Southern Highlands (NSW)
What we liked
>> Powerful, frugal new diesel engines
>> Upgraded payload and offroad ability
>> Headroom and cabin storage
Not so much
>> Truck-like ride and turning circle
>> Two seat cabin width
>> Old style handbrake and 4x4 engagement
Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
>> Engine, drivetrain and chassis: 3.0/5.0
>> Packaging and practicality: 4.0/5.0
>> Safety: 2.5/5.0
>> Behind the wheel: 3.0/5.0
>> X-factor: 3.0/5.0
Mazda's shared B-Series and Ford Courier models have followed a conservative evolutionary trail since they were first released over 30 years ago. Despite the new names and various "all new" components, the new BT50 and its Ford Ranger spin-off are a clever upgrade of the models they replace. The new cabin and cargo bed make more effective use of the original compact dimensions while the two new diesel engines transform the driving experience.
This could be exactly what many buyers have been waiting for. Although the upsized, new Toyota HiLux is setting sales records, there are many private and commercial buyers who prefer the clearance and compact size of the previous smaller HiLux model for tight tracks and work situations.
Approach the BT50 as the ultimate 2006 refinement of the old HiLux with superior diesel engines, better headroom and a longer and deeper cargo bed and it represents a real advance.
The BT50, despite the fancier styling and dash, has not followed the latest HiLux, Nissan D40 Navara and Mitsubishi Triton twin cabs with a boost in cabin size thus cannot match them as a full-sized family car alternative as its cabin width is still tied to the same 1700mm Japanese width limit of narrow-body Japanese passenger cars.
If anything, the BT50 upgrades including a big boost in load and towing capacities, have given the range a more robust, truck-like character than its more passenger-oriented rivals with a sturdier, more competent feel offroad for the 4x4 models.
In reality, the BT50 is a clever interim upgrade even if it is more comprehensive than most, to fill the gap until the all new global model that Ford Australia is developing is ready.
The BT50, like most of its rivals, is made in Thailand which allows it to enter Australia duty-free under a free-trade agreement. Pricing is especially competitive. The range is launched with three special extra-value packages, a trend that was established with the previous Bravo range and makes list prices irrelevant when Mazda tends to launch these packages on a regular basis.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
Mazda has split the range according to the two mechanical packages. The DX 4x2 single cab-chassis with 2.5 turbodiesel, the DX 4x4 single cab-chassis with 3.0 turbodiesel, the Freestyle (extended cab with fold-up jump seats and half-sized rear doors) in cab-chassis and utility with 3.0 turbodiesel in 4x2 and 4x4, and Dual Cab 3.0 turbodiesel as a utility only in 4x2 and 4x4.
All models come in base DX level while only the Freestyle and Dual Cab 4x4 utilities are available at premium SDX level. The SDX level is not available as a 4x2 model or as a cab-chassis. An automatic option due in early 2007 is available as a Dual Cab SDX 4x4 utility only.
There is a special delete airbag option with steel bull bar at base 4x4 cab-chassis level for primary producers. The base DX single cab-chassis is also available with the choice of a three seater bench or twin bucket seats.
Specifications are not consistent across bodystyle. The entry DX single cab 4x2 features alloy wheels while all other 4x2 and 4x4 models have styled steel wheels at DX level. The Freestyle DX ute is the only 4x2 level with electric mirrors which the DX Dual Cab ute and Freestyle DX Cab-chassis then lose. Go figure.
The same applies in the 4x4 range where you need to go to SDX level to get electric mirrors in a Dual Cab. All models except the DX single cab-chassis 4x2 and 4x4 get power windows. BT50 features can then become confusing when they chop and change according to body style and whether it's a 4x2 or 4x4 model.
All models share the full instrument pack that includes tachometer and temperature gauge. All 4x4 models feature a rear limited slip differential. Front seats are marginally better than the norm for this class but don't offer cushion tilt adjustment on the driver's seat. The steering column is tilt-adjustable only.
All models except the DX single cab-chassis have reading lights while all DX models feature a single-disc CD player. An in-dash six-disc CD kicks in only at SDX level.
Wheelarch flares are fitted to all levels except the 4x2 single cab-chassis. All DX models have a black single-piece bumper and grille moulding.
Because the SDX 4x4 level is the growth area, it is worth looking at what Mazda does provide. It is significant that the SDX is also offered at Freestyle level which has extra doors and jump seats big enough for small children while offering a much longer cargo bed than a dual cab and extra storage inside the half-size rear doors and under the floor.
