It’s XTR versus XLS – and the gloves are off.
In terms of sales, it’s a David versus Goliath battle. Despite the fact that these two vehicles share so much, the Ford sells almost four Rangers to every BT-50. Why? Many say it’s just an aesthetic thing: The Ranger’s gruff, F-Truck inspired masculinity is much more appealing than the distinctly Japanese BT. Especially in the original offering of this platform, the ‘more Manga than macho’ looks definitely got a few folk offside. Looks aside, which ute is better? Along with lots of similarities, plenty of things between the utes are identical. But there are also lots of differences, some of which only show up after direct comparison. Let’s get to it.
JUST THE SPECS
In this area, the BT-50 no doubt reigns supreme. Considering there is only a $610 difference. Between the two vehicles, a much bigger and better infotainment screen seals the deal here. Navigation is also included with the Mazda, while the Ford goes without.
Both utes have a reversing camera, and pretty identical sound systems and seating. All of which, by the way, are quite good. The Ranger’s reversing camera runs through the rear-vision mirror, because the infotainment system doesn’t have enough resolution to support it. The Ford does claw back a bit with a better heads-up display; but the winner here is the Mazda.
Beauty is in the eye of the beer-holder, and all that. I’ll leave opinions of aesthetics up to you, wise reader. Under the bonnet is pretty much identical – with the same big air filter sucking in from the inner guard. Both alternators are on the low side, and you’ll struggle to find room for a second battery or other ancillaries in either vehicle.
That being said, it can be done… or you can fit a second battery under the rear seat or in the tray. Speaking of the tray, sizes between these two are practically identical. For overall dimensions the Ranger is slightly wider, ever-so slightly shorter; and the BT-50 is taller. But you’re splitting hairs. Otherwise, putting the slightly taller tyres on the BT-50 (in 17-inch flavour) does work in its favour.
Same engine, same gearbox, same suspension. It’s all going to be pretty line-ball, right? Wrong. One reason why the Ranger is so successful is because Ford keeps developing and improving the model. When Mazda did a little facelift in 2015, the company didn’t do much more than update the looks. Ford, however, did a bit more. NVH levels were reduced, the gearbox was re-tuned, and electric power steering was introduced.
The result of these changes makes the Ranger a nicer on-road drive than the BT-50. Not to say the Mazda is bad… the suspension setup is quite smooth, and steering stays well behaved on rough roads and through bends. Truth be told, there’s nothing to complain about. But the Ranger does everything a little better. All of those small improvements do make a big difference. Electric steering is really nice – giving you a nice lightness at low speeds, which then firms up as pace is added. I’m a fan of it, but others will prefer the more traditional hydraulic steering of the BT-50 because it’s more proven and probably less complex.
Once again, looking at the specs, you’d think there would be nothing splitting these two 4WDs in terms of off-road capability. I thought (all things being equal) slightly taller tyres on the Mazda might give it the overall edge. But once again I was wrong. This comparison kept throwing up interesting surprises. Suspension, gearing, clearance and visibility are all the same. Modern 4X4s are going to lift wheels aplenty when you go off-road these days, for two reasons: They articulate less than older 4WDs, in favour of on-road manners; and the fact that traction control is pretty effective these days, and a locking rear end means you can keep on driving and lifting wheels.
Back in the good ol’ days, lifting wheels meant your forward progress came to a halt… and you had to pick another line. Where the Ranger pulls its biggest lead out against the BT-50 is the effectiveness of the traction control system. We drove the same tracks, on the same lines in the same conditions, and the Ranger was much more seamless and effective. The BT-50 still drove the same challenges – but it stuttered and clanged and stammered much more in the same positions. When we drove the Ranger it was much more intutitive, with only a moment’s hesitation before smoothly braking the correct wheels. This is a pretty big deal. It boils down to the fact that the Ranger’s traction control works across both ends much more smoothly and more intuitively.
Same same, but different. I love an underdog, and I was quietly backing the BT-50 for a win over the Ranger. The utes are practically the same all over – but the Mazda does add a bit more bang for your buck over the Ranger. But the more you delve into these things, the murkier it becomes. The big difference comes from those updates that Ford brought to the table in 2015 – with electric steering, updated tuning of the gearbox and off-road traction control, and improved quietness in the cabin.
If you’re looking at pure bang-for-buck, the extra $610 on the BT-50 gets you 17-inch wheels, slightly taller tyres, and a better screen inside with navigation and better functionality. But if you are just wanting the engine and gearbox, get the XT BT-50 for around $46,600.
If you’re looking for the overall better ute between these two contenders, it’s the Ranger. It drives nicer, it’s more advanced and modern in it’s configuration, and it’s noticeably better off-road. And that can’t be overstated. As much as you’ll want to modify and improve each vehicle for touring and capability, that improvement in traction control will also be there. And for that reason, the Ranger gets the nod of approval.