Cross­bred, cross pur­poses

If a sin­gle- and a twin-cab had a kid ...

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Road Test - NEIL DOWL­ING neil.dowl­ing@cars­guide.com.au

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.

VALUE

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.

DE­SIGN

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.

TECH­NOL­OGY

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.

SAFETY

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.

DRIV­ING

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.

VER­DICT

Thor­oughly en­joy­able ute that’s very com­pe­tent. Tem­po­rary rear seats are a com­pro­mise, al­low­ing it to haul longer loads than its dual-cab sib­ling.

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