Steve Vermeulen checks out the latest offering in the Mazda BT-50 range. Is it just a Ford Ranger in disguise?
If there was ever a genre of vehicle that defined the 2000’s it was the sports utility vehicle (SUV). The SUV became so important that even brands that had otherwise staved off over-proliferation of their lineup had to diversify. The big Porsche Cayenne for instance more-or-less single-handedly saved the sports car brand from extinction.
What then the genre of vehicle for this decade? Realistically, on a global scale it’ll be the Hybrid or full Electric Vehicle. But I reckon locally the humble ute is about to make a serious play for market domination here.
Currently, light commercials represent the second largest vehicle category in New Zealand; scratch that down to our dependence on a rural lifestyle and agricultural industry. But as the newest models have come online in the last few months, they’ve suddenly become all the more relevant for the typical Kiwi family.
It started with the Volkswagen Amarok, which represents almost no compromise in the things we hold dear in a passenger car. Excellent safety, excellent comfort, excellent practicality and excellent fuel economy.
Ford’s Ranger and the new Mazda BT-50 take it a step further. It’s no secret underneath the Ranger and the BT-50 are the same, a co-development project between the two companies that was run primarily of Australia and culminates in a joint production facility in Thailand.
Mazda, acknowledging they don’t currently own a stronghold in the trade/commercial sector, is instead pitching the BT-50 a heavy duty SUV alternative. Not a bad play, given they don’t currently have a heavy duty SUV.
Given the new ute boasts vital safety features like stability control, Bluetooth connectivity, roll stability control, trailer control and six airbags on all but the cab chassis models, as well as creature comforts like a tilt/weight adjustable steering wheel, dual zone climate control, rear parking sensors and comfy leather trim depending on trim levels, this is now more than ever a suitable replacement for an SUV or station wagon.
Interior space and seating comfort is much more car like with a wrap around driver-orientated dash and plenty of interior touches reminiscent of the Mazda6, the rear seats are set further back with more rake on the seat back, just like a car. And it’s expected, following the Ranger’s five star NCAP safety rating the BT-50 will follow suit so that ‘built for the farm’ qualities have pleasingly been bred out of the vehicle. Sure, with a full compliment of downhill decent control, electronic rear diff (4WD only) and capable 4WD system with tenacious low range ratios it’s still great off-road, but its new found road manners are the real story here.
Noise vibration and harshness are on par with the Ranger and therefore class leading; there’s a new six-speed manual and the same ZF six-speeder auto from the Falcon which works brilliantly in this application, a new coil-sprung front end and rack and pinion steering replace the old torsion bar and nut and ball arrangement. This has transformed handling, turn in is insanely precise for a vehicle of this sort, the increased chassis rigidity paired with a huge 470Nm of torque available from the 147kW 3.2 litre diesel actually allows effortless, accurate control of oversteer on gravel and surprising response and feel on the road.
It may not have the tough truck styling that’s proven popular in the BT-50’s Ford relation, but it won’t look or importantly feel out of place in the day to day urban school run or commute. Meanwhile come weekend time you can ditch the trailer and cart the garden waste to the refuse station in the increased capacity cargo box.
To offer a benefit over the Ranger, Mazda NZ have also introduced an excellent ‘Commercial care’ fixed price service regime, which ensures no service in the first three years of ownership or 150,000km costs over $200 (friction materials excluded).
Pricing is a bit more upmarket, the BT-50 starts at $35,295 for the farm-spec cab chassis and heads up to $61,895 for the range topping Double cab Limited with the six-speed auto. But it’s the classic have your cake and eat it too argument isn’t it? Time will be the telltale, but after a drive, it’s not hard to imagine these growing to be more relevant for outdoors-loving New Zealanders than our beloved SUV over the next few years.