi Triton, loosely matches the new HiLux, but offers a reasonable saving against the equivalent Ford Ranger.
Mazda Australia has high hopes for its updated BT-50, now that the pixie eyes and snouty looks of the previous model are gone. It looks tougher, sure, but is it tough enough to take the special kind of hammering only the Australian outback can dish out? That’s what we set out to find out.
Vehicle style: Extended-cab 4X4 ute
Price: $49,675 XTR Freestyle automatic (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 147kW/470Nm 3.2 litre 5-cylinder DOHC turbo-diesel
Transmission: 6-spd sports automatic
Fuel consumption (claimed): 9.2 l/100km; (tested) 9.8 l/100km
Well-known is how much Mazda’s BT-50 ute shares with the Ford Ranger – the chassis, drivetrain, off-road technologies and suspension – and also well-known is the shared development of the engineering.
But the BT-50 has been beaten all-ends-up against the barnstorming Ford in sales.
The styling of the previous model perhaps didn’t do it any favours; it looked a little screwy in a segment where convention rules. So, we now have a new and better BT-50. Better-looking, certainly.
At $49,675 the mid-spec Freestyle XTR we drove for this review is competitive buying for a gutsy, smooth-driving 4X4 ute. It’s a little noisier than the new Ranger and Triton, but is well-featured inside and unquestionably robust.
But how robust? We had a crack at finding its limits in outback SA, and also in the firetrails under Mt Baw Baw in Victoria. This is the first of a three-part review.
After all, we want to know the point at which a car begins to squeal, and the company PRs start looking through ‘The Excuses Manual’ to explain the failings.
We won’t dwell on the interior; it’s basically the same as before but with improved connectivity features. The previous model was better than most in the category, and the BT-50 is still better than most.
It is not as smart as the new NP300 Navara – which, to these eyes, takes the crown for the segment – but it looks good, the surfaces have a car-like appeal (none of the drab hollow grey plastic of commercial vehicles past), and it is well featured.
This model, the XTR, comes standard with satellite navigation, air-conditioning, reversing camera, 7.8-inch touchscreen, cruise control, trip computer, six-speaker audio with: AM/FM tuner, single-disc CD player (MP3 compatible), hard-drive storage (with six-CD capability), Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio streaming capability and, for $250 extra, Hema maps for offroad touring.
It also comes with the tubular side-steps, but the alloy bull-bar is $2900 extra (steel, $2400). In all, Mazda offers 107 approved accessories with the BT-50.
At the wheel (or in the passenger seat), the BT-50 feels little different to an SUV. There is some jiggle with the tub unladen, but is certainly comfortable enough for long, long stints on the highway. Or on outback gravel roads.
But the Freestyle cab deserves comment. Ford doesn’t offer this body-style with the Ranger, although Isuzu D-Max and Colorado do, with similar rear-hinged doors.
It offers two ‘jump seats’ that can be used by kids, or, for a short trip, two adults prepared to sit upright hugging their knees. Its most practical use though is for extra storage.
Below each small squab is a good sized cavity for tucking tools out of sight. And, if you’re not using the seats there, the ‘suicide’-doors create a nice wide opening for lugging heavier boxes or packing luggage in behind the front seats.
Unlike a dual cab, you can open the double doors and load straight in, in one action (handy if you’re carrying something awkward to the car.)
The Freestyle cab also looks more sporty (well, I reckon…), as well as allowing a bigger, more useful tub – nearly 2.0 metres long.
THE OUTBACK TEST:
- Engine: 3.2 litre in-line 5 cylinder 20 valve DOHC intercooled turbo diesel engine
- Power/torque: 147kw @ 3,000rpm/470Nm @ 1,750-2,500rpm
- Suspension: Double wishbone, coil-over dampers (front), live-axle leaf-spring (rear)
- Brakes: 302mm ventilated disc (front); drum brake rear
- Wheels: 17-inch alloy, Dunlop GrandTrek AT tyres
- Approach angle: 28.4 degrees; departure 26.4 degrees, Ramp-over 25 degrees
- Tub: length: 1847mm; width: 1560mm; height: 513mm
- Towing: 3.5 tonne (braked), towball download: 350kg
Presented with a nice new BT-50 Freestyle XTR 4X4 3.2 litre diesel in Coober Pedy, and then pointed at Oodnadatta and a whole bunch of side-tracks, creek beds and sand hills in between, we took the better part of six-tenths of a nano-second to decide it was time to give the new-look ‘Maz’ workhorse a bit of a workout.
Outback roads can test anything. If the gibbers don’t get you – they’ll shred the tyrewalls of the unwary in a trice – then the sudden washouts and creekbeds will. Especially if you’re really hustling.
Out here, there is wreckage everywhere some of it decades old, broken by holed sumps and torn-out suspensions and now (like this abandoned old truck) just sand-blasted reminders of a tough country, tough and unforgiving on cars and people.
But the BT-50 can swallow these roads and all that can be thrown at it.
That 3.2 litre diesel under the bonnet pulls like a team of bullocks at low revs, has no trouble sitting all day at highway speeds, and still has ample in reserve for overtaking.
