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