This story begins well, gets carried away in the middle and crashes sadly at the end. But far from being a “spoiler”, I hope you will stick with me until the end to see if and why the Mazda BT-50SP is a disappointment, or not.
Let’s hold nothing back; on paper, and if you’ve been following the Isuzu hype around their current D-Maxthe BT-50 should stomp all over the Toyota HiLux And Ford Ranger – but it doesn’t – and it fails in several areas.
But just in case you missed the memo, yes, the new Mazda BT-50 is nothing more than a rebadged and reconditioned Isuzu D-Max that’s stuck (or should we say stuffed?) with all the promises from the flashy D-Max push marketing team, but maybe the engineering team didn’t think it through enough.
Now that might sound a little harsh, and it probably is, but what we’re referring to is the multitude of electronic security features that have been designed to impress and bring the D-Max and BT-50 to a whole other level.
Like many car enthusiasts and avid journalists, most car enthusiasts were first impressed by the hype surrounding the new Isuzu D-Max and for many good reasons; it brought a series of upgrades and enhancements that heralded an illusion of “listening to their customers” and went way beyond that by delivering state-of-the-art electronic security features.
The news that the new BT-50 would be based on the same platform as the D-Max also got us car enthusiasts excited, maybe a little surprised too, like the Ford Ranger (the former platform mate -shape of the BT-50) continued to go from strength to strength, but the improvements to the D-Max were substantial and enough to make many feel positive about the new BT-50 and its future.
But before we say too much, let’s return to our review and go over the good, the bad and the average of the Mazda BT-50, and what special value (or lack thereof) the SP version brings to the table.
The current incarnation of the BT-50 launched in 2020 and the SP version arrived as part of the most recent update.
From the outside, the changes translate to gray and black accents along the body that slightly improve its appearance, as well as a fender over the tub that lines up with the roofline. While there’s really nothing wrong with the looks of the stock vehicle, the cosmetic upgrades reinforce its presence.
Inside however, the changes are very effective with a two-tone leather interior blending with the window sills and dashboard to form and encompass a cockpit-like seating area that is at once warm, protective and inspiring. trust. It really seems to embrace, snuggle and protect you without causing claustrophobia or cramped feelings.
The dash is modern and sleek without being overdone, and the only two possible disappointments for me were the shade of tan to match the darker colored leather and the steering wheel finish which was light, uninspired and failing a better one. term, cheap.
But aside from those two things, I’d say the interior is one of the best in class for design, layout, appearance, styling and overall comfort – both physically and emotionally. Yes, it makes you feel warm, fuzzy, safe and protected.
Large side mirrors provide a clear view, wind and road noise are noticeably quieter than other 4x4s, the dashboard is bright and pleasant (although perhaps a little wide) and the screen between the two dials is easy to read and informative.
It is divided into two halves; the upper half being constantly illuminated with information and graphics, and the lower half reserved for warning, engine and other status lights.
Overall, the handling is good, the suspension smooth, supple and enjoyable, and the setup and operation of the vehicle is intuitive.
Cruising down city streets is comfortable and stress-free, and as good as those points are compared to other vehicles we’ve tested, that’s about where the positives end on the road.
The steering is a bit heavy at times, the hood vibrates like flimsy tin foil, the accelerator pedal is limp and offers very little responsiveness until pressed halfway, the gearbox gears slap a bit during certain changes and at speed the steering becomes vague and unnerving – we’ll get to that.
The vehicle got us where we needed to go though, which is broadly in line with the intended use of most vehicles, but not quite in the inspiring way any enthusiast would expect.
This is where the BT-50 really shined for me, and in general terms outperformed many in its class.
It wasn’t so much that it severely outperformed its rivals in off-road conditions, but rather that it was easy to use, did what was asked for, and provided a reasonable sense of confidence, handling, and comfort while doing it.
The 4×4 selector is easy to reach, engagement of 4-High and 4-Low was quick and easy, and the driver’s instrument panel lights clearly indicated what mode the vehicle was in.
The power delivery was smooth and precise, the suspension was supple and comfortable, the steering firm and precise – which again highlights and contradicts what we experienced when driving on the road).
The gearing was well controlled and offered intuitive gearing, and overall the vehicle felt secure and stable no matter what angle we placed it at.
