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In a dual cab ute market dominated by the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux, the Mazda BT-50 has long had a way of slipping through cracks. But as we’ve discussed many times over the years, it’s a worthy offering in upper-spec guise for weekend warriors.
While it shares much with the Ranger — platform and drivetrain, most obviously — the BT-50 taps into Mazda’s brand DNA as much as any pick-up can. It looks edgy and car-like, and feels more nimble and road-friendly than most of its rivals.
The high-end BT-50 XTR variant you see here (just like a Ranger XLT) is not built as much for worksites as it is for weekend getaways with boats or vans — though of course it’s certainly capable of heavier duties.
Why are we reviewing it? Well usually, the BT-50 4x4 dual cab in this XTR guise costs $51,700 plus on-roads with an automatic transmission. But right now, Mazda will sell you one for $53,590 drive-away, and will also throw in its optional Kuroi Pack.
Given the BT-50’s looks are usually what attracts the most criticism, the 17-inch black alloy wheels; black sports bar, nudge bar and side steps; black body graphics; soft tonneau cover and Lightforce driving lights are welcome additions.
We don’t usually focus on something as subjective as styling, but anything to add a little macho to the Mazda is a good thing. We’d also point out the $53,590 deal is a good few grand cheaper than a Ranger XLT or Toyota HiLux SR5, and about in line with the much-improved, updated Holden Colorado LTZ.
Under the bonnet of the BT-50 is the familiar 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel with 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm, with claimed combined-cycle fuel use of 9.2 litres per 100km (we managed low 10s).
In terms of refinement, it sits between the uber quiet Volkswagen Amarok and the rattly but trusty and under-stressed Isuzu D-Max, while its pulling power from low down is strong, and its 3500kg braked towing capacity is equal class-leading.
The oiler under the bonnet is matched up to a six-speed automatic gearbox that seems to have slightly different tuning to the Ranger’s. In Mazda form, it holds lower ratios a little longer, though on a positive note, its throttle response isn’t quite as ‘touchy’ as the Ford, making it easier to pedal around town.
In terms of NVH suppression and sprint capabilities the Mazda sits around the middle of the dual-cab ute pack, as you can read in our comprehensive comparison test here. On a 500km highway jaunt, the BT-50 proved to be quiet and composed. We'd happily drive one across Australia.
Where the BT-50 really carves out a niche of its own is if you want to throw it around in some corners. The hydraulically-assisted steering is much heavier and more resistant than the Ranger’s electric-assisted system, meaning it requires more effort around town.
But the trade off is the way it loads up beautifully at higher speeds and offers plenty of feel from the front tyres, plus an excellent directness on centre. Combine this with a firm double-wishbone setup at the front and an effective anti-roll bar, and you get a ute that feels taut, with good turn-in and body control through corners — in our case, Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
This good body control also makes handling on gravel roads sure-footed, thanks in part to the relatively subtle ESC tune, though the trade-off is that it doesn’t soak up bigger inputs like the Ranger, which manages to float over surfaces without degrading into a wallow. The Mazda can get a touch jittery, especially unladen. The braking, even at the leaf-sprung/drum-braked rear, is effective enough when unladen.
In terms of capabilities, the BT-50 as tested weighs a tick under 2.2 tonnes, has a payload of 1082kg in its 1550mm x 1560mm tub, and a GVM of six tonnes. Braked towing capacity as mentioned is 3.5 tonnes (and the download capacity is 350kg). All of these numbers are in the upper percentile of the class,
For some background, my mother owns a BT-50 dual-cab with automatic and regularly tows a fully loaded horse float. She has clocked up just shy of 80,000km with no troubles, and loves the stability at speed compared to her old D22 Navara. She also loves the engine’s punch down low, and the fuel economy that points to its effortlessness.
The BT-50 comes with a 4WD system with an electronically controlled, shift-on-the-fly transfer case to shift between 2H and 4H at any time using a switch on the transmission tunnel at speeds of up to 120km/h if you lift off the throttle. There’s also a proper low-range gearing mode, though no Triton-style on-road 4x4 mode for slippery tarmac.
There’s an electric-locking rear differential operated via a switch. Unladen, and fitted with 265 tyres, the XTR has ground clearance of 237mm, an approach angle of 28.2 degrees, a departure angle of 26.4 degrees, and a breakover angle of 25 degrees. The maximum wading depth is 800mm for 4WD models.
Inside the cabin, the BT-50 is every bit the tricked-up work truck. It lacks the Ranger's swish active safety technologies and the Amarok's premium feel, with hard plastics and a basic infotainment setup (rather than the brilliant proprietary MZD Connect system Mazda uses on its passenger cars and SUVs). That said, the loading times are commendably fast.
It's also really well-built, with tough and hard plastics and excellent fit and finish that's a cut above the D-Max/Ranger and others. Good dust-sealing too.
While the cabin will feel like a revelation compared to a previous-generation ute of any sort, the current Nissan Navara, Mitsubishi Triton, Amarok, HiLux, and even the just-launched MY17 Colorado look more modern, and the Ranger has superior kit, despite the occasional build quality wobble. Alas Mazda is on a budget, since the BT-50 isn't a core model in many markets beyond ours. It's good, but not special.
The list of equipment is pretty strong, including hardy cloth seats, a 7.8-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, climate control, cruise control, electric windows and a rear-view camera (in the rear-view mirror). It also has full-cabin airbags protection and a five-star ANCAP rating. Metallic paint is also free.
The back seats can accommodate a pair of adults easily or three at a pinch, and you could easily use the BT-50 dual-cab as a second family car for weekend getaways. But that's merely par for the class.
From an ownership perspective, the BT-50 has a two-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. If you haven't reached 100,000km at the end of two years, your cover extends to three-years or 100,000km, whichever comes first. This has it at the lower end of the segment for coverage, though Mazda's dealerships regularly top market surveys for service. You also have to pay a nominal fee (from $68) for roadside assist.
Service intervals are an ordinary 12-months/10,000km (the latter is the figure that we'd like to see upped). The first six visits at current prices are $399, $538, $399, $538, $399, $538, which is a lot more than you'll pay on a HiLux. The Ranger with the same engine also has 15,000km intervals and slightly cheaper costs. Hmm.
Ultimately, the Mazda BT-50 XTR remains an upper middle-of-the-pack ute that ticks all the boxes without really starring in any one category. Where this one shines is the discounted price and that Kuroi Pack that adds some macho styling, which is clearly needed.
At $54k drive-away, this deal (more here) is decent value. Haggle hard and you'll be happy.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.