Arriving Down Under 12 months ago, not long after its mechanical twin
Ford Ranger, the latest BT-50 joins the new breed of ‘lifestyle’ utes that further bridge the gap between traditional workhorse ute and family-friendly SUV.
A major step up from the previous BT-50, launched in 2006, the new ute is bigger, better equipped, safer and more proficient on road than before. It also cuts a more dashing presence, inside and out, courtesy of bold styling straight out of Mazda’s passenger car design handbook.
The smiley-faced ute has proven a hit with buyers too, and boosted Mazda’s share of the ever-growing utility market to seven percent (or just over 9000 sales) so far in 2012, according to official VFACT figures.
Like many body-on-frame utes on the market, the BT-50 is available in a wide range of variants, from basic, two-wheel drive, single cab workhorse versions pitched at tradies and farmers, to leather-lined, feature-packed four-wheel drive, dual cab versions aimed at recreational buyers.
Also on offer is a ‘freestyle’ extended cab body; three equipment levels (XT, XTR and GT), and two turbodiesel engines matched to six-speed manual or six-speed auto transmissions.
For this review, we drove a family-friendly, 4x4 dual cab BT-50, with mid-spec XTR trim, 3.2-litre diesel and auto ‘box.
Priced at $50,890, it comes well-equipped (for a workhorse ute), with 17-inch alloy wheels, remote central locking, cruise control, six-speaker CD radio with USB connection, Bluetooth with voice control, power windows and mirrors, dual-zone climate control, leather gearshift knob and leather steering wheel with audio controls.
The XTR version also benefits from a multimedia display with satellite navigation (but no touchscreen), floor carpet, driver’s seat with height and lumber adjustment, and chrome-look exterior trim.
The five-star safety-rated BT-50 also protects its occupants with anti-lock brakes, stability control, six airbags, front fog lamps, and hill descent control. Rear sensors aren’t available but a rear camera can be fitted as an accessory.
Items missing include auto on/off headlamps, rear-view mirror with auto dimming function, rain-sensing wipers, leather trim, and eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, but they're available for an additional $2000 on the top-spec GT version.
Our example was also fitted with the sporty Boss Adventure kit option which includes an airbag-compatible bull bar, sports bar and side steps (all in black steel), driving lights, 17-inch five-spoke alloys and a soft tonneau cover. Unfortunately it adds more than $8000 to the cost.
ON THE ROAD
Inside, the BT-50 feels more passenger car than tough truck. We like the compact, leather steering wheel, clearly laid out dash and easy to use controls. However, the centrally mounted multi-function screen set deep into the dash, isn’t always easy to read, and we prefer a touchscreen to wheel-mounted controls.
We also like the fact it’s roomy inside, with adequate space for five large adults. The front seats are big, comfy units with plenty of side bolstering to keep you firmly in place, and in XTR trim can be adjusted for height to give you a better view over the bonnet when off-roading. They also proved supremely comfortable over a nine hour trip from Melbourne to Batemans Bay and return.
The practical cabin offers plenty of useful storage areas, as well as three 12 volt sockets, including one in the tray. A minor gripe is the lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel, which makes finding the perfect driving position difficult, although this is an issue on most utes.
On the road the BT-50 delivers the sort of refinement, comfort and driving dynamics you could have only dreamt about in a big, tough commercial vehicle until recently.
Despite the separate chassis and rear leaf springs designed to carry big loads, Mazda has done a good job of delivering excellent ride comfort and low noise and vibration levels, even with the ute unladen. There’s still some ute-style floatiness and fidgeting, mostly over bigger bumps or potholes at speed, but mostly it feels well planted and secure.
The BT-50 handles surprisingly well for a ute, and can be hustled confidently through flowing, 80km/h corners thanks to minimal body lean, direct steering, and decent grip from the Dunlop Grandtrek all-terrain rubber.
The muscular yet refined 3.2-litre, five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine is another highlight, offering plenty of grunt from lower revs with 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm at 1750-2500rpm. It’s also eerily quiet in the cabin most of the time, with engine noise well suppressed and just a low burble intruding under hard acceleration.
The BT-50’s dual-range 4WD system combined with 237mm ground clearance, 28 degree approach angle, 26.4 degree departure angle, 25.0 degree breakover angle and 800mm wading depth, means it can tackle most off-road challenges thrown at it. Electronic hill descent control is also handy when trying to maintain control on slippery, steep descents.
With its gutsy turbodiesel engine and impressive 3350kg towing capacity, the BT-50 ute had no problem maintaining speed, even up some serious inclines, when hitched up to an Airstream caravan weighing around 2800kg.
The smooth six-speed auto held onto gears admirably, only dropping a cog or two when the engine was really working hard on longer hills. The auto comes with a Sport mode for a snappier response if required, or can be manually shifted for safer engine braking down steep descents.
The BT-50 also proved a stable and level towing platform, with the big 25ft Airstream ‘van tracking confidently at speeds up to 95km/h over some very twisty and hilly roads around the NSW coastal town of Batemans Bay.
The (unladen) Airstream’s maximum ball weight of 349kg was also within the limits of the BT-50’s towball mass of 335kg, and there was no apparent 'dipping' at the rear when hitched up.
While towing it recorded a respectable 15.6L/100km (compared to 8.5L/100km solo); which wasn’t bad considering the challenging towing conditions and the caravan’s bulk.
All BT-50 utes (except for entry-level 2.2-litre engine variants) offer 3350kg maximum towing capacity, which is second in class behind the Holden Colorado. With a kerb weight of 2103kg and 1097kg payload, the XTR BT-50 boasts a Gross vehicle mass (GVM) of 3200kg or Gross Combined Mass (GCM) of 5950kg.
Overall, the BT-50 is an impressive ute, that in dual cab 4x4 form at least would make a great all-rounder for family, work and towing duties.
MAZDA BT-50 XTR
Engine: 3.2-litre, five-cylinder turbo-diesel
Max. power: 147kW at 3000rpm
Max. torque: 470Nm at 1750-2500rpm
Transmission: six-speed auto
Ground clearance: 205 (laden)-237mm (unladen)
Kerb mass: 2103kg
Fuel: 80 litre
Towing cap. unbraked/braked: 750kg/3350kg
Tow ball mass maximum: 335kg
Fuel economy (claimed): 9.2/100km
Price: from $50,890 (MRRP)