The days of the bakkie are numbered. Or at least the days of that uniquely South African word being used to embrace four-door pick-ups could be numbered, because in the case of the Drifter and the Triton, using the term to describe these latest generation light trucks just doesn’t do them justice. How do the newcomers compare, then?
There is no doubt that, visually, Mitsubishi’s Triton represents a great leap forward. It has a dramatically rounded shape with curves in places where other pick-ups don’t even have places. The roofline has a marked arc to it but probably the most talked-about feature is the convex line of the rear doors’ trailing edge and the way it is mirrored by a concave curve on the leading edge of the load box.
Also unusual on the Triton is the chrome roll hoop extending almost to the tailgate and which, in profile, follows the roofline. The sides of the load box taper downwards and as a result it is somewhat shallower at the tailgate – which incorporates a highlevel brake light above the central release mechanism.
There’s plenty of eye-catching exterior brightwork, including chrome detailing on the front valance, chrome door handles and an aluminium and matt black plastic step bumper. The bottom line? This is the bakkie as a sports-compact, and not something designed primarily for hard work.
Neither is the Mazda. Fords get workhorses and Mazdas get Zoom-Zoom: they’re about lifestyle and leisure. Problem is, the Mazda’s styling comes across as being a little too soft. The small, oddly-shaped headlights contribute to a fussy countenance and the side view is pretty anonymous. Big wheelarch extensions add a hint of toughness, as do tubular side sills, roll hoop and rear bumper, all finished in matt silver. The tailgate is largely featureless and is also opened via a central release with the high-level brake light in the roll bar.
The Mazda doesn’t make the same kind of statement as the Triton but it arguably comes across as being a little more macho and more likely to appeal to traditional buyers.
Features and equipment
Drifter ★ ★ ★ ★
Triton ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Triton gets an extra star here because it moves the goalposts, both in terms of the interior and the exterior. After all, what other pick-up can boast an electrically adjusted driver’s seat and a heated back window which can be raised or lowered at the touch of a button? It also has full climate control and a comprehensive driving computer. As one tester commented, it’s really a Pajero with a loadbed…
The engine is similar to that fitted to its wagon stablemate and the 3,2-litre direct injection turbodiesel boasts an impressive 118 kW, but torque is a less substantial 347 Nm. The drivetrain is dubbed Easy Select, which means it doesn’t have a locking centre diff as on the Super Select system fitted to the Triton 2,5 turbodiesel! Our Triton was also fitted with a limited slip rear differential, rather than a driver engaged diff lock.
The Triton is from the latest generation “fashionable” LCVs in that it has rack and pinion steering and coil spring front suspension, but the Mazda is unchanged from the previous generation with its ball and nut tiller and torsion bar front springing. It is ultimately a facelifted vehicle and most of the basic underpinnings are familiar, albeit heavily updated.
The Mazda’s tour de force is its 3,0-litre turbo-diesel which, when compared to the Mitsubishi, sacrifices a little power for a significant torque advantage. It musters a hearty 380 Nm, delivered in the most refined and accessible manner we’ve yet experienced in an LCV.
A similar two high/four high/four low drivetrain delivers the torque, except that controlling it across the rear wheels is handled by a diff lock.
The Mazda has front and side airbags, the Triton just a pair, but it has a full-house of three-point inertia reel belts while the Drifter has one less.
If that’s how they differ, then where are they alike? Well, mere millimetres separate them in terms of length and width and they share a 3,0m wheelbase. Both have leaf sprung rear ends, 245/70 rubber on alloys, five-speed manual boxes and, on the inside, lots of leather – but, apart from what covers the chairs, the cabins are very different.
Drifter ★ ★ ★ ★
Triton ★ ★ ★ ★
The Triton has an overwhelmingly car-like cabin – or rather, an SUV-like cabin. An eye-level display dominates the hang-down stack and provides information on temperature, air pressure, direction of travel as well as a host of other parameters.
Below it are a trio of large rotary dials to operate the climate control, with an MP3-compatible single-shot tuner/CD underneath. The team were unanimous in their dislike of its fiddly controls: the buttons are too small and too flush-mounted to be operated accurately on the move. Still, sound quality is impressive and a portion of the unit’s face can be removed to render it useless to thieves.
The Mazda is a little more “normal” inside. Controls are set into a faux aluminium panel, with the ICE featuring a six-CD shuttle with chunky controls. The heating and ventilation switchgear looks and feels a little dated, with a slide lever to change to the recirculate function and a small button to activate the air con.
A big steering wheel dominates the driver’s view in the Triton and like the knobs for the gear levers is upholstered in leather, with blue stitching used on all leatherwork. A similar approach is taken by Mazda, except orange stitching is used and – pointlessly – there are garish orange flashes in the cushions of the front seats.
Both vehicles have highly legible instruments through the spokes of height-adjustable steering wheels and while the Triton’s seat can be set electrically, it doesn’t make for a superior driving position. It could be improved by having a slightly longer steering column and a plusher seat. You sit lower in the Mazda, which makes it feel more intimate but without compromising visibility.