The Freestyle and Dual Cab 4x4 SDX come with bigger 16-inch alloy wheels, a full-size alloy spare, front and rear mudflaps, chrome exterior mirrors, door and tailgate handles, side steps, high gloss painted wheel arch flares and front bumper, chrome grille, chrome rear step, front fog lights, sports mesh cloth seat trim, passenger seat back pocket, carpet with driver's heel pad, dual compartment centre storage, rear cup holders, upgraded six-disc CD sound, ABS, height adjustable front seat belts (Dual Cab only) and high-mount stop light.
There is no sign of cruise control on any model even as an option and the hand throttle seen on some variations of the previous Bravo/Courier is gone.
The DX 2.5 4x2 Single cab-chassis starts at $23,255 but a Mazda extra value special based on this model offers a tray and air-conditioning at $20,990. There is a DX 3.0 4x4 version with the same extras for $28,990 compared to the basic cab-chassis list price of $30,850.
A Dual Cab 3.0 DX 4x4 with canopy and air-conditioning at $35,990 is a big saving over the $39,150 list price of this model without these extras.
These promotional models which were announced at launch carry a clear message: there are savings to be had by monitoring current Mazda extra value pack deals as for the previous model.
This is the big news in the new model. Two new diesels replace the combined diesel and petrol engine range of the previous model. The 4.0-litre V6 petrol added to the last Bravo models is dropped.
The previous 2.5-litre turbodiesel was a slug with only 82kW/3500 rpm and 271Nm/2000. The all new 2.5-litre turbodiesel which features 16 valves and twin overhead camshafts delivers 105kW/3500rpm and 330Nm/1800rpm. Fitted only to the 4x2 DX single cab-chassis, it is more than adequate for the 1435kg starting weight and slashes the combined fuel consumption figure from 9.7lt/100km to 8.3.
A larger 3.0-litre version boosts power to 115kW/3200 and torque to 380Nm/1800 in keeping with the extra weight of the 4x4 models which tip the scales at 1855kg plus at SDX level. The fuel consumption drops from 10.1lt/100km to 9.2, outstanding for a vehicle of this weight and type.
While less powerful than the big HiLux diesel, the new engine delivers considerably more torque but is outgunned by the D40 Nissan Navara in both figures. However, the D40 Navara diesel comes only in a dual cab which makes the other Mazda 4x4 versions the torquiest and potentially the most frugal in this class.
Performance of both engines should be similar when the power to weight ratio of the 4x2 model is more favourable. Mazda has targeted low operating costs for commercial buyers in the 4x2 single cab range with the claim that fuel costs should be similar to an LPG conversion of the old technology four-cylinder petrol engine.
The new MZR-CD 2.5 and 3.0 engines share the same components, except bore and stroke, which include the latest common-rail high pressure fuel injection, variable geometry turbocharger, double helical intake port design and high capacity 32-bit powertrain control module. The variable geometry turbocharger introduces a twin-pin nozzle, a first for this type of vehicle, for quicker response and extra output.
A new intercooler boosts cooling efficiency from 60 per cent in the old diesel to 74 per cent, a real plus when the old one lost efficiency in hot weather. This new intercooler is encased in a protective mesh cage whereas the previous one was unprotected and exposed to damage low in the intake area. Engine noise is dropped by 1.5dB.
A new five-speed manual is specified with taller gearing to exploit the extra power and torque for a big drop in engine speeds during highway cruising and steep 4x4 climbing. First and second gears with triple cone synchronisers and a new dual-mass flywheel cut the baulky changes of the old gearbox and reduce noise.
A new five-speed close-ratio electronically-controlled automatic transmission is offered for the first time in conjunction with the diesel engine. Mazda will monitor acceptance and may extend its availability beyond SDX level in the future.
Manual 4x4 models feature a traditional dual-range 4x4 transfer case with manual selection by lever in conjunction with remote automatic free wheel front hubs. It is an early generation part-time system that allows the driver total control over whether the vehicle runs as rear-drive only or constant 50:50 front/rear split but only after you stop to engage it.
The SDX automatic option brings an electronic "on the fly" shift and all 4x4 models come with a limited slip rear differential.
The carryover front double wishbone/leaf spring rear suspension and steering package is upgraded in most areas including a boost in front torsion bars from 24 to 27mm diameter and spring rate increase from 2.7 to 3.5kg/m. This delivers a big boost in stiffness matched by fatter dampers front and rear and extending the rear leaf springs to 1320mm, the longest in the class and only possible with the BT50's extra rear load length.