As a basic 4×4 vehicle, the BT-50 gets a nice thumbs up from me, and it really comes down to the softer suspension, low-range transfer case and rear diff-lock.
Moreover, as we will see a little later, this performance will be easily improved with a small investment in the right 4×4 accessories.
With the standard suspension (good as it is), the BT-50, like most IFS 4x4s, quickly runs out of wheel travel, severely limiting its off-road ability.
But its selectable rear locking differential is a saving grace, and along with the aforementioned dual-speed transfer case, these are the main reasons the BT-50 performs so well off-road.
What’s under the hood?
Propelled by a straight line 3.0-liter four-cylinder turbodieselthe BT-50’s drive is rubbish but inspiring.
It’s slow and underpowered, at least for me. The six-speed auto, while sometimes a bit agricultural, is well-equipped and sometimes preferential to some competitors’ eight- and 10-speed transmissions that change gears frequently and seek the optimal ratio.
With 140kW of power and 450Nm of torque, the BT-50 has enough mumbo on paper but fails to deliver under the pedal, which goes to show one of two things given that the gearbox ratios seem sufficient; one, the ECU is heavily out of tune; or two, the throttle is grossly undercalibrated.
You may wonder why either of these would be the case, and the answer is simple; In pursuit of optimum fuel economy, better emissions and minimized risk of transmission damage, manufacturers have configured the electronics, tuning and controls in the ECU and throttle to limit the performance instead of the best possible emissions and savings.
The BT-50 SP suffers greatly from this but as you will read below, the answer is cheap and easy.
Like most segment rivals on the market, and given that this new BT-50 (apart from the recent SP) has been around for a few years, there’s no shortage of quality equipment and accessories to totally pimp that ute slow and turn it into a much more capable ride on and off road.
Most notably, a throttle controller should be the first item on any BT-50 owner’s shopping list. A unit like Ultimate 9’s EVC or EVCX will provide the driver with a diversity of settings for much improved handling.
These throttle controllers are far from a gimmick and essentially remap the signal sent from the throttle pedal to the ECU for better throttle response and minimized lag. For a few hundred dollars, they are one of the most remarkable and effective accessories you can buy.
From there, the sky is the limit; with overlay ECU chips, total ECU remappings, dyno tuning, aftermarket exhausts and intercoolers – and soon there will be modular diesel power upgrades based on high performance replacement injectors on the market.
The standard suspension is already surprisingly good, but a quality suspension kit like Old Man Emu will provide substantial improvements in ride quality, vehicle handling as well as on-road and off-road performance.
Other accessories will provide upgrades across the board depending on your preferences and needs, including tires, bull bars, roof bars, awnings and more.
CarExpert’s take on the Mazda BT-50 SP
What really hit the nail in the coffin of the BT-50 for me was the return of the bush.
I saw how some electronic security features could be intrusive, over-reactive and dangerous.
Aggressively pulling the vehicle back into its lane, applying the brakes when it senses a threat ahead, loud alarms, limiting your speed when trying to pass, and flashing lights that highlight possible hazards while distracting your attention from the traffic, the road and your surroundings.
OK, you can turn them off to some extent, but the ability to do so is hidden deep in the menu system and not easy to find. The fact remains that these security devices are not well calibrated, are too sensitive and too reactive.
But I still have a soft spot for the Mazda BT-50; it’s a decent ute with plenty to offer despite its flaws. It sits in a position of mediocrity with features and styling that some will hate and others will love, at a price that elicits similar emotions.
Let’s be frank; it’s a good base vehicle, and if it ticks a few boxes for you, it’s worth considering. But if you expect everything ‘Enlarge Enlarge‘ excitement, forget it.
To me though, poorly calibrated but highly touted electronic safety features can be almost dangerous on the road, which is counterintuitive to what they’re trying to achieve.
If you’re looking for a no-thrills but moderately capable farm utility, the BT-50 might just fit the bill. In other words, if you’re the type of driver who literally sleeps behind the wheel, the safety features will keep you awake and in your lane.
Conversely, if you’re an enthusiast, in tune with the life of the vehicle, and you’re good at them, these safety devices will give you a heart attack, drive you crazy, or possibly kill you.
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MORE: All Mazda BT-50