Mazda BT-50: Launch Review

words - Chris Fincham
Mazda's beaut new ute offers plenty of ‘Zoom-Zoom'
Mazda BT-50
Local Launch
Canberra, ACT

What we liked
>> SUV-like road manners
>> Refined turbodiesel performance
>> Value-for-money equation

Not so much
>> Startling rear end styling
>> No steering wheel reach adjustment
>> No petrol engine option

>> Mazda takes ute market in new direction
?Launched in Australia not long after its mechanical twin Ford Ranger, the new Mazda BT-50 emerges as one of an impressive new breed of ‘lifestyle’ utes designed to further bridge the gap between traditional workhorse ute and family-friendly SUV.

A major step up from the previous BT-50, launched in 2006, the all-new Mazda ute is bigger, better equipped, safer and more proficient onroad than before. It also cuts a more dashing presence with bold styling straight from Mazda’s passenger car design handbook.

While the BT-50/Ranger was a joint project between Mazda Japan and Ford Australia, the Thai-built Mazda ute has been given a good dose of the Japanese company’s ‘Zoom-Zoom’ driving philosophy, thanks to the input of 50 fulltime Mazda engineers based in Australia during the four year project.  Likewise, chief designer Ryo Yanagisawa at Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters was in charge of the BT-50’s radical, car-like styling, which sees it get unique body panels and a car-like cabin design that sets it apart from Ranger’s, and other rival’s, more conservative boxy, 'blokey' designs.

Despite selling a one-tonne ute in Australia since the 1966, Mazda has never managed to grab a huge slice of the market here. Now with market leading models in other segments, Mazda is banking on the impressive new BT-50 finally giving it the ammunition to grab some market share from top-selling Toyota HiLux and Nissan Navara -- especially in the fast-growing 4x4 dual-cab segment.

In the process Mazda hopes to lift local BT-50 sales by around 20 per cent, or to 1000 sales a month; in the process making Australia the largest (out of 168 countries) single market for BT-50 in the world (it’s currently second after Thailand).

>> Best value ute on the market??
Initially, the new BT-50 will be available in more family friendly, two and four-wheel drive freestyle and dual cab variants, with entry-level, single cab workhorse versions going on sale early next year.

As well as 4x2 and 4x4 variants, there are three body styles – single cab, freestyle (extended cab with rear ‘suicide’ doors and flip-up rear seats) and four-door, five-seat dual cab. Three model grades (XT, XTR and GT) are on offer, as are two turbodiesel engines and six-speed manual and six-speed auto transmission.

Like the Ranger, the Mazda’s standard feature list across the range is impressive. The entry-level BT-50 XT receives 16-inch wheels, remote central locking, cruise control, six-speaker CD radio with USB connection, Bluetooth with voice control, power windows and mirrors, air-conditioning, steering wheel audio controls, anti-lock brakes, stability control, and six airbags.

The mid-spec BT-50 XTR adds 17-inch alloy wheels, front fog lamps, dual-zone climate control, leather gearshift knob and steering wheel, satellite navigation, floor carpet, driver’s seat with height and lumber adjustment, hill descent control, and chrome-look exterior trim.

The range-topping BT-50 GT also gets auto on/off headlamps, rear-view mirror with auto dimming function, rain-sensing wipers and leather seat trim.

As mentioned in our pricing news story, Mazda Australia has crunched the numbers hard and come up with pricing for its four-door BT-50 models that compare favourably with similarly specced Ranger variants. Although some standard features on BT-50 are options on Ranger, and vice versa, so it’s hard to do a direct comparison.

For a full list of pricing on freestyle and dual cab BT-50 see the above link. In summary 4x2 models range from $32,590 for the XT Freestyle cab chassis manual to $42,740 for the auto XTR dual cab pick-up. The 4x4 models are priced from $40,660 (XT Freestyle cab chassis manual) to $52,710 for the top of the range auto GT dual cab pick-up. All BT-50 prices are for the 3.2-litre powertrain (see below).

Mazda has also increased to 105 the number of accessories available for BT-50, and these include airbag-compatible steel and alloy bull bars, sports bars, nudge bars, hard and soft tonneau covers, towbar, canopies, driving lights, tub liners, snorkel, and auxiliary battery system.

Dual cab 4x4 XTR and GT models are also available with two accessory packages, although pricing has yet to be announced. The Boss Sports kit includes alloy bull bar, driving lights, 17-inch seven- spoke alloys, tubular side steps, alloy sports bar and a lockable hard tonneau cover. Those who tick the Boss Adventure kit option get a bull bar, sports bar and side steps (all in black steel), driving lights, 17-inch five-spoke alloys and a soft tonneau cover.