Together thechanges boost the single cab 4x2 payload an extra 30kg to 1410kg and towing capacity from 1800 to 2250kg. The 4x4 models jump from a 1371 to a 1430kg payload and a braked towing capacity of 2500kg, also up from 1800.
Steering is a stronger version of the previous ball and nut design which doesn't transmit the road shock of rival rack and pinion systems when offroad, but the penalty is extra vagueness at the straight ahead and loss of steering feel on the road.
Turning circle is an almost unmanageable 12.6m for all models except the 4x2 single cab's 12m. This makes U-turns and tight parking in one sweep out of the question in most cases.
Feel and travel have been improved in the front ventilated disc/rear drum brake system from the previous model. Like most rivals, the BT50 retains large rear drums for more effective handbrake performance under load or extreme offroad situations.
Wheels on the 4x2 single cab are 6.5JJ x 15 with 215/70R15C light truck tyres. All other models including 4x4 wear 235/75R15 except for SDX which has 7.0J x 16 alloys and fatter 245/70R16 tyres. A matching full-sized spare is supplied in all models.
Apart from the new engines, the BT50 is a cunning re-skin of the previous model with a useful re-arrangement of the main dash functions. Although very few internal or external details are shared with the old model, drivers of the previous model would instantly identify the connection.
The main change that has driven the re-packaging is a lift in rear cargo bed height from a low 405 to 465mm. Where the previous model wasn't even deep enough for a car fridge to sit under a hard cover, the new one has height to spare. The only drawback is the extra lift when loading from the side.
The extra cargo bed height dictates a raised side window line and shallower side and rear glass but not enough to restrict vision.
It also creates the illusion of a sleeker profile but unlike previous one tonner rivals based on this smaller size, the BT50's extra distance between floor and roof leaves extra headroom and allows you to enter without bending-up double in line with its new and larger rivals.
The rear seat angle and comfort is not in the passenger car class but there is plenty of headroom even if the rear door aperture is tight. The narrow cabin ensures that seating three adults across the back is not realistic which hands the latest Triton/HiLux/D40 Navara a clear lead in this area.
The deeper front is hidden by a one-piece grille and bumper moulding which delivers a Tribute family look but the SDX level with its extra chrome in the grille can make the BT50 look like Holden's new Captiva from some angles.
Fitting a bull bar will necessitate slicing this plastic grille and bumper into two sections. Mazda has developed a specific bull bar for the BT50 which has been crash tested for airbag compatibility, which can be taken as a veiled warning for those who shop elsewhere.
The BT50's smooth new looks belie the extra ruggedness which may hurt it with buyers looking for a macho image and disappoint owners expecting a softer Tribute-style ute. Mazda's softer styling has always been a clear point of distinction between the Mazda and Ford versions.
The rear tail lights are bigger to highlight the deeper load bed and the two-tone paint finishes add some class.
The tail gate latch is not lockable. This is becoming a real omission in this class as it dictates an internal latch or lock when a hard lid or canopy is fitted which then forces you to open up the upper level every time you need to drop the tailgate.
The new dash design separates the centre dash vents from the instrument pack and runs each vent vertically down the side of the sound system where previously they ran across the top. Apart from allowing the heater/ventilation and sound system controls to be placed closer to the driver, this frees up a stack of space below for cupholders and underdash storage.
The only jarring note is the twin 12V powerpoints that cannot be accessed if the driver's side cupholder is used.
The underdash handbrake is a reminder of the BT50's long ancestry but the deep bi-level centre storage compartment where fitted makes it almost worth putting up with. There is also a neat but shallow sliding drawer above the glovebox which can double as a meal tray or storing paperwork.
Most utility models continue with external tie rails and there are shelf brackets in the load beds for cross pieces.
The previous model was not especially good in crash safety. Although Mazda claims that chassis tweaks (a highly rigid cabin and doors with built-in impact bars satisfy strict European collision-safety standards) the jury is still out on whether this dramatically improves the crash safety rating.
Until the European crash rating is determined (testing is due shortly, says Mazda), all that can be said is that it has to be better than the outgoing model which is not saying much.
Basic front airbags as fitted to all models except for the 4x4 single cab where they are a delete option. Airbag-equipped models also have front seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters. Only the Dual Cab models have front height adjustable seatbelt mounting points.
Side and curtain airbags are not available and ESP or equivalent has yet to appear in this class. ABS is optional on 4x2 models except the single cab. It is also optional on all 4x4 models except the SDX Freestyle and Dual Cab where it is standard. The centre rear-seat belt in the Dual Cab is lap only which highlights the short haul nature of this seating position.
