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Australia’s ute market is big, and the bigger it gets, the more room it has to fragment. At one end, big, brash, pricey utes positioned as status symbols are running off dealer lots, while salt of the earth style workhorses show no signs of slowing either.
Mazda’s BT-50 falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not as dressy as top-of-town utes like the Ford Ranger Wildtrak and Toyota HiLux Rugged X for instance, nor is it quite as bare bones as the Isuzu D-Max.
There’s still a range-topper of course, the BT-50 GT, but don’t expect to find a huge number of awe-inducing premium features. In fact, the biggest news for the updated 2018 BT-50 is cosmetic, with a new front bumper designed to remove some of the criticism of the ute’s ‘soft’ styling, joined by a different grille insert.
To these eyes, Mazda hasn’t pulled a rabbit out of its hat looks-wise. The new front clip is no worse than the old, but it can look a little aftermarket. The new grille actually looks older than the one it replaces, and with no change to the headlights or tail-lights, the BT-50 looks as soft as it ever did.
Good thing both Mazda and the aftermarket offer a wide choice of bullbars should you wish to bulk up the front end a little.
If the tweaked front styling is Mazda’s headline act, the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity is an important inside story. Although, aside from those two revisions, there’s not much else that sets the ‘new’ BT-50 apart.
The infotainment change marks the first appearance of OS-native smartphone connectivity to Mazda’s Aussie range, and fits with inclusions like satellite navigation and DAB+ digital radio for the 8.0-inch touchscreen system.
It’s not Mazda’s own infotainment platform as used in the brand’s passenger cars, but rather a head unit from Alpine with distinct aftermarket look and feel. The inclusion of CarPlay/Android Auto is a real saviour too, with the Alpine interface often being slow to load, with small buttons that are difficult to use on the go, and a menu structure that’s often aggravating in its complexity.
Standard kit for the BT-50 GT holds firm with features like leather seat trim, a powered driver’s seat, dusk-sensing headlights, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, and 17-inch alloy wheels.
There are no changes under the bonnet either, with the GT model making use of a five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine with 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm. The engine connects to a six-speed automatic, though a manual is also available.
The BT-50 also includes an electrically engaged 4x4 system that includes low-range and a locking rear differential, giving it the required grunt and capability combo to go off-road.
Ground clearance measures 232mm unladen, and few but the most pedantic will notice the lower edge of the front bumper is around 3mm lower than before (which doesn’t impact undercar clearance, by the way).
That five-cylinder powerplant is one of the BT-50’s shining attributes. While it’s not the gruntiest in the segment, it’s close. For instance, a Holden Colorado manages 500Nm and the Volkswagen Amarok V6 generates 165kW and 550Nm before overboost.
Refinement and noise levels are in line with class competitors, so no surprises there, but stomp the loud pedal and the BT-50 accelerates with the kind of authority that’s often missing from the diesel dual-cab ute segment.
The goal there obviously isn’t straight-line speed, but with a full load of passengers and a tub full of work gear, having enough torque in reserve to keep up with the ebb and flow of urban traffic, or for a burst of overtaking speed, is always helpful.
There are moments when it’s possible to catch the BT-50 napping. Off boost, the turbo can take some time to spool up, and the transmission isn’t always at its sharpest, holding onto taller gears. Neither is a major roadblock to driveability, though.
Despite basic underpinnings shared with Ford’s Ranger, detailed differences between the two mean ride and handling aren’t identical. Mazda sets its own suspension tune and sticks with hydraulic steering compared to the Ford’s electric set-up.
There are no major qualms with ride. As a load carrier, there’s some rear-end fidgeting and firmness when unladen, but with a bit of ballast in the rear the BT-50 settles nicely. Over more choppy surfaces, the BT-50 is marginally less settled than something like a Ranger or Colorado, but the difference is relatively minor.
Steering is a touch heavy, particularly at low speeds, but as vehicle speed rises the Mazda feels solid and stable, meaning no vagueness or nervousness from the front end on highway runs.
Total payload is 1082kg and maximum braked towing capacity is 3500kg, putting the BT-50 at the top of class-carrying capacities.
On the safety front, the BT-50 doesn’t feature as much of the advanced tech as the Ranger, which is where the two differ most significantly. You do get six airbags, ABS brakes, electronic stability control with trailer-sway control and roll stability control, reverse camera, front seatbelt pretensioners and two rear ISOFIX mounting points as standard.
More advanced tech like lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision alert or autonomous emergency braking aren’t available at all, either standard or as an option.
As an ownership prospect, Mazda has stretched out service intervals from the previous 12-month/10,000km interval to 12 months or 15,000km, which is sure to come as good news to high-mileage drivers. Service pricing alternates between $431 and $502 with each visit for a total of $2297 at the end of five years.
Without the flashy lure of look-at-me styling either inside or out, the BT-50 GT really does its best with the basics. The cabin, for instance, has enough room for a growing family, but the rear seat will start to look a little compact if you need to throw three lanky late-teens into it.
There’s an odd disconnect inside, where the seat trim looks like it may have been poached from a different car altogether, due to its difference in colour and finish. The plastics on the dash and doors are all heavy-duty and work-capable, but unlikely to impress anyone searching for an air of prestige.
And to be fair, none of that’s really a major issue. Of course, Mazda plays a semi-premium game with its passenger cars, and by extension the expectation might be that its own ute follows the same path. But the reality is that as a step between workhorse and family car, the BT-50 doesn’t need to go over the top with lavish extras.
While it may not exceed expectations, revolutionise the segment or create new benchmarks, there’s no real harm in the BT-50 being humble and simple. It’s a strategy that seems to work wonders for utes like the D-Max after all.
Picture it as something of a blank canvas, ready to be outfitted with any of the off-road accessories you’d like to turn it into a weekend getaway machine, or waiting for a tray full of toolboxes to become a tailored work solution.
Officially, Mazda lists a $56,990 price (before on-road costs) for the BT-50 GT auto, which is no small ask, but as is so often the case with vehicles in this class, there are always deals to be done. Dealers with stock on hand have pre-applied discounts in many cases, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to work those deals even further to your favour.
While it may be less of an attention seeker than something like a Ranger Wildtrak, or comes up short on fancy features like those you’d find in an Amarok Ultimate, the BT-50 GT provides a level-headed work/life balance.
Glamorous utes are all well and good for those that want them. But for more down-to-earth types, Mazda’s plain-packaged dual-cab slots into the business end of Australia’s ute landscape with a ready-to-work attitude and the right skills to get the job (and a spot of recreation) done.