The BT-50 Thunder serves up a tough new look for the perhaps too-stylish ute, but without any performance or off-road suspension upgrades it risks leaving some buyers wanting more.

Offering a jacked-up, kitted-out, off-road ready ute is becoming commonplace for many manufacturers’ Australian arms. Be it a fully-fledged factory-made effort offered internationally such as the Ford Ranger Raptor or Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, or something that comes with locally-fitted modifications such as the Nissan Navara Warrior or Toyota HiLux Rugged X, it’s the thing to sell at a time where utes are big business, as is spending plenty of money on aftermarket modifications for them.

The 2021 Mazda BT-50 Thunder is an example of the latter – a range-topping version of the new Isuzu D-Max-based BT-50 offered exclusively to Australian buyers that offers a stack of optional extras at an additional cost, the idea being to look at what modifications owners typically add to their vehicles and fitting them to something available off the showroom floor that, in the end, costs less for the customer overall.

As such, the BT-50 Thunder isn’t cheap, commanding a price of $65,990 for the manual and $68,990 for the automatic tested here, but given it adds in excess of $13,000 worth of genuine accessories, the $9000 price jump over the high-spec’d GT model it’s based on certainly looks to be justified.

Standing out most at the front is a bold single-hoop steel bullbar finished in black and with a Lightforce LED lightbar sat atop it. The bullbar is an interesting topic, as when the BT-50 was first revealed many wondered how it would take to having a bullbar fitted around its big grille, to which this provides the answer. The lightbar is impressive, too, delivering the luminance of a collapsed sun – one issue with this, though, is that if you use is on country roads late at night, it shines so brightly off signs that the automatic high beam sensor switches it back to a dipped beam every time you pass one.

Moving around to the side, a set of 18-inch black alloy wheels, bolt-on fender flares, and beefy side steps are also added on, along with a ‘Thunder’ graphic on the side of the tray. Finally, a premium sports bar is added to complete the toughened-up look, while a standard tub liner and an EGR RollTrac electric tonneau cover add some practicality into the mix as well.

Certainly, I’m not going to question the fact this thing looks properly tough, but I must point out that ultimately, all that’s been added is visual, with no changes to the suspension or tyres to add to its off-road performance. A mild lift and 17-inch wheels wrapped in all-terrain rubber would have made it a more resolute package to me, especially given where it sits price-wise against rivals that offer all of the above.

The other thing I do find strange is the fact that this more rugged BT-50 has been based on the incredibly plush range-topping model. The last thing I’d want to do when off-roading is get the plush carpets and luxuriously-trimmed interior all mucky. Merely fitting a set of rubber floor mats is ultimately all that needs to be done, though, as sitting in this interior for even a moment will have you sold on it – even if it’s not entirely appropriate for an off-roader.

While when I tested the BT-50 XT I found it to feel too similar to the D-Max inside, if with a few defining changes, the interior of the Thunder and indeed the GT model below it really makes this thing feel like a Mazda. The well-bolstered bucket seats are trimmed in incredibly supple perforated brown leather (which is much softer than the leather you find in the D-Max X-Terrain) and with two-stage heating up front and power-adjustment for the driver.

The door cards, armrests, and kneepads on the centre console are trimmed in the same brown leather, sans perforation, while even the plastics around the upper glovebox and gauge cluster are now brown to bring a real sense of cohesion throughout the cabin.

Now, not only do this cabin’s ergonomics see the BT-50 and D-Max right at the top of the segment in that regard, but the unique finishes here put this range-topping Mazda right at the head of the pack overall – even if it mightn’t exactly be fit for purpose.

Do consider that it’s still right at the top of the class when it comes to tech as well, with a 9.0-inch infotainment screen with Here Maps satellite navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay, and wired Android Auto; a 4.2-inch colour TFT display in the gauge cluster; dual-zone climate control; and a host of active safety technology including AEB, blind-spot monitoring, and Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capability all coming as standard, making it feel thoroughly modern in this ageing class.

Where it falls in the middle of the pack though is when it comes to performance. Powered by the venerable ‘4JJ3’ 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, its engine packs 140kW and 450Nm – healthy figures, but certainly behind the new class standard of having 500Nm.

It produces torque where it counts, however – 300Nm from 1000rpm, at least 400Nm from 1400-3250rpm, and the full 450Nm from 1600-2600rpm – so it never feels gutless at all, especially as the smooth six-speed Aisin automatic transmission allows it to stay on boost and maintain momentum unlike the manual. However, what certainly can be felt is the added weight of all the accessories, particularly the big steel bullbar, as it means the BT-50 Thunder simply doesn’t feel as spritely as other models sat on this platform. Sure, this engine is perfectly-tuned for the majority of its standard applications, but here specifically, more guts would definitely be welcome – especially as the old Ford-based BT-50 offered more power and torque as well.

Dynamically, there’s no real changes to report, which is certainly a good thing as the BT-50 and D-Max sit right near the top of the class when it comes to ride and handling, with it a close match between them and the Ford Ranger for the top spot. The positive trade-off of the Thunder’s higher kerb weight is that it does make it feel slightly more composed when it comes to how it rides when unladen.

It’s easy to forget you’re in a big, heavy ute when you’re behind the wheel, as the variable ratio electric power steering is incredibly quick and light at lower speeds, it doesn’t feel jittery on lacklustre road surfaces, and the interior is so plush and cosseting it that it’s more SUV-like than anything else.

Yet, it’ll still haul a load in the tray – although its 887kg payload does mark a 178kg decrease over the GT model – and tow 3500kg, meaning it feels far more like a thorough all-rounder more than a focused off-roader like its competition that do away with niceties and offer much lower payloads in exchange for the more focused upgrades.

To me, though, I can’t escape the feeling that it would be a more complete package with the suspension lift and beefy tyres that its rivals have. Add that and it would be the real deal, but with such items still needing to be sought from the aftermarket after you’ve already spent $68,990. Sure, it’s a fantastic off-road performer fresh out of the box – thanks to an exceptionally quick-to-operate transfer box; standard rear differential lock; already impressive ground clearance of 240mm and wading depth of 800mm; and approach, departure, and ramp-over angles of 25.8, 24.2, and 23.8 degrees respectively – but there’s certainly still room for advancement as others have shown.

It’s a clever idea in theory, putting this package together, and for those looking to dress up their utes like this the $4000 savings compared to fitting all this stuff yourself will be appealing, but as someone who’d want more in the off-road department, I’d be shopping lower in the range and doing it myself.

2021 Mazda BT-50 Thunder List Price: $68,990
  • 7.5/10
    Performance - 7.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Tech & Features - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 7/10
    Value for Money - 7/10

Pros: Adds a lot of goodies for a reasonable price bump, beautifully-trimmed brown Nappa leather interior, ride and handling right at the pointy end of the class
Cons: No all-terrain tyres or suspension upgrades, no power or torque increases either, one size might not fit all given the price hike

In a nutshell: Sure, the BT-50 Thunder might offer a lot of upgrades at a substantial saving, but they aren’t the upgrades that’ll lure potential buyers away from the Ranger Raptor or Navara Warrior. Our take – go lower in the range, and pick the mods you want yourself. 

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia for 10 days with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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