Mazda BT-50 6-speed Manual: Strictly for the Young

By Lee Pang Seng
THE latest Mazda BT-50 signals a departure from its earlier link to the Ford Ranger when there was a shared development process. This comes mainly in the body design although the engine appears to be similar to that in the current Ranger. Likewise, the model options available in the 2.2-litre and 3.2-litre are the same.

Striking out on its own as a Mazda, the BT-50 draws its appeal in the completely different front end, keeping closely to the family styling currently employed, especially in the grille design. A comparison of the vehicle dimensions would probably show some similarities too but there is no denying that the BT-50 stamps its individuality clearly. For sure, you can’t mistake it for any other vehicle but a Mazda.

We had a weekend with the BT-50, though woefully it was a six-speed manual transmission model. We would have looked forward to driving it when we were younger but having last owned a manual transmission car in the early 1990s, we no longer had the passion for doing a lot of physical work – both leg and hand - just to select the gears.

Moreover, it was a turbodiesel with variable geometry feed and it wasn’t a vehicle you could try for some driving fun with heel-and-toe through winding stretches. This was a pick-up, albeit promoted as an ‘active lifestyle vehicle’, that was best for taking to off-road terrain and enjoying its ‘prowess’ there. (The BT-50 came with more than 30,000km on the clock and a fair share of body scrapes and dents, an obvious sign of the rough and tumble terrain that it was put through in earlier media drives.)

We were looking more towards its ‘lifestyle’ aspect in the urban traffic conditions and had the ‘pleasure’ of reliving the good old days of manual ‘crawling’ along some heavy traffic areas, like Cheras for instance, at peak hours. Thankfully, the clutch was not heavy although there was one gear too many in the six-speed transmission.

We had to familiarise ourselves with such manual characteristics as its springloaded return to the third-fourth plane when you go to neutral and having to push the shift either left or right for the respective gears. Even so, we slotted the shift into the wrong gear a few times initially, leading to the engine sputtering trying to muster enough torque to proceed. The engine died on us once as we were trying to get moving in third gear. Thankfully, we could start the engine quickly and proceed after a momentary stalling.

Once we got back to speed, we could enjoy the positive engagements of the efficient manual transmission and the average travel between the gears. On the go, a green light shows up on the tachometer to the left of the instrument binnacle that prompts you to upshift. It is probably to guide the driver to the best engine speed for good fuel economy.

The 2.2-litre common-rail turbodiesel engine was not the SkyActiv unit that we had expected. Its similarity to the unit in the Ranger showed up again in the similar output of 110kW (150bhp) at 3700rpm and 375Nm from 1500 to 2500rpm. Though there is a lot of torque peaking from 1500rpm, it didn’t mean we could hold second gear and try to get a move on by slipping the clutch and easing a bit more on the accelerator pedal after paying toll with the card. We were more comfortable selecting first and picking up the pace strongly from there. That meant we had to upshift five times quite quickly before cruising at 110km/h (when the engine turned real lazy at about 2100rpm).

When you have to move a vehicle that weighs just above two tonnes, you just need all the muscle that is available to get moving. We could feel its weight when moseying in urban traffic (something that we hadn’t notice before in other pick-ups with automatic transmissions) but we like the sudden burst of power, which was typically a turbocharged scenario, when we had the opportunity to open up.

We could easily move along at 160km/h although the wind noise rose noticeably from 140km/h. Cruising at legal speeds, the wind noise is low enough to hold conversations at normal tones or enjoy the music without turning up the volume. The road noise picked up by the dual-purpose tyres was within expectations for such a vehicle and could almost match that of the SUVs.

For the winding stretches, the BT-50 was clearly an understeerer and we could feel the Mazda pick-up wanting to go straight quite early on. The strong torque kept the BT-50 from straying too much at fairly quick speeds and the anti-roll bars were thick enough to keep the body from leaning any more than necessary.

Ride-wise, the leafspring rear didn’t endear the BT-50 to my family members especially over the bumpy stretches in my area. By comparison, the ride was still much better than that of earlier pick-ups as road impacts were absorbed to a good degree. It was the stiffness that made the ride a bit jolting, especially at the rear. This is the area that SUVs clearly score higher marks with a rear suspension that offers a more comfortable ride.

While the Mazda BT-50 didn’t come with a rear camera to aid reversing (especially to watch out for kids playing close at hand), there was this graphic display on the rather small display screen tucked into a niche on top of the dashboard. It indicates proximity to any barrier at three points through the mounted sensors.

The manual models come in two versions, Mid Spec and High Spec, with the latter having 17-inch alloy wheels, audio system with voice command and Bluetooth, and leather wrapped steering wheel. There is a difference of almost RM7000 in price at RM80,528.40 and RM87,328.40 respectively. The 2.2-litre 6-speed automatic model, which would have been much more to our liking, is obviously High Spec in fittings and commands a price of RM92,883.40.

Photo Gallery