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Mazda BT-50 2015 review: snapshot


If it aint broke don’t fix it. That best describes the subtle changes to the updated Mazda BT-50 released this week.

How subtle? The headlights, tail-lights and grille are the same shape but a new design, and the two top-end models have a simpler instrument panel below the radio and navigation unit, which is now a touchscreen and available with Hema offroad maps.

The Mazda and the Ford utes are getting further apart than ever before.

A twin under the skin to the Ford Ranger the Mazda BT-50 is regarded as one of the leaders in the heavy duty ute class due to its capabilities, even if it’s not a top-seller.

But has Mazda done enough to combat the newer competition, or is it resting on its laurels?

Interestingly, the Mazda and the Ford utes are getting further apart than ever before.

The divergence could be permanent as there is a chance Mazda’s 30-plus year partnership on utes with Ford may end in the coming years (see breakout below).

Aside from the unique body and interior -- which has been the case since the introduction of this model exactly four years ago -- there are now other technical differences.

The highly regarded, Ford-sourced 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel remains, but the Mazda misses out on the raft of new safety technology now available on the Ranger such as radar cruise control, forward crash alert and blind zone monitoring.

The Mazda also still does not get a full size rear-view camera; the top two models have a camera as standard but the display is in the corner of the rear-view mirror, the same as it is on the $820 dealer-fit option pack.

It’s worth noting at this point the all-new version of the top-selling Toyota HiLux, released next week, will have a rear camera as standard on every pick-up model, and as an option on cab-chassis.

The other technical difference is the steering. Mazda has not adopted the new Ranger's electric power steering, so by comparison it’s a little heavy.

That said, anyone who drives the current Mazda BT-50 will feel right at home because the steering and suspension have not changed.

That means the BT-50 still sits on the road a little firmer than the Ranger (and other ute rivals).

Mazda has done this intentionally because it wanted to bring some of its “zoom zoom” feeling to its pick-up range.

For what is essentially the same vehicle, the Mazda price is much more down to earth.

While it could hardly be mistaken for a sportscar of course, the Mazda BT-50 feels solid on the road.

It only gets a little upset on bumpy surfaces, where the stiffness of the suspension doesn’t always agree with road conditions.

Drive the Ranger and Mazda back to back on a bumpy road and you can feel the difference.

Verdict

The one big ace the Mazda has up its sleeve is price. Ford charges a massive premium for the Ranger because, to be frank, buyers are prepared to pay.

The Mazda price is much more down to earth for what is essentially the same vehicle -- but the prices of key models have crept up.

The range starts with a single cab-chassis model (at $25,570, at the same as before) while the more popular dual-cab 4WD XT model starts at $44,615 (a $375 increase), the middle of the range XTR is $49,700 (up $810) while the flagship tops out at $51,790 (up $650).

Ford and Mazda to separate?

The modest changes were the first clue something may be awry. It turns out Mazda is “reviewing” its long term partnership with Ford.

Although Ford has only a minor shareholding in Mazda these days, the partnership on these utes is a 50:50 joint venture, from design and engineering to production.

Ford and Mazda jointly own the Thailand production line on which the Ranger and BT-50 are made.

But CarsGuide has been told the partnership is under review. It is apparently “a normal review process” to consider other options for the next generation model, likely due in 2020.

One option floated was a possible partnership with the Toyota HiLux. Mazda uses Toyota hybrid technology for the Mazda3 in Japan and Toyota has adopted the Mexican-made Mazda2 sedan as a Scion in the US.

But Toyota can’t build HiLuxes fast enough. Would it be prepared to sacrifice some production capacity?

A joint venture with the Nissan Navara is unlikely as it already has enough work on its plate developing Renault and Mercedes versions off the same platform.

Isuzu and General Motors signed a deal last year to continue building utes into the future.

Volkswagen, as of this week, has enough problems to deal with right now.

And that leaves Mitsubishi. A partnership between Mazda and Mitsubishi might make sense given that Mitsubishi didn’t design an all-new chassis for the latest Triton (it’s a new body on what is effectively old underpinnings).

But if Mazda and Mitsubishi were to partner, Mitsubishi would need to shorten the 10-year model cycle of its just-released new model to create an all-new chassis.

There is one more option: keep the status quo and re-sign with Ford.

Whatever happens, and whatever shape it takes, Mazda says it will always have a BT-50 in its line-up.

Also check out Malcolm Flynn's video review of the Mazda BT-50: