What’s in a brand? You may think it’s good enough to simply build a good car, but when seemingly every company can make a half-decent vehicle these days, having an identifiable consistency across your lineup is deathly important if you are to stand out and build a following of buyers. There’s a reason carmakers spend billions on marketing and hire big-time designers to create a unified theme and visual identity.

Mazda is a master at this. Ever since it shed the last vestiges of Ford ownership, the plucky Japanese outfit has successfully recast itself a cut above other mainstream brands, with most of its cars sharing a laser focus. Everything from the Mazda 3 to the CX-9 exhibit the same good design, classy interiors and driver-focused road manners – even if they don’t all hit the same standard of excellence.

But there’s one area where Hiroshima’s far-reaching makeover has always stopped short, and that is its pick-up truck offering, the BT-50. The company has experience in this area – after all, it helped build the Courier and Ranger for Ford for nearly five decades. But that expertise was usurped by the Blue Oval and Mazda no longer has the resources (and, very likely, the willpower) to do it alone. To maintain a foothold in a market it very clearly still wants to be in, it needs to borrow the homework of a partner. Enter Isuzu.

This, then, is the first BT-50 to be based on the D-Max. The third-generation of Isuzu’s hardy work truck is much improved in many areas – but is it a good enough base for the Mazda to make a convincing impression of the brand’s highly-specialised models? We put the new one to the test to find out.

Marriage of convenience

A body-on-frame pick-up is probably the furthest thing from Mazda’s modus operandi of creating premium, driver-focused experiences, and the BT-50 stands in stark contrast to the company’s upcoming BMW- and Mercedes-challenging models like the CX-60. As such, this truck is in a bit of a no man’s land – an awkward middle child that’s somehow too important to be dropped.

Mazda actually had an earlier start than Isuzu in building compact and midsize pick-ups with the long-running B-Series and the first BT-50. Ford, however, took over development of the Ranger starting with the T6 in 2011, with its newly-independent partner piggybacking on its work. The latter clearly had its hands full fleshing out its then-nascent range of Skyactiv engines and passenger vehicle architectures.

This does mean that Mazda would’ve been starting from scratch if it were to build its own pick-up, and given that it’s so eager to strike its own path without Ford, a partnership with another carmaker made the most sense. For a long time, it was rumoured that the next BT-50 would be twinned with the Toyota Hilux, but the company instead struck a deal with Isuzu in 2016, eventually resulting in the truck you see here.

At least the new BT-50, seen here in range-topping 3.0D High Plus form, is based on the latest D-Max – comprehensively revamped to keep pace with the competition – rather than agricultural predecessor. Isuzu has thrown the veritable kitchen sink at its workhorse, not only giving it a modern new look but also a much nicer interior, a lighter and stiffer chassis, upgraded engines and a smorgasbord of new technologies.

Premium-looking truck unrecognisable from D-Max

Mazda’s contribution is limited to a few design changes, but it’s a successful one – at least from the outside. The all-new front end does a remarkable impression of the brand’s passenger cars, with a bold Kodo chrome grille melding neatly into the slim headlights (the latter incorporating gorgeous Mazda 3-style illuminated projector cans). The lack of a lower air intake does result in a rather simplistic look, but it all works.

The sharp face helps disguise the Isuzu-derived cab section – even if you recognise where the door mirrors and handles came from, you will never mistake the BT-50 for a D-Max on the road. However, the whole look is spoilt somewhat by the yellow halogen positioning lights, located low down on the front bumper. Why are they there, when the handsome LED headlights already do a good enough job?

The businesslike rear can’t quite match the sophistication of the front. In fact, the BT-50’s rump is more conventionally truck-like than the D-Max’s, with its simpler, less three-dimensional taillight design and a separate bumper rather than an integrated one. The steel beam should at least minimise the likelihood of a rear-end collision causing costly damage to the bed. Completing the look are 18-inch two-tone alloy wheels, with V-shaped spokes that to my eyes look nicer than the Isuzu’s dish-like design.

Interior tweaks won’t fool anyone

Inside, the revisions are just as comprehensive, even though it doesn’t look it, so similar the layout and basic architecture. Look closely and you’ll find a dashboard that’s actually different, embellished with sleeker air vents, increased silvered trim and Mazda’s trademark deep red colour scheme. Even the steering wheel and round airbag boss are new, although the multifunction controls are from the D-Max.

