As a lifestyle vehicle or tradies' carry-all, Mazda's Freestyle BT-50 takes some beating. Interior quality to match most passenger cars is backed up by a tray that takes a diagonally tied-down dirtbike or 1100kg of payload. Toss in two part-time rear seats and it's SUV style with workhorse capability.
The Freestyle XTR turbo diesel 4WD has been around for a while, but only with a manual transmission. Given that 43 per cent of BT-50 buyers opt for a self-shifter, Mazda has finally fitted a six-speed auto.
The result is a $48,890 vehicle that rolls on 17-inch alloys and is fitted with Bluetooth, satnav, dual-zone aircon and cruise control. That makes it $4500 cheaper than the tougher-looking but softer-sprung Ford Ranger with which it shares the chassis and engine.
The 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel packs more than enough poke for the Mazda, even with a decent load on board. It's rated to tow up to 3.35 tonnes and the auto takes much of the stress out of the experience for those hauling a caravan or big boat.
With only passengers on board, it isn't hard to achieve the official fuel use of 9.2L/ 100km. Around town, that climbs to a claimed 11.8L/100km - still impressive for a vehicle that tips the scales at 2037kg.
The BT-50 is a creeper in the looks department. Initially unloved for its car-like front styling, it has defied convention by increasing sales since its 2011 launch.
In Freestyle guise, the rear pews are rudimentary but effective. There isn't a lot of padding between the posterior and the seat base but the payoff is a cargo area 298mm longer than on the dual-cab models.
The interior is first rate. Hard plastics are acceptable when dirt and dust is destined to be a companion but in all other regards the Freestyle has the features and feel of a passenger car.
The BT-50 and Ranger share the top marks for 4WD utes. ANCAP rates the pair at 35.74/37, noting the passenger compartment held its shape well in the frontal offset crash test, with a 'slight risk of serious chest injury for the driver".
Six airbags are standard and the Freestyle has a comprehensive suite of software assistance, from switchable stability control to hill ascent/descent assist, rollover stability control and load control, which adjusts the electronics according to how much weight the vehicle is carrying.
It's easy to confuse the BT-50 with an SUV from behind the wheel. Steering, creature comforts and performance are all on a par with the soft-roaders. Only the transfer case selector dial between the seats to switch from rear-drive high range and low and high range 4WD gives the game away.
Unless, of course, you're in a shopping centre carpark. Then there's no mistaking this is a big bus, despite the relatively tight 12.4m turning circle. Reverse parking the Freestyle is the preferred option.
The Freestyle's rear-hinged access panels (you couldn't call them doors) are great in tight spots though. They're smaller than the front doors, so they can be opened up without bashing the cars alongside and the groceries/camping gear/tools can be dumped on the rear floor or seats.
Noise suppression - for an oil-burning ute - is first rate and the firm suspension trades jiggle over small bumps for decent composure on big hits.
As a one-size fits all approach, the Freelander takes some beating. It's a competent car in the city, capable off-road and carries a ton of gear. It's only real competition is its clone, the Ford Ranger Super Cab … and the $4500 price difference will buy a lot of fuel.
Mazda BT-50 Freestyle XTR
Price: from $48,890
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Capped servicing: Yes
Service intervals: 6 months/10,000km
Resale: 52 per cent
Safety: 5 stars
Engine: 3.2-litre 5-cyl turbo diesel, 147kW/470Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto; 4WD
Thirst: 9.2L/100km, 246g/km CO 2
Dimensions: 5.4m (L), 1.9m (W), 1.8m (H)