In the outback, the heat is not your mate. It’s not a gentle, ocean-breeze warmth. Out here, the heat hits you in the face like a bitter ex-girlfriend. It sears your skin, burns your throat with every breath and makes sun-exposed metal unbearable to touch for more than a second or two – a fact I remembered only after having rested my hand briefly on a ute’s bullbar while getting up from digging sand away from its bogged front wheels. Yep, it burnt.
When driving out here, you swiftly realise that the outback doesn’t care about your mortgage repayments or your Friday-night fashion dilemmas or your #blessed life or the soy latte awaiting you in your hipster-cool home town. The outback – as beautiful as it is – is designed for one thing: to hurt you.
But we emerged unscathed – and with Big Sky smiles – from a two-day stint in Mazda’s new 4X4 BT-50s in outback South Australia. Visitors to the region need only stick to three basic rules to come out on top like we did.
Rule #1: Respect the police. (And drop tyre pressures)
It’s the stuff surreal outback dreams are made of: a perfect, cloudless blue sky frames a huge cloud of dust seemingly frozen mid-air, as you stand in the scorching midday sun, sipping water and eating Jelly Babies, while a police officer does low-speed doughnuts around a dusty claypan in a new BT-50 XTR dual-cab.
But this was real.
The South Australian cop, with Mazda’s blessing, was doing gentle circle-work on part of the “6 x 4 trail” we were having fun on, just outside of Oodnadatta. The bloke was having an absolute ball.
You swiftly realise that the outback doesn’t care about your mortgage repayments or your Friday-night fashion dilemmas or your #blessed life.
Only minutes before, we’d seen the police LandCruiser approaching our position from a kilometre away, gliding across a rich-red sandy track. We saw all of this because we were stuck at the time. Door-sill deep in sand, atop a dune. Bogged. “A momentary delay in forward momentum,” someone had once quipped to me about being bogged. “But if you’re not getting bogged, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Don’t get me wrong: the BT-50 can go almost anywhere. It took two experienced but easily distracted journos to prevent it conquering this particular obstacle. We’d made a clumsy error worthy of off-road rookies: we’d relied on speed to tackle a small but steep-ish dune and had come unstuck at a mound of sand just before the dune’s crest. Corrugations in the sand at the top – caused over time by drivers with over-inflated tyres doing just what we had done – had forced us into a terminal bounce, which had then drained all of our momentum. The more we tried to gun out of it, the deeper the wheels dug. We were going nowhere under our own steam. \
The two officers, an Indigenous bloke and a white woman, arrived, ostensibly to make sure we were all behaving, but actually to have a chat and take our utes (the XTR dual-cab and a Freestyle cab) for a test-drive on the claypan.
The bloke looked at our predicament and offered a wry smile. “Did you drop your tyre pressures?” he said. We hadn’t.
No problem: the Mazda support crew swung into action, dropped our tyre pressures and snatch-strapped us out in no time.
Reducing tyre pressures increases a tyre’s footprint – the length of its contact patch on the ground, not its width as is often believed. Increasing a tyre’s footprint makes it easier to tackle just about any off-road terrain or obstacle.
We were running our tyres at 30psi which, by my reckoning, was about twice as much air as we should have had in them. And with temps tickling the upper 40s at that stage, our tyres would have been nudging 35psi or more.
As is often the case with 4WD strife anywhere, driver error was the issue, not the vehicle. Still, we were having fun.
Rule #2: Take the right 4WD.
The new BT-50 looks tougher than its popular predecessor. The front end’s upswept ‘eyes’ and bashed-crab look have gone, replaced with a tough, chunky, squared-off presence. (The ugly nose had been about the only thing anyone could agree on as a flaw in the previous model.)
Looks, as we all know, can be deceiving – tough-looking doesn’t necessarily mean tough – but trusting your 4WD is easy when you’re driving a new BT-50, the latest addition to one of Australia’s top-selling ute stables.
Off-road, this BT-50 went pretty much everywhere it bloody wanted to – and it did it in comfort and with style.
We drove it over heavily corrugated dirt tracks, flirted with gibber plain traverses and took on super-heated sand, all the while feeling neither rattled or jolted or otherwise out of sorts as you would in utes of not-so-old over such a variety of terrain and with no load in the back.
With 4-Low mode and electronic aids selected (its rock-solid Hill Descent Control included), this ute virtually drove itself over every off-road challenge we pointed it at. Choose the line, choose the gear and away you go.
The 3.2L five-cylinder – producing an outback-ready 147kW@3000rpm and 470Nm@1750-2500rpm – is slickly mated to the six-speed auto, producing plenty of real-world power and low-low grunt when it really does matter.
It’s no disappointment on gravel or bitumen either, offering a car-like ride: stable, predictable, comfortable.
We drove along sandy creek-beds and up and down deeply rutted washouts. No problem.
With the encouragement of Mazda staff ringing in our ears, we drove it up a rocky mountain-side as high as we could until the severity of the slope screamed at us to stop; that and car-sized rocks were the only things preventing our progression to the summit.
The BT-50 felt keen to keep going.
Rule #3: Have fun.
We did. There’s a raw, visceral delight to driving in the outback and especially off-road in the outback. Nothing like it. The scenery is incredible and ever-changing, as is the terrain. The light is eye-scalding bright. During the day, the sky is crisp and clear blue; the night sky is a black blanket, peppered and aflame with bright, twinkling stars.
Out here visitors can:
Take an early-morning stroll with the playful dogs of fantastic Arckaringa Homestead;
Gaze in wonder at the swirling colours of The Painted Desert;
Drive the legendary Oodnadatta Track;
and savour the cool charm of Coober Pedy’s underground attractions.
No matter how many times you’ve been out this way, it never gets old.
The BT-50 XTR was a pleasure to drive on bitumen and bush tracks and a real treat to take off-road; it offers supremely balanced ride and handling, making for a quiet and smooth driving experience. What’s more, it’s stylish inside and out – especially now with that easy-to-like front end.
I was wrong: the outback is not designed to hurt you but it does challenge you; placing man and machine well and truly out of any comfort zone. Putting the new BT-50 to the test in this harsh but beautiful part of Australia made perfect sense.