Crossbred, cross purposes
If a single- and a twin-cab had a kid ...
UTE drivers were once considered a bit soft if they drove an automatic.
In a world where time is paramount, traffic is impenetrable and stress a constant, autos make sense. The problem is that for ute drivers — as opposed to most segments — autos do not form an absolute majority.
Mazda’s new self-shifting version of its 4WD BT-50 Freestyle extra-cab results from research showing 65 per cent of its dual-cab and single-cab ute sales are 4WD and 43 per cent of those are autos.
The Freestyle competes with similar models from Nissan, Holden and the Mazda clone down the road at Ford. Toyota has no exact equivalent.
Expect more brands to follow the trend, especially given 4WD ute sales last year were up about 12 per cent on 2012 in a market that registered 2.6 per cent growth overall.
Maybe it’s just me, but a ute should be a very simple vehicle that uses age-old design and components. Yet few decent examples get change out of $50,000.
The “BT-50 Freestyle XTR 4WD 3.2-litre diesel” (phew ...) is $48,890 and goes head to head with the Nissan Navara, Ford Ranger and Holden Colorado. The XTR label indicates a bit of luxury and bling, evidenced by the car-like 17-inch alloy wheels, quality cloth upholstery and the likes of satnav, dual-zone aircon, sixspeaker audio with Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity and, potentially, seating for four adults.
There’s no capped-price service program from Mazda and service intervals are every six months. There’s a twoyear/100,000km warranty. Resale value is estimated at a decent 52 per cent.
You’ll want a bull bar on that smiley grille even if you don’t need it. Styling is neat and contemporary with the new wheels lifting its blue-collar image. Inside it’s roomy, well made and well-equipped — far more polished than the Ranger. There are four doors, the small rear pair with rear-mounted hinges to dispense with door pillars.
The rear seats are merely cushions that you’d reject at a footy game though they serve as temporary transport for lower-paid employees. Without human cargo there’s plenty of secure storage space and even small cubbyholes in which to hide more valuable assets.
The big tray is 1847mm long and 1560mm wide and takes a 1097kg payload. Mazda claims a 3500kg tow rating.
The five-cylinder turbo diesel is the highlight, pumping 147kW/470Nm through a sixspeed auto to part-time 4WD with a low-range transfer case. The diesel claims 9.2L/100km, good considering it’s propelling 2.1 tonnes.
There’s nothing special about what lies beneath the neat body. The full-frame ladder chassis has coils upfront and a live rear axle with electronic lockable diff on leaf springs. Brakes are ventilated front discs and old-fashioned rear drums and the steering is hydraulically assisted.
The civilised automatic transmission is matched by an excellent safety suite with fivestar crash rating, six airbags, electronic stability and traction control, as well as trailer sway control, brake emergency display, rollover stability and hill holder. The spare is full-size.
Sometimes the last thing you want to see in the morning is a clutch pedal. The BT-50 is a breeze to drive because of this and particularly because the Mazda-Ford manual gearbox is awful — simply the worst on the market.
The auto has a smooth style that suits the diesel’s hightorque-low-rev manners. The ratios are spot-on, either for brisk acceleration (it’ll effortlessly chirp the wheels off the mark) or country touring.
However, turbo lag is a weak point and makes initial acceleration sluggish to the point where driving judgment is tested, such as when crossing a busy road.
It shouldn’t happen in a fivecylinder engine (or a six) and indicates the turbo may be too big for the job.
Unladen, the suspension won’t upset the kiddies.
The steering ratio is high and while it can get ponderous when parking, it compensates with a cushioned feel on rough tracks.
In the dirt it’s as capable as its rivals with the electric transfer shift making it easy to engage 4WD High and Low, though the ute has to be stopped for the latter.
Thoroughly enjoyable ute that’s very competent. Temporary rear seats are a compromise, allowing it to haul longer loads than its dual-cab sibling.