There’s not a lot to separate these mechanical twins under the skin, but that didn’t stop us from heading out into the bush to find out.
Regular readers of CarAdvice will already know how highly we rate both the new Isuzu D-Max and Mazda BT-50, after our many existing tests and comparisons. And they’re difficult to separate, seeing as they are effectively the exact-same vehicle with different clothes on.
Four-wheel-drive ute development stories sound like an episode or two from Days Of Our Lives. After many years of collaborating successfully with Ford, Mazda switched over to Isuzu’s new four-wheel-drive ute platform in 2020. Isuzu historically shared a bed with General Motors, and thus Holden for many years before the Aussie brand's tragic death. Ford, on the other hand, is now working alongside relative newcomer to the ute segment Volkswagen for the next-generation Amarok and Ranger.
Nissan and Mercedes also had an interesting dalliance. But like many unconventional relationships, it was destined for disaster.
Anyways, back to this particular relationship, seemingly blossoming in its early days.
Pricing and specification
The two utes we have in this comparison aren’t direct price competitors: Mazda’s BT-50 is the top-spec GT ($56,990), while the D-Max price was recently increased to $54,000 for this LS-M specification.
Comparing four-wheel-drive models in dual-cab body styles with a tub, the BT-50 starts from $50,760 for XT specification, while Isuzu starts from $48,900 for SX.
Both come with a manual transmission as standard; Mazda charges between $2500 and $3000 for an automatic transmission, while Isuzu lists a $2000 bump for two pedals.
|2021 Isuzu D-Max LS-M 4x4||2021 Mazda BT-50 GT|
|Engine||3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel||3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel|
|Power and torque||140kW @ 3600rpm, 450Nm @ 1600–2600rpm||140kW @ 3600rpm, 450Nm @ 1600–2600rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed automatic||Six-speed automatic|
|Drive type||Part-time 4x4, low-range transfer case||Part-time 4x4, low-range transfer case|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||8.0L/100km||8.0L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 stars (tested 2020)||5 stars (tested 2020)|
|Warranty||6 years/150,000km||5 years/unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mazda BT-50, Nissan Navara, Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton||Isuzu D-Max, Nissan Navara, Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton|
|Price as tested (ex accessories & on-road costs)||$54,000||$56,990|
Specifications and details do vary between Mazda and Isuzu, although the general interior is mostly a straight copy with some subtle design differences. The Mazda gets heated seats and some extra soft-touch surfaces in top GT guise, while the Isuzu gets additional storage compartments and cupholders.
So while the Mazda might win on some extra comfort, the Isuzu scores better for interior practicality.
One small point to make is that the top-spec D-Max X-Terrain – the only 4x4 variant with drive-away pricing – is only available with an automatic transmission. Manual or automatic is available across all of Mazda’s BT-50 4x4 range.
Another detail is the warranty: Isuzu's factory surety offering is longer at six years but capped at 150,000km, while Mazda's goes for unlimited kilometres over a five-year period.
Engine and driveline
Both utes share the same 3.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, which is developed by Isuzu and makes 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm between 1600–2600rpm.
This is an improvement over the previous generation D-Max, whose dimensionally identical motor made 130kW and 430Nm. However, Mazda’s previous Ford-derived powertrain had slightly better figures: 147kW and 470Nm from five cylinders and 3.2-litres. Although, it’s worth noting Ford’s powerplant – anecdotally at least – doesn’t enjoy as sterling a reputation as the Isuzu's beloved donk.
Behind that motor sits an Aisin-sourced six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, feeding a part-time four-wheel-drive system and low-range transfer case. Ratios here are identical between the two utes, and yield an identical experience.
This powertrain isn’t the lustiest or most aggressive in terms of power or delivery or performance, but offers a relaxed characteristic typical of Isuzu diesel powertrains. The torque feels plentiful and flexible, but also mostly linear across the rev range. Other engines in this segment surge more eagerly, especially as peak torque comes on tap somewhere near that 2000rpm mark.
The transmission is similar in nature: smooth and deliberate-feeling, never rushing or thudding through gear changes. In both cases, it uses in-gear torque through lower and middle rev ranges for acceleration, unless your deeply depressed throttle urges for a down-change or two.
