It’s been over 12 months since I last jumped behind the wheel of the Mazda BT-50, and that time around it was to, uh, celebrate the fact the local division had treated its dual-cab ute to a new front bumper.
For 2019, the changes are even smaller in scale, because there aren't any.
The Mitsubishi Triton has been given a hefty overhaul, the Ford Ranger has been given a small once-over, and even the Holden Colorado has had a range tweak, some suspension changes, and a raft of new option packs to keep it fresh during the last 12 months.
Mazda, it seems, has gone into lockdown with the BT-50. A new model is on the horizon, though it probably won’t arrive before 2021, and unlike the current generation, engineered alongside the Ranger, will be a derivative of the new Isuzu D-Max.
The Ford links to the current model extend to areas like the engine, transmission, basic chassis structure and suspension hardpoints. The BT-50’s design is Mazda’s own inside and out, though you might spot more than a few shared components.
Whereas Ford has been active in updating the safety and electronics systems for the Ranger alongside the steering and driveline, Mazda has been less active.
Under the bonnet lies an inline five-cylinder turbo diesel engine with a largest-in-class capacity of 3.2 litres connected to a six-speed automatic and part-time four-wheel-drive system. A six-speed manual is also optionally available, while lower grades are offered in two-wheel drive as well.
Engine outputs are rated at 147kW of power at 3000rpm and 470Nm of torque from 1750 to 2500rpm. Not the outright highest in the segment, but certainly amongst the frontrunners.
List pricing starts from a hefty $58,830 for the spec seen here before on-road costs. At the time of writing, a much more budget-friendly $51,990 drive-away offer is also available.
In an era when dual-cab utes seem to be in a race to out-flash each other, Mazda’s decision to hold firm with a more basic package seems a little odd, especially compared to the premium push from the brand’s passenger car range.
Although fancy electronic driver aids and luxury touches might be missing, the basic package isn’t what you’d call bare-boned. The top-spec BT-50 GT includes leather trim, electrically adjusted driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, satellite navigation, rain-sensing wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a sports bar in the tub.
That’s a decent list of swag for a ute. There are a few items rival brands offer that Mazda doesn’t, such as push-button start, heated seats, adaptive cruise and LED headlights, but their exclusion doesn’t particularly make the BT-50 any less convincing.
If you are caught up in form over function, the two-tone grey and black interior looks a little like it has passed through the hands of an upholsterer rather than a cohesive factory finish. The 8.0-inch touchscreen has a distinctly aftermarket look and feel, too, but at least it offers smartphone connectivity and off-road mapping.
The audio head unit comes from Alpine, includes digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus satellite navigation. It takes some time to get familiar with, features some small and fiddly buttons and isn’t super responsive – it can be frustrating to use at times, but it gets the job done.
Interior surfaces are durable, not designer. Solid hard-wearing plastics and easy to wipe down seat trims should survive water, dust, dirt, mud and any other grime that might festoon the interior of a work rig.
Rear seat space is decent enough to fit adults in, though knee room will be at a premium for tall passengers. The rear seat backrest is upright and quite firm, too, which might make long hauls less comfortable.
As is often the case in the dual-cab class, rear air vents in the back of the console are lacking, too. Speaking of things that aren’t there: the driver can adjust the steering column for tilt only, but not reach.
On the road, the BT-50 GT conveys a much more convincing message. The engine has real muscle, can step off the line smartly, and never shies away from delivering its all, either unladen or loaded up.
No, it doesn’t quite make the BT-50 a near performance ute in the same way you might expect of something like the V6 Amarok, and is still a little slow to rev. There’s genuine muscle, though, and it feels more capable than four-cylinder utes like the HiLux and Triton.
There’s a decent balance of refinement, too. Some noise and vibration does make its way into the cabin, but more often than not, with the windows up, it’s easy to forget there’s a diesel engine ticking away up front.
If you're keeping an eye on fuel, the official claim is 10.0 litres per 100km. On test, this particular ute's trip computer dipped into the low 13s, though much of the driving was low load and on the open road.
Maximum towing capacity matches most other dual-cabs in the class at 3500kg, payload is a decent 1082kg but GCM is 6000kg, so given the 2118kg kerb weight there’s a 700kg gulf you’ll need to account for – be that less in the tub with a full trailer, or a full payload but only 2400kg out back.
Typically, with nothing in the tray there’s some jittering and jumpiness from the rear over bumpy surfaces, but add in a light load and the BT-50 settles nicely. The ride is never going to be passenger car composed, but it’s still not as unforgiving as something like the Toyota HiLux.
The steering is still an older hydraulically assisted set-up. It falls to the heavy side of the spectrum at low speeds in tight quarters, but out on the open road it feels secure and planted without wandering.
Consequently, the lack of electric steering also means the BT-50 can’t add in advanced features like driver-attention monitoring and lane-keep assist – admittedly still rare for the segment, but fast appearing. There’s no autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring or surround-view camera either.
On the safety front, you do get six airbags, rear-view camera, traction and stability control, rollover mitigation and trailer sway control, front seatbelt pretensioners, front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS and emergency brake assist, and a rear diff lock to assist in off-road situations.
Although the BT-50 still carries a five-star ANCAP rating, testing was conducted against 2011 criteria. In a modern context, Mazda’s lack of AEB would render it ineligible for the same rating today.
Owners have access to a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty (including vehicles used commercially). Roadside assist is also included for the first five years and even includes bogged vehicle retrieval, though of course certain conditions apply to this service.
Capped-price servicing carries 12-month or 15,000km intervals, with pricing alternating between $443 for the first, third and fifth services, and $517 for the second and fourth visits. Additional charges apply to replace the cabin filter ($64 as required) and brake fluid ($68 every 24 months).
While Mazda tirelessly pursues the prestige end of the mainstream market with passenger cars and SUVs, the BT-50 can’t quite do the same.
Without the constant improvements to safety technology, and because of the lack of in-house infotainment, the BT-50 can’t live up to the lofty high-water mark left by the mechanically similar Ford Ranger – which not only tops the 4x4 ute sales charts in Australia, but comes out on top in comparisons time and time again.
While it may not match the newest safety tech as available in the Triton, Ranger, HiLux and Mercedes X-Class, Mazda occupies the slice of the market that calls for no nonsense. It’s a ute that looks like a ute, and behaves like a ute.
There’s little unnecessary showmanship, and a lack of complexity that is still highly prized by grey nomads, farmers, and regional dwellers.
Better still, as the BT-50 GT fends off its age, sharp deals make this brawny hauler all the better, provided you can reconcile the absence of advanced tech – which could be one of the reasons you’re looking at a BT-50 in the first place.