Out here, it just swallows long, long kilometres effortlessly, barely ticking over at 100km/h in sixth-gear.
At highway speeds, even on the varying gravel surfaces of what pass as highways out here, it is remarkably quiet. The diesel engine ‘disappears’, windnoise is low, and, aside from the rumble on the gravel and stones, the suspension goes about things without thudding and jarring.
The BT-50 is less impressive at low speeds. Then, and when accelerating, the diesel can intrude a little unpleasantly – it makes a metallic ‘shearing’ sound down low, like an old washing machine with a dodgy bearing.
It is not as quiet as the new Ranger, and – unfortunately – did not cop any extra deadening or sound insulation as part of this update.
But that’s where the grizzling ends. There is some discussion about the suspension tune, but we think it’s about right for a dual-purpose vehicle.
It rides a little firmer than the Ranger (and Navara and HiLux), the front end is a little more rigid, but will soak up big ‘hits’ surprisingly well and allows quite a lot of compression.
And the steep approach and departure angles (28.4 and 26.4 degrees is pretty good), and that immensely strong and rigid chassis, will have you crawling in and out of steep banks and washouts without knocking skin (or worse) off the front and rear.
We headed randomly off track a number of times and up a couple of interesting creek beds (one, challenging), and had no trouble worming through both thick sand, stepping up and over rocks and in and out of steep banks.
The BT-50 has ample off-road electronic ‘smarts’ to get you anywhere you’d sensibly go. With the tyres deflated a little (we were running lower pressures for this part of the drive), the BT-50 also had no trouble negotiating steep sand banks climbing in and out of dry claypans.
Simply disengage the traction control, engage the diff-lock, carry a little momentum with the revs up a little, and the BT-50 will carry you through. (And note: not too much speed; bouncing through degrades the dunes and mucks up the track for others coming behind).
You would comfortably point the BT-50 at ‘Big Red’ in the Simpson – it’s getting easier everyday with modern off-road technology – and have no qualms contemplating the crossing.
The ‘Painted Desert’ region to the east of Coober Pedy is astonishing for its colours. It is also astonishing how quickly the geography and the terrain below the wheels can change. Some hour’s drive south-east of Arckaringa Station, clay and sand give way to hills of jagged rock outcrops.
Picking over rocks, way off any track, is as good a test as any of the protection to the undersides and the crawling ability of a 4WD system. We saw the hill, we put it in low, and we drove until a line of boulders the size of grazing herefords stopped us. Again the BT-50, and that 4X4 system it shares with the Ranger, proved its mettle.
For creeping down a tricky broken path, simply set the descent control, and let the car do the rest. To slow the descent, brake slightly, to speed it up, tap the cruise control or squeeze the accelerator gently.
It works exceptionally well.
Late in the day, with the sun meeting the horizon, our professional ‘snapper’ asked us for some ‘air’ through a steep washout. We were happy to oblige. Not once, but we slammed it through five times to get the shots he was looking for in the fading light.
The slight ding visible on the bull-bar was not from this abuse, but from ‘settling’ – left front down – into a deep washout earlier in the day. After hitting that lip of the washout so hard, and landing hard so many times, we expected the steering and front-end to be a tad awry. But it was solid as a rock.
We failed to bash a rattle into the BT-50, wherever we took it. A lot of buyers of the BT-50 will be looking for exactly this kind of robust, trouble-free service – no-one wants a car breaking down in this kind of country.
But a couple of intense days in the car are no substitute for ‘ownership’. It takes six months, or even years, of outback travel to really expose the weaknesses or strengths in a car, and its suitability for this sort of life.
That’s why we value the comments from owners that follow our reviews; we see it as part of the ‘body of information’ we can provide about a car and its worth as a purchase.
We test ‘em box-fresh, straight out of the factory. But on the basis of this drive, Mazda’s BT-50 would seem to be as strong as a bull.
VERDICT | OVERALL
Behind Toyota, but inching closer, Mazda slugs it out with Hyundai for that second spot on the podium as the second biggest car brand in the land.
Little Mazda? Little no more; it’s a powerhouse of good products and clever marketing.
The new BT-50 is one of those ‘good products’. The improved styling of the front certainly toughens the look, and, on our tester, the optional big Lightforce driving lights and snug-fitting roo-bar enhance the ‘sports truck’ style.
And, how tough is this rig? Very tough indeed.
More than that, it is comfortable, quiet on road, and as effortless as an SUV on a long drive way off the beaten track. If you have been thinking Ranger, HiLux or Navara, it is one you should consider.
- BT-50 R 6M 3.2L FREESTYLE C/CH XT 4X2 $32,745
- BT-50 R 6A 3.2L FREESTYLE C/CH XT 4X2 $34,745
- BT-50 R 6M 3.2L FREESTYLE C/CH XT 4X4 $40,815
- BT-50 R 6A 3.2L FREESTYLE C/CH XT 4X4 $42,815
- BT-50 R 6M 3.2L FREESTYLE CAB UTILITY XTR 4X4 $47,675 STD
- BT-50 R 6A 3.2L FREESTYLE CAB UTILITY XTR 4X4 $49,675 STD
Reverse camera is standard on XTR and GT (add $820 for fitting to all other models)
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