Mazda has hauled out the scalpel and make-up kit and made use of a team of clever white coats and engineers to make its latest range of 'proudly South African" Mazda BT-50 bakkies tougher, prettier to look at, safer, more comfortable and better equipped with a wide range of safety and comfort features.
With 147kW and 470Nm on tap from as low down as 1750rpm, this beast feels as though there is no obstacle it can’t attack, chew and spit out before breakfast.
The final result, unveiled to the Media in KZN recently, is a range of bakkies that won't be embarrassed in the company of clan leaders such as its close relative, the Ford Ranger and the likes of Toyota Hilux, Isuzu KB, VW Amarok and Mitsubishi Triton.
The engines for the BT-50 are put together in the Eastern Cape and the bodies are made in Silverton, near Pretoria, where the final assembly also takes place, hence Mazda's "proudly South African" brag. Locally built BT-50s are also going to Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana and Mozambique.
The BT-50 joined the one-ton bakkie fraternity way back in 2007 and since then more than 11 000 of them have been sold locally. Mazda is targeting monthly sales of between 350 and 400 for the new BT-50 now that the range offering has been extended to more choices, varying from petrol to diesel, manual to automatic, 4x2, 4x4 and three different cabins.
Very little 'old-school' about the new BT-50
The total local bakkie market is 70% dominated by diesels and 95% by manual transmissions, although the popularity of automatic boxes has grown from 5% to 7% in the first half of this year.
Although originally based on the earlier Ford Ranger there is very little "old school" about the new BT-50, other than its rather notchy six-speed manual shift which was still noticeable on the flagship 3.2-litre 4x4 double cab diesel I drove at the Media launch.
The lights look good - but will they be up to the rough and tumble of everyday loading and unloading?
(However, the newly-added choice of a 6-speed auto transmission, which is the same box currently on offer in the Ford Ranger, is expected to build up a quick following).
Besides its softer, rounder and more imposing looks, what really stands out about the pack-leading new 3.2 4x4 diesel is its steam train grunt. With 147kW and 470Nm on tap from as low down as 1750rpm, this beast feels as though there is no obstacle it can't attack, chew and spit out before breakfast.
Our long launch drive in KZN's northern region took us over a variety of road conditions, varying from fast and smooth motorways to pot-holed back roads, gravel tracks as well as bush and thick sand paths, all of which the big diesel took in its stride.
Although its price tag of R462 210 is by no means in the bargain basement sale category, this model is the showpiece of the leisure-pleasure appeal of the BT-50s models, all of which are now longer, wider, higher, and have roomier cabins and a larger load capacity than the outgoing range.
A model for everyone
The new BVT-50 range consists of 17 models with engines choices between a 2.2 and 3.2-diesel derivatives and a 2.5 petrol version, mated to five- or six-speed manual transmissions or a six-speed auto box. Prices start at R190 330 and escalate to R462 210 and buyers have the choice of a single cab, double cab or a freestyle cab.
Fittings, fixtures and smart trim vary according to model and price and the only optional extras (on the models that don't come standard with it) are air-conditioning and a different differential at R10 870 for both or R7250 for the aircon only.
All the knobs, switches, gauges and dials are logically placed and clearly marked in a simple black and silver environment.
To illustrate the high level of specification in the latest range, the model we were driving comes standard with dual zone auto aircon, cruise control, steering wheel mounted audio controls, power mirrors and windows, auxiliary jack and USB/iPod, Bluetooth voice control, multi-function display, leather seat, adjustable driver seat, remote keyless entry, exterior temperature display, rear parking assist and a heavy-duty tow bar, 4x4 electronic shift on the fly, 17-inch alloys, a host of airbags, ABS, EBD with ESP/DSC, Emergency brake Assist, Brake Override System, Load Adaptive Control, Trailer Sway Mitigation, Roll Over Mitigation, Hill Launch and Descent Control.
In addition to the big diesel Mazda also offers a 2.2 common rail direct-injection power plant in two versions - an 88kW/285Nm model and a 110kW/375Nm version.
Just one petrol option
The only petrol option is a 2.5 four-cylinder DOHC power plant with an output of 122kW and 225Nm, which is only available with a five-speed manual, just like the 2.2 diesel derivative.
In terms of ride and roadholding the BT-50, like many other new bakkie brands, has a ride that is almost as good as that of a mid-range passenger car and it handles not unlike an average SUV - which, for a bakkie, is good.
The BT-50's cabin is well insulated and spacious and the backseat passenger comfort has certainly improved although the seatbacks are probably still a little too upright for comfort on long drives, particularly on non-tar terrain.
Subtle changes up front has meant a larger passenger seat and a more form-hugging driver's seat which certainly makes it easier to find a comfortable driving position. Headroom and legroom is now also more generous throughout the cabin.
The general look and feel of the cabin is relatively intuitive with all the knobs, switches, gauges and dials logically placed and clearly marked in a simple black and silver environment.
From the outside the bakkies have strong hints of Mazda passenger cars, particularly noticeable in the design of the grille and headlamps. The sides of the new vehicles are nicely tapered although the excessively bulging and sharply sculpted front wheel-arches might not be to everybody's taste.
No lock on the tailgate? In SA?
Because of its high ride, the gaps between wheels and body are big when the vehicle is not carrying a full load so that it makes the wheels, particularly the front set, look almost too small for the body. The rear lights are large, silver-framed and quite striking although whether they are really practical and durable enough to withstand the odd bump and bash during loading process is questionable. Some prospective buyers are also likely to be disappointed that the tailgate doesn't have a lock.
No lock for the tailgate?
But niggles aside, the regenerated BT-50, with all its special pluses such as excellent all-round visibility, extensive range of safety and luxury features, gutsy power output, comfortable ride, good load-hauling capacity and a wide range of passenger comfort and safety features, has become a much more attractive option in the fast-growing and fiercely competitive bakkie market.
All the new range of BT-50 models, which is made up of six single cabs, five freestyle cabs and six double cabs, come standard with a price-inclusive four-year/120 000 km manufacturer warranty and a five-year/90 000km service plan.
Bizcommunity.com motoring editor Henrie Geyser () has worked as a journalist in Cape Town, London and Windhoek for the Argus Company (now Independent Newspapers) and spent 12 years at The Cape Argus in Cape Town. He then owned and ran a public relations consultancy for 13 years. He joined the online publishing industry through iafrica.com, where he worked for five years as news editor and editor. He now freelances for a variety of print and online publications, on the subjects of cars, food and travel, among others; and is a member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.
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