We’ve tested Ford’s excellent 3,0-litre Duratorq common rail turbodiesel twice in the last few months, cloaked in both Ford and Mazda sheet metal. But now there’s a new twist on it: Mazda’s Drifter double cab can be ordered with the oil-burner mated to a five-speed automatic and driving only the back wheels
In the new two-pedal Mazda Drift er you get the economy of a diesel, the effortlessness of an auto, and the practicality of a double cab all in one. This, we suspect, is a combination that might appeal to a large cross-section of lifestyle junkies.
Question is, can the engine/gearbox combination stand up to close scrutiny in terms of response ti me (automatic turbodiesels can be notoriously lethargic off the mark) and what are the off -road capabilities with just two driven wheels?
The BT-50 eschews the in-yer-face styling of some rivals and has a fairly soft , rounded look, accentuated by its almost droopy headlights. There’s a generous amount of chrome in the form of a broad eyebrow above the body-coloured grille, which has a large Mazda logo as its focal point.
Tubular side steps, rear bumper with integrated step and tow hitch and a roll hoop with built-in brake light are standard. Adding to a slinky rather than an aggressive demeanour are subtle wheel arch extensions and large, upright tail light clusters.
Features and equipment
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The BT-50 isn’t really a clean sheet design and the basic layout is carried over from its predecessor, which means torsion bar front suspension and ball and nut steering – both now slightly unfashionable in the leisure bakkie segment. The chassis has been strengthened and suspension mounting points revised, however, to improve both refinement and ride and handling characteristics.
Raised suspension and an identi cal tyre choice means ground clearance is as per the 4×4 Drifters, so you get 205mm between the rear differential and the ground. So approach, departure and ramp angles are the same too, give or take a fraction of a degree here and there.
The important bits are hidden from view, but under the bonnet there’s a powerplant that produces 115 kW and 380 Nm, the latter number class-leading and the former still very competitive in the bakkie world.
Attached to the business end of the big four-pot is an automatic transmission with no less than five ratios. The rear differential is a lockable unit, so theoretically there should still be a reasonable level of traction over uneven ground when the axle starts twisting.
The lanky double cab is fitted out to SLE spec, which means niceties such as leather furniture and a six-CD shuttle are fitted, safety equipment extending to anti -lock brakes and four airbags – front and side.
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One of the weaknesses of the previous Drifter was the rear accommodation, and Mazda has addressed this with a seat redesign, improving the torso angle from 20 to 23 degrees, which results in improved comfort by spreading the occupants’ mass more evenly.
Rear legroom remains merely adequate though, and taller occupants will find that they sit with knees drawn up and splayed outwards, and with the front backrests in uncomfortably close proximity.
The cabin is narrower than that of most rivals, so three abreast is not its strength. With the lap belt in the middle unused, an armrest can be dropped down to reveal a pair of cup-holders, in addition to those atop the transmission tunnel. It is also near the bottom of the class when it comes to access to the rear, due to the narrow, upright door apertures.
The front doors open wide and there’s a modest hop up to the excellent driving position, which provides both a good view of the road and easy access to the vehicle’s controls. Making it easier to get comfortable are features such as a rest for the left foot and a height-adjustable steering wheel.
A panel on the driver’s door operates the electric mirrors and windows, with an auto function and night-time illumination for the right front one. What’s missing is a separate butt on to lock and unlock the doors.
There’s a swathe of faux aluminium plastic on the centre stack, highlighting clear controls for the audio system and the air-conditioning. Ahead of the passenger is a glovebox and above it a document tray that slides out. It’ll prove handy for a map book or loose paperwork.
While the metal-look trim and dimpled plastics create a modern ambience, they can’t hide the fact that the cabin architecture is now dated, and this is given away in the quality of some plastics, and the look and feel of items such as the sunvisors.
Also, the handbrake is of the old-style umbrella type – though we don’t think this is entirely a bad thing, as it frees up a considerable amount of space between the seats.
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This is the best turbodiesel on the market at the moment. Our fears that it might not make a good companion for an auto box were soon allayed, and there seems to be neither turbo lag nor any hesitation from the gearbox when accelerating out of slow corners – a situation that oft en reveals flaws in this combination.
It would seem that the engineers have really done their homework, not only in matching ratios perfectly to the characteristics of the engine but also in getting the control units of both partners to work in harmony across a wide range of possible driving situations.
It accelerates cleanly and smoothly from rest, even surprising us with a burst of wheelspin when the revs were coaxed upwards with some left foot braking. The powerband extends all the way from about 1500 r/min to well past the modest 3200 r/ min kiloWatt peak, and the engine doesn’t feel as though it is running out of urge until the needle swings past the 4000 mark.
Shifting manually is a fairly pointless option (merely highlighting the lightness of the shift action), though we found the “overdrive off ” button on the lever handy for dropping down a cog when necessary, such as when entering a freeway off -ramp. The only criticism of the drivetrain is occasionally harsh upshifts – not entirely unexpected in a four-cylinder with so much torque.
Top speed was a remarkable 170 km/h, with the engine feeling relaxed and muted. At a true 120 km/h in top the tachometer needle is sitting at just over 2400, and because mechanical sounds are so low, it highlights wind noise, most of which seems to come from around the exterior mirrors.
At this speed fuel consumption was virtually identical to that of its 4×4, manual-transmission stablemate, sneaking in at just under 10 litres per 100km. We’d expect around 11 per 100 in overall use, so with an 80-litre fuel tank it has more than adequate range between refills.
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We’ve got used to the smooth riding characteristics of the Drifter/Ranger stablemates and the two-wheel-drive model is much the same, with a soft front end and a rear which is pretty supple by the modest standards of leaf spring suspension.
Having said that, the Drifter didn’t cope especially well with potholed, pockmarked surfaces, and the tail starts to patter ever so slightly over uneven tarmac. The front end remains predictable, though on low frequency undulations tackled at speed it does have a tendency to bob – gently – up and down in sympathy with the surface.
We were also more aware of the limitations of the worm and roller steering on the 4×2 version, with more play in the dead-ahead position, which delayed the immediacy of response to driver commands.
But how does it cope off road, and will it go to most of the places where a 4×4 can? The short answer is no – a diff lock and raised ride height are no substitute for low range gearing and drive to the front wheels. As a result obstacles need to be tackled at higher speeds, with the associated risk of damage to the vehicle – and the terrain.
With the plentiful torque of the 3,0-litre powerplant it is also easy to induce wheelspin on loose or muddy surfaces, making second gear a better option in a number of instances. Unfortunately a lock diff also has the effect of causing understeer – even at very low speeds – so care must also be taken entering obstacles with the front wheels turned, lest the nose makes a beeline for the bushes on the outside of a corner.
These are limitations that will pose challenges for even the most skilled of off-road drivers.
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If a 4×4’s ride height and presence are important to you but you don’t actually need pukka off-road ability, then a 4×2 double cab may just be your kind of SUV. Its practicality will suit many lifestyles, and there is still the ability to traverse rough terrain – within reason. Think of it as a soft-roader but with a tailgate instead of a hatch.
If we were buying in the segment, the Mazda’s excellent engine/auto box combination would make it our first choice – more than adequate compensation for its cabin limitations and slightly vague steering.