Ryan Bubear drives the Mazda BT-50 3.2 MZ-CD SLE High Ride 4x4 6MT...
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These days, a number of facets of our everyday lives — think computers, cellphones, and the average politician's frontal lobe — seem to be getting physically smaller.
But there are some things that are giving this shrinking craze the good ol' fashioned middle-fingered salute: things such as flat-screen TVs, insurance premiums, and the average politician's waistline are all getting bigger as time goes by. As is the humble bakkie.
The brand new Mazda BT-50 is a case in point. This latest generation has grown in length, width and height when compared to its previous incarnation, and now measures between 5.277 metres and 5.377 metres long, depends on body style. That's well over two-and-a-half times as long as former Springbok lock and near-giant Victor Matfield is tall.
Is bigger better?
Of course, this growth spurt has distinct functional benefits, because important aspects such as load capacity and interior space increase too. But it does present a problem when it comes to something as simple as parking.
In a typical parking space, the BT-50 looks like 1973 Arnold Schwarzenegger on a child's tricycle — awkwardly bulky and ridiculously oversized. It's the length that's the biggest issue with the BT-50, although at 1.85 metres wide it's not exactly narrow either. But, strangely enough, out on the road this big bakkie doesn't feel supersized at all, thanks in part to the heavily assisted steering.
With three body styles (single cab, freestyle cab, and double cab), four new engines (two 2.2-litre diesels, a 3.2-litre diesel, and a 2.5-litre petrol), manual or automatic gearboxes, and two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive (the latter with a shift-on-the-fly transfer case), there are myriad derivatives on offer, priced from about R190k all the way through to an eye-watering R462k. We had the well-specced 3.2 MZ-CD SLE High Ride 4x4 6MT — quite a mouthful, yes — in double cab format on test.
The 3198cc five-cylinder diesel engine produces 147kW (at 3000rpm) and a decent 470Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm thanks to its variable-nozzle turbocharger. It's connected to a typically notchy six-speed manual 'box and is pleasantly quiet at cruising speeds but characteristically boisterous through the gears. It pulls well thanks to that mountain of torque, and even steep hills rarely require downshifting. We managed a reasonable fuel consumption figure of 9.7 litres per 100km.
The powerplant is shared with the Ford Ranger — as are all other engines in the range. In fact, the BT-50 and Ranger make use of identical powertrains, suspension and chassis. On smooth surfaces, the BT-50's suspension does a fair job of keeping the bakkie's occupants comfortable, even when not fully laden. Over slightly rougher surfaces though, there's plenty of feedback into the cabin thanks to the rigid rear axle and leaf springs. A brief jaunt off-road proved that marshy conditions were no match for the 4x4 system and locking rear differential. We started in "2H" (used in normal, on-road conditions) but soon got stuck, as expected. A quick turn of the dedicated knob (into "4L") and we were on our way again.
From the outside, the BT-50 and Ranger look anything but alike — with the exception of their general, rather generous dimensions. Where the handsome Ranger is blocky and masculine, the BT-50 is far more fluid and aerodynamic, employing sweeping lines to sketch an enlarged form of the now-familiar Mazda family face.
Mazda says its design team was tasked with creating a "sophisticated beast". The previous generation BT-50 wasn't exactly pretty, and this new version has drawn a fair bit of criticism for its unbakkie-like and chrome-accented looks too. But it's actually quite striking in the metal; the accompanying photographs don't do it justice. That said, the rear lights are sure to divide opinion...
Inside, as is the case with the Ranger, the 3.2-litre BT-50 tries hard to mimic a passenger car, coming standard with a sound system (MP3/CD/Aux/USB), Bluetooth, a 3.5-inch multi-function display, a multi-functional steering wheel, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, leather trim, rear parking assist, and as many safety abbreviations you can think of (ABS, EBD, DSC, EBA, BOS, LAC, TSM, ROM, HLA, HDC, among them). In the double cab, space is plentiful — there's enough leg- and head-room in the back for six-footers to travel in comfort.
So, what about the important "workhorse" stats? Well, the 3.2-litre diesel model's minimum ground clearance is 237mm and it has a water wading ability up to 800mm. The generously proportioned loadbox is 513mm deep, and measures 1549mm by 1560mm — meaning there's plenty of space for work or play — and the braked towing capacity is some 3350kg.
While the Ranger hasn't been able to topple the mighty Toyota Hilux, it has built up a strong following, selling over 1200 units every month in SA since March 2012. The new BT-50 is a more-than-capable machine, but can it match its Ford-badged cousin? It's highly unlikely — despite the fact that they are mechanically pretty much identical (keep an eye out for our monthly "best-selling bakkies" list to find out for sure).
So, apart from the arguably divisive looks, it's very difficult to find fault with the new BT-50. It's a hard worker and a decent alternative to the mainstream bakkies.
Now, if we could just find a parking bay big enough to contain one...
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See page 2 for specs and pricing.