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Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 review

By James Secher | Photos by Adam Pirozzo and Shane Miles, 14 Apr 2017 Custom 4x4s

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT 50 review cover

MSA 4x4’s Shane Miles took his BT-50 for a hard-core workout in the Cape – and then showed us the beast, inside and out

Shane Miles from MSA 4x4 doesn’t do anything by half. Before we had a chance to organise a shoot with him and check out the latest MSA 4x4 company vehicle – a 2012 Mazda BT-50 – Shane and his kids were already on their way to Cape York in it. He had only just finished the modifications to his brand-new tourer the night before.

This article was originally published in the June 2013 issue of 4X4 Australia.

Shane’s passion for four-wheel driving was ignited in the 1970s when he was riding shotgun in his dad’s Land Rovers. This early exposure led to Shane eventually owning a range of four-wheel drives – a Mazda Bravo, an award-winning 75 Series Troopie, an ML Triton, a GU Patrol and a Colorado.

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 rear'Few of those vehicles stayed standard for long. Shane put them through their paces to see where he believed they could be improved and then he set about improving them. His enthusiasm for enhancing his 4X4s’ capabilities over the years – and his desire to always look for a more effective way of doing things – led him to start designing his own products. This output was to, as Shane puts it, “either fill a void in the market or better an existing product”. Shane began selling these products under his own brand, MSA 4x4, in 2000. Originally called Michelle’s Sacs, this company took on its current name six years ago.

With extensive modifications, the BT-50 made it to the Cape and back on last year’s September 14 to 30 trip. Shane gave the Cape a good nudge, pushing the BT-50 to its very limits – and he has stacks of photos to prove it. (Some of them are here in this feature.)

mazda bt-50The BT-50 was driven along extreme tracks, including the Palmer River goldfield and down Old Telegraph Track. It took on countless water crossings – wet stuff frequently gushed over the bonnet – and deep-rutted tracks that required a lot of track building. The BT-50 was also winched up steep river banks.

The Cape York line-up included the BT-50, and another MSA 4x4 company vehicle, a Series IV Nissan Patrol. Shane reckons that over the years he has always upgraded his vehicles to match travel requirements and company needs. He ranks the BT-50 as his favourite so far.

“The set-up is awesome, I have had a lot of touring 4X4s and, honestly, a dual-cab ute I really think is the way to go with a lot of cab room, comfortable features and a lot of easily accessible rear storage, load-carrying capacity, towing ability and straight out performance. It really has the best
of everything.

mazda bt-50 suspension“This is the first BT-50 I have owned and I really do love it. After what it was just put through [the Cape and back] it really is a very, very tough ute with a very good level of comfort and safety. “We had the car three days before it went off to have its Cooper tyres fitted and then it didn’t stop from there. Within four weeks everything was fitted, finishing the night before we left for the first big outing to the Cape.”

The BT-50 received a suspension lift via Old Man Emu (OME) 600kg rear springs, OME front coil springs and OME Nitrocharger Sport shocks to soak up the Cape’s worst corrugations. These have excellent load-carrying ability and great wheel travel on badly rutted tracks. The suspension and tyres are a great combo. “After the Cape trip, a set of Airbag Man airbags were fitted in the rear for assistance in towing.

“Being able to stiffen up the rear end under load is extremely handy and reduces sag when the tray is fully loaded and the BT-50 is towing our 1900kg boat.”
A set of 33-inch Cooper ST Maxx 285/70R17 tyres were fitted for the trip. “Over the years we have used a hell of a lot of tyre brands on the market and have never found a tyre that can better or even come close to matching these Coopers for traction, puncture-resistance in crap terrain and ability to hang on to the worst of our dirt roads and corrugations at cruising speed.”

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 offroad drivingThe Coopers handled the trip to the Cape with ease and without a single puncture, Shane reckons. “Having a business where you are constantly out touring and testing products along the way, it is imperative that frontal and side protection are installed on the vehicle, it is [of] paramount [importance] to keep the BT-50 in good nick and safe from wildlife.”

For this reason Shane fitted a colour-coded ARB Deluxe winch bar, steel side-steps with side protection rails. “Because they do a damn good job,” he says. “The side protection rails cop a ton of abuse when doing some serious off-roading and do a great job to protect the guards, especially in badly rutted terrain.”

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 winchingOn a 4X4 Australia’s Advertisers’ Weekend with Shane and Chris, it quickly became obvious that the MSA 4x4 lads like to give the hardest way around a red-hot go, so having a winch set-up is handy to keep him out of trouble. Shane opted for a Warn 9.5 XP, fitted with Warn synthetic winch rope. “These winches just pull so damn hard without ever failing, especially when you need it most, you know it will work. The synthetic rope is very safe and so much easier to handle than steel cable.”

A set of Britax HID lights by TJM lights are positioned on the bar. “They give an awesome light output which is very useable, it’s no use having sketchy light for two kilometres, because I can’t see that far anyway.

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 lightsThese lights came in very handy at the Cape on several occasions after the planned days drive quickly turned into night drives to get to a station. “These lights are extremely strong and boast an easily adjustable mount system.” 

