In the last year or so, the Ford Ranger has been the beacon of the pick-up class; a truck that, in many ways, is redefining what a pick up should deliver not just in terms of being an everyday rugged workhorse, but in terms of comfort, styling, features and technology as well.
As the Ranger shot up to the limelight, however, its brother, the Mazda BT-50, was quietly brought in to showrooms; there was no fanfare, there wasn't even a launch event. Some may say it's been eclipsed by the Ranger, but perhaps a full test of its capabilities can bring this rather radicall looking truck up to its own accord... much more so than a rebadged model like the old one.
To say the BT-50 is strikingly designed is an understatement, and Mazda can no longer be said to have simply badge engineered the Ranger like the previous generations. By a huge margin, the BT-50 easily has the most distinct looking front end in the market; if you mistook it for a D-MAX, a Ranger, a Hilux, a Strada or Navara, perhaps it's time to visit the optometrist.
The styling is, in Steven Tan's (Berjaya Auto Philippines President, the new official distributor of Mazda in the country -more on them later) own words, “a love it or hate it” kind of thing. In a lot of ways, I agree because by my eye, the Ranger does set the bar for rugged, tough looking trucks, yet would be perfectly at home in the more stylish and posh parts of town. I admit, the design didn't exactly have me at 'hello', but over the days that I've been driving it, the BT-50's look did grow on me. It's actually a bit of a head turner, though the jury is still out on whether that's a good thing or not.
In terms of proportions, the BT-50 may seem identical to its brother, but its actually nearly 100mm longer at 5365mm, which probably accounts for what appears to be a longer front end. Beyond that, its the same width and height, and has the same wheelbase.
Inside, the Mazda approach to interior design is apparent. If you're familiar with the Ranger's cabin, yes, the BT-50 does use the same architecture around with the placement of the buttons, the actual LCD systems, the audio functionality and even the exact same buttons on the steering wheel, but again, this truck isn't an exercise in rebadging. The sloped dashboard is reminiscent of the more expensive and more premium models in the Mazda line up like the CX-7 and the previous Mazda6, and that can only be good, especially given that this is supposed to be in a class of car known for being utilitarian.
What's good about the BT-50 is its size and usability. There are plenty of storage options inside, and 5 people can get seated in comfort with plenty of legroom to spare. The truck bed, as we've tested before, can fit a pair of our driving simulator rigs side by side with plenty of cargo space to spare.
Leather seats are standard for this 4x4 model, along with the multi-function, multi-connectivity (iPod, USB, Aux-in and Bluetooth) suite for the audio system. I like that the USB and Aux ports are tucked away in the glove compartment, reducing the clutter of having iPod cables up and about, and that there are three 12-volt sockets (dashboard, center console and one for the rear passengers) to charge all your smartphone needs. Climate control is also standard, while the driver also has the 4-way switches (same as the Ranger) on either side of the steering wheel for the audio system and voice command (BVC) as well as for the cruise control system. Overall, the BT-50 is competitively equipped.
Behind that striking front end is a 3.2 liter, twin cam, 20-valve, 5-cylinder variable geometry turbo intercooler common rail direct injection diesel engine; again, this is shared with the Ranger Wildtrak, but Mazda was able to bring it in earlier with the entire BT-50 line. This 3.2L engine produces a very potent 200 PS of power and 470 Newton meters of torque, and comes standard with the shift-on-the-fly 4x4 system (controlled via a knob beside the shifter) and a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Firing it up, there's a significant bump in power over the 2.2L Ranger we drove before. That's expected. The delivery of the power and torque is quite good, though it seems to shift a little later than how I would want for better efficiency and even in manual mode, it won't shift up until a rather higher-than-normal speed was reached. Unusual, but once I got the hang of how the 3.2L/6AT powertrain works, I was able to achieve 9.6 kilometers per liter in the city (moderate traffic, 2 passengers) and 14.3 km/l on the highway (no traffic, 80-90 km/h with cruise control on).
Comfort on the road is good, though the BT-50 does seem to be a little stiffer than the Ranger. Maybe its the placebo effect (as the BT-50 and Ranger do share nearly everything underneath the skin) because of the brand's reputation for “zoom-zoom”, but I could almost swear that it has better on-road manners and high speed stability than its brother from Ford. About the only thing I don't like is the turning radius, as with the wheel locked full to the left on a U-turn slot, it does take up just over 3 lanes; even the larger models like the Expedition or Suburban didn't seem to take up that much room on full lock. Again, I'm just going on what I remember here.
For off-road use, the BT-50 will not disappoint. In fact, it's equipped to impress on the trails, as it comes with a great 4x4 system that we've put to the test, and is also fitted with tech like hill hold (gives you time to transition from the brake to the accelerator after coming from a standstill on an uphill trail) and hill descent control (automatically crawls the truck down a steep descent). Traction is excellent, and given that it's still on road tires, off-road performance is admirable; again, at par with the Ranger Wildtrak.
Price-wise, the Mazda BT-50 3.2L 4x4 6AT costs PhP 1,490,000 which, given the level of kit, performance and features, is a pricetag that I'd say is worth every peso. The jury may still out on the design, but overall, Mazda brings forth a product that's clearly a strong contender in the class; a truck that has truly come into its own beyond a mere badge change, but that's beside the point.
A product -whether it be a bottle of soda, a new smartphone or a car- is only as good as the brand's dedication to it. Over the past 2 to 3 years, Mazda's presence in the Philippines has waned somewhat, a perception that could be attributed to Ford Group Philippines's (Mazda's former distributor/assembler) shift to focus (no pun intended) on the Ford brand and models. No fault there, as it was part of FGP's strategy to make their primary brand's presence in the country stronger with such a highly competitive product line.. a line in which nearly each model has an almost unfair technological advantage over the primary competition in each class.
Now that Berjaya Auto Philippines is the dedicated distributor of Mazda, perhaps the old luster that the brand once had could resurface again, and I could think of many people -enthusiasts, loyalists and even new customers alike- that have been waiting quite a while for just that.