Marcus Craft road tests and reviews the Mazda BT-50 XTR 4x4 Freestyle cab ute with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

With updated versions for 2016, Mazda BT-50 and Ford Ranger utes continue to chip away at Hilux's supremacy in the Australian ute market. Of those, the dual-cab models rule the roost when it comes to options for buyers looking for roomy family-friendly SUVs with what closely approximates car-like ride and handling. But, for buyers in need of less cabin space and more room in the tray, a good-value, multi-purpose ute – such as the 2016 Mazda BT-50 XTR 4x4 Freestyle Cab – should not be ignored.

The new XTR 4x4 Freestyle Cab – $49,675, up from $48,890 – offers a practical and appealing solution to those in need of a workhorse for actual work and/or a tough truck capable of handling weekend warrior duties, loaded with camping gear and mountain-bikes.

Design

The previous version of the BT-50 copped flak because of its looks – specifically, the front end. Mazda has reined in that divisive appearance. The new BT-50 has a straighter front grille and – along with re-designed lights at the front and rear, and 16- or 17-inch alloy wheels (our XTR had 17s) – it looks cool and more at home wherever it goes. Now, you don't have to buy a bull bar to hide the front end; you can buy a bull bar because you actually need one.

The XTR's look is topped off with chrome door handles, chrome power mirror, aluminium-finish side steps and chrome rear-step bumper.

There is plenty of room inside: as well as a real feeling of stretch-your-legs space for driver and front passenger.

It has a neat but workmanlike interior: cloth seats, plastic, carpet – you get the idea. Nice interior touches include leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob. I like the inside of the XTR; some fussier people won't.

There are power windows and mirrors, dual-zone climate control, USB, Bluetooth connectivity, 12V points (front and rear) and more.

There is plenty of room inside: as well as a real feeling of stretch-your-legs space for driver and front passenger, there is a generous amount of storage spaces for bits and pieces upfront, in the doors and under the rear bench-style seats, which are removeable.

Front seats are broad and supportive and fine for long journeys; the rear seats are – as in most Extra, King or Super Cab utes – really only for short jaunts. With no rear passengers in there, the rear of the cabin can be used to house more gear, a bonus for two-up tourers or workers looking for extra room for their equipment.

When opened, the two front doors and two rear panels – there is no fixed B pillar – providing easy access to the cabin.

About town

The Freestyle Cab is, of course, ute big – 5365mm (L), 1850mm (W) 1810mm (H), 3220mm (WB) and weighs 2105kg – but it doesn't feel like it when you drive it, even through cluttered traffic on city streets. Modern utes are getting too damn good at this around-town stuff for their own good.

The rack-and-pinion steering is weighted supremely well for a ute, and is light and precise.

The 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel, producing 147kW/470Nm, is a real goer and has plenty of punch for fast, safe overtaking in urban scenarios. What's more, it's matched well with a cool-as-a-cucumber six-speed auto. Eight-speed autos in utes have got their fans, but six is spot-on in this. The auto box offers normal and performance mode in auto, or you can drive it in manual mode.

Normal mode is stress-free and smooth, but performance mode yields more immediate acceleration.

Take-off is a swift, smooth affair and open-road driving is a comfortable cruise.

The BT-50 has a five-star ANCAP rating. As well as airbags – front, side and curtain – you'd expect in a modern vehicle of this kind, there's a raft of active safety tech: ABS, dynamic stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, emergency brake assist, emergency stop signal and more.

One bug-bear with the safety tech about town: the reversing camera image is small and shows up on the left-hand side of the rear-view mirror, not on the centre console screen, which is annoying.

On the road

Take-off is a swift, smooth affair and open-road driving is a comfortable cruise. The auto holds gears when needed and smartly cycles through, up or down, when required; there are no clunky kick-downs on hills.

The BT-50 has wishbone suspension at the front; rigid axle and leaf springs at the back. For a ute, it rides and handles nicely. No surprise, the back-end gets a touch jittery without a load.

Mazda reckons that steps have been taken to further suppress noise, vibration and harshness over the previous generation but, with the radio off, we copped a fair bit of engine clatter and wing-mirror noise. No deal-breaker, though.

A bonus for tradies and tourers: the tray – 1847mm long and 1560mm wide in Freestyle Cab – is almost 30cm longer than the dual-cab's (1549mm). So, there's plenty of room in there for work tools, or camping and fishing gear, mountain-bikes and more.

It's rated to tow 3.5 tonne or handle payloads of up to 1310kg. Trailer sway control is a safety feature.

Claimed fuel consumption is 9.4L/100km.

Off the road

CarsGuide.com.au drove a range of 2016 BT-50s in the South Australian outback last year, so we know any of the range can pretty much go anywhere you point them. They are that good – "So is every other modern ute at that price!" I hear you shout – but the difference here is that the BT-50 does it all with ease and in sublime comfort.

Switching from 2WD to high-range 4WD, via a centre-console dial, can be done on the fly, and we only switch to low-range when the going, intentionally, gets really tough. Off-road tech includes Hill Launch Assist, Hill Descent Control, (4x4 only) and Locking Rear Differential (4x4 Only).

While we didn't have a chance to test its maximum wading depth (800mm), the Freestyle Cab got through every other challenge without stress.

The new centre-console screen takes some getting used to. The 7.8-inch high-definition unit, with built-in satnav, is a touch small for our liking and has a ‘muddy' look to it at times, including in bright sunshine or dappled light in the bush, which makes on-the-move reference difficult.