BT-50 – update a better work story?

Mazda is suggesting the refreshed BT-50 is more about work than pleasure, yet does the top-spec model tool up adequately?

For: Great drivetrain, comfortable cabin, solid credentials.

Against:  Tech-lite against big name rivals, needs a better media system.

Score: 2.9/5

HOW much longer will Mazda keep on trucking? It just so happened that Hiroshima head office was opening up on that very issue around the same time the local distributor’s updated BT-50 one-tonne utility arrived for local test.

You probably know that Mazda has been in the traydeck trade for a long time: While Toyota likes to give impression that it started this trend with Hilux, in actual fact it was Mazda that got in first with Kiwis, by introducing its Proceed 1500 light truck in late 1966. It was a popular buy, but business became all the brisker from 1971, the year when the collaboration with Ford began.

For the next 40 years, light truck-making was a Japanese-led effort: Mazda did all the engineering and Ford added its badges. However, that arrangement completely u-turned when the current Ranger/BT-50 line emerged in 2011. Now it’s a Ford effort that Mazda revises for its own use.

That’s not to suggest Mazda has become a docile partner. Quite obviously, it has not: Badge engineering might have been fine for Ford, but clearly not for Mazda.

Japan’s insistence on each brand holding responsibility for their own bodywork means just one panel, the roof, is shared, but it was hands-on beyond that. During the four years of pre-release engineering undertaken in Melbourne and Detroit, Mazda had 50 of its own engineers working on this model.

Now it’s Ford’s turn to make its mark: Points of difference widen with the mid-life facelift for both lines and the emergence of the Everest seven-seater wagon. The Sync 2 infotainment system that now implements in most Rangers is a fantastic advancement, but it – and the Everest – are not being shared.

All this on top of this a sales situation that already heavily favours Ford. Ranger’s exceptional dominance of the NZ new vehicle market last year was one the back of a sobering four-to-one registrations rate over BT-50. Quite a turnaround from the old days, where lookalike products ran at much the same sales pace.

No surprise, then, that at last year’s Tokyo motor show, a senior manager suggested the joint venture could well end with this BT-50.

Then what happens? Even though Mazda says it wants to stay in this game, with NZ, Australia and Thailand being the primary markets, conjecture suggests it needs a partner to share development costs.

Potentially, then, this current model, might well not only be the last of its Ford-associated type. If Mazda decides to step out of this sector and concentrate on passenger cars, it might also be the last of the line, full stop.

But that’s several years away. For now Mazda NZ has determined to leave the glam and chase the grind; the old upmarket Limited that chased the metro market has gone and now the push is more toward winning toil-first workplace and country sales, so the lineup now starts at $35,295 and tops out at $57,295 for the 4WD GSX double cab automatic on test.

Styling, image

Let’s not re-open old wounds. Suffice to say that while providing one-tonne utes with car-like features was a good idea, slapping on car-derived styling really hasn’t cut much ice with the greater majority of Kiwi ute buyers.

Talk that Mazda was set to remove the entire front end and adopt a blunter, more bloke-ish look has obviously been wide of the mark, yet even though the BT-50 still obviously completely breaks from angled orthodoxy the front and rear styling has been toned down via relatively mild makeovers of the lower front bar and that big grin grille, along with differently styled but same-sized headlights and tail-lights. It looks a bit different and, yes, a bit better, yet anyone not sold on this direction originally then is unlikely to be a convert now.

Styling is subjective but sophistication and technical advancement should never be sniffed at. On that subject, comparing this GLX model its closest equivalent in Ranger-dom, the XLT, is going to be sobering indeed.

The Ford’s interior make-over would easily account for its premium of just over $4000; though the BT-50 has undergone some slight changes, basically it’s still lumped with the same hard, argricultural plastics and a console that looks dated and tired against the completely refreshed Ranger layout which resolves all the criticisms of the original instrumentation and presents a far more modern environment.