>> All-diesel line-up?
A similar story here to the new Ford Ranger. Unlike the big Ford ute though, which has an entry-level 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, Mazda is offering just the two engines -- both common-rail, direct-injection, turbocharged diesels, matched to all-new six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions.

The entry-level 2.2-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine (only available with manual transmission) produces 110kW at 3700rpm and 375Nm at 1500-2500rpm, with fuel economy depending on variant of between 7.6-9.4L/100km and CO2 emissions between 203 and 251g/km. Mazda is yet to announce pricing for these variants.

The 3.2-litre diesel has an inline five-cylinder configuration (a first for Mazda), producing 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm at 1750-2500rpm. It has fuel economy figures ranging between 8.4-9.2L/100km and CO2 emissions between 222 and 256g/km.

The BT-50’s fuel tank has been increased to 80 litres capacity.

The BT-50’s ladder frame chassis is twice as stiff as its predecessor, which along with new liquid-filled mounts separating body from chassis contribute to the ute’s impressive ride comfort and low noise and vibration levels. Mazda says noise in the cabin by the driver’s window is down by more than 5dBA to 49.6dBA – better than most of its rivals.

The BT-50’s body is suspended via a modern double A-arm (wishbone) front and leaf-spring rear arrangement, while front disc/rear drum brakes with bigger front discs offer improved stopping power.

The BT-50’s more precise, car-like steering is thanks to power-assisted rack-and pinion system in lieu of the previous ball-and-nut steering, while the turning circle is now 11.8m for 4x2 and 12.4m for 4x4 vehicles.

All 4x4 BT-50 utes come standard with an electric locking rear differential as well as an electronically controlled, shift-on-the-fly transfer case. Shifting between 2H (2WD high range) and 4H (4WD high range) can be done at speeds up to 120km/h via the switch on centre console.

>> Mazda takes a gamble with bold styling?
A hot topic of conversation at the local media launch in Canberra was the eye-catching, car-inspired exterior styling of the new BT-50. In a radical departure from most boxy utes including the top-selling HiLux, the BT-50’s front end features an oversized version of Mazda’s unmistakable ‘five point grille’ together with boomerang headlights extending into the protruding guards.

The wedge-shaped profile is less dramatic, but huge, horizontally aligned rear taillights that extend into the tailgate dominate the rear end. When combined with its jacked-up stance, the BT-50 has an almost cartoonish appearance. But if the aim was to make it instantly recognizable on the road as a Mazda, as the company claims, then it’s job done.

At 5373mm, the dual cab BT-50 is 200mm longer than its predecessor, and also boasts a class-leading 3220mm wheelbase. Kerb weight has also increased, by up to 120kg, to 1944kg-2112kg, depending on the model.

While it mightn’t boast the pallet-carrying capacity of an Amarok, the BT-50’s bigger tray means it now has a more than respectable 1214 litres cargo volume in dual cab form.

There are six tie-down hooks in the tray, and the soft tonneau cover features hidden, internal mounts rather than the usual exposed tie-downs. While it worked well, the optional rearview camera mounted next to the rear numberplate looked a bit exposed and vulnerable to external damage.

Payload ranges from 1088-1271kg, depending on variant, and towing capacities have increased -- up to 3350kg with the 3.2-litre engine and 2500kg with the 2.2-litre engine.

Inside, the BT-50 feels more like a Mazda car than a tough truck. The integrated, conservative design is somewhat similar to what you’d find in a CX-7 or Mazda6, if not quite as classy thanks to some hard plastics on the dash and doors. We liked the compact, leather steering wheel (in XTR), clearly laid out dash and easy to use controls. The new, centrally mounted multi-function screen set deep into the dash, wasn’t always easy to read.

It’s also roomy inside, thanks to 16mm more headroom and 30mm more shoulder room up front. The front seats are big, comfy units with plenty of side bolstering to keep you firmly in place, and in XTR trim can be adjusted for height to give you a better view over the bonnet when off-roading.

Our only complaint was the lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel, which made finding the ideal driving position difficult.  

The cabin features plenty of useful storage areas, including a deep centre console bin, and 55mm more leg room for rear passengers makes the BT-50 dual cab one of the better ute options for carrying five adults comfortably.

?>> Near-passenger car safety in a ute?
Until recently you were lucky to get more than a couple of airbags, antilock and traction control in a one-tonne ute. Now vehicles like the Ranger, BT-50, and Volkswagen’s Amarok have raised the safety bar to the point where utes that don’t offer five-star safety could be left behind.

As well as a strong platform and body structure with car-like occupant protection, all BT-50 variants come with a strong suite of electronic safety aids including stability control, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, emergency brake assist, traction control, trailer sway control, load adaptive control, anti-roll mitigation and, on 4x4 models, hill descent control.

