Fri | Nov 24, 2017

Mazda BT-50 - mountain journey

Published:Sunday | October 22, 2017 | 12:00 AMKareem Latouche
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Destination: Penlyne Castle, Blue Mountain

Starting point: Kingston

Duration: three hrs

Terrain: only fit for 4WD with good ground clearance

Level of difficulty for vehicle: 4.5/5

 

What to bring: A raincoat, sugary snacks for energy, comfortable shoes

Where will hurt: your quadriceps and calves on the way up, and on the way down, your knees and the base of your feet.

Fun fact: The Blue Mountains span over 14 miles and persons can choose to climb different mountains with different access points like Hollywell. However, to get to the highest point, which is 7,402 feet, persons must go through Portland Gap, where there is an access gate and a ranger's cottage.

What to buy: Given the lush vegetation, any fruit is a sure bet, but ask for orange, lemon, and peach. Yes, in this climate peaches can be grown. Just ensure that you peel off the skin, which is very bitter.

At first, Executive Motors, local dealers for Mazda, were a bit apprehensive about providing this demo unit of the BT-50 for Automotive's test drive given that this model is an entry-level trim. Most companies like to give their highest trim level, which usually comes fully loaded, unlike the model we got.

However, the entry-level trim is usually the ideal model to test as it pertains to pick-ups. These are the ones that usually populate our roads. Their interiors are minimal, with dashes of sophistications here and there, but their primary objective is to get the work done.

Where Jamaicans are concerned, the main characteristics of any pick-up are durability, towing capacity, and off-road capabilities. With this in mind, I had to take the vehicle somewhere that would put it to the test. Penlyne Castle, St Thomas, felt like the perfect destination. This is also the most common starting point for persons interested in hiking to the Blue Mountain Peak.

Nonetheless, the drive to Penlyne Castle, which takes you close to the border of St Thomas and Portland, is equally hard.

After a few kilometres into Gordon Town, it started to rain. I immediately put the vehicle in 4WD HI, locking the centre differential for more grip. This gave really good traction, but then I had to contend with the next issue: staying on the right path. Since it was my first time, I invariably took the wrong road and drove into a dead end. With no rear camera or sensor and a vehicle 17 feet long and six feet wide, making a 'U' turn on the narrow country road took some concentration.

It's important to note that the BT-50 standard gear box does take some getting used to since it is not as smooth as the ones in a regular sedan. Truth be told, this is the case with most standard pick-ups, regardless of manufacturer.

To access reverse, an attachment on the shaft has to be pulled simultaneously while shifting the gear into the desired positions. Luckily, while maneuvering the vehicle, my passenger, along with a passer-by, gave me some visual support at the rear. After this was completed, the passer-by, an elderly man, then asked for a lift to Mavis Bank, and during the journey, alerted us to what we should expect on the upcoming terrain. We had about two more hours of driving left, and the majority of the road from this point was going to be one lane.

 

One-lane terrain

 

As the ascension became steeper, the radio signal began to disappear, so I paired my phone via Bluetooth with the vehicle's infotainment system. Even though the layout is not as fancy as its high-end trim, it got the job done in a more than adequate manner. I was able to intuitively find the option to pair it with my phone as well as use the centre console interface to dial numbers.

Unfortunately, with the challenging terrain, Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal became a distraction, and so I turned off the player.

By the time I reached Mahogany Valley, I went up a steeper incline, where I saw a Land Rover Defender coming towards me. We both were forced to stop by the narrow roadway, and he decided to yield by parking close to the soft shoulder. Due to the long stop, the turbo-charged 2-litre engine of the BT-50 lost momentum. Consequently, I had to put it in neutral then gave it a couple of revs before continuing of the hill.

From this point, much of the terrain consisted of dirt and rocks, which the BT-50 was able to tackle in a robust manner. This is where its ground clearance of 9.3 inches was put to the test as some of the 'path' consisted solely of large rocks, which had to be approached cautiously at an angle. In moments like these, persons will find out whether their pick-up is a toy or a machine.

Fortunately, I was driving a machine as there were many vehicles abandoned on the side of the road, falling victims to the treacherous journey. Truth be told, the only other pick-up present were the 1970s Land Rover Defenders, which seemed to be the preferred vehicles for persons who are active in the coffee business.

Once we reached to a point where there was nowhere else to drive, a local told us to park at the big tree. At this point, it was about 12:30 p.m., so we put on our knapsacks and raincoats and began the trek up to Jacobs Ladder to Portland Gap then to Blue Mountain Peak.

 

Coming Back

 

By the time we came back from the summit, which is about 7,402 feet and 44 degrees Fahrenheit, it was 7:30 p.m. This meant it was dark; with lots of fog, and the rain started to pour. In cases like these, the headlights would not have been sufficient, so I turned on the flood lights to have better vision of the surface of the terrain.

Next, I had to contend with the steep, slippery decline, along with the weight of the vehicle. For this reason, 4WD LO, which can be accessed while driving as long as the gear is in neutral, was the ideal drive mode for the situation. All the obstacles were met at a crawling pace, and fortunately, the departure angle is so high that when clearing a ditch, the back bumper did not rub on the surface.

While on our way back through Hagley Gap, I met another pick-up coming in the opposite direction and, unfortunately, it was my turn to yield. Sadly, there are no defroster lines on the rear glass, so I had to wind down the windows - it was still raining - and use the side mirrors to reverse. What made it even more uncomfortable was that the guy in front kept moving forward, so I had to keep balancing the clutch to ensure that I didn't roll down and hit him.

Eventually, I found a widening which allowed him to pass, but what was clear was that in scenarios like these, it's imperative to have a passenger.

From that point, the journey was steady and slow as most of it had to be done in first gear due to the slippery and uneven surface. By the time I got to Hope Road, I was a bit fatigued, but I was eager to feel the power of the turbo. For starters, it packs a heavy punch, which comes on very linearly but not in a superaggressive manner.

The overall mechanism of the vehicle does require some muscle memory like balancing the clutch, which is a bit high. As a result, there were times when I pressed the gas pedal and the clutch was still engaged, causing the back tires to spin before the vehicle started moving. This is going to be the case for the average driver, especially on dusty or slippery surfaces until he/she gets the hang of it.

With that being said, the overall driving experience was extremely pleasant whether on the rocky terrain or on a flat surface. Where comfort and performance are concerned, Mazda seems to have found a good balance.

 

What I like

 

Very responsive engine

Sturdy built

Easy to pair Bluetooth system

 

Gripes

 

No defroster on rear window

Seats could have more options for adjustments

 

Specs:

 

Ground Clearance for the models is 237mm (9.33in)

Year model: 2017

Engine size: 2,200cc

Hp: 150

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Type of suspension: independent double wishbone

Towing capacity: 3,500kg

Weight: 2,040kg

 

STANDARD FEATURES

 

4WD (4hi and 4lo) with shift-on-the-fly capabilities

Bluetooth connectivity

17" alloy rims with full-size spare

Sidesteps

Fog lamps

Common rail turbo diesel

USB connectivity with aux jack

 

PRICE OPTIONS

 

Cost of test model (Total and monthly cost): 5.1M, $72,486.49 (monthly)

6-speed automatic: $5,600,000.00

Test drive provided courtesy Executive Motors, 929-5274, mail@execmotorsja.com

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