Fleet News

Mazda B2500

Despite the fact that it is just as capable as the other contenders – indeed it comes off the same production line in Thailand as the hugely successful Ford Ranger – sales so far have been less than dazzling.

Mazda chiefs would be the first to admit that some of the blame for this state of affairs lies on their shoulders – they have been busy in the past two years reinventing the Mazda brand with fresh new cars like the Mazda6, Mazda3 and RX-8. But things are about to change.

The focus is now on the marque's one and only commercial vehicle and the B2500 is about to get the 'zoom-zoom' treatment from Mazda's marketing men, with a refreshed model for 2004 and price cuts across the range for retail and small business buyers until September.

Originally launched in 1983, the B2500 has sold 90,000 units in Europe altogether and this year in the UK, despite the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has clamped down on the tax benefits available to company car drivers who choose commercials instead of cars, sales are up 26% over 2003.

Four basic models are available in the range – regular cab, stretch cab, Freestyle (an elongated cab with a bench in the back for occasional passengers) and double cab.

The smaller models are available in two or four-wheel drive format and two 2.5-litre turbodiesel engines are on offer, with either 84bhp at 4,000rpm or 109bhp at 3,500rpm and either 143lb-ft of torque at 2,000rpm or 196lb-ft at 2,000rpm.

Although the models share the same name, there is a world of difference between the people they are aimed at. At the utility end, buyers will include farmers, builders and fleets with a need for a tough, rugged vehicle.

At the double-cab end, Mazda expects to attract the lifestylers, user-choosers and maybe fleets which want to portray a high profile image. It's surprising how much a vehicle like this, complete with all the extra bells and whistles, will say about a company.

On-the-road prices (ex-VAT) range from £9,500 for the 4x2 single cab diesel to £17,500 for the 4x4 Double Cab 4Style and savings over the normal price range from £700 to £2,168 depending on the model chosen.

New on the outside for this year are two fresh 15in alloy wheel designs, a body colour package, new clear side markers and a remote fuel cap opener. Inside, the B2500 gets new seat and door trim fabrics, a new ivory-coloured background for the instrument panel and a new double lid console box with a large bin and tray for all but the smallest version.

The regular cab version is the workhorse of the range and has seating for two, with either the standard engine in two wheel drive format or the higher powered version in four-wheel drive available.

As the cab is the shortest in the range, it means the load area is the largest at 2,280mm long and 1,535mm wide. Loading up to the deckline gives 3.5 cubic metres of space. Also a Truckman hardtop is available for the four-wheel drive version at £1,049 inc-VAT. Payload is 1,194kg.

The stretch cab has two doors but has seating for four. Consequently the load area is shorter at 1,755mm long.

The Freestyle has the same cab as the stretch version but features rear doors that don't look like doors until a lever is pulled and the rear portion of the cab opens to make entrance to the rear seats easier. The seats themselves are more like cushions and back rests and are meant for occasional use.

The double cab features five full seats and still has a deck of 1,530mm in length. Payload here is 1,118kg.

The two engines available are turbodiesels but are not the common rail variety. Both are 2.5-litre units and are intercooled, with two counter-rotating balancer shafts to help iron out vibration.

Four-wheel drive versions have a second gear lever to change between two-wheel drive high, four-wheel drive high and four-wheel drive low ratios. The vehicle must be stationary to engage the last option.

Fuel consumption on the combined cycle is 26.2mpg for the lower powered version and 29.7 mpg for the higher one.

Behind the wheel

The doom and gloom merchants were out in force after the last Budget, when Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown announced his big tax clampdown on company car drivers who choose 4x4 trucks as a way of getting out of paying large sums of benefit-in-kind tax.

Instead of the current £500 across-the-board tax loading, anyone using a commercial vehicle for private use will face a charge of £3,000 – a six-fold increase.

The doom and gloomers predicted the end of this sector as we know it and even the industry experts writing in Fleet News were taken in for a while.

But closer examination reveals a different story. Brown offset the new rules for three years to allow for the changeover, so a user-chooser could still pick a 4x4 double cab now and have three years of coughing up just £110 a year in tax. And even under the new system, a 22% taxpayer will only be required to pay £55 a month, which is hardly going to break the bank.

Also the new rules won't affect the utility end of this market, where vehicles are bought to serve a particular fleet role and BIK tax doesn't come into the equation.

So it was with a confident air that Mazda invited a party of journalists to sample the delights of the B2500 in Corfu and the steep hilly terrain of that beautiful island proved an ideal setting to test the mettle of the vehicle. All four cab versions were available for testing but only with the higher-powered engines.

First up was the double cab version dripping with all the macho accessories a user-chooser could want, including side steps, rear style bars, air conditioning and CD player.

The question any user-chooser should ask before considering taking on one of these vehicles is: 'Could I live with it on a day-to-day basis?' After all, it is more likely to be seen plying the motorways of Britain than bouncing across ploughed fields.

And here Mazda seems to have got the balance about right – the suspension is soft enough to leave all your fillings in place on smooth roads, but hard enough to cope with a good deal of rough treatment.

On the better Greek roads we could for all the world have been driving in a normal car – and that's something you can't say about some other contenders in the sector, notably the rock-hard Mitsubishi L200.

Moving on to the Freestyle cab, both myself and my co-pilot were impressed with the way the the rear hinged sections opened but you'd have to query whether it is worth buying this model over the double-cab.

In the rear, the seats are more what I'd call butt-pads and with limited legroom you really wouldn't want to travel far in the back of this vehicle.

We also had a chance to take the single cab 4x4 version on a small off-road course on the beach at Chalikounas and here the B2500 proved it could handle the rough with the smooth. The course wasn't exactly what you'd call challenging but some steep angles and inclines proved no problem at all.

Power steering, gearchanging and clutch action were all light and easy – too light for me personally and not 'blokey' enough. But my female co-pilot was impressed and believed this car-like feel could prove a winner with the girls.

Mazda's biggest problem is that it only has this commercial vehicle in its range, so fleets which want, say, some trucks and some panel vans would have to visit two different dealers.

Despite Mazda's tie-up with Ford (the US firm owns a 33% stake), there are no plans for Mazda to offer any kind of larger vehicle at present, which is a pity. Mazda instead will be relying on its reputation for rock-solid reliability and those lower prices to sell the truck.

Driving verdict

Great looks, tough powerplants and a nice balance for general day-to-day driving make the Mazda B2500 a worthy contender in a sector which is packed with mighty movers. Those low price deals could just swing the balance in Mazda's favour.

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