Overview

In the world of pickups and sport utility vehicles, most of the import manufacturers' efforts typically have fallen a notch or two short in important categories. We're talking American-stylee attributes such as power, payload capacity and overall roominess and comfort.

That's not the case with the 1994 Mazda B4000 4x4 LE Cab Plus. We think we've uncovered the reason: Mazda's long-standing partnership with Ford and the by-no-means coincidental similarities between a good deal of this new Mazda's sheet metal, dimensions and underpinnings and those of the Ford Ranger. It's not necessarily a bad combination, because its size, roominess and responsiveness put it squarely in the mid-size pickup category along with Dodge's Dakota, Chevy's new S-Series and Ford's Ranger. With a base MSRP of $19,500 and a top MSRP of $22,500 for our relatively loaded test vehicle, this new Mazda B4000 Cab Plus compares very well with the competition and promises effective relief from sticker shock.

Walkaround

A trek around our test vehicle revealed some familiar-looking treatments melded with some inventive design touches unique to Mazda. The rugged-looking black plastic grille wasn't one of those differences but did display the distinctive new Mazda logo. Beneath it, we found a hefty chrome front bumper with black vinyl end caps. Above, the flush-mounted halogen headlamps were covered by impact-resistant plastic. A black plastic air dam stretched underneath the bumper and housed two amber cornering lamps.

Looking down the side, we saw the Mazda differences in the form of gracefully bowed or bubbled-out fender contours, in direct opposition to the flared designs that abound in the industry. The same bowed or bubbled effect was echoed in the taillight treatments. Also in the striking one-of-a-kind category were the five-spoke aluminum wheels and front locking hub design. Big chrome side view mirrors and chrome trim around the rear slider window gave this pickup just the right amount of glitter.

Out back, the sporty six-foot bed on our test vehicle was protected by a Mazda-brand vinyl bed liner. Atop the cab, twin rear cargo lamps flanked a third taillight. The chromed handle on the rear drop gate was strategically positioned for easy use, and the gate itself is removable for easier loading or the installation of a cargo net. A chrome step bumper with vinyl step pads and a hitch hole completed the rear end treatment. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention this new Mazda pickup's optional two-tone paint job. In short, it was flawless and head-turning.

Interior Features

Contemporary styling, rich-looking fabrics and overall modern appearance presented themselves upon our entrance to the Mazda B4000 LE's cockpit. The roomy, reclining bucket seats were covered by a combination of velour and complementary fabric, as were the door and kick panels on each side. The driver's seat featured both a power inflatable lumbar support and a front bolster or front seat cushion adjustment activated by a handle underneath. Instrument panel readouts were easily viewable through the two-spoke steering wheel and included speedometer, tachometer and analog battery, oil, temperature and fuel needle gauges. Several "check function" lights and a 4WD drive indicator light rounded out the instrument panel complement. With modest surprise, we found a column-mounted selector for the four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. Not bad, just different. Behind the front buckets, the rear slider and two side wing windows promised ample ventilation. Retractable, side-facing jump seats folded down, featuring a nice velour covering and enough room for an adult on a short trip or a fun place for kids on a longer one. Two other welcome rearward features: a lid that folds down over the cargo area to conceal valuable items and a large cargo net on the rear cab wall. Bright dome and independently operated map and vanity lights, a passenger-side visor-mounted vanity mirror, convenient map pockets and cleverly compartmentalized center armrest storage continued this Mazda pickup's lengthy list of American-style, creature-pleasing interior attributes.

Driving Impressions

Superb comfort, adequate-to-good power response, great braking and a sometimes disquieting blind spot are some of the characteristics that remain with us as a result of our test drive in the Mazda B4000. The standard 4.0liter V6 delivered less than breathtaking highway passing punch but displayed plenty of muscle in lower-speed passing simulations. Everything on our test vehicle engaged smoothly and easily, from the optional cruise control to the shift-on-the-fly two-speed 4WD system.

We did note a fair amount of engine noise when we engaged the 4WD via the panel-mounted button. The system also requires you to pull off the road, stop and reverse the vehicle for about 15 feet to disengage the locking hubs. Cornering was firm and virtually rock-and-roll-free. The front disc/rear drum anti-lock braking system of our Mazda B4000 delivered swift, straight stops with a minimum of pedal pulsation. Care was required in changing lanes in either direction, however, due to a pair of blind spots that were created by the pillars around the rear quarter windows of the extended cab.

Summary

As we said in the opening, the Mazda B4000 bears a strong resemblance to the very successful Ford Ranger midsize pickups. Like the results of many Ford-Mazda associations, it is built right here in the good old USA-in Edison, New Jersey. As a result, the B4000 has the best of both worlds going for it, pickup style and substance and very-Japanese-like fit-and-finish, which is to say high quality.

The other two major players in the midsize truck market, Chevy and Dodge, have stayed away from any import associations involving their pickups. Dodge dealers bristle at any suggestions of Chrysler joining Mitsubishi in producing an import version of the successful Dakota. Chevy, despite some strong ongoing relationships with import partners, apparently has avoided the situation altogether.

But the Mazda B400 is a unique product of a unique relationship. It has a superior level of comfort and great ride and handling. The quality appears to be up to import standards. The committee of designers, engineers, manufacturing gurus and marketing wizards have done a very good job at coming up with the look and feel of an import in a package aimed directly at an important American market.

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