First drive: All-new Mazda BT-50 driven, can it match the Ranger?

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Words: Matthew Hansen   |   Photos Matthew Hansen
25 Nov 2020

The Mazda BT-50 feels like a ute that’s always had most of the ingredients to achieve in the showroom. But despite being close to shading the best sellers in the segment on the spec sheet (hell, the last one was once the same as a Ford Ranger underneath), it’s rarely been considered a ute market leader.

Time will tell whether this status is set to change with the all-new BT-50. Having just landed on Kiwi shores, it comes at a pivotal time for utes. Almost every model in the segment has received some form of minor-to-major update this year — and those that haven’t are getting theirs in 2021.

Mazda New Zealand were cool as cucumbers at the BT-50’s local launch, playing down any ambitions of challenging for a spot in the segment top three. Manager of product and sales planning Tim Nalden described the firm’s BT-50 mood as “buzzing”, before shying away from naming definitive sales targets. Instead, Nalden said the focus was on continuing to improve Mazda’s brand value. No grand sales promos, no stripped-out bargain bin models, no gimmicks.

But that’s not to say Mazda’s local arm isn't ready for a fist fight. There’s a definite sense of line-in-the-sand aggression present with the nameplate’s roll-out. As previously reported, it features arguably the most condensed range in the segment and pointed pricing to match. Just six models are going to be offered locally with no single cabs, freestyle cabs, or manual transmissions to be seen.

Mazda has always been notorious for favouring private buyers over fleet buyers, and the BT-50’s compact range reflects this. According to Mazda, three out of every five utes sold in New Zealand is a four-wheel drive diesel double-cab automatic — a shift egged on by the growing amount of people buying utes for private use.

The lack of any bonafide ‘ratchet-window’ base model means a relatively high cost of entry; $47,490 for the GSX 2WD. But the $60,990 flagship Limited 4WD is bang on, only a touch spennier than the $58,995 Toyota Hilux SR5 Cruiser but far cheaper than the $67,890 Ranger FX4 and $67,990 Isuzu D-Max LS auto.

The latter comparison is most interesting since the blood brother D-Max and BT-50 share the same all-new architecture and 140kW/450Nm 3.0-litre engine. The BT-50 Limited packs more features than the D-Max LS, too. In fact, its spec sheet reads more like a direct copy of Isuzu’s $75,490 X-Terrain. The BT-50’s pricing also includes the brand’s competitive five-year Mazdacare programme, which includes a five years of warranty, fixed price servicing, and roadside assist. The firm shied away from pinning down just why its ute is so much cheaper than its Isuzu twin, although it did mention a direct line from it to Mazda Japan may have had something to do with it — this a luxury that Isuzu’s local arm doesn’t have.

Even though it feels like deja vu, the BT-50’s powertrain and platform are still two of the biggest talking points. The BT-50 and D-Max are the only two mainstream utes to feature truly modern platforms; constructed out of high tensile steel and combined with the most comprehensive suite of safety tech in class. It’s worth reiterating that the BT-50 and D-Max are the only two utes to have a 2020 ANCAP five-star safety rating, made possible with features like a far-side airbag between front occupants, emergency lane keeping, and turn assist to prevent it crossing the centre line in the event of a crash. “This truck is as safe, if not safer, than any new car on sale today,” managing director David Hodge proudly exclaimed.

The launch took place on a grim, grey Auckland day. We travelled from Mazda’s Mount Wellington head office to a gravel off-roading course and back. NZ Autocar was able to wield the 4WD GSX and GTX grades, while also getting an up-close look at the Limited. This gave us a good opportunity to sample the platform along motorway and twisty-road tarmac, as well as toy with some of the fifty’s revised off-road tech.

