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QUICK TEST: Mazda BT-50 2.2 DC 4x2 SLE
No point in beating around the bushes here - the Mazda BT-50 is a pleasure to drive, by bakkie standards.
Not that I would have expected anything less, considering that it's so closely based on the latest Ford Ranger.
The ride is very compliant (once again, for a bakkie) and inside the noise, vibration and harshness levels are impressively low. I also enjoyed the slick and effortless feel of the clutch and short-throw gearshift, and the fact that the steering gives you an idea of what the wheels are doing.
Cruising ability is another strong point, which I found out after subjecting a 2.2-litre diesel 4x2 model to a road trip.
Its 110kW/375Nm engine provided effortless performance on the round trip between Gauteng and the coast, two-up and with some luggage and heavy toolboxes in the back. Given this vehicle's relatively modest outputs (relative to its size and 1963kg kerb weight), I suspected that it might struggle up the hills, but the Mazda's motor never felt like it was running out of breath. It's a good, solid and comfortable cruiser.
Granted, the performance it provides is more adequate than outright brisk, but then there is always that 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel option (147kW/470Nm) for those willing to splash out an extra R30 000.
But what does the Mazda offer that the Ford doesn't?
The interior is a good place to start. If you opt for the SLE, you receive a higher spec level than you can get in a 2.2 Ranger. This means you don't have to buy the 3.2 to get things like climate control, cruise control, multifunction steering wheel and leather seats.
If I'm to nitpick, I also feel the BT-50's dashboard is easier on the eye. Though the surfaces are still hard, the design follows in the footsteps of the Mazda6 - ultimately making you feel like you're in a car rather than in a bakkie.
It's clear that Ford and Mazda put much effort into conceiving non-identical twins, and this also applies to the exterior styling.
Which brings us to the big elephant in the room.
While the Ranger has won acclaim for its butch, truck-like design, the Mazda's softer and more car-like front and rear design has drawn criticism from many fronts.
As for those taillights that extend onto the tailgate, I'm really battling to imagine how they thought that was a good idea.
Expensive it may be, but the Mazda BT-50 2.2 SLE is a brilliant bakkie in almost every respect. Then again, so is its Ford twin. I'd take the Ford because I prefer the way it looks but if the Mazda's styling has grown on you and you want a higher-spec 2.2 then there's no real reason to overlook the Japanese badge.
Mazda BT-50 2.2 DC SLE (110kW) - R368 520
Ford Ranger 2.2 DC XLS (110kW) - R339 270
GWM Steed 2.0D DC Lux (110kW) - R234 900
Isuzu KB 300D-Teq DC LX (120) - R366 900
Mitsubishi Triton 2.5 DI-D DC (100kW) - R329 990
Nissan Navara 2.5dCi DC SE (106kW) - R370 300
Ssangyong Actyon Sports 2.0D (114kW) - R289 995
Toyota Hilux 2.5 D-4D DC Raider (106kW) - R358 000
VW Amarok 2.0 BiTDI DC Highline (132kW) - R384 500