Mazda BT-50 GT

STILL IN THE FIGHT, BUT UL­TI­MATELY OVER­SHAD­OWED BY ITS HIGH-FLY­ING FRA­TER­NAL TWIN

Wheels (Australia) - - First Drives -

STYLING aside, there was a time when you could rec­om­mend Mazda’s BT-50 in the same breath as the Ford Ranger. Un­der­neath the vastly dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ics, the mod­els share a plat­form and ma­jor me­chan­i­cals and that meant the pair brought sim­i­lar tal­ent to the one-tonne mar­ket.

But that was 2011 and in the en­su­ing years both mod­els have fol­lowed very dif­fer­ent evo­lu­tion­ary paths. While Ford has built on the Ranger’s good looks and strong plat­form foun­da­tions, Mazda has left the lat­ter alone and in­stead fussed over the styling – in­clud­ing a facelift ear­lier this year in­volv­ing a new grille, squared off front bumper and other more mi­nor cos­metic re­vi­sions.

There’s still shared DNA in the form of the lusty 3.2-litre five-cylin­der diesel which pow­ers them both. Long the ex­cep­tion in a world of four-pot tur­bod­iesel donks, the off-key but smooth five-banger is a valu­able point of dif­fer­ence in the mar­ket. With an ex­tra cylin­der, the engine doesn’t clat­ter quite as chat­tily and re­sponds ea­gerly to the throttle with a wel­come wad of low-rev torque.

Here, how­ever, the Mazda trails off, be­cause Ford has spent seven years re­vis­ing and im­prov­ing the Ranger’s heart with ef­fi­ciency-gain­ing tech­nolo­gies such as idle-stop and elec­tric (rather than the BT-50’S hy­draulic) steer­ing said to boost econ­omy by more than 20 per­cent – a claim cer­tainly not dis­proven on test, where the Mazda shocked us with a sur­pris­ingly poor 13.3L/100km fig­ure, com­pared with the Blue Oval ute’s 10.9L/100km.

Still, han­dling con­fi­dence and wel­come ride com­fort re­stored our faith in the Mazda, sup­ported by low road-noise lev­els (likely thanks to the tall tyre side­walls on 17-inch rims), though – again – it wasn’t up to the same stan­dard as the rel­a­tively sup­ple Ranger’s. On smooth roads, the BT-50’S dy­nam­ics had us call­ing it a ‘driver’s truck’, with weighty steer­ing and a sure­footed chas­sis. The sleeper of the bunch!

Mean­while, the sim­ple and in­tu­itive in­te­rior is ar­guably the most car-like of the line-up in its de­sign – al­beit that of a decade-old Mazda – and there’s value ev­ery­where in­clud­ing the am­ple sec­ond-row space and knee room as well as a pleas­antly sup­port­ive cush­ion (though non-aligned rear head­rests are a cu­rio). Out back, the Mazda’s tray is one of the bet­ter equipped, with a liner, tie-down points, illumination and a 12-volt socket for a por­ta­ble fridge full of VBS.

Yet we may as well be stuck in 2011 here, be­cause step­ping into the Ford means step­ping up to for­ward col­li­sion mit­i­ga­tion, lane de­par­ture warn­ing sys­tems and adap­tive cruise con­trol. And while the Ranger is en­hanced with the ex­cel­lent Sync3 in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem, the BT-50 makes do with a very af­ter mar­ket look­ing Alpine unit. Throw in ana­logue di­als and a sin­gle-colour cen­tral dig­i­tal dis­play com­pared with the Ranger’s full-colour LCD dis­plays, and a gen­er­a­tion gap is be­gin­ning to open up.

With the Colorado and Ranger demon­strat­ing just how much can be achieved with mid-life up­dates, by com­par­i­son Mazda al­most seems to have given up on the BT-50. That’s a shame be­cause in many ways it is still easy to rec­om­mend. A com­bi­na­tion of an ex­cel­lent driv­e­train and dy­nam­ics, blended with un­pre­ten­tious looks has en­sured the BT-50 is still bat­tling hard in the seg­ment, but when you park it next to its fra­ter­nal twin, it’s clear that the Mazda could be so much more. DG + BM

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