- Doors and Seats
- Engine Power
- Ancap Safety
Mazda’s new BT-50 Thunder takes the flagship GT model and add some muscle. Ben Zachariah takes the Thunder up to the Victorian High Country to see if it’s as tough as it looks.
- Isuzu powertrain with a reputation for reliability
- Mazda’s eye for design and materials
- A mature alternative in a crowded ute segment
- Buggy infotainment system
- Incessant beeping from active safety systems
- Bolt-ons are an acquired taste
The 2021 Mazda BT-50 Thunder is a new arrival within the company’s ute range this year, offering a tougher exterior while retaining the best features of the flagship GT variant.
Or, at least the GT was the range-topper of the BT-50 line-up before the Thunder arrived on the scene with its chest puffed out. Next year there will also be a BT-50 SP model to share the limelight, too
Priced from $65,990 drive-away for the manual variant, the BT-50 Thunder is a new direction for Mazda, taking the fight to the likes of the Toyota HiLux Rugged X and Ford Ranger FX4 Max, and borrowing its name from the Mazda B-Series Thunder ute sold in Thailand in the 1980s and 90s.
While there are no changes under the body, buyers get a raft of cosmetic and practical upgrades including a steel single-hoop bull bar with Lightforce LED light bar, black steel tube sports bar with sailplane wing inserts, electric roller tonneau cover, bolt-on plastic wheel arches, side steps, and black 18-inch alloy wheels. A set of Thunder decals lets your neighbours know you paid top dollar.
The one we’re driving has an automatic transmission, increasing the drive-away price to $68,990. The auto is mated to a part-time four-wheel-drive system, powered by Isuzu’s intercooled 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine producing 140kW and 450Nm.
In fact, the BT-50 is essentially just an Isuzu D-Max under the skin. Whereas the previous BT-50 was really a Ford Ranger in a new set of threads, Ford has jumped into bed with Volkswagen for the 2023 Ranger (along with the rest of its global commercial range), leaving Mazda to partner up with Isuzu.
And it’s actually a pretty good match-up. Because while Isuzu has been known to make some of the most reliable powertrains sold – with the 4J engine tracing its roots back to the mid-1980s and installed in everything from the Holden Jackaroo to the Isuzu N-Series light truck – its utes of the past have been a bit on the crude side.
Bringing Mazda’s superb eye for design to the table is no bad thing, but does the equation work on a tough-looking premium ute?
Jump inside and it’s one of the more impressive cabins in the ute segment. There’s a set of comfortable bucket seats finished in rich brown leather, with the overall interior design looking sophisticated and mature – more like something out of Mazda’s SUV catalogue.
It’s a stark contrast to the Thunder’s aggressive exterior looks, and I appreciate that Mazda’s Japanese designers weren’t tempted to add some faux toughness with non-functional bolts or fake carbon-fibre. But like many new cars nowadays, the black piano trim found on the centre console does nothing but highlight fingerprints and scratches.
Both front occupants get seat heating, while the driver enjoys an eight-way power adjusted seat. The BT-50 also comes with dual-zone climate control, power folding mirrors with heating, and keyless entry and start with remote start functionality.
Spend more than a few moments in the cabin and the harsh plastics more commonly associated with the Isuzu D-Max become obvious. It’s easy to tell where the responsibility of Mazda’s designers ended and Isuzu’s bean-counters took over. The interior is good where it counts though, and it feels like it will stay nice for plenty long enough.
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Ergonomics are spot-on, and the climate control buttons are really smartly laid out too. There are no complaints, it’s a cool and civilised cabin design and a good choice if you plan to spend a proper time on (or off) the road.
There’s a single USB-A plug for front-row occupants, and one for rear passengers. Speaking of, the rear seats emulate the front buckets for design, with decent space for most adults. The back seats might not be the first choice for travelling long distances, but it should be good enough for younger family members.
|2021 Mazda BT-50 Thunder|
Infotainment and Connectivity
The 9.0-inch infotainment touchscreen system offers satellite navigation, Bluetooth, DAB+ digital radio, reverse camera, Android Auto, and wireless Apple CarPlay.
While CarPlay was appreciated, the system did bug out a few times during my week with it. A handful of instances it didn’t recognise my iPhone (either wirelessly or plugged in), and once, when swapping between music and maps, it became too much for the processor and the system blacked out for a few seconds before restarting. A little frustrating to be having to deal with these issues in 2021.
