STYLING aside, there was a time when you could recommend Mazda’s BT-50 in the same breath as the Ford Ranger. Underneath the vastly different aesthetics, the models share a platform and major mechanicals and that meant the pair brought similar talent to the one-tonne market.
But that was 2011 and in the ensuing years both models have followed very different evolutionary paths. While Ford has built on the Ranger’s good looks and strong platform foundations, Mazda has left the latter alone and instead fussed over the styling – including a facelift earlier this year involving a new grille, squared off front bumper and other more minor cosmetic revisions.
Read next: 2018 Mazda BT-50 Range Review
There’s still shared DNA in the form of the lusty 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel which powers them both. Long the exception in a world of four-pot turbo-diesel donks, the off-key but smooth five-banger is a valuable point of difference in the market. With an extra cylinder, the engine doesn’t clatter quite as chattily and responds eagerly to the throttle with a welcome wad of low-rev torque.
Here, however, the Mazda trails off, because Ford has spent seven years revising and improving the Ranger’s heart with efficiency-gaining technologies such as idle-stop and electric (rather than the BT-50’s hydraulic) steering said to boost economy by more than 20 percent – a claim certainly not disproven on test, where the Mazda shocked us with a surprisingly poor 13.3L/100km figure, compared with the Blue Oval ute’s 10.9L/100km.
Still, handling confidence and welcome ride comfort restored our faith in the Mazda, supported by low road-noise levels (likely thanks to the tall tyre sidewalls on 17-inch rims), though – again – it wasn’t up to the same standard as the relatively supple Ranger’s. On smooth roads, the BT-50’s dynamics had us calling it a ‘driver’s truck’, with weighty steering and a surefooted chassis. The sleeper of the bunch!
Meanwhile, the simple and intuitive interior is arguably the most car-like of the line-up in its design – albeit that of a decade-old Mazda – and there’s value everywhere including the ample second-row space and knee room as well as a pleasantly supportive cushion (though non-aligned rear headrests are a curio). Out back, the Mazda’s tray is one of the better equipped, with a liner, tie-down points, illumination and a 12-volt socket for a portable fridge full of VBs.
Yet we may as well be stuck in 2011 here, because stepping into the Ford means stepping up to forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control. And while the Ranger is enhanced with the excellent Sync3 infotainment system, the BT-50 makes do with a very aftermarket-looking Alpine unit. Throw in analogue dials and a single-colour central digital display compared with the Ranger’s full-colour LCD displays, and a generation gap is beginning to open up.
Read next: 2018 Mazda BT-50 recall issued
With the Colorado and Ranger demonstrating just how much can be achieved with mid-life updates, by comparison Mazda almost seems to have given up on the BT-50. That’s a shame because in many ways it is still easy to recommend.
A combination of an excellent drivetrain and dynamics, blended with unpretentious looks has ensured the BT-50 is still battling hard in the segment, but when you park it next to its fraternal twin, it’s clear that the Mazda could be so much more.
Engine 3198cc 5cyl, dohc, 20v, TD
Power 147kW @ 3000rpm
Torque 470Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 5365/1850/1821/3220mm
Tray capacity 1082kg
Braked towing capacity 3500kg
Unbraked towing capacity 750kg
Ground clearance 237mm
Tyres Dunlop Grandtrek AT22 265/65R17
Test fuel average 13.3L/100km
Need more info?
# 9 Isuzu D-Max LS-T
Rough ’n’ ready appeal pales when polished rivals are better at going bush too
#8 Nissan Navara ST-X
Tough and reliable aren’t enough as Navara wilts on price, spec and comfort
#7 Toyota Hilux SR+
Unbreakable? Possibly. Unloveable? Sadly, yes, as mediocrity is allowed to prevail
#6 Mazda BT-50 GT
Still in the fight, but ultimately overshadowed by its high-flying fraternal twin
#5 Mitsubishi Triton Exceed
A strong and likeable mid-fielder where consistency and value are king
#4 Holden Colorado LTZ
Colorado raises its game right when Holden needs a hero
#3 Mercedes-Benz X250d
Arrives carrying great expectations; delivers only a modest load
#2 Ford Ranger XLT
Continuous improvements make the only truly Australian-conceived ute world class
#1 Volkswagen Amarok V6 Sportline
Quiet achiever doesn’t have youth on its side, but still shows how it should be done