On-road, the BT-50 automatically inserts itself into the lead pack for comfort and ease of use. Ride quality is plush most of the time, better than a Hilux but a touch behind the likes of the Ranger and Mitsubishi Triton. The rack-mounted electric power steering system is among the lightest in class (particularly at a stand-still), but not so light as to lose connection with the road at pace. A stubbier wheelbase makes interior packaging slightly more complicated, but helps the BT-50 turn better. Less weight over the front wheels by virtue of a much lighter engine helps rotation, too.

Off-road, the BT-50 follows the D-Max’s lead as a handy companion. Admittedly the course we navigated didn’t challenge many of the ute’s limits (approach, break-over, and departure angles are rated at 30.4, 23.8, and 24.2 degrees respectively), but it did allow us to try out the Mazda’s automatic hill-hold and hill-descent assist. Both were intuitive, although the latter takes some getting used to. Unlike some other systems, descent speed is modulated by the throttle and brake on the fly. Once the vehicle is crawling along, you add brake to set a slower limit or add throttle to speed it up. It doesn’t feel intuitive to start, but by the end of the day it felt much more natural.

Make or break to the BT-50 is whether punters will value Mazda (and Isuzu’s) focus on comparative intangibles like smoother torque and hearty emissions and economy improvements ahead of the lack of headline-making power and torque figures. While everyone else is busy trying to cook up 500Nm beasts, the BT-50 gets by with 450Nm, helping it achieve 3500kg braked towing and 1050kg payload capacities. Compared to the old Ford 3.2 it produces one tonne less C02 per annum, and is 20 per cent more economical, on top of feeling plenty capable and under-stressed. Odds on it’ll be bulletproof, too, but you certainly miss the immediacy of Ford’s bi-turbo and Toyota’s revised 2.8.

Along with its five-star ANCAP safety rating, one of the other jewels in the BT-50’s crown is its interior. Limited models get muted brown leather upholstery and appointments, while the GSX and GTX get by with comfy black fabric pews. The GSX gets a smaller satnav-less 7.0-inch touchscreen, with the other two paired to a 9.0-inch unit. There’s a few firsts here for Mazda; like remote start and wireless Apple CarPlay. The menu layouts take some getting used to, but the high-definition screens will be a sight for sore eyes for anyone stepping out of a Hilux, and the satnav is one of the best in-car systems I’ve ever seen. Interior space is middling, with rear legroom actually slightly down on the outgoing model. But, Mazda and Isuzu have done a good job at packaging their shared space to feel larger than it is. The design of the glasshouse makes for a surprisingly airy cabin, and the door opening for rear passengers is immense.

Mazda boasts that the BT-50’s cabin gives new ‘passenger values’ to the ute segment. This is most true for the Limited, which it could be argued is the new ute interior quality benchmark. The GSX and GTX are well above average, too, with assorted neat touches like the rim of leather-look vinyl on the top of the dash and the splashes of piano black. How these trinkets fare the rough and tumble tradie work life remains to be seen, but both are in areas vulnerable to scratching and tearing. The real scalp is the work done to make the BT-50 quieter inside, which extends to things like choosing heavy duty seals and cross-shopping different kinds of floor carpets. It was worth it, too.

Finally we get to looks. The last BT-50 was one of the more aesthetically controversial players in class. I found it handsome but to many it looked a little too edgy and out the gate compared to its gruff, rugged-looking rivals. While Toyota, Ford, Nissan, and others have angled to make their utes look more American, Mazda has bucked the trend in trying to make its ute look more familiar. Its fascial construction is almost pure CX-9, making it one of the rare few current double-cabs that carries a familial nose.“When you see this truck coming towards you, you know it’s part of the Mazda family,” Hodge added. It’s surprisingly cohesive and tough in person; the bold grille making it look wider and more imposing than it really is.

Maybe most critical to the BT-50’s success is whether Mazda will continue to give the nameplate love through development. While the outgoing model shared its bones and blood with the Ranger initially, the two became very different vehicles by the end of the life cycle thanks to Ford’s endless platform development. The new BT-50 is an excellent ute, but needs to learn from the past to make the dent it deserves to make.

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