Passive safety features include six airbags (front, side, and curtain), three-point seatbelts and head restraints for all seats, and pretensioners and load limiters up front.

A reversing camera with rear view mirror display and parking sensors are options. They should be standard.

Talking up the ‘bushability’ of its lightweight alloy bullbar accessory, Mazda showed a video at the launch that showed a BT-50 fitted with the bullbar travelling at 100km/h, hitting a 100kg ‘kangaroo’ dummy, with seemingly little if any damage to the ‘bar.

The BT-50 has not yet been subjected to Australian NCAP testing, but Mazda expects that it would achieve a five-star rating.


?>> Dual-cab market heating up
?One tonne utilities are red hot right now, comprising the second biggest vehicle market in Australia behind Small cars. Fuelling interest is the proliferation of all-new models arriving within a short period: Ranger, Amarok, and BT-50 this year, followed by Holden Colorado and Isuzu utes early next year.

All are challenging the two top players – Navara and Hilux -- which between them account for almost half of the 150,000-odd ute sales in Australia last year.

Mazda is hoping to cash in on the trend for dual-purpose, dual cab utes with its stylish new contender, and in turn expects most BT-50 sales to be 4x4 dual cab with base XT trim.  

The ground-breaking BT-50 also shapes up as a relative bargain. For example, although lacking the outright grunt of the top-spec Navara ST-X 550, the BT-50 GT’s arguably better all-round package comes in around $10,000 less than the big Nissan.

Given its passenger car comforts, the BT-50 should also attract interest from those buyers who have traditionally sought a mid-size SUV or off-road wagon.

>> tough truck offers SUV poise
A drive route around Canberra that included a range of surfaces and driving conditions (from low-range offroad crawling to fast sweeping bitumen corners and 100km/h highways) left no doubt that like Ford with the Ranger, Mazda is on a winner with its new BT-50 ute.

Based on driving 4x4 XTR dual cab variants (both manual and auto), we can say the BT-50 delivers the sort of refinement, comfort and driving dynamics you could have only dream about in a big, tough commercial vehicle until recently.

With handling closer to an SUV or even a sedan, the BT-50 was hustled through flowing, 80km/h corners with minimal body lean and none of the hysterics expected from an unladen, leaf-sprung pick-up. The 265/65R17 Dunlop Grandtrek all-terrain rubber provided good grip and minimal tyre noise on-road while also proving a good choice over slippery dirt tracks.

The ‘Zoom-Zoom’ personality also extended to the steering, which was direct with good feedback allowing accurate placement in all conditions. The reasonably tight turning circle proved more than satisfactory for the odd u-turn or navigating some bushy terrain.

The Mazda-tuned suspension delivered above average ride comfort, absorbing bumps and road irregularities with SUV-like confidence. There’s still some ute-style floatiness and fidgeting evident but that would settle with a decent load out back. The electronic nannies were also effective on more than one occasion, including one very late braking skid in order not to miss a left turn.

Some journalists on the launch who had also driven the Ranger felt the BT-50 had a sportier, or firmer suspension tune than the Ranger. This was backed up by comments from Mazda BT-50 program manager, Takasuke Kobayashi, who admitted that the dampers were deliberately tuned in to deliver “Zoom-Zoom driving pleasure”.

Not that the onroad refinement was at the expense of offroad ability, with the BT-50 tackling a tricky bush course, which included a deep water crossing, with relative ease. With its 237mm ground clearance, 28 degree approach angle, 26.4 degree departure angle, 25.0 degree breakover angle and 800mm wading depth, the 4WD BT-50 tackled the challenges thrown at it, including some steep, slippery descents. It's here the BT-50's hill descent control technology came to the fore.
Perhaps most impressive was the super smooth and torquey 3.2-litre turbodiesel, which endows this ute with the type of easily accessible pulling power required for effortless, uphill overtaking or heavy-duty towing. The engine worked equally well with the intuitive, smooth-shifting six-speed auto or six-speed manual with its compact action and feel. The auto comes with a Sport mode for a snappier response if required.

It was also eerily quiet in the cabin, with engine noise well suppressed and just a low burble intruding under hard acceleration. Given the enthusiastic driving, a fuel consumption figure of 11L/100km on the trip computer was reasonable given the engine’s capacity.

We also briefly drove a lower-spec 4x4 XT dual cab on some dirt roads and highway. Apart from its more utilitarian interior including rubber mats and steering wheel, the only noticeable difference was a slightly less settled ride, perhaps due to the smaller 16 inch wheels.

Overall, the BT-50 is an impressive ute, that in dual cab 4x4 form at least should have traditional SUV drivers, along with well-heeled tradies, queuing up for test drives.

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Published : Wednesday, 26 October 2011
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

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