Motoring: Honey, we shrunk the pickup

America has modified its big, butch, builders' truck for a more sophisticated market. And Japan has cloned it.

The pickup's image as a road-going wheelbarrow is set to change. In the US, pickups are used less by jobbing builders than by pleasure seekers. Jet-skis and scramblers are a more likely payload than sand and gravel. The logic is simple: have gear, will travel, buy sporty pickup. Ford alone has sold 26 million of its F-series pickups, the best-selling "car" in the US since the mid-Eighties.

Ford concedes that the F-type is too big and thirsty for Europe. That's why it has teamed up with Mazda, another long-time pickup manufacturer, to create a vehicle more suitable for other markets. Ford's version, called the Ranger, is set "to give new impetus to the whole pickup segment", according to chairman and MD Ian McAllister. Such is Ford's showroom muscle, the Ranger might even boost sales of rivals Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Vauxhall, never mind Mazda, much as the Galaxy prised open the MPV sector for competition.

Mazda's clone, made alongside the Ford in Thailand (the world's second- biggest pickup market), inherits the prosaic B-type nomenclature of its predecessors. Both diesel-only versions are now on sale here, at prices ranging from pounds 10,977 with VAT for the base Ford (pounds 11,244 for the equivalent Mazda) to pounds 18,741 (pounds 19,000) for the swankiest. Only on the top models - those with the most car-like qualities - is VAT not reclaimable by business users (though this may change).

Whatever the badge, there are several configurations, starting with the conventional humdrum pickup - two-seater cab, long open deck, non-turbo diesel engine, rear-wheel drive. Nothing fancy, just a tough, no-nonsense workhorse. Ford's intermediate plus-two version, with rear jump seats, is eschewed by Mazda. The five-seat "double-cab" turbo-diesel sacrifices goods space for passenger room. Four-wheel drive is standard on the double- cab, optional on the regular cabs.

While both partners stress that their models have advantages over those of the other, Mazda's Ranger and B-type are mechanically identical. Only in detail do they differ. Mazda chose to emphasise the up-range 4x4's off-road capabilities on the B-type's recent UK launch. Mazda's confidence in the B-type's ability not to get stuck in low-range 4x4 was well founded. If not quite so unstoppable as the best purpose-built off-roader, the all-drive B-type (or Ranger) will satisfy most mud-plugging needs.

In an over-choreographed off-road exercise, we finished up on-roading with a load of hay bales in the back. A clever ruse on Mazda's part? Without the ballast, I suspect the ride would have been a lot jerkier. High-tech these cars are not. Were it not for mushy, unresponsive steering the B-type/ Ranger would feel much like an ordinary car on the road. The conventional cabin certainly makes it look like one inside.

If you need a four-seater wheelbarrow, there's a lot to be said for this new breed. But do not mistake it for a funster. If you want to enjoy yourself at the wheel, go and buy a low-slung sports car.

Specifications

Mazda B2500

Doublecab 4x4

Price: pounds 17,308 including VAT (not reclaimable on this model).

Engine: 2499cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel with twin counterbalance shafts and three valves per cylinder, 109bhp at 3500rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, four-wheel drive.

Performance: max speed 90mph, 0-60mph in 13 seconds.

Rivals

Ford Ranger Doublecab 4x4: pounds 18,741. Same basic Thai-made vehicle as Mazda. Also available with regular two-seat cab and super plus-two cab. From pounds 10,977 with VAT (reclaimable by business users) for rear-drive base model. Choice of diesel engine.

Mitsubishi 4 Life: pounds 19,200 (the cheaper GL, with less equipment but same turbo-diesel and 4x4 transmission, costs pounds 17,675). Before launch of the Ford/Mazda rival, the best-selling "doublecab" pickup in Britain.

Toyota Hilux 2.4TD 4x4 Doublecab: pounds 19,995. Top 89bhp model of diesel- only Hilux range that starts with 74bhp 2.4D rear-drive Pickup, costing pounds 12,743 with VAT. Goods deck smaller than Ford/Mazda's.

Vauxhall Brava 2.5TD 4x4 Doublecab: pounds 17,931 including VAT. Top Brava undercuts opposition on price. Like its rivals, diesel-only, Japanese- made Brava also available with single cab and rear-wheel drive. Only one- year warranty, against Mazda's three.

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