Mazda has given the BT-50 a noticeable differentiator to its Isuzu D-Max twin in the form of a factory-modified range-topper with fancy Old Man Emu suspension, but the price point throws up some question marks.

When Mazda debuted its third-generation BT-50, now based on the Isuzu D-Max rather than the Ford Ranger like the two generations before it, the main differentiator between the two twins was the BT-50’s sleek styling and premium interior finishes which are in keeping with the rest of Mazda’s portfolio. Now, though, there’s a new differentiator in the range which Isuzu doesn’t yet have – a toughened-up off-road version laden with accessories galore.

Dubbed the Thunder Pro, it’s based on the already beefy Thunder version we’ve previously tested, but with a few extra changes – principally because it’s technically marketed as an options package, rather than a standalone trim level. Thankfully there are some big changes included among those, since it charges an extra $9046, taking the price to a whopping $82,991 before on-road costs. Just don’t expect a more powerful engine, such as what you’d find in the Ford Ranger Raptor; this is more of a rival to models such as the Nissan Navara PRO-4X Warrior which add some styling tweaks and the sort of aftermarket upgrades many Aussies would add anyway without messing around under the bonnet.

Already, the regular BT-50 Thunder adds the massive fender flares, chunky 18-inch alloys, hoopless bullbar with a LightForce LED lightbar, and electric roller tonneau cover – nice to have, but almost all visual upgrades alone. Instead, the Thunder Pro’s big ticket upgrade is a set of Old Man Emu medium-duty suspension with adjustable ARB BP-51 nitrogen-filled shock absorbers, while a snorkel, some round LightForce spotlights in addition to the aforementioned lightbar, and bespoke decals are included for good measure. It’s worth noting these extras are all fitted locally in Australia, rather than at the factory where the BT-50 is built in Thailand.

There’s no denying that the Thunder Pro has some serious presence to it, with it looking ready to tackle any adventure you’d ever want to take it on, and while it’s not Mazda’s usual Soul Crystal Red Metallic, I think this Volcano Red Mica paintwork suits its brilliantly. I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of how the bullbar looks, with its design constrained by the shape of the BT-50’s grille, but there’s no denying it’s practical given the integrated bash plate and impressive corner approach angles thanks to the way it’s angled and cut away ahead of the front wheels.

It’s also worth noting that if you don’t need anything quite this heavy-duty, there is also a new SP Pro version available for $76,178. While the Thunder Pro traces its specification back to the GT model, the SP Pro is based on the SP that sits one step above the GT and maintains a sleeker look with no bullbar, a hidden lightbar, and OME Nitrocharger suspension with twin-tube shocks.

Regardless which one you pick, the interior remains identical to the standard BT-50. In the case of the Thunder Pro, that means it retains the GT model’s stunning interior which is trimmed in supple brown leather which looks like it belongs more in a luxury car than a ute. There are also plush carpet floor mats, heated front seats with power adjustment for the driver, an eight-speaker audio system, and a 9.0-inch infotainment screen with sat nav and wireless Apple CarPlay (although Android Auto requires a cable).

There’s no denying that cabin comfort is off the charts by ute standards. The seats are not only very comfortable but supportive in all the right places thanks to the comprehensive thigh, side, and even shoulder bolstering. The cabin ergonomics are right on the money, too, with plenty of steering wheel adjustment to find the right spot in the driver’s seat while keeping everything within reach.

In terms of storage, there’s plenty on offer thanks to its dual gloveboxes on the passenger side, although the BT-50 lacks a third storage cubby atop the dashboard like you’ll find in the D-Max. It also lacks the D-Max’s pop-out cupholders, but the bottle holders that do remain in the centre console and door pockets are massive which is great for a ute. There’s even a square cupholder in the centre console for iced coffee cartons. You’ll also find decently-sized cupholders in the rear centre armrest, along with a bag hook on the back of the front passenger seat which can hold up to 4kg.

Considering the weight of the extras fitted to the BT-50 Thunder Pro, principally the heavy suspension setup, the overall weight balloons to around 2310kg, meaning payload is somewhat limited at roughly 790kg. Braked towing capacity remains unchanged at 3500kg.

Despite the uprated suspension, the BT-50’s engine remains unchanged in the Thunder Pro, meaning its Isuzu-sourced 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine produces the same 140kW and 450Nm, with a six-speed automatic transmission and part-time four-wheel drive with a locking rear differential standard on this range-topper.

