The new Mazda BT-50 is set to arrive in South Africa in 2021, a year before local production of the bakkie on which it is based, the new Isuzu D-Max, will commence in Port Elizabeth. Could that be a crucial advantage for one of the market’s most underappreciated double-cabs? We've driven the newcomer in Sydney.
The new-generation BT-50 is the most Japanese that this Japanese bakkie has ever been; after decades of being a Ford Ranger clone, Mazda’s double-cab is now based on the next iteration of the D-Max. The outgoing version, which was built at Ford’s Silverton plant at the beginning of its product cycle (pre-facelift), never received substantial marketing support from the Blue Oval, largely because the global partnership between the US and Japanese brands dissolved in 2014 (which was when Mazda Southern Africa was established as an independent subsidiary).
As a Mazda-flavoured execution of the Isuzu D-Max, the BT-50 is handsome, upmarket and, importantly, sufficiently distinctive.
Meanwhile, the Ranger firmly established itself as South Africa’s 2nd-favourite bakkie. By virtue of being based on the Ford, the BT-50 should’ve sold in greater numbers than it did. But then, the BT-50 had a trio of impediments: Mazda SA focused its marketing efforts on newer, sharply-styled and smartly-packaged hatchbacks and SUVs; the bakkie’s styling was distinctive, yes, but utterly divisive (it matters, even in the pick-up market) and buyers seemed to believe that if you want a square-jawed, designer-stubble-sporting Ranger, well, you’d buy one – not a reskinned copy.
An effective restyling exercise...
Well, with the Ranger more than a year away from being replaced, the next-gen BT-50 will offer something fresher – and different – when it arrives in 2021. Again, the Mazda double cab is merely styled differently to its distant D-Max cousin, but, as I will explain later, its packaging suggests Mazda is all too aware the BT-50 needs to be more than a bakkie – rather think of it as a family-car substitute that offers reasonable refinement, luxury and practicality. What’s more, its character, if not the sheer embodiment of Zoom-Zoom, is more Mazda-like than ever before.
Top-of-the-range BT-50s feature chrome-look detailing, satin-chrome running boards and bold 18-inch alloys.
There was a time when describing a bakkie as “handsome” or “striking” could get one banned from braais, but the new BT-50 cuts a fine figure. There are elements of the Mazda's Kodo design language in the sweeping crease lines that flow from the grille to the side mirrors, as well as the pinched waistline (above the running boards), while the defined shoulder lines align with the load bed and the tops of the tail-light clusters feature the brand’s signature circular motif.
The bakkie shown here is a top-of-the-range GT spec for the Australian market, but even the entry-level BT-50 XT 4x4 double-cab 6-speed manual (which Mazda Australia kindly availed us) looked dapper, replete with LED headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels, power-adjustable mirrors, as well as body-colour bumpers (including a rear-step bumper), -door handles and -mirror caps. Let's hope local-market versions will be similarly swanky.
The Mazda's switchgear is identical to that of the new Isuzu D-Max, even the steering wheel design, but undeniably smart.
The Isuzu underpinnings are particularly apparent in the Mazda's spacious interior; the bakkies’ switchgear, instrumentation and steering wheels are identical, but their fascias are different, with the former having rectangular centre vents and the latter triangular ones. Nonetheless, the cabin execution is plain but smart, with a soft-touch finish to the edge of the dash', as well as tasteful applications of piano black and chrome-look trim.
The XT derivative features a polyurethane multifunction steering wheel, a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system – which sits in the same frame as the 9-inch top-spec one, it just has a black border around it – and HVAC knobs and fresh air/recirculation slider are pure pick-up fair. Higher spec versions feature piano-key buttons on the climate control console and the 2-inch bigger screen, which also offers wireless Apple CarPlay (but plug-in Android Auto) compatibility.
In its most luxurious spec, the BT-50 features leather trim, automatic climate control and a 9-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
The front seats are comfy and supportive, the steering column is reach- and rake adjustable and, to Mazda’s credit, the finishes feel substantial and the controls well-weighted. I did find the driver’s footwell a bit cramped (on the manual version) and missed having a lined footrest, as opposed to the carpeted half-ledge in the leftmost corner of the ‘well. The centre console's cupholders are a little too deep, the top glovebox lid doesn’t click into place assuredly and the front-door trims don’t line up exactly with the edge of the dashboard, but that’s where the interior's critique ends.
Because in the BT-50, the rear occupants, which are usually availed a hard bench with a bolt-upright backrest and minimum space in "double-cab land", get reasonable leg- and headroom, separate ventilation outlets, a fast-charging USB port, a fold-out armrest, 3 adjustable headrests, seat pockets and a bottle holder in each of the rear doors. The seat can also tumble forward in a 60:40 split if you’d like more luggage capacity and there’s a lidded hidey-hole in the carpeted underfloor. I'm 1.88 m tall and could sit behind the driver’s seat (set up for me) in reasonable comfort.
For once, rear occupants aren't shortchanged in a double cab, they're afforded good leg- and headroom in the BT-50.
In terms of practicality, the new BT-50 has a payload of just over 1 tonne, while its load tray is 1 571-mm long, 1 530-mm wide (with 1 120 mm between the wheel wells) and 490-mm deep, plus it comes outfitted with a quartet of tie-down loops. In other words, it's fairly-sized and I'm certain many buyers will specify a rubber lining, tonneau cover and roll bar. The stated towing capacity is 750 kg and 3 500 kg (for braked trailers).