Shane opted for a recent product from TJM’s range, the company’s rear-step tow bar. “It is very tough and has two step heights to make easier access into the rear of the ute and looks awesome too.” “As a bonus, it allows for a 33-inch spare to be fitted in its original location under the rear of the tray unlike some other rear bars.” Up close, the finish on this bar is spot-on and looks the business with a MSA 4x4 decal as background.

tow bar“The BT-50 comes standard with a driver-activated rear locker and it works really well. Believe me, I have used this thing a lot already,” Shane says. ARB has just released a part number for a front locker so as soon as this is available Shane will install it.

On the Cape trip Shane tested the BT-50’s fording ability through numerous water crossings, and the BT-50 prevailed, armed as it was with a Mazda genuine snorkel and protected by a MSA 4x4’s water bra. Shane says the Mazda genuine snorkel looks good and works well. And, with the set up of a water bra plus a good measure of tape in the doors, he’s given every water crossing a go. And, so far, he’s kept his feet dry.

kids sitting on roofUp top, Shane has a custom aluminium roof-rack designed to keep within the roof-lines and short enough for the Kimberley Mycube roof-top tent to be mounted on the Flexiglass canopy. The canopy has slam-shut rear door and windows, central locking hooked into the vehicle’s remote locking system, LED lighting, good load-carrying ability as standard and is fully lined internally. The canopy has no need for an internal support system to support a roof-top tent either, saving space and weight.

Shane says he chose the Mycube as it packs away lower and shorter than any other tent on the market and sits in well with the BT-50’s roof-line. It is easy to set up and pack up, has LED internal and external lighting, a tropical roof to keep it cool, loads of ventilation and an optional bed warmer.

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 engineThis BT-50 has a triple battery set-up; starting battery in the factory position, two rear-mounted auxiliary batteries in the rear tray beside the roller drawers. These are charged via a Redarc 12-volt DC-DC charger specially programmed for the BT-50. The car also has a Redarc 200 amp solenoid to join the three batteries for winching, activated by a switch in the cab.

The two auxiliary batteries are 120-amp hour Ultimate batteries, which can handle endless discharges and also work well to winch when needed. There is a Baintech 12-volt monitor and Baintech 12 outlet fuse panel installed with a Baintech low-voltage cut-out to protect the system. The system also has a 240-volt Ctek M300 charger, which does an awesome job keeping the big batteries “conditioned”, Shane reckons. All of this has been fitted in and around a set of ARB Outback System drawers.

All this juice is needed to run the endless amount of gadgets in the BT-50. There are various Baintech 12-volt and USB/iPad outlets and Baintech panels scattered about the car.
“These are just awesome looking pieces, they look like they are meant to be there.”

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 drawersHe customised the ARB drawers with a “Shane special” wing kit to allow an ARB maximum-performance twin-motor compressor to sit mounted to the side of the drawers. There is a solenoid and two batteries mounted in the tray beside the drawers. There is a 48-litre poly-water tank, carpeted and mounted in front of the drawers, hooked up to 12-volt Shurflow water pump, with switch and water outlet mounted on the left-hand-side drawer fascia panel.
An ARB 60-litre fridge is positioned atop the ARB drawers.

“It’s just a very good fridge packed with every feature I need,” Shane says. The 60-litre fridge’s footprint is longer and skinnier than others and suits the drawer and canopy set-up. “With ARB fridges you never wake up to a fridge that is temperamental and has slept or frozen overnight,” he says. 

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 custom frdige set-up“Running on the two auxiliary batteries and after its maximum stationary period so far without being charged, of four days in 30°C heat, the battery monitor registered 12.6 volts (about 50 percent discharge) and a constant 1°C on the fridge temperature panel. Pretty damn good.” The fridge is accessed by a MSA 4x4 DS50 drop slide. This well-designed fridge slide is another MSA 4X4 original design – it allows the fridge to fully slide out and then drop to waist height so the user can easily access the fridge’s contents.

Communication with other travellers in your touring group on long trips is essential – this has been taken care of with a GME UHF radio and antenna, fitted with a windscreen-mounted GME external speaker. “We also carry two GME five-watt hand-held radios in the cab, used for recovery operations, to communicate with a spotter and for children’s amusement purposes at camp.”

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 interiorA Hema Navigator HN6 is mounted to the windscreen. “Hema have obviously been down every piece of dirt track in this country. There has never been a bit of track I haven’t been able to find on Navigator 6. “I also use an iPad with OziExplorer installed for a bigger screen and easier-to-use navigation. It is mounted to a RAM mount. These mounts come from the US, they are a perfect fit and do not move or vibrate.”

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 fridgeWhile on the shoot with Shane, 4X4 Australia was given the opportunity to check out a new bit of MSA 4x4 kit. It’s a fridge barrier system – essentially a cage around a fridge designed to protect it but still allow the fridge to easily slide out. It also aims to maximise space by storing items above and beside the fridge without affecting travellers’ access to what’s inside of it. The fridge barrier system can be easily removed and flat-packed. (Keep reading 4X4 Australia for more on this exciting product.)

Running a company that relies on him to design and create new products can be as exciting as it is challenging, but Shane’s passion for the bush and innovation makes it a labour of love. “I throw as much abuse at our potential products as possible, my biggest nightmare would be to ruin someone’s holiday after they paid money for a quality product,” he says. 

“As long as we live by this quality and standard, our products at MSA 4x4 will always stand up.”

Custom MSA 4x4 Mazda BT-50 camper

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