REVIEW | Is the new BT-50 a missed opportunity for Mazda to stake a claim in SA's bakkie market?

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• The Mazda BT-50 was launched in South Africa earlier this year.

• The line-up is headlined by the 3.0 Individual model, priced at R794 400.

• The BT-50 could struggle to make its mark in the local market.

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It's often assumed that being a motor journalist means criticising a vehicle and lambast its weak points. Much like Jeremy Clarkson and the likes do. Well, that's partly true, but reporting on a vehicle is a two-way street. Rather than rip it apart, approach it justly and objectively. Thus, giving a fair opinion on said vehicle.

With the all-new Mazda BT-50, the approach was simple: evaluate the vehicle for what it is and give a fair and objective verdict on it. Sadly, it's easier said than done. The BT-50 is, justly speaking, a missed opportunity for Mazda to reinsert itself as a reckoned player in South Africa's bakkie game. It's a hit and miss, with more shots off the mark than anyone would have liked.

Had the BT-50 been as good as it could have been, it would have lifted Mazda's profile with South African bakkie buyers and maybe - just maybe - give the segment leaders a real run for their money.

The pricing is off

When Mazda revealed its new BT-50 to local media earlier this year, one of the more enticing aspects was where Mazda would price its new bakkie. Anyone who understood the local bakkie game knew that Mazda must be aggressive in its approach. This would mean charging at the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger head-on, not backing down if reassertion is a priority.

Our test unit is the top-of-the-range BT-50 3.0 Individual 4x4. It's the only 4x4 in Mazda's bakkie line-up, but carries a price tag of R794 400.

The lack of government rebate aside, the pricing puts it right in clear sight of the segment leaders. The Ranger Wildtrak 2.0 Bi-Turbo 4x4 Auto (R806 5200) and Hilux 2.8 GD-6 4x4 Legend Auto (R793 000) both flank the BT-50 Individual. And bar special edition models, these are the bakkies the Mazda goes up against directly. Mazda, a low-volume seller in South Africa, priced their bakkie wrong, (in)directly forcing buyers to instead opt for the established players.

Nissan, for example, brought their facelifted Navara to South Africa this year. The automaker realised that pricing for their new bakkie needed to be spot on; hence the headlining Navara Pro-4X 4x4 retails for R749 000.

In your opinion, does the new BT-50 stand a chance against reckoned rivals like the Ranger and Hilux? Email us your thoughts or use the comment section below.

Mazda BT-50
2021 Mazda BT-50 3.0 Individual 4x4 Automatic

Spec worthy of a top model?

Depending on how you look at it, the BT-50 Individual's interior oozes style, and the dials and buttons are placed where you'd want it. The leather around the steering wheel and gear lever add a nice touch, but you miss this material on the seats. And to be honest, nothing says 'top model' like leather seats.

The BT-50 is well-specified with features like rear-view camera and front and rear park distance control, rain sensor wipers, all-round electric windows, and a multimedia system that is Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatible.

However, unlike the Ranger and Hilux it goes up against, the BT-50 Individual does without adaptive cruise control, a tow bar, lane departure warning, and satellite navigation. When you begin to factor in the omittance of features associated with a top model, Mazda, from a specification point, did not give its BT-50 Individual a fighting chance in the local market.

Mazda BT-50
2021 Mazda BT-50 3.0 Individual 4x4 Automatic

Punchy engine, poor ride quality

Mazda agreed to a new partnership with fellow Japanese automaker Isuzu. This means that the automotive giants will share parts among each other, with the BT-50 building on the platform that underpins the all-new D-Max, set for local debut in 2022. Two turbodiesel engines will power the bakkies, that being a 1.9-litre and a 3.0-litre.

The Individual is fitted with the bigger capacity engine that produces 140kW and 450Nm. A six-speed automatic transmission channels power to the road via Mazda's 4x4 system. The engine feels punchy when you lay on the throttle, and it moves through the gears without much fuss. The engine's punchiness will undoubtedly impress, but it must run in tandem with a ride quality that feels sure-footed on any surface.

Unfortunately, this is where the BT-50 Individual falls short: the ride quality. Implementing a ladder frame chassis it will share with the next D-Max, the all-new BT-50 could feel a lot more steady on the road. The suspension setup is stiff, which translates to the bakkie having a harsh ride quality, and perhaps this could be tuned differently next time round with an upgrade.

On gravel, steering inputs become vague, and braking actions must be undertaken long before to ensure stoppage. Even when you engage 4x4 High, grip levels could be a lot better as it fails to instill adequate confidence on poor road conditions.

Mazda BT-50
2021 Mazda BT-50 3.0 Individual 4x4 Automatic

Wheels24's Janine Van der Post says: Mazda's new BT-50 might be expensive, but heck, it's an absolutely beautiful bakkie. And perhaps that's a bit of an oxymoron, but the way we love bakkies here in South Africa, I know it will be forgiven mainly because its good looks can't be denied. If there's one thing the Japanese automaker did get right, it's styling and design. The BT-50 is a looker of note.

Charlen makes some very valid points; however, if you're not going to use the BT-50 for off-roading and more of a lifestyle vehicle, things like ride quality and grip on gravel is not a top priority. If you need a bigger vehicle to lug around work stock for a small business, or you go fishing or love regular weekends away with the family, it's more than sufficient. Especially if you want a niche bakkie and not compete with the Jones' and their range-topping Hilux Legend. It's fast too, and quick off the line, and sure isn't lazy to overtake either. 

The BT-50 might not be fantastic as a workhorse, but as a bakkie-lover, I found it really comfortable to drive as a daily ride. The school-run trips were enjoyable, and I find its turning circle is a lot better than the usual bakkie leaders. And, when you need to fit into tight parking spaces in front of the school, nothing is more important than this.

The fact that the seats are not full leather either are not an issue for me, especially when the material is easy to clean and the seats are hella-comfy, even in the rear. Besides, I'm not looking forward to the leather burns in our summer heat. 

Realistically, everything is expensive these days, and there's no such thing as a cheap car or bakkie for most South Africans who could barely afford a new car, no matter how "cheap" it is. Most people can hardly afford the cheapest new car in SA, the Suzuki S-Presso at just R149 900. So, if you're in the market for a bakkie, then the BT-50's price is not that much of an ask. 

In summary

The Mazda BT-50 is a missed opportunity for the Japanese automaker in South Africa. And the headlining Individual model should have been far more than a glorified mid-spec model. The addition of the 4x4 drivetrain is not enough to warrant the too-high asking price, especially because Mazda has to claw back some ground against the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger - the two undisputed bakkie kings of South Africa.

But looking beyond the BT-50 and its shortcomings, one can only hope that the upcoming D-Max will not suffer from the same limitations as the bakkie it shares an architecture with. Sure, Mazda adjusted the D-Max chassis to fit their requirements, but the D-Max must succeed in South Africa. Build at Isuzu's plant in Port Elizabeth, it is being tested for application in the unique local bakkie market.

Perhaps this was something Mazda SA had to consider: having its BT-50 built on a locally produced D-Max platform. Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk…

Mazda BT-50
2021 Mazda BT-50 3.0 Individual 4x4 Automatic
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