IT SEEMS manufacturers of one-tonne utes are swapping partners as if on a hokey reality TV show. The latest to throw its keys in the bowl is Mazda, who ends its rocky relationship with Ford by announcing it will partner with Isuzu for its next-generation BT-50.
The predecessor to Mazda’s BT-50 was the B-series ute, which was shared with Ford from the mid-1970s, as Ford had a heavy financial interest in the Japanese company. The ute was designed and built by Mazda, but it was sold as the Ford Courier or Ranger depending on the year and market – a wagon version of the Mazda ute was even badged the Ford Everest in some markets.
That all changed in 2011 when the current generation of Ford and Mazda utes arrived. Co-developed between the two brands, Ford Australia took the lead to build a bigger and brawnier truck that has proven a success. But the success of the Ford Ranger hasn’t been reflected in the Mazda BT-50, with its polarising style the reason many buyers prefer the more truck-like Ranger.
When the facelifted versions of the Ford Ranger and the BT-50 arrived in 2015 – and the Ford benefitted from many more updates than the Mazda – rumours started that the Japanese partner wasn’t happy in this coupling. Some said Mazda wasn’t comfortable with the bigger style and engine of the Ford product, saying the relatively large 3.2-litre five-cylinder Ford engine didn’t gel with Mazda’s aim of producing smaller, more efficient powertrains.
An agreement signed between Mazda and Toyota last year had many pundits tipping a Hilux-based ute for the next-gen BT, but that has been dispelled with the recent Isuzu partnership announcement.
Isuzu’s side of the family tree mimics Mazda’s in some ways. Isuzu partnered with American auto giant General Motors, and for many years GM utes such as the Chevy Luv and the Holden Rodeo come-Colorado were rebadged versions of the Jap-made Isuzu utes. Just like Ford sold re-badged Mazda utes.
And when the current-gen Holden Colorado (RG) and Isuzu D-Max arrived, they were co-developed products yet featured individual powertrains and bespoke styling that differentiated them much more than in the past. They’re even built in separate GM and Isuzu plants in Thailand.
As the Japanese brands fell out of favour with the US giants they needed new partners to maintain their strong standing in the segment, and the Mazda-Isuzu collaboration could be one made in heaven. Mazda is a passenger car specialist that is developing leading-edge powertrains to take the internal combustion engine onwards and up. While Isuzu has a strong truck heritage (its light commercial ute arm trades on that), but it can’t survive on its own. Isuzu’s own 3.0-litre diesel engine is getting long in the tooth and, even though it remains a strong performer, it needs serious updates or replacing to keep up with global emission regulations.
A pair of Isuzu-developed utes – and possibly a three-row wagon – powered by the latest Mazda powertrains could be a winner for both brands. That arrangement is purely speculation at the moment, with the only confirmed fact being that Mazda will be purchasing its next-generation pick-up from Isuzu. However, it’s one that makes sense for both brands.
The current generation of Isuzu D-Max is close to six years old, while the BT-50 is coming up on seven years. That suggests the next-generation Isuzu is due to come out in the next four to five years, and you can bet Mazda will be working hard to have its new BT version ready around the same time.
THIS partner-sharing thing is nothing new in the ute segment. Apart from the Ford/Mazda and GM/Isuzu relationships, there are a few others going today.
Nissan seems to be attracting more than its share of attention with its current NP300 Navara platform. A French-flavoured version of the Nissan ute will arrive next year with the Renault Alaskan, and that’s logical considering the Nissan-Renault Alliance. What’s not so apparent is the Nissan-Mercedes-Benz partnership, with the German giant bringing its own version of the Navara ute to market in 2018. The Benz pick-up with have distinctive MB styling and will be offered with a choice of Benz and Renault powertrains.
Mitsubishi is sharing its Triton ute with Fiat, where it is sold in some markets (not Australia) as the Fiat Fullback with a Fiat-styled nose job. Adding a further twist to this story of inbreeding, Nissan last month announced plans to purchase a 34 per cent share of Mitsubishi that would rescue the cash-strapped brand and see it embark on a raft of platform-sharing programs.
Could the Triton and Fullback also ride on the Navara chassis? And what of Hilux, Amarok and the Chinese utes? Does Toyota even care it’s still the market leader? All we know is that it will be fun times ahead in this booming class of LCVs.