All the elements that Ford coped flak for in the pre-facelift Ranger and rectified now – that’s the under-sized mid-console screen that was inadequate for sat nav, the tiny reversing camera display and weeny screen icons, the lack of a digital speed (and tacho readout) – are still found in the Mazda, more’s the pity.

On top of this, Ford also has a higher technology edge in being first in the market with adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keep assist – technology that, just a year or so ago, would have seemed fantasy fare for any ute.

It’s a shame the BT-50 hasn’t been able to track this path. Whether this is a case of Ford being selfish or Mazda not caring to pay for some premium Blue Oval hardware … well, who would know? But the fact is that, while the BT-50 still earns good points for comfort, roominess, versatility and practicality, it has simply been left behind in a salient respect.

Perhaps this is why the brand is now pushing an argument about wanting to re-direct its model toward the workforce, a clientele that it might reason won’t be too worried about having less tech. The Mazda line is that you can throw luxury equipment into a truck, but it has to come at a price.

It’s a fair point but, basically, that presumes the Ford updates are just there to look smart. I don’t think that’s right.

It does maintain some decent credibility in other respects. A lack of steering-wheel reach adjustment remains a pity but the cabin is relatively serene, so you can have a conversation with a back seat passenger without having to raise your voice, and the cabin is roomy, with good leg and headroom.

Also, it appeals for continuing to provide a seemingly endless list of hidey-holes around the cabin, including under the seats. The glovebox can fit a laptop and there’s still a clip on the dashboard to hold business cards or fuel dockets. The back seat has a new fold-down armrest with cupholders, which is good for longer journeys

Load-carrying capability is obviously very important in this class and the updated BT-50 maintains ability to tow up to 3350kg and carry between 1088kg and 1271kg in the back.

Tray size wise, it remains one of the better examples in the class, measuring 1549mm from front to rear, 1560mm from side to side and offering a depth of 513mm.

Powertrain, performance

Thankfully, one privilege Ford hasn’t withdrawn is the 3.2-litre diesel engine; this five-cylinder unit has achieved legendary status and for good reason: Though some newer ute powertrains have proven to have more refinement, nothing matches the Fordza for tractability and strength. It is a brawn leader, notably within that torque sweet spot of 1500-2500rpm and comes across as an engine that doesn’t feel troubled – particularly with two passengers and no load on board.

Time on test reminded that the auto has a curious propensity to hunt and peck for a ratio on the odd occasion – you notice it mostly when driving at urban speed. It’s not a trait that causes annoyance; but you are aware of it being part of the vehicle’s character.  Once up to highway speed it settles into swapping between cogs smoothly and seem far better at picking the right gear on nearly all occasions.

Driving appeal

Handling generally isn’t priority for workhorse ute buyers, and though Mazda – in seeking to realise an aim for the BT-50 to have more rewarding handling - insisted on a sportier set-up than Ford apparently wanted, that’s not to say you can drive it in the same manner as a road car.

Even though a suite of electronic chassis controls are a brilliant reserve, it’s too tall, too high off the road and too tense in the rear for sillineness. Dial back a notch and it feels competent at cornering with some pace on board, and stable in bends, too – so long as there are no mid-corner bumps – but it’s a ute, and that’s all there is to it. You’re always aware that when driving without any cargo in the rear tray, the ride is a bit bobbly.

While that other certain truck of common heritage has update to an electronic steering assist, the BT-50 has remained with the pre-existing hydraulic system. This makes for a heavier feel that you’ll especially notice when turning at low speeds, but the pay-off is a more settled response at higher speeds.

How it compares

It used to be that you went to a BT-50 over a Ranger because it was cheaper and provided potential for a sharper discount from time to time; otherwise the experience was pretty much identical.

With Ford having improved its technology, that’s not really the case any more.

The BT-50 is still a competent choice but it’s falling behind the competition, including that near-twin. It’s still a good vehicle with an impressive owner care support package, but, at this level, a bigger margin between this model and the Ford equivalent would be really helpful.