The Wheels race ute takes shape. But first it has a few domestic duties to take care of.
HERE’S something we’ve never done before at Wheels – lived with a dual-cab ute as a long-termer. Separate chassis, live rear axle and a workhorse diesel engine are the order of the day for our Mazda BT-50.
Truth is, though, it’s getting difficult to ignore the ute market. The vehicles once confined to farm paddocks or tradies’ driveways now account for almost one in six new-vehicle sales. That’s big business, and there’s been a big shift in the ute market’s landscape. A sizeable chunk of it is devoted to top-end utes where the price tag exceeds $60,000. And it’s the diesel dual-cab off-roaders leading the charge: 4x4 models outsell two-wheel drives by more than three to one.
Yet most people are using them as on-roaders, with only occasional off-road use.
And performance-focused utes are coming; AMG is set to tweak the upcoming Mercedes-Benz ute, Ford is planning a Ranger Raptor, Nissan is considering a Nismo Navara and Toyota is looking at a Hilux TRD. In the shorter term Volkswagen will bring V6 diesel performance back to the workhorse segment with an update to the Amarok arriving late in 2016.
Besides, the plan from the start of our few months with a BT-50 was to put it through more than any ute before it. As well as thousands of kilometres of suburban and country punishment – where we plan to push the BT-50 XTR to its limits – this is the car we’re taking in the punishing Finke Desert Race.
It’s claimed to be one of the most challenging off-road races in Australia. We’ll be entering the car in the Production 4WD class, where modifications are limited to suspension changes and engine tweaks. And, of course, safety systems and protection for mechanical components.
Our mods will be minimal. We’ll be getting some more serious shock absorbers to better deal with the jumps and corrugations so common on the Finke track, which is 230km long and heads south from Alice Springs to the Aboriginal community of Finke. The 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel engine will be unchanged and the only interior changes will be to meet the event regulations (that means we get to keep the factory air-conditioning – woohoo!).
But since January our racer-in-waiting has been put to work. It’s been all about making the best use of its design.
Our BT-50 arrived with some 7500km on the clock and was put straight to work on the school run. As with all utes, fitting a child seat takes some fancy finger work to attach the top tether point from the child seat to the anchor between the seat back and the rear of the cabin.
No complaints from the children once in place, though. Turns out they love utes, to the point where it took a while to convince my four-year-old that he could only play in the tray when it was parked.
Beach runs, too, are a snip, with boogie boards and sandy towels thrown straight in the tray. The occasional hose-out is all it needs to stay sparkling (well, as sparkling as I want it...).
And family bike rides are so much easier. All four bikes can fit in the back, with the ladder rack coming in handy for slinging the wheels of the bigger bikes over.
In its first couple of months, AFT 123 also headed on a country cruise. Again, it was gear in the back and a family of four on board for the 1100km round trip.
Fuel use early on is reasonable, at 9.6 litres per 100km – and most of the time it’s anything but babied. I figure if this thing is going to race we may as well get it used to the punishment. And with that sort of fuel use it means it’ll comfortably go the distance at Finke.
Our BT-50 has already had plenty of options thrown at it. The most obvious are the front nudge bar with driving lights (great for blaring idiots) and the ladder rack on the rear, which allows long items to be strung to the sports bar just behind the cabin; the lights and nudge bar will stay for our Finke adventure, but the ladder rack will be ditched. There are also dual 12-volt power sockets and a spongy tray liner to reduce damage when launching things in the back. And the near obligatory tow bar.
Mazda v Ford
The current shape BT-50 went on sale in 2011. It is produced in the same Thai factory as the Ford Ranger and shares many components with that car, including windows, the basic chassis and engine. However each has unique exterior bodywork, including the doors (often shared between models that otherwise share so much). An update in 2015 tried to straighten the toothy grin and make the tail less polarising, but it drives identically to that 2011 car (Mazda opted not to tweak the engine and dynamics, as Ford did with the Ranger).
Our XTR model sits in the middle of the BT-50 family and is one of the more popular models. There’s also a GT model above it that gets tinted windows, leather seats and an electrically operated driver’s seat. Sure, those extras would be great for on-road comfort, but they’re of little use on the Finke.
Mazda BT-50 Dual-Cab Utility XTR 4x4
Date acquired: February 2016
This month: 1380km @ 9.6L/100km
Overall: 1380km @ 9.6L/100km