What is it?
The all-new Mazda BT-50 is the Hiroshima-based brand’s entrant into the hotly-contested and volume-selling Light Commercial Vehicle segment in Australia. While previously, the BT-50 shared a platform with the Ford Ranger in its previous generations, this new model is based on the Isuzu D-Max underneath, utilising the same engine and transmissions and a similar interior as well, while the front and rear-end styling is uniquely Mazda, with it borrowing cues from its SUV range.
In terms of how the BT-50 is positioned, if the D-Max is what the bricklayers are pulling up to the job site in, this is more of a foreman’s ride. Intended to be slightly plusher and more civilised, there’s no tradie-spec variant on offer here, with this XT model the entry-level variant. Prices for a 4×2 Single Cab Chassis model start at $36,550 with a standard automatic transmission, while this 4×4 Dual Cab with a manual gearbox and ute tub on the back comes in at $50,760 retail, with the hard tonneau cover and red paint putting this one at a rather steep as-tested price of $53,810.
Why are we testing it?
Having already extensively tested the new D-Max in SX, LS-U, and X-Terrain guises, I was keen to get into the BT-50 to see just how Mazda has tried to differentiate it from its donor vehicle, and whether it feels like a good fit within the Mazda range. It’ll also be interesting to see how this new Isuzu-based model compares to the previously Ford-made BT-50 of old.
What are the main changes compared to the D-Max?
While the BT-50 and D-Max share a lot in common including their complete underpinnings, it’s on the outside where the differences between them are most apparent. Although the basic cab construction is clearly identical, as can be seen from the design of the doors, Mazda has applied unique styling to both the front and rear ends of the ute, with the front the most drastically different of the two.
Utilising the company’s Kodo design language, the front end with its bold grille and fat lower lip helps it truly look like one of Mazda’s SUVs from front on, while at the rear it loses the Isuzu’s more aggressive tailgate creases and Altezza-style taillight housings in favour of a more conventional rear profile that’s made classier by the sophisticated sans-serif font that Mazda now employs.
The other area you’ll notice some changes between the two is on the inside of the cabin, as Mazda’s push towards making all of its models feel more luxurious can be felt even inside a base model like this.
What’s it like inside?
Building upon the already well-designed cabin of the new D-Max, Mazda has aimed to make this ute feel less utilitarian than you’d usually expect, especially given how basic and dated the old BT-50’s cabin felt. Fortunately, then, the D-Max is the best starting point you could ask for, quite frankly.
Although the overall design remains familiar – the centre stack, lower half of the dashboard, and centre console all remain unchanged, while areas such as the steering wheel and door cards present only minor tweaks, such as the central airbag cover on the former and the silver trim around the doorhandles on the latter. Leather armrest covers are fitted to this base XT model rather than the D-Max’s cloth-upholstered ones, although the section above the elbow rest on the doors is hard plastic here, rather than the soft cloth of the D-Max.
The most notable changes are across the top of the dashboard, though. Featuring a slightly more squared profile, there’s a long strip of soft leatherette running the whole width of it. Things like the air vents are now rectangular (rather than all-angular) and surrounded with the same silver trim as the door handles as well, and the instrument cluster has a different design with different fonts utilised and a tweaked skin for the central TFT screen. There’s even some leather padding added to the sides of the transmission tunnel to make it far nicer to rest your knee against, too.
It’s certainly a more conventionally attractive design than the D-Max’s, but it is less practical – the storage cubby on the top of the dashboard has been lost with the new design (although there are still dual gloveboxes on the passenger side) as have the pop-out cupholders on the dashboard, too. There’s no rubber flooring available even in this base grade either, with carpet made standard – something for those wanting to off-road regularly to consider as it’ll be less durable and easy to clean.
Fortunately, Mazda’s base model inherits the excellent seats of the LS-M and LS-U grade D-Maxes, which offer excellent side and shoulder bolstering both front and rear, and are trimmed in a very nice cloth upholstery design that’s unique to the BT-50. Not all materials in the BT-50 XT are the absolute nicest though, with the steering wheel and gear knob – two of the things you’ll be constantly touching as you’re driving – both being cheap polyurethane items. For what they are, they are as good to the touch as you’ll get, but you may want to step up to the XTR if you’re after a ute that’s properly nice throughout. Moving to the XTR nabs you the larger 9.0-inch infotainment screen with integrated sat nav as well, as the 7.0-inch screen of the XT looks pretty ugly with that huge bezel around it and it lacks navigation although there is wireless Apple CarPlay to make up for that.
An incredibly ergonomic and thoughtfully-designed interior to begin with, the BT-50 certainly feels to have been modified in suitably fitting ways compared to the D-Max, and while the fact it loses some practicality is a shame, it feels on-brand with what Mazda was after in this private buyer-focused model.
What’s it like to drive?
Under the skin, there are no mechanical differences at all between the BT-50 and its Isuzu twin, meaning you get the same ‘4JJ3’ 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine making 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm from a handy 1600-2600rpm – right where you need that torque when you’re hauling a heavy load or towing a trailer. A heavily updated version of Isuzu’s 4JJ1 engine which was renowned for its reliability, it’s one of the few 3.0-litre engines left in the class, and although it’s peak torque figure is down slightly on the 500Nm many key rivals are offering these days, it makes its power smoothly and effectively enough that it offers similar if not better performance against the stopwatch than some of its competitors
Both rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive versions are available of the XT and XTR grades (the GT model is 4×4 only) with four-wheel drive models gaining a locking rear differential as standard. All 4×2 models come with a six-speed automatic transmission (the same Aisin unit found in the Toyota HiLux and Mitsubishi Triton) as standard, while there’s the choice of a six-speed auto or manual for all 4×4 variants including the range-topper.