It is no contest when it comes to rear compartments. The Mazda shows its design age by virtue of small doors, short cushions and a relatively upright backrest. Adults will struggle to get in and get comfortable because there is little space for feet or knees.
The Triton has a more natural seating position and much more space (though Hilux and Navara are better still and have seat cushions that tilt upwards to create useful utility volume) and like its rival has a central armrest which folds down to reveal a pair of moulded cup-holders. The Triton is better as a five-seater and has a fifth headrest to prove it. Pity rear visibility is severely compromised as a result.
Drifter ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Triton ★ ★ ★ ★
Putting these two toe to toe made us realise just how good the Duratorq powerplant under the Mazda’s bonnet actually is.
It has to move an extra 70 kilos so it loses out slightly in the overtaking stakes and is a nominal 2km/h down in top speed. Nothing separates them in a straight-line sprint. Where it easily outclasses the Mitsubishi is in the refinement tussle and the fuel economy dust-up.
We’re not sure if we’ve used the term “creamy” to describe how a big four-pot oilburner feels, but we’re going to use it here. The Mazda pulls so strongly from such low rpm and then revs out so happily to its 4400 r/min limiter that it can be driven in an incredibly relaxed manner. You can pull off in second and even get away with cornering in third gear on occasions that would have normal diesels shuddering uncomfortably to respond from such low engine speed, or gasping breathlessly to try to clamber back to the torque plateau.
On the open road there is little in the way of combustion noise and it is the more relaxed cruiser and is running 100 r/min slower at the legal limit. When you do need to change gears, you’re reminded just how smooth and well-weighted a ‘box that can cope with almost 400 Nm can be, and how well-chosen the ratios are.
The Triton, while its engine is not to be found wanting in any single area, is simply shown up to be less competent overall. It also requires more driver effort in using the controls: the clutch is slightly heavier and the gears not as cooperative when cold or as slick when warmed up, so you need to work harder to execute perfect transitions, both up and down the ‘box.
The Triton recovers some ground under braking and it feels more assured and stable during emergency stops, with plenty of pedal feel. It also requires less stopping distance, is very consistent and exhibited no sign of the hint of fade which became apparent towards the end of the Drifter’s 12- stop regimen.
Ride and Handling
Drifter ★ ★ ★ ★
Triton ★ ★ ★
Quite why Mitsubishi has given the Triton such slow steering is a mystery, and the additional accuracy and precision that comes with a change to rack and pinion is offset by the amount of wheel twirling required when manoeuvring – whether on or off-road.
The generous track makes it feel stable at all speeds though, and the suspension is well-controlled with the front of the vehicle tracking accurately whether the surface is rough or smooth and the back largely following suit. However, the tail has a tendency to become skittish without too much warning and – as we said when commenting on the 2.5 version – it lacks something in the transition between supple and stiff.
We suspect part of the problem is the extreme angle at which the shock absorbers are mounted, which may affect how well they can react to large and/or sudden spring deflections.
The Drifter’s nickname could be “Hush Puppy”, so comfortable and plush is the ride. The previous version was good in this regard and Mazda say the BT-50 gets longer leaf springs with revised suspension mounting points. In fact, they say the entire ladder frame chassis has been beefed up for more accurate responses.
It certainly feels that way as far as the steering precision is concerned, and we suspect few drivers will find serious fault with it. The helm is a little more vague than the Triton’s dead-ahead but positioning the Drifter accurately and confidently on a narrow road is never a white-knuckled affair. It will also require more space to execute a three-point turn (thanks to a 12,6m versus 11,8m turning circle) but a lot less winding on and off of steering lock…
The Mazda’s torsion bar front suspension also means there is less control over bumps and it doesn’t provide the same amount of compliance – which means it eventually starts to feel unsettled when tackling twisty bits fast. Then again, its tail is more securely planted than the Triton’s, so any dice down a twisty track will probably end up being a dead heat…
Off road we’d say the Triton comes out tops. It has a better approach angle but is lower-slung between the axles thanks to fragile, pressed aluminium side sills, while the tubular items on its rival look far more likely to cope with bundu-bashing abuse. That said, we didn’t actually get the Triton’s belly to hang-up.
There’s little to choose between them in terms of ground clearance to the rear differential (same wheel and tyre size, mounted on a solid axle) but the Triton will cope better exiting obstacles – though its rear bumper will soon show signs of wear and tear – because it wasn’t fitted with a towbar.
The rear LS kicks in when needed, so the Triton flatters poor driving, or ill-considered route selection while the driver of the Drifter will need to make a conscious decision to engage the diff lock.
The final verdict
Drifter ★ ★ ★ ★
Triton ★ ★ ★ ★
It looks like the great leap forward and we love the courage with which Mitsubishi has gone about making their offering stand out. It has some wonderful cabin features, most of them wholly appropriate if we assume the flagship Triton is aimed at a new generation of LCV buyer. It also easily wins the space battle – at least in the cabin – but it falls short if you’re planning on carrying very much, either in terms of volume or weight.
They both perform impressively on and off the tar, but the Drifter’s powertrain is so overwhelmingly good in terms of refinement and economy that it dominates the picture. Add in a better warranty and service plan and it turns the Mazda into a winner by the narrowest of margins.