Because the BT50 range covers three distinct body applications, two engines and 4x2 and 4x4 drivelines, the competitors are different for every level.
The new Ford Ranger models yet to be announced are expected to deliver variations of the BT50 models with subtle differences in equipment, price and drivetrain availability. Also, the Holden Rodeo's old generation diesel is now overdue for attention. While Holden's current position is that they are looking at it, expect a major Rodeo diesel upgrade early in 2007.
Single Cab-chassis 4x2
The BT50's $20,990 special deal becomes even more compelling as its smaller, cut-price Navara and Triton rivals leave the market at the close of 2006 (see news story here).
Holden's Rodeo diesel equivalent has less grunt and starts at $26,390 list but the BT50 falls short of the $23,490 V6 petrol version if raw power is required. The Toyota HiLux diesel starts at $29,590 while the powerful V6 petrol version at $23,990 is the closest in price without the BT50's benchmark fuel economy.
Mitsubishi has just plugged the gap with a new cab-chassis version of its ML Triton with 3.5-litre V6 petrol only from $22,990 which includes air-conditioning. Most of the BT50's petrol rivals come with an auto option which could be critical in some cases.
Don't overlook the local Ford Falcon cab-chassis when the passenger car ride, engine smoothness and comfort are in another class. An LPG-powered Falcon XL Cab-chassis as an auto only at $29,850, sports XR6 at $35,390 or raised RTV level at $34,350 provide several low running cost and long life options.
Single Cab-chassis 4x4
The alternatives are similar, however the BT50 sets a tougher offroad benchmark than most in this class with its upgraded suspension and factory availability of a steel bull bar without airbags for those markets where bush bashing is an essential capability.
The smaller dimensions can also be important to many in this market who have yet to update their previous HiLux examples. The similar-sized Rodeo LX diesel starts at $33,990 with less power and torque. The larger and more powerful HiLux diesel starts at $34,890 but there is a useful auto version at $36,430. The Triton GLX diesel equivalent with similar power but less torque starts at $33,690.
Although the BT50 has improved offroad capabilities and feels tougher, it is no match for the cab-chassis versions of the Nissan Patrol at $51,890 or Toyota Landcruiser from $48,900 for sustained offroad work.
Freestyle 4x2 and 4x4
Rivals are more limited here especially with the BT50's useful extra half rear door access and the choice of 4x2 and 4x4 as a ute or cab-chassis, all with the larger 3.0 diesel.
There is a limited range of Rodeo 4x2 Space Cabs with V6 petrol engines including an auto and a single manual-only LT 4x4 diesel ute starting from $44,490. Toyota has an X-Cab 4x2 auto petrol ute at $27,990 and an X-Cab 4x4 SR Cab-chassis and SR5 ute with diesel for $39,790 and $48,220 respectively. Both 4x4 models cost thousands more than their BT50 equivalents. Nissan and Mitsubishi don't offer direct rivals.
Dual Cab 4x2 and 4x4
If you need five-seater hip space, the most powerful diesel engine and best six-speed manual gearbox in a top of the range 4x4 diesel, then find the extra $2-3000 for the D40 Nissan Navara which is the hit new model in this segment. However, the Navara's folding rear seat is no more comfortable than the BT50 and the BT50's 1530mm load length and 465mm depth are hard to beat at any price.
These dimensions are even bigger than the HiLux which beats the BT50 only in load area width. The HiLux by its sheer size provides extra cabin room but the BT50's long cargo bed means it's a close match in the load stakes when the HiLux's extra width carries a size and $4-5000 price penalty.
The Mitsubishi Triton devotes even more space to the cabin for the best in class but a heavily compromised load bed. The Holden Rodeo takes a middle line with a cabin that is marginally roomier than BT50 but with a much smaller cargo bed.
Several Ssangyong Musso and coming Rexton models based on the company's four-wheel-drive wagons provide extra comfort and room for the rear passengers with a shortened cargo bed.
For the most powerful petrol dual cabs, the BT50 offers no alternative especially the 198kW Navara, 175kW HiLux and 157kW Rodeo. Although the 4x4 versions have ended, the Holden Crewman continues as a 4x2 and offers superior refinement and performance from a choice of engines.
ON THE ROAD
The BT50 launch took in undulating highway to clear the Canberra starting point before entering central NSW where the route stayed on remote loose-surfaced gravel or sandy roads through scrubby forest.
The route deviated to include a four-wheel drive training centre with extreme hills and trails before heading back to the Southern Highlands region. It provided a cross-section of conditions likely to be encountered by commercial and recreational users. It was significant that the only other vehicles encountered on the route were similar Japanese 4X4 light commercials.