Unlike the D-Max, only the comfort suspension tune is offered on the BT-50 (SX and LS-M versions of the D-Max feature a firmer heavy-duty suspension tune) which is a good thing as it delivers very impressive unladen ride quality – arguably the best you’ll get from a ute with a leaf-sprung rear axle. This, of course, comes down to its three-leaf rear suspension setup which helps it offer an impressive 1095kg payload and 3500kg braked towing in the variant tested here while being able to absorb bumps with more ease than a five-leaf setup.
As a result of all these similarities, the BT-50 drives exactly like any dual cab D-Max with the comfort suspension tune – its engine is smooth and surprisingly refined, the ride quality is excellent for a ute, the progressive-rate electric power steering feels bang-on in both city traffic where it lightens up and on higher-speed twisty roads when it gets weightier, and it remains impressively quiet inside as well. Simply, it’s a night and day difference compared to the noisy and rough-riding last-gen BT-50. It’s worth noting that it features all of the same active safety tech as the D-Max, too, which puts it at the top of the class for standard inclusions in this regard – previously, the BT-50 was sorely lacking in this department.
The primary point of difference I can touch on here – as all D-Max variants I’ve driven thus far have featured the Aisin automatic – is the manual gearbox of the BT-50 on test here. An Isuzu design, upgrades over the previous iteration of it include a dual-mass flywheel and a short-throw shifter, and I must say that in terms of operation it’s probably the nicest-feeling manual ‘box I’ve come across in a ute – the shifter is well positioned and the throws are ideal, and the clutch is incredibly easy and progressive to use compared to what you’d find in, say, the Toyota Hilux.
What’s unfortunate about this gearbox is something that lets down many manual utes – gear ratio spacing. First gear in it is just far too short and second is too tall in relation to it, meaning you’ll struggle to drive it smoothly. It doesn’t like simply taking off in second, either, always seeming to make a bit of a whining noise whenever I gave it a try aside from on the steepest of declines. A shame, given how nice a gearbox it is to operate otherwise. Given this is a high displacement engine with a big turbo on it, the turbo lag is pronounced as you slot into the next gear and get back onto the throttle, so you’re probably better off with the auto in this regard as well, as it’ll stay on boost through its gearchanges.
How do the numbers stack up?
If there’s one area the manual gearbox helps, it’s when it comes to fuel economy. While the automatic D-Maxes I’ve tested have typically returned around 9.5L/100km on average, this manual BT-50 sipped a leaner 8.5L/100km over the course of 450km, so not only are you saving $2500 off the purchase price by opting for it, but those savings will continue at each visit to the servo.
On the topic of the purchase price, I can’t help but feel as though the Mazda seems a bit expensive at this lower end of the range. At a starting price of $50,760 for the model tested here, it feels like a much more sensible move to stump up the extra $3950 for the nicer XTR than deal with the compromises of a base model. Compared to the D-Max LS-M 4×4 Manual, its equivalent in Isuzu’s lineup, it does undercut its $52,000 asking price and offers far more in the way of luxuries like plush trim and the comfort suspension tune, so the Mazda does at least have that going in its favour.
Mazda’s five-year unlimited kilometre warranty is par for the course in the class, and although it’s a year shy of Isuzu’s in duration, it doesn’t have a mileage cap on it which is an important point to consider. Servicing is required every 12 months/15,000km and across the warranty period the first five capped-price services come in at $423, $395, $720, $502, and $316 respectively – an average of $471.20 per visit which is slightly higher than the D-Max’s $443 average over the same period. Consider, also, that the D-Max offers seven years of roadside assistance to the BT-50’s five.
So, what’s the verdict?
Make no mistake – the BT-50, like the D-Max, is an incredibly good ute that’s wonderful to drive, completely capable, and that looks and feels far classier than you’d expect for this class. I’m not sure this XT Dual Cab 4×4 Manual model is the pick of the bunch though, as I think the step up to the XTR model would be worth it.
In terms of what will sway decisions between whether to go for a BT-50 or D-Max, it comes down to a few things. Some of it is personal preference – are you wanting a plusher or more rugged interior, and which do you prefer the look of? – but convenience will also be part of it. Those in more rural areas might be more likely to find an Isuzu dealership than a Mazda one, for instance. You’ll want to calculate how much mileage you’re expecting to cover as well, as if it’s less than 150,000km over the course of six years the Isuzu (and it’s cheaper servicing) will be the better bet, while if it’s more than that the Mazda with its unlimited mileage allowance will serve you better.
Regardless, both the BT-50 and D-Max are utes that are on top of their game now in this new generation and well worth considering. In terms of value for money, it’s the BT-50 XTR I’d be looking at personally over this, though.
2021 Mazda BT-50 XT Dual Cab 4x4 Manual List Price: $50,760 | As Tested: $53,810
Pros: Smart looks keep it in-line with Mazda’s broader range, rides and handles incredibly well for a leaf-sprung ute, shifter and clutch feel is bang-on in this manual version, impressive 1095kg payload as tested
Cons: Small infotainment screen with big ugly bezel, polyurethane steering wheel and shift knob bring down the ‘luxury’ feel a touch, gear ratios could be more evenly spaced, more expensive to service than the D-Max
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.