For the first time in living memory, a BT-50 isn’t a clone of a Ford Ranger. Okay, so Mazda bakkie is now based on the new Isuzu D-Max instead, but it’s largely better for it. We drove it in Australia.

After the upgrade to the venerable Toyota Hilux and the arrival of the value-packed GWM P-Series late last year, 2021 is a holding year for the domestic bakkie market. While the Ford Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok are effectively on run out and Isuzu is tooling up its Port Elizabeth plant to commence production of the new D-Max in 2022, the launch of the new Mazda BT-50 (in the second half of the year) is, without a doubt, the biggest development.

Like before, the upcoming double cab is merely styled differently to the (fellow Japanese) bakkie on which it is based, but unlike its predecessor, which appeared fussy and ungainly compared with the square-jawed Ford Ranger, this new-generation BT-50 looks handsome and upmarket. It knows what it’s supposed to be: a family-car substitute with reasonable refinement, luxury and practicality. Best of all? It is, comparatively, much more Mazda-like.

In the right metallic hue, the BT-50 exudes kerb presence. Mazda’s Kodo design language shines through in the sweeping crease lines that flow from the grille to the side mirrors and the pinched waistline (above the running boards), while the defined shoulder lines align with the load bed and the tops of the tail-light clusters feature the brand’s signature circular motif.

Anyone with an active Internet browser will recognise the Isuzu’s interior architecture, though; the bakkies’ switchgear, instrumentation and steering wheels are identical, but the shapes of their centre vents differ. Nonetheless, the cabin execution is smart, with a soft-touch finish to the edge of the dash, as well as tasteful applications of piano black and chrome-look trim.

Mazda BT-50 DC XT 4x4 Manual

Highlights include a leather-trimmed steering wheel and upholstery, electric driver’s seat adjustment, a nine-inch infotainment setup with wireless Apple CarPlay (but plug-in Android Auto) compatibility and a digital climate control console. Lower spec versions, by contrast, feature a seven-inch screen, old-school HVAC knobs and ye olde fresh air/recirculation slider.

The front seats are comfy and supportive, and the steering column is reach and rake adjustable and, to Mazda’s credit, the finishes feel hard-wearing. I found the driver’s footwell a bit cramped (on the manual version I drove), the centre console’s cupholders a bit too deep and some minor trim foibles, such as the top glovebox lid that didn’t click into place assuredly.

Nonetheless, rear occupants, which are usually availed a hard bench and precious little legroom in double cabs, are afforded more than fair leg- and headroom, separate ventilation outlets, a fast-charging USB port, an armrest, three adjustable headrests, seat pockets and a bottle holder in each of the rear doors. The seat can also tumble forward in a 60:40 split if you’d like more luggage capacity, and there’s a lidded hidey-hole in the carpeted underfloor. I’m 1.88 metres tall and could sit behind the driver’s seat (set up for me) in reasonable comfort.

Mazda BT-50 DC XT 4x4 Manual

On the road, the freshness of the BT-50’s platform immediately translates into admirable refinement. At the national speed limit (110 km/h in Australia), the Mazda’s cabin is virtually creak- and rattle-free, with just a slight flutter emanating from the side mirrors. The Isuzu motor is said to be substantially reworked from the current D-Max’s 3.0-litre turbodiesel (including a revised block, head, internals and injection system) and is mated with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. It still sounds just like a reliable Isuzu mill – the motor remains a mite clattery at low revs, and, as before, it doesn’t like being revved hard.

Although slightly down on power and torque compared with the outgoing bakkie’s Ford-supplied 3.2-litre, five-cylinder unit, the BT-50’s motor is quite tractable: peak torque of 450 Nm is available from 1 600 to 2 600 r/min, but 400 Nm of that between 1 400 and 3 250 r/min, plus it’s not all that thirsty: we saw an indicated consumption figure of just over 9.0 L/100 km during the test drive (Mazda claims an average of 7.7 L/100 km).

The ride quality is a bit of a mixed bag, although the roads on our test route (a mix of rural, suburban and urban) were far from perfect. At freeway speeds, the Mazda has a relaxed, loping gait; the suspension suppresses bumps but doesn’t quite neutralise them. Then, at lower speeds, the bakkie’s rear end can feel nervous on uneven surfaces, but by double-cab standards, it’s acceptable, and besides, there was no cargo in the load bin at the time.

On-road, the freshness of the BT-50’s platform translates into admirable refinement.

The biggest plaudit of the BT-50’s demeanour is its easy-to-drive nature, which is a happy coincidence for Mazda, which still values driver engagement – even in its more, um, utilitarian products. The steering, for example, has improved by leaps and bounds: the wheel is pleasantly weighted but not vague; turn-in is true and positive, even if a bit slow by family-car standards, and the high-riding bakkie eases into bends with predictable body roll.

Mazda BT-50 DC XT 4x4 Manual

As a clear demonstration that the standards are rising rapidly in the leisure-oriented bakkie segment, the new Mazda is equipped with eight airbags: dual front-, -side, curtain ‘bags, plus one for the driver’s knee and another for the front occupant; it employs sensors and a stereoscopic camera system to offer auto emergency braking (AEB) including pedestrian- and cyclist detection, speed sign recognition turn assist (to dissuade you from turning into the path of oncoming traffic) and forward-collision warning, which is in addition to auto lights and -wipers, cruise control (adaptive on automatic versions), blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, a rear-view camera (I would have liked dynamic lines, but still) and PDC.

That’s the lasting impression of the new BT-50: Yes, it’s still derivative – the product of a joint venture between a pair of Japanese brands (to which Mazda contributed the least), but the newcomer feels fresh, smartly packaged and forward-thinking. While my mind wandered during a cruise home on the freeway, the Mazda’s active lane-keeping assistance system make small course corrections through the steering wheel (it works between 60 and 130 km/h). You know, for a while there, I totally forgot I was at the wheel of a “humble” bakkie…

At a Glance

Mazda BT-50 DC XT 4×4 Manual

Sleek design and one of the segment’s classiest cabins set the new BT-50 apart. The Isuzu underpinnings should ensure reliability is stellar, too. How will the local market respond?

Price: TBC
Engine: 3.0 L, 4-cyl, turbodiesel
Transmission: 6-spd manual
Driven wheels: 4
Power: 140 kW @ 3 600 r/min
Torque: 450 Nm @ 1 600-2 600 r/min 0-100 km/h: n/a
Top speed: n/a
Fuel consumption: 7.7 L/100 km
CO2 : n/a