When you do that, the ute will certainly make more noise, but acceleration doesn’t improve dramatically. You’re best off not hurrying so much, and leaning on that torque curve to accelerate more gently, but also more eloquently.
For off-roading, the gearbox is difficult to criticise. There are no problems with its choice of gear selection, and throwing the shifter across to manual mode does yield useful engine braking on downhill sections. Complement that with hill-descent control and a foot hovering over the left pedal, and you’re able to maintain good control on steep descents.
Wheels and tyres
Here is a point that does require a bit of discussion, because our two utes here are carrying different rolling stock. Because it’s higher up the specification ladder, the Mazda features 18-inch alloy wheels (in an optional design), with 265/60R18 Bridgestone Dueler rubber wrapped around them.
The mid-spec D-Max (LS-M) comes with 17-inch alloy wheels and slightly narrower tyres: 255/65R17 Dunlop Grandtreks. In terms of overall diameter, these tyres carry a slightly shorter diameter, but there is precious little in it.
The BT-50 can also be had with 17-inch alloys, and the D-Max with 18s. But, Isuzu completes the picture a little more with 16-inch steel wheels on the base SX specification.
Both utes performed well off-road, but slippery conditions saw the tyres out of their comfort zone a few times. The cars were forced to power through plenty of wheelspin at times, with both traction control and locking rear differentials (separately) unable to aid forward progress.
This can easily be improved upon, however. Modern all-terrain tyres from respected manufacturers will easily improve these utes’ off-road ability, and will bring no negatives to the on-road experience, and could potentially improve it.
Minor differences in tyre diameter mean there is a slight difference in listed ground clearance for these two utes: 240mm for the BT-50, and 235mm in the case of the D-Max. But considering the chassis, suspension and bash plates are all identical, the difference is elementary.
Because Mazda fits low-slung side steps to its higher-spec BT-50 utes, it’s something to keep in mind when you are off-road. Thanks to the long wheelbase and meagre rampover angle, you’ll often first run out of ground clearance around the sills, just below your door.
These side steps can quickly become sacrificial and damage easily. It’s worth considering unbolting these either temporarily or permanently before you do some four-wheel driving.
Otherwise, the ground clearance on offer between these utes is good, and typical of better examples in the class.
|Braked towing capacity||3500kg||3500kg|
Traction aids, low-range gearing
While the D-Max benefits greatly from the introduction of a standard locking rear differential in this new generation, the BT-50 did have one beforehand thanks to its Ford-developed bones. That means off-road, the 2021 BT-50 is a mostly similar experience to the previous generation.
With a locked rear end, both utes are able to take on tricky challenges quite well, especially with an engine happy to dole out lazy torque at low revs.
However, engaging the rear locker turns off traction control completely. This leaves your two front wheels open, and will spin wheels quickly as they lose traction. And that puts more pressure on your rear end to keep progress going, which isn’t perfect.
Off-road performance and experience
Slippery conditions on a steep track often gets the heart pumping, as standard tyres slip and slide in the search for grip. Some sections required a bit of scratchy wheelspin from both utes, with the rear locker engaged to find a way forward.
Unfortunately, leaving the front-diff open when the rear is locked does hamper both the D-Max and BT-50 off-road in conditions like this. Better examples like the Ford Ranger are able to maintain some torque control between the two front wheels, and could easily be the difference between success and failure.
If you watch the video, you’ll see the Mazda did run into dramas on one section of the track, where the Isuzu was able to crawl up first go. However, I’ll put that down to the guy behind the wheel rather than specific differences between the vehicles.
Although, there is something to be said for bragging rights when the winch strap gets rolled out...
While the driving experience did vary between the two during our day of testing out in the bush, that came down to the variable skill of the driver behind the wheel. I can’t put one of these utes down as being more or less capable than the other, especially considering they share so many identical mechanical parts.
Having differently priced and specified vehicles further muddied the waters: Mazda’s slightly bigger wheels and low-slung side-steps are of no benefit off-road, and can cause troubles in some scenarios.
While Isuzu gets the biggest benefit from this next evolution in its four-wheel-drive ute, both are solid offerings in the segment.
Isuzu was at the tail of the pack once upon a time, but now it’s right among the pack off-road. And while Mazda did precious little in terms of development and updates over the years of the previous-generation BT-50, this fresh model has all of the right ingredients of a four-wheel-drive ute.