Cullinan, Gauteng - Bringing a bakkie to a market where the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger dominate sales is no easy feat.
Not only because the aforementioned bakkies are ruling conversations around the braai, but South Africa’s current economic climate limits consumers' choices, especially imported vehicles.
So, then, it is imperative for manufacturers that when they launch a bakkie in SA, the vehicle needs to offer something unique. It's this quality that Mazda aims to bring to the fore with its enhanced BT-50.
For those keeping tabs on the bakkie market, the BT-50 is not a new model; it’s the same vehicle that was launched in SA back in 2012 though with tweaks. Against the market leaders the previous version was lagging in terms of ride quality, refinement and features.
With the latest BT-50, Mazda has equipped the bakkie with technology that should make it a good proposition in SA's fiercely-contested bakkie market. The kicker, of course, is that the Mazda comes to market, on average, cheaper than the rest of the field. Cheaper, yes, but without sacrificing technologies that have become “compulsory” in recent years.
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Depending on the model you choose, prospective owners can expect - from a long list of standard spec - a multi-function steering wheel, rear view camera, parking sensors, rain sensing wipers, trailer sway mitigation, hill descent control and an electrically operated driver’s seat with lumbar support.
Although the bakkie does have a slightly redesigned front, new headlights, oval sidebars and black trim around the tail lights to give it a fresher look and appearance, the interior is not very different to that of the outgoing bakkie. Hard-touch plastic adorns most of the facia and door covers, but soft-touch leather is sparsely used next to the front door handles. This is not to say that the entire cabin should have been festooned in leather for an upmarket, premium feel but rather that the exterior’s ‘freshness’ would have been complimented by a more leisurely feel. Of course, given Mazda’s position as a lifestyle bakkie, it can be understood why the choice of materials have been used.
Watch our BT-50 launch drive video below:
Engine and gearboxes
The BT-50 and Ford Ranger share much of the same components, including engines and gearboxes. The 3.2-litre diesel engine (147kW/470Nm) has been carried over from the Ranger, as well as the 2.2-litre diesel unit. But when Ford introduced the facelift Ranger in 2015, it increased the 2.2’s power from 110kW/375Nm to 118kW/385Nm. The Mazda, though, still uses the ‘older’ spec unit. Both engines are mated to six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, but only the 3.2-litre is available in 4x4.
READ: Bakkie review - Is the Ford Ranger’s new auto’ box worth it?
Mazda SA also revealed that from 2018 onwards, the automaker will go into partnership with Isuzu. This means that the BT-50 and KB double cab will share the same underpinnings, components and drivetrains. The first products of the new bakkie alliance will go on sale in 2020. MSA did note that at this stage information on the new alliance is scarce and that it is all they know.
On the open road
There is a definite enjoyment to the BT-50’s ride quality. The manner in which the bakkie dispatches bumps and road imperfections has been improved. The seats, as well, are comfortable and complement the bakkie’s suspension setup, but the Mazda is still based on the underpinnings of the previous model. Though suspension settings are pleasant, the bakkie still feels like, well… a bakkie. It steers more easily now, but still has some lean into corners. It is not difficult to manoeuvre the vehicle, but there is not a sense that it can be done with minimal effort. Despite the weighty issue, the bakkie holds its own on the road. It marches forth with urgency, especially in 3.2-litre guise, which is definitely a plus when the family goes on holiday.
At the launch I only sampled the automatic gearbox in both engine choices. The ‘boxes are not bad, but even when driving at the legal speed limit it cogged down to fifth and back to sixth at the slightest dab of the right foot. This is, of course, not an issue when cruise control is activated, but the manual gearbox’s application will not have this problem. The issue with the cogging gearbox can be attributed to the aged design of the mechanisms shared with Ford previously, but it will not deter from what is, overall, an enjoyable ride.
The off-road driving also did not catch the Mazda off-guard and the 4x4 derivatives managed to scale and overcome obstacles with relative ease. From driving up inclines, conquering hole-infested paths and balancing on logs, the BT-50 proved capable for when the going got tough.
The BT-50 in SA
A few years ago the BT-50 was Mazda’s top seller, the primary vehicle around which everything revolved. Things have changed, however, and in 2016 the bakkie made up a third of Mazda SA’s sales. Not only that, but it fell by the wayside as the Ranger and Hilux ran away with sales. Because of this, the BT-50’s future in SA was not secured and at one point the facelift almost did not come here. But MSA convinced the Japenese bosses that the BT-50 is important for the SA market.
Mazda realises that it will not sell as many units per month as the Ranger and Hilux, but it wants to position itself as an alternative to what is currently on offer. It is also why the automaker decided to drastically cut the line-up from 47 model options to only five.
READ: New bakkie sales - Ranger outsells Hilux in January
But is the BT-50 a viable option for Mazda SA? Given that the automaker aims to sell between 80-100 units per month, its goal of positioning the bakkie as a premium alternative to the market leaders is not an outlandish target. Only time will tell whether or not Mazda’s gamble to bring the bakkie to SA will pay off, but for now it’s clear that the bakkie wars just got interesting. Again!
Pricing and warranty
The below prices include a three-year / unlimited km warranty, a three-year / unlimited km service plan and three-year roadside assistance.
• BT-50 2.2L 6MT 4X2 SLX R441 600Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond
• BT-50 2.2L 6MT 4X2 SLE R477 700
• BT-50 2.2L 6AT 4X2 SLE R497 700
• BT-50 3.2L 6MT 4X4 SLE R541 700
• BT-50 3.2L 6AT 4X4 SLE R555 700