When you're sitting behind the wheel of the new Mazda BT-50, a big 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel beauty that has immediately taken its place as one of the world's leading utes, it's appropriate to remember that Mazda has a long history of such vehicles.
In New Zealand's case, the history goes back to 1966, when Champion Motors and Scollay and Co secured the
MAZDA BT-50 LIMITED
POWER PLANT: 3.2-litre in-line five cylinder turbocharged diesel, 147 kW at 3000 rpm, 470 Nm from 1750-2500 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: four-wheel drive. Six-speed automatic transmissions. Double-wishbone front suspension, semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear. Full suite of electronic handling aids.
HOW BIG: Length 5365mm, height up to 1821mm, width 1850mm, wheelbase 3220mm. Minimum ground clearance 237mm.
HOW MUCH: $61,895.
WHAT'S GOOD: Brilliantly flexible engine, ease of use, I like the Mazda styling.
WHAT'S NOT: Some may not like the styling.
OUR VERDICT: What a top ute this BT-50 is. It's an outstanding example of the massive improvements that have been made to so-called utility vehicles over the decades.
The first models arrived in the country later that year, and sales really took off a little later when the Government ordered 672 of them for the Ministry of Works. That order prompted a decision to assemble the utes in New Zealand, and in 1967 the local assembly began at Steel Brothers in Christchurch.
By the end of 1979, a total of 12,000 of the B1500 and B1600 utes had been sold in New Zealand, which made it the top-selling commercial vehicle in the country.
That title has since been overtaken by the Toyota Hilux ute, but Mazda has continued to be a very strong player in the light- truck market with the various generations of its utes, which over the years have gone by various names including Bounty and now BT-50.
So there's history there. And here's an interesting fact - there's history of the various generations of utes getting increasingly bigger and more powerful, too.
That's very first Mazda 1500 proceed ute was a two-wheel drive single-cab chassis, powered by a 1.5-litre petrol engine that developed 48 kilowatts of power and retailed for $2700.
The BT-50 that I've just been driving is a four-wheel-drive, double-cab model with a big welldeck out the back and with the 3.2-litre diesel that offers 100 more kilowatts of power - a total of 147 of them, to be precise. And, for good measure, it offers an enormous 470 Newton metres of torque from just 1750 rpm.
Not only that, but whereas that original Mazda ute would have been a rather basic vehicle with no luxuries whatsoever, this new Mazda has so many goodies that it is entirely capable of being accepted as normal family transport, albeit with a lifestyle and workhorse bent.
That's particularly the case with the model I've had, which is the top model in the 16-ute BT-50 range, a $61,895 Limited.
It's got all the fruit - keyless entry, leather seat trim, retractable power exterior mirrors, dual-zone fully automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth hands- free connectivity, and even rear parking sensors. In a ute, for heaven's sake.
Frankly, the only concessions to the utility side of this ute equation are that one has climb up into the vehicle, and that when it is empty the ride is a little lumpy. But that's about it. It's got power and torque, all the safety aids including dynamic stability control, and plenty of luxury.
And, of course, the BT-50 is a four-wheel-drive ute with tremendously good off-road capability.
Under normal circumstances the Mazda can be operated as a rear-wheel drive vehicle, but it can be shifted into high-range 4WD at speeds of up to 120 kmh by simply twisting a switch on the centre console - all that needs to be done is the accelerator to be released.
To move further into 4WD low ratio requires the ute to be stopped and - in our case - the automatic transmission to be in neutral. Helping things along is an electronically controlled locking rear differential.
From that point, the BT-50 is a very solid off-road operator. In the case of the Limited model with its 265 tyres, this ute still has ground clearance of 237mm, an approach angle of 28.2 degrees, a departure angle of 26.4 degrees, and a breakover angle of 25 degrees.
And thanks partly to a high- mounted alternator and air cleaner, the ute also has outstanding water-wading performance up to depths of 800mm. That's if you really do want to wade through that depth of water in a ute that costs close to $62,000!
Although the new BT-50 is available overseas with a choice of engines, Mazda New Zealand has chosen to restrict the ute's powerplant selection to just one engine, a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel matched to six-speed manual and automatic transmissions.
The engine is a beauty, generating class-leading power and torque of the 147 kW and 470 Nm, which is enough to offer lazy and very flexible motoring under all conditions - on or off the road.
Mazda says its new ute has been engineered to give the comfort of a passenger car along with SUV-like handling. I wouldn't go quite that far - while the front suspension is a double- wishbone layout, the rear remains a rigid axle with leaf springs, which is never going to give limo-like ride qualities, particularly when the BT-50 isn't carrying any load.
But, then again, this vehicle is a ute, and that fact shouldn't be forgotten. Although the ride can get bouncey at times, its rack-and- pinion steering gives very good feel, and the BT-50 can hang on quite impressively when pushed through the corners and bends.
It all underlines the opinion of Mazda's BT-50 programme manager Takasuke Kobayashi, who said he wanted to create a completely different kind of ute - one with the personality of a passenger car.
Its looks are more passenger-car like than most other utes, too. Its nose features headlights that are of a 'boomerang' design more typical of a car, and the area in between is an evolved version of the five-point grille that is seen on every Mazda passenger vehicle.
The rear is also quite different.
Whereas other utes have vertically stacked rear combination lamps, the BT-50's are horizontally aligned so they flow across the tailgate gaps and around the rear corners of the vehicle, very much like the marque's passenger cars.
And that all explains why the new-age utes such as this magnificent BT-50 are becoming increasingly popular, accounting for more than 15 per cent of all new vehicles being sold this year. I'd buy one, and happily use it for all my motoring requirements.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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