The first point to be noted was the presence of at least five sandbags in the load area of each test example. When the suspension was still stiffer than we remembered in the previous model, it suggests that the suspension upgrade for the extra payload and the big boost in towing capacity (which is not affected by an existing load) has come at a cost in ride comfort. However, it did provide an insight into how much difference the new engines make even with a load onboard.
We drove a top-of-the-range Dual Cab SDX 4x4 with canopy and a Freestyle DX 4x4 with tray.
The Dual Cab was immediately impressive for its useful storage around the front area and increased front vent capacity including the big new round vents that feed the sides. The vertical centre vents can direct cold air onto the driver's hands but directing the air away did not adversely affect cooling.
Unlike the very latest designs, the BT50 retains the Bravo's older style upright windscreen which is well forward of the driver and limits any direct heat radiation which is so important in a market where many drivers spend up to 10 hours a day behind the wheel. The seats were comfortable enough not to produce any aches or pains over an extended drive.
Ride quality has become more truck-like even if the big tyres knock the edge off any road shock and surface changes. It feels reassuringly robust but over uneven bitumen the suspension control can be too abrupt and too brutal if you are expecting passenger car comfort. It is also some way short of the benchmark set by the D40 Navara.
This chassis has always delivered balanced handling and reasonable grip thanks largely to its decent rubber.
Although the steering is pleasantly free of shock, it is not as accurate as its rivals that are equipped with rack and pinion.
The new 3.0-litre turbodiesel is so powerful that its taller gearing makes it feel less busy in fifth at 110km/h than the old one did at 80km/h. Where the last model required one or two downshifts for an extended hill, the BT50 will easily power up in fifth even at relatively low revs.
The transformation is nothing short of radical and it's hard to imagine a situation where you would need more than 380Nm of torque, especially given the BT50's low fuel consumption.
Normally when pushing a vehicle hard over long distances, you soon a get a sense of the fuel gauge moving but in this case, it seemed to move only slightly over long distances. This suggests that a proper fuel test should confirm that the gains in economy are in fact significant.
The only drawback as we quickly found in the lower spec DX models, is that the extra performance can soon find the limits of the heavy front and light rear under heavy braking as it is too easy to lock a rear wheel even with the sandbags on board. It is well worth ticking the ABS option box if your vehicle often travels unladen.
We switched to the Freestyle cab for the 4x4 course, perfect timing to assess whether the extra rear doors and loss of the centre pillars generate any groans or rattles. Although our 4x4 colleagues rated the outgoing Bravo/Courier as one of the best of its type offroad, the new BT50 is a revelation.
One of the problems with this type of vehicle as they cater to a softer recreational market is a tendency for the suspension to bounce after the wheels drop into a crater or hit a rock. In these cases, the aftermath can do more damage than the initial shock. After getting it wrong in the Bravo/Courier prior to 2004, Mazda gave the last of the previous series a big suspension upgrade for 2005 and the BT50 takes this one step further away from the softer ride of earlier models.
The abrupt ride on uneven bitumen becomes a plus offroad as the suspension pulls itself up very quickly as soon as it hits a dip or rise. Unlike several of its rivals, there was no sense of anything scraping underneath despite deep wheel ruts, sharp rock peaks and abrupt transitions from hill to flat.
As speeds crept up, there was never a sense of the suspension bottoming out over the harsh terrain. The compact size also gave drivers more choices to negotiate ground covered in deep ruts or gaps between trees.
The extra pulling power even in third low ratio was impressive although the taller gearing has reduced the engine braking available in first low range on the steepest descents. The BT50 overall was confidence inspiring in these conditions and there was no indication of body twist or rattles.
Back on the road which involved a fast long distance stint over loose dirt, gravel and sand, the BT50's old fashioned manual 4x4 system came into its own. Where the BT50 can be quite loose in the tail in rear drive, the engagement of High 4WD locked the handling and traction into an even split between front and rear that was impressive for its consistency and grip.
The latest electronic systems which change the balance according to which wheel is slipping can catch you out when they don't always behave consistently in these conditions. However, you must remember to disengage it as soon as you strike bitumen.
Mazda has taken a real punt with the BT50 by going against the trend towards larger, fancier and softer riding recreational vehicles with extra style. Instead, it has delivered a compact compromise that favours working capacity and fuel efficiency with no frills styling that doesn't waste space. A little more attention to everyday details like reducing the turning circle would have been the icing on the cake.