Driven: High-tech new Mazda BT-50

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IOL mot pic aug16 Mazda BT-50 1

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New BT-50 has more modern and swoopy lines than its boxy predecessor.

Mazda has launched its new-generation BT-50 bakkie in South Africa, hoping to win over new buyers in an intensely-competitive segment.

Traditionally somewhat of a niche seller in the local one-ton market, Mazda's modern new BT-50 is in a position to attract neutral customers away from ever-popular (but now long-in-tooth) rivals like the Toyota Hilux and Isuzu KB - although that's easier said than done in a market where intense brand loyalties prevail.

Larger and more luxurious than before, with some powerful new engines making their debut, the locally-built BT-50 comes in a vast 17-model range that includes Single Cab workhorses, Double Cab adventure vehicles, and something in-between in the form of the Freestyle Cab (cab-and-a-half).

SWOOPY LINES

The Mazda's underpinnings are based on the recently-launched Ford Ranger but the exterior panels were independently designed and the two bakkies have only the windscreen, roof, and rear screen in common.

Where the Ranger looks like a beefed-up American muscle truck ready to rumble, the Mazda's design is softer and more high-tech. It has more modern and swoopy lines than its boxy predecessor, with unusual wraparound tail lights that would seem more at home on a Tokyo boy-racer's car than a bakkie.

IOL mot pic aug16 Mazda BT-50 2

Unique tail light styling might not appeal to everyone.

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All body types have grown in length, width and height over the outgoing BT-50, providing a roomier cabin and a larger load capacity. There are internal hooks in the load area for tying down weekend-adventure toys, as well as a lip on which to fit a tonneau cover.

The cabin has undergone a transformation in look and feel, and although the hard plastics don't quite compare with the soft-touch interior surfaces of a VW Amarok, it's a thoroughly more modern design than before. The entertainment system's joined the 21st century with most of the Freestyle Cab and Double Cab derivatives equipped with a radio, MP3-compatible CD player and AUX/USB sockets as standard, while top models get a multi function display integrated into the top of the dashboard.

A BEAUT OF AN ENGINE

The 3.2 turbodiesel Double Cab, the only version I drove on last week's Mazda BT-50 media launch in KwaZulu-Natal, has a beaut of an engine. It's a powerhouse with loads of low-revving lusty torque, and operates with a soft murmur that won't conjure any tractor jokes. This top of the range in-line five-cylinder engine replaces the former three-litre diesel, with outputs significantly increased from 115kW/380Nm to 147kW/470Nm. A 3350kg towing capacity is testament to the 3.2 Mazda's strength.

The manual gearshift (six-speed in this version) doesn't have the most positive feel, however, and feels quite rubbery, rather than moving through its H-gate with a precise click.

Mazda also offers a new 2.2-litre turbodiesel which replaces the old 2.5. The mainstay of the range and available in all body styles, the four-cylinder 2.2 comes in two power versions offering 88kW/285Nm and 110kW/375Nm - both being more powerful than the old 2.5.

IOL mot pic aug16 Mazda BT-50 3

Latest BT-50 has enlarged passenger space and load box, and a modern new interior.

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A 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol wielding 122kW/225Nm is available in the single cab only. The all-new engine line-up is variously mated to five- and six-speed manual transmissions and a six-speed automatic.

The enlarged new passenger quarters are very spacious.

For adventurers seeking to explore in comfort, Mazda's new Double Cab will make a happy partner, with plenty of head- and leg-room - and this has been achieved without cheating by shortening the rear-seat cushion as with earlier double cabs.

Our launch route included some mild off-roading in the soft sand near KwaZulu-Natal's Lake Sibaya and the 4x4 version I drove handled it all without a hiccup. All-wheel drive versions should be capable of hardcore bundu bashing as they're equipped with all the necessary tricks including shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive with low range (a simple rotary switch replaces the previous gear lever), a rear diff-lock, hill-descent control and a generous ground clearance (between 232 and 237mm depending on derivative).

On the road the BT-50 has the typically somewhat bouncy ride characteristic of any bakkie with a solid axle and leaf springs at the rear - but should smoothen out with a load in the back.

Except for the rubbery gearshift it's quite a pleasure to drive and impressively refined, while comforts and safety levels in the range-topping SLE version I drove are commensurate with the hefty R462 210 price-tag. These include stability control, automatic aircon, Bluetooth voice control, cruise control, and leather seats, among others. All versions of the BT-50 are equipped with central locking, trip computer, airbags (between two and six depending on model), and ABS brakes.

All are sold with a four-year or 120 000km warranty, three-years' roadside assistance, and five-year or 90 000km service plan. - Star Motoring

PRICES:

Single Cab

2.5 MZI SL LR 5MT 4x2 S/Cab Petrol - R190 330

2.5 MZI SL LR 5MT 4x4 S/Cab Petrol - R228 070

2.2 MZ-CD SL LR 5MT 4x2 S/Cab Diesel - R200 330

2.2 MZ-CD (High Power) SLX 6MT 4x2 S/Cab Diesel - R266 020

3.2 MZ-CD SLX 6MT 4x2 S/Cab Diesel - R306 920

3.2 MZ-CD SLX 6MT 4x4 S/Cab Diesel - R354 200

Freestyle Cab

2.2 MZ-CD SLX 5MT 4x2 F/Cab Diesel - R231 950

2.2 (High Power) MZ-CD SLX 6MT 4x2 F/Cab Diesel - R286 420

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6MT 4x2 F/Cab Diesel - R351 650

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6AT 4x2 F/Cab Diesel - R362 970

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6MT 4x4 F/Cab Diesel - R398970

Double Cab

2.2 (High Power) MZ-CD SLX 6MT 4x2 D/Cab Diesel - R340 480

2.2 (High Power) MZ-CD SLE 6MT 4x2 D/Cab Diesel - R372 760

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6MT 4x2 D/Cab Diesel - R403 560

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6AT 4x2 D/Cab Diesel - R414 890

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6MT 4x4 D/Cab Diesel - R450 890

3.2 MZ-CD SLE 6AT 4x4 D/Cab Diesel - R462 210

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