Improved on-road refinement
All of which brings us to the on-road refinement of the newcomer. It is, in a word, admirable. At the national speed limit (110 kph in Australia), the Mazda's cabin is virtually creak- and rattle-free, with just a slight flutter emanating from the side mirrors. The Isuzu motor is said to be substantially reworked from the current D-Max’s 3.0-litre turbodiesel (including a revised block, head, internals and injection system) and slightly down on power and torque compared with the outgoing bakkie’s Ford-supplied 3.2-litre 5-cylinder powerplant. It still sounds like a pukka Isuzu mill – especially at startup, the motor remains a mite clattery up to the early 1 000-rpm range and, as before, it doesn’t like being revved hard.
Even if the new 3.0-litre turbodiesel motor is less powerful than its Ford-sourced predecessor, it's refined and more efficient.
Bear in mind that, notwithstanding the fondness many in the bakkie fraternity have for that old 3.2-litre motor, we found it notably thirstier than its manufacturer’s claim during extended reviews (of the Ford Ranger Wildtrak, for example). The new BT-50’s engine, while no fireball, is reasonably tractable by comparison: peak torque of 450 Nm is available from 1 600 to 2 600 rpm, but 400 Nm of that between 1 400 and 3 250 rpm, and, best of all, we saw an indicated consumption figure of just over 9 L/100 km during our test drive (Mazda claims an average of 7.7 L/100 km).
The ride quality is a bit of a mixed bag, although the roads on our test route (a mix of rural, suburban and urban) were far from perfect. At freeway speeds. the Mazda has a relaxed, loping gait; the suspension suppresses bumps, but doesn’t quite neutralise them. Then, at lower speeds, the bakkie’s rear end can still feel a little jittery on rippled/uneven surfaces, but by double-cab standards, it’s quite alright.
What about its Mazda-ness?
What impressed me most about the BT-50’s demeanour was its sheer easy-to-drive nature, which is a happy coincidence for Mazda, which endeavours to offer driver engagement in all its products. The bakkie’s steering, for example, has improved by leaps and bounds. The ‘wheel is pleasantly weighted, but not vague; turn-in is true and positive, even if a bit slow by family-car standards, the high-riding bakkie eases into bends with predictable roll and stops sharply too.
The ride quality of the BT-50 is on the firm side of pliant on dirt roads, but the bakkie's steering and road-holding inspire confidence.
Although the 1st gear on the manual XT was quite short, the ‘box shifted positively and the clutch was easy to modulate, even in thick Sydney traffic. I anticipate most buyers will opt for the 6-speed automatic, anyway [what to expect from the auto version]. We traversed a short section of dirt road in the Royal National Park (on the outskirts of the city) and even tried out the hill-descent-control and shift-on-the-fly 4x4 on a slippery downhill slope, where the BT-50 behaved just as expected. However, while I was driving the test unit back to its depot, I realised something else…
Many of the BT-50’s most impressive features aren’t visible to the naked eye. The Mazda’s suite of safety systems, for example, moves the game forward for the bakkie segment; in an LCV-based vehicle that will be entrusted with transporting your precious family, that’s noteworthy.
The integral stereoscopic camera system enables a host of active safety features on the BT-50.
For a start, the bakkie has 8 airbags: dual front-, -side, curtain 'bags, plus one for the driver’s knee and another between the front occupants, plus it employs sensors and a stereoscopic camera system to offer auto emergency braking (AEB) including pedestrian- and cyclist detection, speed-sign recognition turn assist (to dissuade you from turning into the path of oncoming traffic) and forward-collision warning, which is in addition to auto lights and -wipers, cruise control (adaptive on automatic derivatives), blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, a reverse-view camera (would have loved dynamic lines, but still) and PDC. All those systems are fitted to entry-level BT-50 derivatives in Australia.
As if having access to wireless Apple CarPlay in an otherwise humble bakkie wasn’t enough to blow your mind, wait until you feel the Mazda’s active lane-keeping assistance system make small course corrections through the steering wheel (it works between 60 kph and 130 kph)!
As the double cab entrenches itself as a popular family car in the South African market, the Mazda's sophistication is a big plus.
As previously reported, Isuzu SA has delayed the introduction of the next-gen D-Max until 2022 and the Port Elizabeth-based brand is conducting a local development programme to tailor the bakkie’s construction, suspension and other components for South African conditions. Given that Isuzu will build the bakkie in several guises – for various types of customers – that stands to reason.
Mazda SA, on the other hand, will introduce the D-Max’s cousin next year… and it’s well worth waiting for. Compared with its predecessor, the new BT-50 offers much more appeal for buyers who want the practicality and macho looks of a bakkie, but ultimately utilise their vehicles as family cars.
A double-cab will never be able to match the sophistication of a unibody SUV, that's common sense, but Mazda's newcomer clearly demonstrates that standards are rising rapidly in the "leisure bakkie segment". Given that Toyota Safety Sense tech is now standard on the Hilux Legend 4x4, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and, although South African specification for the new range has yet to be finalised, there is little to suggest that the BT-50 will be stripped out compared with the Australian-market bakkies when it gets here. We'll keep you posted on its official release date.