Aside from the lack of a top storage compartment, however, the rest of the cabin will be very familiar to those who own the Isuzu. The BT-50’s instrument cluster, 4.2-inch multi-info display (with slightly different graphics), “piano key” switches for the dual-zone climate control and chunky gearlever are all shared with its twin.

This doesn’t look like a modern Mazda interior in the slightest, but it’s easily forgiven, as this is a badged-engineered product – and it’s at least far removed from the previous D-Max’s bargain-basement cockpit. It’s easy to get comfortable, too, with big, cushy seats and tilt and telescopic steering wheel adjustment. It has be said, however, that the Mazda would’ve greatly benefited from a more significant interior reskin, as Volkswagen did to the Ranger to make the new Amarok.

Dominating proceedings is the range-topping nine-inch infotainment touchscreen, again carried over from the Isuzu. The graphics – in particular the antiquated analogue clock and compass displays – are a little tacky for my taste, but because all the vehicle settings are grouped in the MID, the system is a paragon in simplicity.

The interface consists solely of media, phone connectivity and system settings menus, all logically laid out. Surprisingly, Isuzu went the whole hog and specced the D-Max with wireless Apple CarPlay compatibility – which the BT-50 also gets – and while it’s not entirely reliable, it’s a nice feature to have. So too are the walk-away auto door lock and remote engine start, which must be segment firsts.

Good safety kit, but only on this top-spec model

As per the D-Max, the BT-50 comes with a decent suite of driver assistance systems, including autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring. Surprisingly, even though the truck uses a regular handbrake, the adaptive cruise control works at all speeds, although it does ask you to hold the brake when it comes to a stop – lest you roll inelegantly into the car in front.

These features are only fitted to this range-topping variant – a trait that’s sadly common in all of the BT-50’s rivals. At least you get seven airbags on the 1.9D High too, not just the 3.0D High Plus. Stability control is of course standard fitment.

Efficient but rough powertrain hampers performance

Right, let’s get on to the meat and potatoes. The BT-50 rides on Isuzu’s new Dynamic Drive Platform, bestowing the truck with a lighter and more rigid ladder frame and body (the latter is 20% stiffer compared to the previous D-Max). There have also been adjustments to the suspension for greater stability, durability and comfort, along with a steering retune to make it quicker and lighter. You get bigger brakes, too.

The BT-50 also gets both of the D-Max’s engines, starting with the now-familiar RZ4E-TC 1.9 litre four-cylinder turbodiesel that produces 150 PS at 3,600 rpm and 350 Nm of torque from 1,800 to 2,600 rpm. Discounting the base Mitsubishi Triton Quest and the bargain JMC Vigus Pro, this mill is among the least powerful in its class and it certainly has the lowest amount of torque.

The High Plus is the only one to receive the 4JJ3-TCX 3.0 litre, heavily revised for this generation and punching out a healthy 190 PS and 450 Nm from 1,600 to 2,600 rpm. On paper, this is a broadly competitive powertrain, even if it can’t quite match the Toyota Hilux 2.8 and the Ford Ranger 2.0 Bi-Turbo. Both engines are mated to six-speed automatic gearboxes, although the smaller mill can also be hand with a manual.

But we don’t drive cars on paper. The 3.0 litre engine may have been comprehensively enhanced, but the basic architecture dates back to the first-generation D-Max. As such, it feels rather uncouth, exhibiting the archetypal diesel clatter that only gets louder as you step on the throttle.

And you’ll have to step on it, because despite maximum torque coming in low in the rev range, the BT-50 takes a while to get up to speed. Throttle response feels sluggish, and even when the wall of torque finally comes it doesn’t pull quite as strongly as some of its rivals. It’s not exactly slow, but if you’re expecting the refined, effortless nature of the Ford in particular, you’re gonna be in for a shock.

Part of that blame comes down to the transmission, which can get a little hesitant to kick down when you ask for it. The reason for this? As always, Isuzu has focused on fuel economy – an approach that has earned it a fair few fans, particularly business owners. This is especially important given that the government is mulling targeted fuel subsidies as global oil prices continue to rally.

