The BT-50 is not a bakkie for people who like bakkies. Its design is bold, brash and unusual – some might even call it downright weird. Nothing about the BT-50’s design screams “workhorse, but that’s okay, because the Mazda isn’t supposed to be a plaasbakkie. It is far more interested in playing hard than working hard.
What is the difference between the new Mazda BT-50 and the new Ford Ranger? Is there even any notable difference? After all, once you strip away the sheet metal, these two vehicles are mechanically identical. There are some small design differences – a different position for an AUX jack, for instance – but these are too small to really mention.
But while there might be few mechanical differences, these two vehicles do differ in other ways. Firstly, their exterior designs differ wildly. The Ranger looks, well, like a bakkie. The BT-50’s design is…a little different. More importantly, however, these two vehicles have different target markets. The BT-50 is not aimed at the sort of person that would be in the market for a Ranger.
One need only look at the marketing material for the two bakkies to realise this. The Ranger’s advertisements focus on the vehicle’s capabilities, promoting all the 4×4 gadgetry that the bakkie boasts. The BT-50’s ads do not focus on such minutiae – opting instead to rely more on imagery. The BT-50’s advertisements show it hauling a luxury boat or carrying mountain bikes in its load area.
The Ford Ranger’s marketing campaign, then, is selling a tool. The BT-50’s campaign is selling a lifestyle.
Of course, since these vehicles are mechanically identical, this is a superficial difference, created more in the minds of marketing men than on the factory floor, but it is worth keeping in mind when examining the BT-50 and comparing it to the Ranger.
**** Features and equipment
Under the bonnet, the BT-50 sports the same 3,2-litre five-cylinder oilburner found in the Ranger. It generates 147 kW of power and 470 Nm of torque. As those figures suggest, the bakkie has all the oomph one could ask for, and feels powerful and responsive. It’s helped by the fact that it has a pretty flat torque curve. Peak torque is generated at 1500 r/min to 2750 r/min. Around 460 Nm is still available at 3000 r/min.
Like the Ranger, it also has a six-speed automatic gearbox that works well with the engine. During our test of the Ranger (issue 100, page 38), we mentioned that we would prefer a manual shifter for low-ranger work, and while that remains true, an auto ‘box makes sense on a lifestyle vehicle such as the BT-50. Perhaps even more so than with the Ranger, the top-end BT-50 is a vehicle that will appeal to buyers that are also looking at SUVs, so they will probably be attracted to the comfort and convenience of an automatic gearbox. For better or worse, the age of the manual gearbox seems to be drawing to a close, at least when it comes to large SUVs.
While the BT-50’s marketing campaign might not tout it as much as the Ranger’s, Mazda’s bakkie also has the impressive safety features found on the Ford. Systems include emergency brake assist, roll-over mitigation, hill launch assist and hill descent control. The bakkie is also equipped with ABS with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and dynamic stability control.
Overall, the BT-50 is extremely well equipped, boasting a lot of safety, comfort and entertainment features that are not common to the bakkie segment yet. The vehicle truly combines the practicality of a double cab bakkie with the performance and comfort of an SUV.
Unsurprisingly, the BT-50’s interior is very similar to that of the Ranger. However, its cabin is arguably a little nicer and more SUV-like. The changes aren’t massive, but the Mazda’s interior seems a bit more polished and refined. The controls found on the dashboard around the entertainment system, for example, are similar to that of the Ranger, but look classier.
While the Ranger’s cabin is undoubtedly very refined for a bakkie, it still looks like the interior of a workhorse. The BT-50’s look less like that of a workhorse, and more like that of an SUV. Considering that the Mazda is being marketed as a lifestyle vehicle, this is hardly surprising. It perhaps also explains why the BT-50 is slightly more expensive than Ford’s bakkie.
The interior sports just about every nice-to-have once could ask for. There’s a dual-zone automatic air conditioner, an MP3 CD player, USB/iPod connectivity, Bluetooth voice control, cruise control, steering wheel-mounted controls and a trip computer.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels are very low for a double cab. Some wind and tyre noise can be heard, but overall performance in this department is impressive.
*** Gravel performance and handling
Handling on gravel is good. As is the case with any bakkie, it can feel a tad loose at the rear when empty, but the BT-50 handles well on dirt. This is a double cab with a wide stance that feels solid on gravel surfaces.
Mazda states that the BT-50 offers car-like comfort, and one can see that this true when venturing off tar. Despite its rear rigid axle and leaf springs, it provides a very comfortable ride. Is it as comfortable as an SUV with all-round independent suspension? No, but it comes surprisingly close.
Should it all go horribly wrong, the vehicle’s electronics are there to assist, which also gives one some added confidence and peace of mind on dirt. There’s an electronic stability program (ESP) with dynamic stability control. There’s also something called emergency brake assist that will sense an emergency and boost brake power if necessary. Lastly, roll-over mitigation monitors vehicle behaviour and brakes individual wheels as necessary to prevent a rollover.
The BT-50 performed well on our test route. With its ample torque, low-range transfer case and rear diff lock, it never struggled.
That said, the Mazda suffers from the same problems as the Ford Ranger. It is a large and wide vehicle that can be tough to manoeuvre on tight, twisting trails. Predictably, it also doesn’t have the greatest departure angle.
That said, it is undoubtedly a competent off-roader. It can’t compete with vehicles such as the Wrangler Rubicon or Mercedes-Benz G-Class, but it will suit the needs of the vast majority of buyers. If you’re looking for a versatile lifestyle vehicle that can venture off the beaten path once in a while, the BT-50 won’t disappoint.
The automatic gearbox isn’t ideal for steep descent, but the vehicle does have hill descent control, which applies the brakes to keep the vehicle moving at a predetermined speed. It also has hill launch assist, which keeps brakes applied for up to two seconds after the brake pedal is released on upward inclines.
Its most impressive off-road tool, though, is its powerful engine. Once you slip the vehicle into low range, all that torque keeps the BT-50 chugging along without hassle.
**** Overlanding suitability
As mentioned, the BT-50 offers the comfort of an SUV, which makes it a wonderful long-distance traveller. With its slick six-speed auto ‘box, powerful engine and refined ride, it has the ability to tick off open-road kilometres with ease. Thanks to its size, the bakkie also has the space needed to accommodate all the supplies and camping equipment needed for a long holiday.
How far into the bundu can you venture with the BT-50, though? Pretty far. Yes, it is more of a lifestyle vehicle than a hardcore overlander such as the Land Cruiser 76, but the Mazda can meet the needs of most overland enthusiasts. For example, it can run on 50ppm diesel and has a wading depth of 800mm.
Fuel consumption is good. We averaged around 11 litres per 100km during our test, so one should be able to average around 10 litres per 100km on the open road with relative ease.
There is no doubt that, like the Ford Ranger, the Mazda BT-50 is an excellent double cab bakkie. It is tough and capable, but also comfortable and refined.
Its looks, however, are controversial, which is hardly surprising, since it doesn’t conform to most bakkie fans’ expectations of what a double cab should look like. Hopefully, though, its controversial looks will also work in its favour, attracting buyers who might have been shopping around for a trendy SUV.
It is perhaps best to not really think of the BT-50 as a traditional bakkie at all – think of it more as a funky lifestyle vehicle with a practical and versatile load area.
Regardless of whether you love or hate how the BT-50 looks, there is no denying that it is an impressive 4×4, both on the road and off.