IT'S NO WONDER there are more and more 4WD utes arriving on the Australian market – this segment alone represented about 10 per cent of all vehicles sold in Australia last year, up from six per cent from just five years before.
Our booming mining industry, admittedly, grabs a fair chunk of them, but so do private and small business buyers, especially utes equipped as mid-range or upper-spec models. The dual-cab ute is the new replacement for the old 4WD wagon – before most of them went soft – giving previously unheard of levels of performance and comfort at a lower price than the few tough 4WD wagons remaining on the market.
This brings us to a recent addition to the market, the Mazda BT-50. The new BT-50 is a joint-development between Mazda and Ford, the latter of whom sells its version as the Ford Ranger. Although body styling, interior presentation, features and suspension settings are different, these are a pigeon pair in every other way.
The Mazda and Ford are the most ‘Aussie’ 4WD utes you can buy, even though both come out of the same factory in Thailand. Design and engineering were based at Ford’s local Melbourne facilities, with 500 engineers involved, including 50 from Mazda.
Although engineering and testing was done on Australian roads, engineers also took prototypes to other countries, such as the US, Sweden and Germany for validation testing.
Mazda says it led rolling chassis development and produced prototypes for the joint development. Mazda also says its 50 engineers were based in Australia for up to four years while involved with the development.
The BT-50 was designed at Mazda’s Hiroshima design centre in Japan, under the auspices of Mazda’s chief designer, Ryo Yanagisawa. The Ford was designed in Australia.
We tested a mid-spec BT-50 4WD dual cab, the XTR. Ours was a manual transmission version, a good counterpoint to the automatic Ford Ranger we tested in the February ’12 issue of CW.
The BT-50 XTR’s standard equipment includes Trailer Sway Control, Roll-Over Mitigation and Load Adaptive Control, stability control and a brake override system (if the driver accidentally presses brake and accelerator at the same time, the system overrides the throttle and gives braking priority), satnav, front and side curtain airbags, 17in alloy wheels, locking rear differential, front fog lights, leather steering wheel and gearknob, dual-zone climate control, six-speaker audio, Bluetooth, trip computer, cruise control and audio.
Mazda’s dashboard is the familiar ‘swoopy’ design of the company’s other products, and it has clear, well-positioned switchgear with firm, supportive front seats.
At the back, the bench is quite flat, yet comfortable, with plenty of room. Driver vision to the front and sides is very good, but to the rear the lanky body is hard to place in tight parking spots. A rear parking camera is on the options list.
The BT-50 XTR comes in at a price of $48,810, before on-road costs.
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
The five-cylinder turbodiesel is a new design, but it eschews the smooth, free-revving style of other recent turbodiesels in favour of a slow-revving truck engine style.
Like most of its ilk, the BT-50 has turbo lag, but it is dispatched relatively quickly. As soon as the engine reaches around 1800rpm, response is very strong all the way to around 3000rpm, where peak power is developed. Beyond 3000rpm, the engine becomes more reluctant to rev. In fact, its 4900rpm redline appears academic because it doesn’t really want to rev much beyond 4000rpm.
So, provided you are happy to keep the engine in a relatively abbreviated rev range, the performance is plentiful – it’s just that it’s a bit like falling off a cliff on either end of the beefy mid-range torque plateau.
The six-speed manual transmission has a set of well-spaced ratios, but the gearshift itself is less than ideal. It baulks easily, and a quick three-point turn can rapidly deteriorate into an urgent attempt at selecting a gear, any gear.
Provided you do not rush it, the shifter is rubbery but precise enough – which is not always a given with a six-speed shifter.
The driveline is quite catholic for the 1t 4WD ute market, with an electronically-selectable dual-range part-time system that runs 2WD on hard surfaces and 4WD high or low-range for slippery surfaces.
Given the immense torque available – and the rush with which it arrives – the standard traction control is a blessing around town when it’s raining; otherwise the wheels would start spinning all too easily.
The BT-50’s body and chassis feel quite rigid, which is a good thing, and body control over most surfaces is very good. The ride is firm, which can make it uncomfortable on a slow-speed offroad track, but allows very good suspension control on fast undulating B roads. Steering response is very good for a ute, although muted compared to passenger car-based utes.
The BT-50 has all of the hardware to make a slippery offroad track look easy. The excellent low-range reduction gearing, standard locking rear differential, and ample clearance and angles all help here.
If you drove a standard 1t dual cab five years ago, you’d hardly believe how competent the likes of a stock standard BT-50 is when going offroad.
Fuel consumption while towing averaged 14.2L/100km on primarily 80km/h B roads, plus a few stretches of freeway and city traffic. Mazda claims the BT-50 will average 8.9L/100km in combined urban/country driving.
We towed a tandem-axle caravan with a Tare of 1940kg and ball weight of 115kg marked on the compliance plate. The BT-50’s nose barely rose a millimetre with such a light ball weight, and the overall hauling mass was taken on well. The very strong mid-range torque helps the BT-50 pull a caravan along very briskly, provided it’s kept in its torque band.
Stability while towing was excellent, and the BT-50 has the added safety net of trailer sway control, although it was never close to activating with our test rig.
Engine braking was very good, with barely a brush over the pedal required on steep descents. As for his ascents, the BT-50 got on with the job and could be kept at 100km/h on steep freeway hills, albeit with a down-change or two.
The BT-50’s side mirrors are a useful shape and size for towing but, like most vehicles, it did require towing mirrors for a larger caravan such as the one we tested with.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With its dual-cab versatility and comfort, attractive price and strong mid-range torque, the BT-50 makes a persuasive driving argument, augmented by a very competent towing performance.
Only a more refined engine and gearshift would make the BT-50 a perfect package.
Thanks to Camden Caravans, 66 Camden Valley Way, Camden, NSW 2570, (02 4658 1929) for the loan of the caravan for this test.
Engine In-line turbo-charged five-cylinder diesel
Max power 147kW@3000rpm
Max torque 470Nm@1500-2750rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Ground clearance 237mm
Kerb Mass 2086kg
Gross Vehicle Mass 3200kg
Gross Combined Mass 5950kg
Fuel tank capacity 80L
Towing capacity unbraked/braked 750kg/3350kg
TBM maximum 335kg
Price $48,810 (plus on-road costs)
For more information about the Mazda BT-50 XTR Dual cab, visit www.mazda.com.au
WORDS AND PICS Philip Lord
Source: Caravan World May 2012
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