The audio system sounds good though, and the user interface is pretty easy to work on the fly. The steering wheel controls aren’t my favourite (after accidentally skipping back to the start of a podcast when trying to turn up the volume), but everything falls to hand and navigates easily enough.
Being that this is the first all-new BT-50 in nearly a decade, the ute gets a healthy swag of safety gear as standard, including blind-spot alert, lane-departure alert, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking with turn assist, driver attention monitoring, traffic sign recognition, and electronic stability control with trailer sway control.
Also standard is a set of front, side, and curtain airbags, as well as a driver’s knee airbag and a front centre airbag between the front occupants – contributing to a five-star ANCAP safety rating (tested in 2020), making it one of the safest utes in its class.
This one having an automatic transmission, the Thunder also gets radar cruise control and lane-keep assist.
Before the autonomous emergency braking kicks in, the car displays a big lights-and-sound warning to tell you you’re about to smash into something. Bringing back some nostalgic memories of my father next to me while I was on my learner’s permit, I counted five times when the BT-50 screamed at me as if we were about to crash, despite being in no real danger.
With their BT-50 Thunder, buyers get a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with roadside assist, with capped-price servicing intervals every 15,000 kilometres or 12 months – whichever comes first.
Five years worth of dealership services will cost a touch over $2300 all up, but doesn’t include normal wear items like brakes, tyres, or wiper blades.
While Mazda claims 8.0 litres of diesel for every 100 kilometres travelled, our vehicle displayed an average of 9.5L/100km, which included a mix of highway, suburban, and off-road driving.
Based on those figures, with its 76 litre fuel tank, the BT-50 should deliver just shy of 800km of driving range.
At $68,990 drive-away, the automatic Thunder is $4549 more than the BT-50 GT, and adds a range of exterior and styling additions, including black 18×7.5-inch alloy wheels, black wheel arch flares a ‘single hoop’ steel bullbar, LED light bar, and a rear sports bar. While not out of the question, you would be hard-pressed to buy those aftermarket accessories yourself for that money, and they wouldn’t be covered by the factory warranty, like they are in this case.
|At a glance||2021 Mazda BT-50 Thunder|
|Service intervals||12 months/15,000km|
|Servicing costs||$1493 (3yrs) | $2307 (5yrs)|
|Fuel cons. (claimed)||8.0L/100km|
|Fuel cons. (on test)||9.5L/100km|
|Fuel tank size||76L|
Isuzu says the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder is new, but as mentioned above, it’s more like an evolution of the 4J engine – a highly-respected powertrain with decades of proven reliability. Which means I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when the sound from the diesel reminded me very strongly of the noise made by Isuzu’s N-Series light trucks. Not necessarily the nicest note, but reassuring.
My first impressions behind the wheel of the BT-50 were positive – nice light steering with a good, usable ratio, decent gear spacings in a reasonably smooth automatic transmission, predictable and linear pedal feedback for both accelerator and brake, and ergonomics allowing everything to fall to hand.
Despite being roughly the same size, some dual-cab utes have a tendency to sometimes feel a little too long or a little too wide when driving in city traffic, but the Mazda felt handy around town, navigating gaps in peak-hour traffic and squeezing into tight city car parks. If it wasn’t for the crude diesel engine hum, I would have needed a Post-It Note to remind myself I was driving a ute and not a mid-size SUV from Mazda’s range.
On the open road though, it’s not quite as obvious. The Isuzu upon which the BT-50 is based had big shoes to fill in the ride and handling department. While the previous-generation D-Max felt quite agricultural at times, particularly from the rear-end, the previous-gen (Ranger-based) BT-50 offered some of the best ride/handling characteristics in the segment.
The new BT-50 doesn’t feel as if it’s quite matching the same level of handling prowess shown by some of its peers, but it’s perfectly acceptable and handles much more like a car than dual-cab utes of decades past. Ride quality is quite decent though, delivering a good balance of refinement and road feedback without ever being uncomfortable.
Many hours were spent driving the BT-50 on freeways and country roads, and it felt as if I could have driven the Thunder to Cairns and back without any complaints from my lower back. It also ate up one very corrugated, winding gravel road, taking the flowing corners at speed and with a high degree of assurance.
But while the chassis felt as if it was driving well within its capabilities, the steel sailplane wings fitted to the sports bar weren’t quite up to the task, losing nearly all of their bolts over the corrugations. Thankfully the issue was discovered later that night before any damage was done, and the wings were removed for the remainder of the trip.
