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There are cheaper ways into a 4x2 workhorse ute than the 2016 Mazda BT-50, but the question this review will aim to answer is this: is there a better budget ute?
The entry-level rear-wheel-drive 2016 Mazda BT-50 XT model kicks off from just $25,990 plus on-road costs, while this version is the Hi-Rider automatic version, which has a list price of $28,815 plus on-road costs before you add a tray - when Mazda does driveaway pricing on stock vehicles it includes a tray in the cost, but there's no tray fitted on order vehicles.
It makes use of the same 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine as the base model manual, but the automatic version gets a raised suspension setup that makes it look more like a four-wheel-drive than an entry-level cab-chassis.
And sit high it certainly does, with an extra 31 millimetres of ground clearance (rated at 232mm for this version) due to the beefed-up suspension. As well as offering a better view of the road for the driver, the higher suspension makes for massively improved approach and departure angles (approach: 27.6 degrees vs 22.0deg; departure: 28.4deg vs 24.0deg).
It sits at 1800mm tall, where the manual non-Hi Rider measures 1704mm.
It’s not just height, though: the beefier suspension allows the BT-50 XT Hi-Rider even more load capacity than the already-impressive low-riding model. It is claimed to be able to deal with a load of up to 1533 kilograms, up from 1328kg.
Further to the extra load capacity, the BT-50 Hi-Rider increases the towing capacity over the manual base model by a handy 1000kg to equal the class benchmark of 3500kg.
We didn’t test towing during our time in the ute, but we did load it up with about 400kg of ballast to see what the difference was in terms of performance and comfort.
And as you may have guessed, there was barely an impact at all, apart from an improvement to the way the BT-50 handled bumpy roads.
The ride settles right down, even more so than without any weight in the tray. The BT-50 tackled elevated speed humps easily and the weight was certainly not holding it back, either.
We tested a Nissan Navara with the same load over the same roads, and the BT-50 felt slightly better out of the two. That said, 400kg isn't even close to the kind of weight that would make it feel overly weighed down.
Without a load the Mazda BT-50 Hi-Rider isn't too bad. Back-to-back, it rode more comfortably than the Navara when it was unladen. Admittedly it will still jump around a bit over uneven surfaces, but it smoothes out most of the usual road surfaces you'll face around town.
The tray on our test vehicle adds $2162 to the price, and adds a few nice extras over the standard-fit tray. The good bits include an under-tray lock-up box on the driver’s side, along with a water caddy and sunscreen holder on the left side. It measures 2560mm long, 1780mm wide and 260mm deep.
The drop-down sides are easy to use, though buyers who get on and off the back of their ute when loading items in or out could be better off with the low-riding model, as the step (lunge!) up into the cargo area is a big one.
It's unlikely that these utes will ever be completely empty for very long, but it's not unbearable without a load.
Generally the BT-50 drives quite well, with steering that is direct and accurate, but it can be heavy at low speeds and the turning circle of the BT-50 is at the poorer end of the scale for the class.
At higher speeds and through faster corners, the Mazda ute is a bit more fun than most, with a level of involvement to be had. That is more down to the steering and suspension than the engine, even though it is quite good.
The 2.2-litre engine has 110kW of power at 3700rpm and 375Nm of torque at 1500-2500rpm, which is definitely respectable for the class. The numbers are identical whether you choose the six-speed manual or the six-speed auto, too.
The engine is willing and, as you may ascertain from the torque band, has a nice swell of low-down pulling power after you get over the initial lag from a standstill. It powers along effortlessly on the highway, and the transmission is good at holding gears at higher speeds.
At lower speeds – around town, for example – the gearbox can hold low gears a little long under hard acceleration: some shifts, if they came a little sooner, could help keep the engine in its happiest spot instead of revving harder and feeling a little out of breath.
The engine is noisy, too, particularly when cold, and under hard acceleration when it won't upshift.
Fuel use is claimed at 8.9 litres per 100 kilometres for the Hi-Rider auto, much, er, higher than the low-riding manual cab-chassis base model (7.6L/100km). On test, we saw 9.8L/100km across a mix of driving conditions including loaded and unloaded, highway and urban.
Inside, the Mazda definitely feels a little older and not quite as prestigious as some competitors (that Navara included).
Our test vehicle had one or two loosely-fitted plastics which didn’t help in that regard, but the dashboard, seats and storage areas all felt solid. The vinyl flooring is a plus for filthy-footed tradies, too.
The Mazda’s older-style media system with its small monochrome display isn’t the most intuitive thing to use, and the array of buttons underneath is very 2011 (which is when this generation BT-50 launched). That said, pairing a phone proved easy enough, and it has Bluetooth phone and audio streaming as well as USB and auxiliary inputs.
If you choose the manual you get a three-seat layout rather than the two bucket seats and centre console fitted to the auto. Additional storage though the cabin is good, with big door pockets and a decent glovebox.
There are the requisite safety bits, including dual front airbags and curtain airbags, as well as electronic stability control. There is no rear-view camera, but you can option one for $820 fitted.
Mazda offers an intriguing warranty setup for its BT-50 ute range. It comes as standard with a two-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, but if you haven’t hit 100,000km after 24 months of ownership, the brand will extend the cover to three years or 100,000km, whichever occurs first.
There is a capped-price service program which requires the BT-50 to have maintenance visits every 10,000km or 12 months, whichever comes around first, and that is more regular than many rivals - Nissan, for instance, only needs maintenance every 20,000km for the diesel Navara. For the first 50,000km of ownership, the BT-50 with its 2.2-litre engine costs an average of $428 (minimum) per service.
There are competing products out there in the entry-level cab-chassis ute space that are more affordable – some by thousands of dollars – but there’s a certain feel of quality and comfort to the Mazda BT-50 XT Hi-Rider that makes it feel worthy of the spend.
Thanks to Mark and the guys at PowerFreight for allowing us to load-up on site for this test.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos.