With a new parent company and energized leadership, Mazda is looking to get back in the truck business with some force. Our Laser Red 4x4 test unit was equipped with the 3.0-liter V-6 and five-speed manual transmission, standard on all four-wheel-drive pickups. New for the Mazda is a Ford-designed short- and long-arm IFS setup (SLA, in Ford-speak) sprung with torsion bars, combined with all-new rack-and-pinion steering. Several testers felt that the manual transmission offered a huge gearing advantage over the Ford, offering a more ready-to-work 3.72:1 First gear ratio. Likewise, other comments centered around the relatively short spaces between the gears. However, we also noted that the smaller 3.0-liter V-6 did require the driver to use the gears intelligently and often to keep rpm in the strongest part of the powerband.
The most obvious strength is 3.0-liter's fuel economy. Our B3000 bested the Ford 4.0-liter by almost 15 percent, and it ran close to 10 percent better than the Toyota 3.4. In the real world, that meant the Mazda had a 50-mile range advantage per tankful over the Ranger. We can also say that the 3.0 is an uncommonly smooth powerplant that makes for a quiet, carlike powertrain. Very little engine noise comes through to the cabin; indeed, at times we had to check the tach to see that the engine was running at idle.
In Trail Performance testing, the Mazda held up pretty well. The old Borg-Warner transfer case has been updated with the B-W 44-05 electronic version used in the Ford F-150 and Explorer. A few testers had difficulty engaging the "4-Low" position with the dial, as it turned out, by not following the proper sequence. However, with the driver observing the stated procedure, the system engages and disengages exactly as advertised. We ran through chalk dust bowls and gritty sand washes, and were able to nick in and out of 4-Hi on the fly, upon demand; the new system allows for true shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive at any speed up to 65 mph, something the previous 'case didn't allow without some muscle. To engage low-range, it's necessary to stop, find Neutral, and click the dial to 4-Lo. As to trail gearing, one tester noted he liked the tranny for slow-go trail spotting, but he'd like the 4.0-liter for a little more push. In truth, the Mazda does offer a crawl ratio 34 percent better than the Ford, but seven percent less than the Toyota.
Moving to the inside, the highest praises for our test mule came during Interior Scoring. Testers noted the use of materials and tight seam fits as big point-magnets. In the end, the Mazda proved itself, although Third in this three-truck test, as a strong choice for the value-conscious new-truck shopper searching for style, quality and performance in an economical package.