Being that the Thunder is more like an accessories pack for the BT-50 GT, with these items added by Mazda Australia after the car has already landed in the country, it’s perhaps understandable they haven’t been tested to the same degree as the rest of the car. We’d recommend adding some Loctite if you live on a bumpy road.
One thing we couldn’t fault was the kick-ass Lightforce LED light bar, providing plenty of high-beam illumination as we navigated unknown bush tracks in Victoria’s High Country late on a Friday night.
Predictably, after entering my destination for the weekend into my phone, Google Maps sent me the long way into the valley. I was directed to head down a steep and challenging off-road track rather than the slightly rocky road that leads directly to the hut we were camping at. Neither were we helped by big storms that had swept through the areas only days before, with plenty of debris and downed trees hindering the path forward.
The Mazda’s four-wheel-drive system provided plenty of confidence-inspiring grip, even with the road-biased tyres fitted to the slick 18-inch alloy wheels. Its hill descent control worked well, allowing me to use my legs to brace myself, and concentrate instead on navigating the car down the dark and narrow track at walking pace. Besides the road tyres, the side steps seemed to be a bit of a hindrance, scraping and bottoming out occasionally.
At the bottom of the track, in the dead of the night, the route required us to enter a river with a blind exit point somewhere upstream. Even if I’d wanted to turn around, there wasn’t the space, so I had to put my trust in the map and in the BT-50. Naturally, it handled the water crossing with no complaints or fanfare, pulling me over the stone riverbed and against the current to where I needed to go.
The diesel engine isn’t the most powerful in the competitive ute segment, but its 140kW and 450Nm was always enough to meet a challenge, whether on-road or off. And while the six-speed auto is smooth most of the time, it isn’t the most refined transmission on the block, but it certainly gets the job done.
|Key details||2021 Mazda BT-50 Thunder|
|Engine||3.0-litre four-cylinder intercooled turbo diesel|
|Power||140kW @ 3600rpm|
|Torque||450Nm @ 1600-2600rpm|
|Drive type||Four-wheel drive with low-range|
|Transmission||Six-speed torque convertor automatic|
|Power to weight ratio||63.3kW/t|
|Tow rating||3500kg braked, 750kg unbraked|
When we polled Drive staff in October 2020 about whether they would prefer an Isuzu D-Max or Mazda BT-50, it was an even split. But a number of our journos cited the fact that the Isuzu is the original ute, and therefore it was the preferable option. Having spent some time in the BT-50, I think the Mazda is the superior option, because it stands on the shoulders of the D-Max and makes it better.
But while I found myself really liking the BT-50, I was initially undecided about the Thunder pack. So I asked my friends along with random people I met in the bush to see what they thought, and the responses were unwavering across the board. One young couple camping nearby had a good poke around the Mazda as they were considering buying a new ute in the near future. They agreed that the BT-50 itself was a good rig, but the Thunder add-ons were “dorky”. That’s a direct quote.
And I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing. Once you notice that the front wheel arches have a large step where they meet the bull bar, and the Thunder graphics on the tub look like they were designed in WordArt, it’s hard to unsee.
Those weren’t the only issues I had with the car. The active safety systems were far too invasive for my liking, constantly beeping at me, warning me of dangers that didn’t exist in the loudest terms, and pulling at the wheel when it didn’t like my lane position (or the extra lines painted in a road works zone). I also found the infotainment unit was glitchy at times and lacked the required processing power for using Apple CarPlay reliably.
But then there’s a list as long as my arm of things to praise the BT-50 for, not least of which is that it’s a comfortable drive with a really nice cabin environment. Its advances in safety are no small thing (nagging annoyances aside), and it has proper off-road capability and long-term reliability. Big ticks.
The BT-50 Thunder is a bit of a dichotomy: it adds mature and sophisticated design and materials to what is arguably the best no-nonsense ute on the market, but then attempts to project a tough-guy persona on top of that with some bolt-on accessories.
Or maybe another way of looking at it is it marries the best of those things. It takes a solid base and builds on it to combine quality design and reliability.
The 2021 Mazda BT-50 is a great dual-cab ute – certainly one of the best on sale right now – offering buyers a stylish and comfortable alternative to some of the commercial, fleet-focussed utes on the market. But if it was my money, I’d be eyeing a GT model and visiting my local four-wheel-drive centre to add my own bolt-on accessories and making the car my own. If you can’t be bothered with all that hassle, Mazda has prepared one that’s ready to go, straight out of the box.