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MAZDA'S BT-50 MAY WELL BE THE MODEL WITH

the least 'zoom-zoom' in the range, but it has the rest beat for practicality. Kids to school, rubbish to the dump, boat to the bach: you name it, you can do it - apart from squeezing easily into tight parking spaces, that is. Versatility is what makes the ute so popular; in fact, for the past few months, a ute has been New Zealand's best-selling single model. Not the BT-50, however: Hilux, Navara and Ranger rule the roost locally. In fact, the Ford Ranger, the BT-50's mechanical twin, has outsold it by two to one this year, which strikes us as a peculiar fact. Maybe better deals have secured more business; maybe it's some ute psyche. Is it OK for a sales manager to drive a Mazda, but a cocky or contractor must have a Ford?

Whatever the story, it's been affecting us as well, for we've tested a few Rangers to date but have overlooked the BT-50. While we like the superior, feature-laden Navara ST-X, it's expensive; at $61,500, it costs $10,000 more than this top-spec BT-50 SDX.

Our particular example is more for play than work, what with its cosmetic alloy roll bar ($1370), hard tonneau cover (that's 'sports lid' in Mazda speak), nose ring on the front and alloy nudge bar ($1155 fitted). Hard tonneaus are a love hate affair. Though they are good for aesthetic value and for keeping small things secure and out of sight, they render a ute useless when time comes to haul something serious. Or even just the couch. Running boards also hamper ute practicality as they eat into the ground clearance and ramp-over angle, and unless you're a jockey, all they do is dirty your trouser leg every time you climb out. If you think a ute looks nude without them, Mazda offers optional side bars. These alloy tubes that run along the sills are said to provide some protection when venturing into the rough.

The BT-50 could be considered a small ute these days, but there are advantages to this. Compared to some of the competition, its 3.0-litre four is down markedly on power and torque, yet it still feels punchy. With U5kW of power, and 380N1T1 of torque at i8oorpm, it has more pull than the Hilux, though is 7oNm off the class-leading Nissan. Still, it goes all right, with more than enough strop to tweak the rears when you want. The five-speed manual is easily manipulated, with a positive shift action that's missing in some other utes. A five-speed auto is available for another $2000, but loses you 500kg of tow from the manual's rating of 3000kg.

The steering is lazy, and with four turns lock to lock, requires more arm work, particularly in town. It isn't exceptionally accurate in the bendy bits either, where the ball-and-nut mechanism shows its shortcomings. On the plus side, the relaxed steering makes the wheel less fidgety over the rough ruts of the back block, where you may actually get to engage four-wheel drive, even the Low Range.

Utes simply make more sense when they have a job to do and wide open spaces in which to operate. At over five metres long and with a 12.6-metre turning circle, a double-cab ute isn't the first choice for a town car. At least the unladen ride quality of the BT-50 is tolerable.

While this ute is not the largest in the sector, it provides a reasonable compromise between cabin space, again not class-leading, and the tray, which measures 1530mm long and 1456mm wide.

And don't expect too many extras with the BT-50. There is no cruise control offered, while safety items like stability control and curtain airbags are off the list and a lap belt features in the rear, things worth noting if the cargo includes kids. But most ute buyers can get by with the basics, and there's plenty of storage, and a plug for music players. We like the comfy seats and the overall look as well, which features just enough brightwork to appeal.

While the BT-50 is not quite the best ute on the market, it's grunty, capable and deserves to be higher up the sales table. EC

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