Mazda makes BT-50 ute more blokey with new front end
THE flurry of wheelspun sand briefly interrupts the procession of ants that until now has been industriously avoiding us.
They're natives of the Gawler Ranges so they're inured to the ever-increasing activity from four-wheel drive utes. They'd better be, because the traffic is only going to get heavier, even way out here, as families venture beyond the conventional car types.
Dual-cab utes have overtaken large sedans as Australia's favourite family transport and Mazda is sick of being sidelined in the game despite having one of the top performers.
The Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50, once twins under the skin, are mechanically different these days because the Mazda missed out on some engine, steering and suspension tweaks, as well as tech upgrades Ford did on Ranger in 2015.
Now Mazda Australia - given this is the biggest global market for BT-50 - aims to catch up.
A three-slat grille and squared off bumper are the result of two years' labour by our local crew to toughen up the BT-50 without changing the front end's mounting points. It mightn't look like it but the fog lights are still in the same place and the Mazda motif hasn't moved in the grille itself.
What Mazda hopes has moved, however, is the perception of the car.
It still isn't the toughest truck on the market … but it no longer looks as if you've grafted a small hatch nose on to a work ute. Time will tell whether that's enough to sway buyers to move.
The changes inside the cab are more subtle and amount to a reversing camera that's standard across the range, along with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity and the addition of a seven-inch Alpine screen to the base XT versions. The top-tier GT picks up a sports bar and tub liner as standard kit.
Prices for the dual cab versions range from $42,000-$50,000, which makes the Mazda a relative bargain against the Ranger. Service intervals have also been extended from 10,000km to 15,000km.
ON THE ROAD
ON THE ROAD
Tyres are the biggest hurdle the BT-50 has to overcome off-road. The standard Dunlop Grandtrek all-terrain jobs are impressive at quelling tyre roar on bitumen when still giving bite on gravel and sand.
Serious bush-bashers will benefit from a more aggressive tread pattern to cut through the bulldust. The ground clearance and low-range four-wheel drive, though, are up to the task of handling well beyond what most owners will contemplate.
The suspension, gearbox and engine haven't been touched for this update. The five-cylinder turbo diesel has a great note and no lack of grunt and the six-speed auto slurs through the gears to avoid unnecessary jostling.
A firmer suspension setting than many utes helps with on-road handling but can cause the rear end to feel jittery over corrugations.
The GT's tub liner helps suppress noise on gravel roads by damping down some of the impact of rocks on the undercarriage. The seats could do with more bolstering on the sides to deal with side shake on really rutted roads.
The steering is vague on-centre, loads up well as the wheel is turned and gives enough feedback on gravel and sandy soils to help the driver maintain momentum.
It's not quite a case of too little, too late but the BT-50's front end revamp is long overdue. The BT-50 still won't challenge the Ranger for outright sales but it should now get a look in.
PRICE Nose-jobs aren't cheap, especially with a reputable surgeon, yet prices are down across the revised range. The dual-cab XT 4x4 now starts at $41,198 drive-away, stretching out to the $46,990 XTR and the top-tier GT at $49,990. The six-speed auto transmission adds $2000 to any version.
TECH Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard along with a reversing camera and Alpine-sourced infotainment across the range.
PERFORMANCE Engines are unchanged - 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel (110kW/375Nm) for the workhorses and a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel (147kW/470Nm) in higher-spec versions.
DRIVING The mechanicals haven't been touched, so the Mazda is still at its best with weight in the tray. It's a truck but a well-behaved one.
DESIGN The BT-50's revised face is the big ticket item, bringing a much-needed lift in machismo. In Mazda-speak, it delivers "a stronger exterior look, worthy of its reputation as a tough ute". That's code for saying the old model was too effete.
AT A GLANCE
Mazda BT-50 GT auto
PRICE $51,990 drive-away (competitive)
WARRANTY/SERVICES 3 years/100,000km, 12 months/15,000km, $1522 for 3 years (better)
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, reversing camera (the norm)
ENGINE 3.2-litre 5-cyl turbo diesel, 147kW/470Nm (solid)
THIRST 8.9L-9.2L/100km (average)
SPARE Full-size (typical)
TOWING 3500kg (on par)