Tow test: Mazda BT-50 XT-R ute

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Mazda BT50 with bullbar Decent styling means the BT-50 no longer looks like it’s wearing grandma’s glasses Mazda BT50 with bullbar
Mazda BT50 rear shot It has the longest wheelbase in its class, which makes for a much more stable vehicle under load Mazda BT50 rear shot

Matt Wood puts a Mazda BT-50 XT-R ute to the test while towing a mini-modified pull tractor on the Mallee’s back roads


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The town of Boort in regional Victoria would have to be one of the few places in Australia where you can wake to the sound of gunfire and not think that you are about to be the victim of a home invasion.

However, my sleep-addled and rather disoriented brain didn’t really compute this as I instinctively dived to the floor and rolled under the bed.

It took a couple of seconds for my senses to catch up with the fact that I was rolling around in the dust bunnies for no real reason as what sounded like an artillery barrage rattled the windows of my hotel room.

Clearly I’m hero material.

It was, of course, actually the start of duck hunting season. Once I realised this I managed to extract myself from what turned out to be an alarmingly narrow space under the bed.

The dust bunnies, however, persisted, clinging to my exposed skin, and a glance in the mirror revealed a visage not unlike that of a Wookie with mange. With the adrenaline from my rude awakening now fading, it was clearly time to hit the shower.

In the past I’ve devoted quite a few unkind words to describing the styling of the Mazda BT-50. I’ve even indicated it’s something of a value proposition for those who don’t really care what their ute looks like. A purely function-over-form decision.

Well, during the previous evening, the guys outside the Railway Hotel in Boort seemed to disagree. In fact, a couple even used bad words in my direction. In the face of such vehement opposition I have to admit that I was forced to see the Mazda ute in a different light.

(This new appreciation for the BT-50 may or may not have had something to do with the proliferation of firearms within the town limits.)

Mazda BT50 with tractor and trailer
The Mazda BT-50 XT-R ute with Jobbo’s pull tractor adding a bit of towing weight

 

Not too shabby

Sure, the BT-50 isn’t new. This current generation shares its platform with the Ford Ranger, which must smart a bit for the Zoom-Zoom company.

For over three decades, Ford was dependent on Mazda for its commercial vehicle platforms. The one time that Mazda uses the Ford platform it’s left looking dowdy, while the Ranger looks set to dominate the ute market locally. 

This particular BT-50 XT-R, I have to admit, doesn’t look half bad. The addition of the blacked-out bar, light-force driving lights and the blacked-out fake beadlock 17-inch rims does give this Mazda a tougher, more purposeful look. Early bar work for the BT-50 tended to make it look like it was wearing grandma’s glasses.

 

On the road

I’d stopped overnight in Boort en route to Quambatook – the reason being that I was going to be picking up a mini-modified pull tractor to take to the Diesel and Dirt Derby in Keith, South Australia. (You can read my story on that at http://bit.ly/TradeFarmpull2)

I reckoned this was going to be the perfect opportunity to test the towing capabilities of the BT-50 on something other than a national highway.

The 550hp mini-modified tractor plus trailer, plus race fuel, tools and spares tipped the scales at just over two tonnes. Even though the current crop of 4x4 utes all claim towing capacities of over three tonnes, I still reckon they’re not the ideal choice for heavy towing.

Two tonnes, however, is just about spot on. At this weight you don’t have to worry about exceeding GCM, axle loadings, how many passengers you can carry, or the weight of any accessories.

The fact remains that these are still relatively light utes, not a light truck. The laws of physics still prevail regardless of what the marketing hype says.

That said, the BT-50/Ranger platform does have one significant advantage over the competition. It has the longest wheelbase in its class, which makes for a much more stable vehicle under load.

Without much ado I picked up the tractor, trailer and the tractor’s owner, Jobbo, for the haul to South Australia.

These Mallee back roads are a good test of any vehicle, loaded or otherwise. They take a pounding from heavy grain harvest traffic and feature massive potholes, steep cambers, broken edges and multilayer patches in the road surface.

The Mazda’s 3.2-litre, 147kW (197hp)/470Nm, 5-cylinder diesel was, and still is, a cracking unit in a little truck like this.

Its competitors have all upped the output for their updated platforms to match what has become a segment benchmark. However, they all use 4-cylinder engines and, in my opinion, there’s no substitute for cubic inches when it comes to towing.

This engine just has a greater reciprocal mass than competing 4-bangers, which makes it smoother and less stressed under load.

Regardless of the injection pressures and the amount of turbochargers you throw at an engine, you still can’t go past engine capacity for towing.

This engine is unstressed when under load, and the bigger lump of iron under the bonnet allows for smoother power delivery and engine braking.

With this load on, you can manually drop back a cog and the engine’s displacement will help slow you down. This saves wear and tear on the brakes of both the tow vehicle and the trailer. It also makes it easier to drive. 

As with the bulk of these utes, my BT featured a 6-speed auto that handled the load easily. It smoothly upshifted and downshifted and I rarely had to intervene.

But the standout of the BT on a long trip under load was how it handled. The Mazda took these crappy back roads in its stride. We’d made sure the load was secure and well balanced, which also helps, but this platform is great for eating up a mile at this weight.

We were easily able to maintain the speed limit and even overtake slower traffic without any issues at all. It remained composed, comfortable and easily controlled on the broken back roads.

And fuel economy wasn’t too shabby either, averaging 14.5L/100km.

 

Mazda BT50 with Porsche Carrera 911
It doubled well as a camera car. And no, it didn’t keep up with the Porsche

Well mannered

After a huge day at the tractor pull, it was a blessed relief to climb behind the wheel of the BT-50 and point it in the direction of home. Even after a hard day hauling a load at the track, the Mazda was a relaxing drive home.

As the Ranger has become plusher it’s scored electric steering, a new fuel injection system and low-inertia turbocharging. This makes the driveline in the Mazda seem a little old-school.

However, I actually prefer the BT-50’s road manners when off the main roads. The more traditional hydraulic steering of the BT feels more solid and dependable and has more feel in the rough stuff.

I think the Mazda actually handles better under load than the Ford it’s inevitably compared to.

In all, over an eight-day period I clocked up 3500km behind the wheel of the Mazda BT-50, with plenty of loaded and unladen kilometres.

We towed a tractor and used it as a camera car for a Wheels mag photo shoot in the Victorian high country. I even attempted (and failed) to keep up with a Porsche 911 on a mountain road. And it copped everything we threw at it.

As I regarded the setting sun on the shores of Little Lake Boort with distant gunfire echoing off the trees, I had to admit that maybe I’ve been a harsh on the Mazda in the past. There and then I resolved to be a kinder, less judgmental person in the future, at least while there are people with guns around.

 

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