Focus on aerodynamics doesn’t just help fuel economy

Isuzu has gone to town with the latest D-Max, with improvements that go beyond incorporating some of the learnings from the 1.9 litre engine into the 3.0 litre unit (which, by the way, reduce friction losses and promote a more complete combustion). It put actual focus on aerodynamics, contracting the technical research institute of Japan Railways (JR, famous for its shinkansen trains) for its wind tunnels.

This has not only resulted in the truck’s wedge-shaped profile but also features like an underbody shield that reduces turbulence from underneath. All this will have been carried over to the BT-50 and the result is a claimed fuel consumption figure of 8.0 litres per 100 km on the Australian combined cycle. Based on our testing, at least, a real-world figure of under 9.0 litres per 100 km is certainly achievable.

The Mazda’s slipperiness to the wind doesn’t just benefit its frugality. Despite the bluff frontage, the BT-50 produces astonishingly low levels of wind noise at speed. There’s also a relative lack of road roar – impressive, given that this thing rides on all-terrain tyres – and the engine at least shuts up on.a steady throttle. This is a surprisingly refined highway cruiser.

On-road manners spoiled by brutal ride

Refined, but not especially comfortable. In fact, the BT-50’s suspension borders on punishing, threatening to bounce and judder you out of your seat. Its secondary ride is particularly poor – even on a glass-smooth road, the Mazda seems capable of inventing bumps and lumps. Rumble strips expose the truck’s worst traits, causing it to clatter through them at such a high frequency it can knock the wind out of your lungs.

So harsh was the ride that it actually made me suspect the tyres were overinflated. And so they turned out – the plump rollers were pumped up to a showroom-spec 280 kPa. Lowering the air pressures did let the BT-50 settle down a little, but even then it couldn’t match the comfort exhibited by the Ranger and especially the Nissan Navara. There was a time when all trucks rode like this, but that time has long gone.

The stiff suspension does at least mean the BT-50 handles with reasonable finesse for a pick-up, managing body roll well – even though the bucking ride means you’re never truly confident over mid-corner bumps. Its downfall is the old-school hydraulic steering, which is still very vague on-centre and takes quite a bit of twirling to get around a bend. You do, however, get a modicum of feedback though the rim, which is nice.

Like generations of D-Max before it, the BT-50 acquits itself well off-road, as I discovered when taking it out to shoot the images in this review. The rigid chassis came into its own here, letting the Mazda assuredly conquer the rocky outcrops in a manner that belied its on-road clumsiness.

The truck also offered plenty of ground clearance and approach and departure angles that were more than sufficient enough to let me climb the hills on my (admittedly) tame adventure. A rotary dial made switching to four-wheel drive a cinch, although the rear differential refused to lock unless I was in low-range – not that I needed either. Lastly, the Mazda can wade waters an impressive 800 mm deep, which of course I didn’t test.

Verdict: So close, yet so far from class best

We end this review as we started it – the Mazda brand and how this BT-50 sits in the company’s portfolio. While the truck does exhibit the brand’s general tendencies in some areas (good looks, a focus on efficiency, even the powertrain’s slight sluggishness), in most others it veers wildly off the script (iffy infotainment graphics, gruff engine, ponderous steering, crude ride).

That’s not to say this is a bad truck. The D-Max may have its flaws, but it also offers plenty of strengths and it fulfils Isuzu’s remit of delivering great fuel economy and impervious reliability and off-road prowess. But Mazda has a reputation of giving users a premium and refined alternative to mainstream models and one drive in the BT-50 shatters this image. Ironically, the company would’ve likely produced a less contrived product had it stuck with its partnership with Ford.

Even so, it’s undeniable that the BT-50 has plenty of showroom appeal, thanks to its handsome, square-jawed face, well-built cabin and masses of tech. If you like the D-Max – and can live with its foibles – but want something with a little more pizzazz, this might be just the ticket.

The new Mazda BT-50 range is priced starting from RM92,529 for the base 1.9 litre single-cab model, rising up to RM143,718 for this 3.0 litre High Plus double-cab. A five-year/100,000 km warranty is included in the purchase. Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.