Toby Hagon continues his shakedown of the Team Wheels Finke Desert Race Mazda BT-50 XTR ute.
A couple of months in and I’m getting used to a ute. Being able to launch pretty much anything into the tray is a surprisingly big bonus. I’ve had everything from a pile of wood to mountain bikes and kids toys in the back of AFT 123, the Team Wheels car that will be taking part in the Finke Desert Race over the Queen’s birthday long weekend.
A hundred or so kilos in the back works surprisingly well, too. It helps settle the stiffness that can make for an otherwise jumpy ride on second-grade roads. That’s good news for our Finke challenge. The 230km course south of Alice Springs is known for its bumps and jumps, and because we’ll have extra gear on board – spare tyres, a basic tool kit and the weight of a roll cage – it’s comforting to know the suspension is up to some punishment.
I’ve also been keeping an eye on traction when accelerating. On a slippery surface – fair chance the Finke’s red dirt will be slippery – the inside rear can try to wheelspin, waking the traction control. So four-wheel drive will be the pick for the lumps and bumps of the Finke course.
Not that I’m getting too used to AFT 123. My car was also summoned back from me to get prepped for the Big Race. A roll cage, race seats and stickers are the main changes. Plus we also need a few weeks to truck it to Alice Springs, along with our fleet of support cars.
But there was another BT-50 in the wings: AFT 124. It misses out on some of the previous car’s extras – including the nudge bar – but picks up the rolling hard canopy. It’s a fancy way to cover the ute tray and looks the business, although it shortens the tray by about a foot.
That’s enough to make it more difficult to fit in a 29-inch mountain bike, something my previous BT had been subjected to plenty of times. Still, some careful negotiation of the front wheel and it slots in no probs.
Under the bonnet, the 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel is as grunty as ever, something that comes in handy for shifting what is a sizeable machine. Even better is that performance barely changes once you load it up with people and some gear.
Perfect for off-road racing! We also don’t have to worry about fuel use; the BT-50’s claimed average fuel use is 9.2 litres per 100km, and I’ve been getting close to that – albeit with a decent country cruise as part of the driving mix. Even when thrashing it, I reckon we’ll use something like 12 or 13L/100km, which bodes well for the Finke challenge (the 80-litre fuel tank will comfortably do the 226km distance each day).
As for the transmission, the six-speed auto is an honest unit. It’s ironic that Mazda’s least sporty model gets the best set up for selecting the Sports mode on the transmissions. Whereas the MX-5, Mazda 6 and others call on you to flick the sports button south of the gear selector, the BT-50 is a simple push of the gear lever towards the driver. Blame that on the Ford influence.
The BT-50 has lost me on one count, though; its USB plug is buried in the glovebox, making it difficult to access on the run. I’m also not sold on the reversing camera, which displays on a small screen within the rear vision mirror rather than the 7.8-inch screen in the dashboard.
The rest of the interior is simple but well done. The circular climate control knobs, for example, are easy to operate on the run, and there’s loads of storage, including a pod atop the dash and underseat storage in the rear.
Haven’t we met before?
There’s no hiding the Ford roots of the BT-50. In the corner of each window is a FoMoCo stamp, signifying it’s a product of the Ford Motor Company. The same stamp is on the rear leaf springs, too. And when you pop the bonnet, while it’s the stylised Mazda M logo that’s prominent in the centre of the engine cover, you don’t have to look too far to spot FoMoCo stamps on pipes and other components.
That’s because the BT-50 was developed in conjunction with the Ford Ranger and comes out of Ford’s Thai factory.
Yet despite the major component sharing – something increasingly common across brands and models these days – it’s been done cleverly enough to ensure each has its own identity. The interiors, for example, share some design themes, but are presented differently. And the exterior panels are unique to each model.
Read part one of our 2016 Mazda BT-50 XTR long-term review.
Mazda BT-50 Dual-Cab Utility XTR 4x4
Date acquired: February, 2016
Price as tested: $51,700
This month: 510km @ 9.8L/100km
Overall: 1890km @ 9.7L/100km
Odometer: 8980 (for AFT 123), 6385 (for AFT 124)