BLUE OVAL AL­TER EGO

There’s a lot of Ford Ranger in Mazda’s BT-50, which by and large is a good thing

Australian Transport News - - UTE MEGATEST -

This is Mazda’s new-look 2018 BT-50, com­plete with a fron­tend styling treat­ment that, quite un­usu­ally, is ex­clu­sive to Aus­tralian mod­els. It comes with ex­tra equip­ment, es­pe­cially for the en­try-level XT, but also in­cludes the ad­di­tion of the pop­u­lar smart­phone apps across all mod­els. This re­fresh fol­lows the MY16 up­grade that also com­prised a front-end restyle and equip­ment ad­di­tions.

This on­go­ing restyling to the BT-50’s front end says what ev­ery Mazda dealer in the coun­try was think­ing when the BT-50 and the co-de­vel­oped Ford Ranger first ar­rived here in late 2011, namely: “Bug­ger … wish our ute looked like their ute!”

De­spite be­ing as good as me­chan­i­cally iden­ti­cal when they both first ar­rived, and still very sim­i­lar fol­low­ing their re­spec­tive MY16 up­grades, the BT-50 has never sold in the num­bers of the Ranger, de­spite be­ing less ex­pen­sive. Right now, for ex­am­ple, the Ranger 4x4 out­sells the BT-50 4x4 about four to one.

For Mazda, the 2011 BT-50 rep­re­sented a de­sign about­face as, up un­til this time (and even with the first ute to carry the BT-50 name­plate), Mazda de­signed and de­vel­oped its own light com­mer­cials, which Ford then re­badged.

In this case, it was Ford lead­ing the de­sign and devel­op­ment and Mazda fol­low­ing on.

POW­ER­TRAIN AND PER­FOR­MANCE

As with many things, the BT-50 shares the same ba­sic en­gine of the Ranger, namely its 3.2-litre in­line five-cylin­der diesel, which is a ma­jor pos­i­tive in a mar­ket dom­i­nated by smaller-ca­pac­ity four-cylin­der en­gines. Big­ger ca­pac­ity al­ways means more-eas­ily de­vel­oped torque, which is al­ways a good thing when there’s work to be done.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, for the re­spec­tive 2016 up­dates, Ford car­ried out a num­ber of up­grades not adopted by Mazda. While both en­gines still claim the same

max­i­mum power and torque (147kW/197hp and 470Nm) the Ford achieves its 470Nm ear­lier and pro­duces it for longer.

This BT-50’s en­gine is still low revving, lazy (in a good way) and gen­er­ally ef­fort­less, although not quite as flex­i­ble as that of the Ranger. It’s also a lit­tle nois­ier than the Ranger and one of the gruffer en­gines here. But aside from a be­ing a lit­tle lumpy at idle, it’s also smooth run­ning given that an in­line five is in­her­ently smoother than an in­line four, de­spite hav­ing an odd num­ber of cylin­ders.

The en­gine is also well served by its six-speed au­to­matic (orig­i­nally a ZF de­sign) and fi­nal drive gear­ing, which is tall and re­laxed with­out be­ing so tall that the en­gine strug­gles to hold top gear at high­way speeds on un­du­lat­ing roads.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HAN­DLING

Like the Ranger, the BT-50’s han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics are more about sta­bil­ity than agility and come with well-sorted sus­pen­sion that’s well matched front to rear even when un­laden. As with the Ranger, the BT-50 feels like a big ute – mainly be­cause it is! One key dif­fer­ence to the oth­er­wise sim­i­lar Ranger is

that the BT-50 has con­ven­tional hy­drauli­cally as­sisted steer­ing rather than the elec­tric power steer­ing (EPS) that the Ranger adopted as part of its 2016 mid-life up­grade. The BT-50’s steer­ing at high­way speeds still of­fers a good feel but you do no­tice the ex­tra ef­fort at park­ing speeds com­pared to the very light steer­ing ef­fort of the Ranger. The counter ar­gu­ment is that hy­drauli­cally as­sisted steer­ing is a well-proven, ro­bust sys­tem, the rea­son given by Toy­ota in not adopt­ing EPS with its lat­est-gen­er­a­tion Hilux.

LOAD CAR­RY­ING

For all the same rea­sons the Ranger is a very good heavy-duty work ute, so is the BT-50. With our test 900kg pay­load on board, the BT-50 was largely un­fazed both in terms of chas­sis sta­bil­ity and en­gine per­for­mance. Like­wise, when tested with 3500kg tow weight hooked be­hind in our pre­vi­ous Load and Tow test, the BT-50 was one of the best per­form­ers. Where the BT-50 falls a lit­tle short of the Ranger is with its nois­ier and slightly less re­spon­sive en­gine.

OFF ROAD

If the en­gine up­grades and EPS are key fea­tures that dis­tin­guish the cur­rent BT-50 from the Ranger, so too is the way the chas­sis elec­tron­ics, namely the elec­tronic trac­tion con­trol (ETC), work on the two. When the driver en­gages the rear dif­fer­en­tial lock on the Ranger, the ETC re­mains ac­tive on the front wheels. With the BT-50, how­ever, en­gag­ing the rear locker can­cels the ETC com­pletely. This up­grade to the Ranger in 2016 was not adopted by Mazda.

The wash-up here is that en­gag­ing the rear locker on the BT-50 doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily help in dif­fi­cult off-road con­di­tions. On our very gnarly and steep set-piece hill, for ex­am­ple, the BT-50 got to the top with­out the locker but didn’t make it with the rear locker en­gaged.

Thanks largely to its gen­er­ous wheel travel (the same as the Ranger), the BT-50 is still amongst the more off-road ca­pa­ble utes even if it’s a notch down from the three top-tier per­form­ers – Hilux, Amarok and Ranger.

“NO UTE HERE HAS MORE COM­BINED FRONT AND REAR LEGROOM.”

CABIN AND SAFETY

There are more sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Ranger, with the BT-50 of­fer­ing a com­fort­able, spa­cious and no­tably long cabin. No ute here has more com­bined front and rear legroom, and only the Amarok is wider. The bot­tom line: if you wish to ac­com­mo­date five adults, the BT-50 is as good as you’ll get. It has five-star ANCAP safety too.

On the neg­a­tive side, there’s no reach ad­just­ment for the steer­ing wheel and no smart-key en­try and start, even on this top-spec GT model.

PRACTICALITIES

The com­mon­al­ity with the Ranger means many ser­vice parts are in­ter­change­able and are of­ten cheaper when they come in Ford wrap­ping.

There’s also a good range of fac­tory ac­ces­sories and the same prac­ti­cal wheel and tyre spec as the Ranger and Hilux.

How­ever, like the Ranger, the BT-50 is a lit­tle thirsty by class stan­dards – although the 80-litre tank helps cover for this in terms of fuel range.

No bick­er­ing over cabin temp, with dual-zone cli­mate air-con

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