Considering the extra heft the Thunder Pro is carrying, the 3.0-litre doesn’t feel its punchiest here. Its smooth and linear torque delivery certainly helps it feel confident enough, particularly as the majority of the torque is centred around the 2000rpm mark which is where it sits at when you’re on the freeway or country roads, but it doesn’t feel quite as potent if you’re trying to hustle it.

Mind you, it’s still a solid and proven engine which feels pretty refined for a diesel, and the Aisin transmission it’s paired with – the same you’ll find in a Toyota HiLux – is a smooth unit. It’s quite economical as well, although the 9.5L/100km I managed during my 622km of testing does show what a difference the extra weight and reduced aerodynamics make, as I most recently averaged 8.9L/100km in the mechanically-identical D-Max X-Terrain.

Of course, the main thing you’ll want to know is how the new OME suspension setup feels, and it’s safe to say it’s the difference-maker the BT-50 needed. It feels far more settled thanks to the adjustable compression and rebound rates which, somewhat conveniently, you can simply alter by hand. While the BT-50 was already one of the more comfortable and compliant utes to drive, with the BP-51 suspension it’s far more composed over big hits, corrugations, and perhaps most importantly on poorly-maintained city streets.

There’s also a good amount of articulation on offer from it when you’re off-roading, ensuring all four wheels stay on the ground more of the time. However, my biggest complaint, as with the standard BT-50 Thunder, has to be the decision not to include a set of proper off-road tyres. The Bridgestone Dueler highway-terrain rubber it comes with is fine on sealed roads, but a lack of all-terrain or mud-terrain tyres clearly holds its off-road potential back.

It’s worth highlighting that this particular suspension setup has been tuned for loads between 0-300kg, which is a big part of why it now rides so well unladen. Considering not only the fancy internal bypass shock absorbers but also the progressive rate front coil springs and revised rear leaf springs, it also handles a bit better, remaining fairly flat through the corners, although its overall weight means it hardly feels sporty.

As for the other upgrades, the snorkel is nice to have if you plan on driving on a lot of gravel roads (to ensure clean air gets to the engine) or if you want to exploit the BT-50’s 800mm wading depth, and likewise the Lightforce driving lights manage to illuminate trails at night with the power of a binary star. Certainly, everything Mazda has added to the Thunder Pro makes the BT-50 a better vehicle, but does it make it worth it?

Well, considering the main drawcard – the Old Man Emu suspension – can be had as a standalone option for $6803, it’s worth considering simply optioning it onto any other BT-50 variant and skipping the rest. It’s worth pointing out that a heavy-duty version of this suspension setup tuned for 300-600kg loads is also on offer for $6874, while the Nitrocharger suspension from the SP Pro is a $4060 standalone option.

Of course, you could look at aftermarket options instead, but the benefit of both the Thunder Pro and these standalone options is that they’ll be covered by the BT-50’s standard five-year unlimited kilometre warranty with no issues – plus, you know they’ve been selected and tuned specifically for the BT-50.

The BT-50 Thunder Pro is certainly a capable vehicle that finally gives the Mazda ute a clear differentiator from the donor Isuzu D-Max, and not to mention a rival to the other factory-modified utes that have found popularity in Australia. However, the massive price tag is the real stumbling block for it as far as I can see – especially without a bump in power included.

If it were me, I’d be choosing a GT model and simply fitting the suspension to that, retaining the same plush interior while saving $13,678 in the process, and even with the snorkel and a light bar added back in, you’ll still see a five-digit saving. If you’re dead serious about off-roading and prepared to fix the one glaring issue with the Thunder Pro and fit some proper off-road tyres, it would be worth considering since the upgrades are all excellent on their own merit, but for most buyer’s you’ll find better value elsewhere in the range.

2024 Mazda BT-50 Thunder Pro List Price: $73,410 | As Tested: $82,456
  • 7/10
    Performance - 7/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 6.5/10
    Value for Money - 6.5/10

Pros: Excellent Old Man Emu suspension setup improves an already good ride, proven and reliable engine, plush interior finishes and supportive seats are as good as you’ll find in a ute
Cons: It’s mighty expensive, no off-road tyres included alongside the other upgrades, the suspension is available as a standalone option on all other trim levels anyway

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

Patrick Jackson
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