One of the best things that can be said about Mazda's B-series pickup trucks is that they are built by Ford.In fact, they are basically Ford Rangers with different grille, trim and equipment packages built at Ford's plant in Edison, New Jersey. For 1998 the visual differences will be greater to create a stronger identity. The Ranger is a solid, well-built mid-size truck that suffers only from a cab that is a bit confining, and that will be rectified with the redesigned 1998. Mazda's B-series will also profit from the change. Cooperation between Ford and Mazda is not new. Ford owns a large chunk of Mazda. They have shared car and truck platforms for quite some time, and the cross-pollination continues. Mazda broughts its special SE-5 equipment package back in 1997, and it includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, bedliner and rear sliding window. Our test truck, a 1997 B4000 powered by a 4.0-liter V6, was so equipped. The smaller-engined, less-expensive B2300 has a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. All models are available in regular or extended-cab versions and with two-wheel or four-wheel drive. Extended-cab pickups are practical because they provide space for small packages, pets or even kids. Neither the B4000 or Ranger have third-door access, and that inhibits the usefulness of the extra space. A small, fold-down seat, complete with seatbelt, is there for small children. The 4.0-liter engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, the same one found in Ford's Explorer. This slick-shifting transmission enables the B4000 to make the most of the V6's 160 horsepower. Our test truck was a loaded, extended-cab with four-wheel drive, and at times it felt as if the four-wheel-drive system was binding up slightly. I have driven numerous Rangers and Mazdas in the past that did not feel this way, so I assume it was an aberration specific to the test vehicle. That shortcoming aside, it was a pleasure to drive. The body felt rigid and tight and the seats were firm and supportive. The fold-down armrest can be pushed upright if you have need of carrying three passengers in the front seat, although it would be pretty crowded and I wouldn't recommend it. The SE Plus preferred equipment group includes four-wheel, anti-lock brakes and a passenger-side airbag were part of the SE Plus preferred equipment group. A switch on the dash turns off the passenger airbag so you can carry small children or a child safety seat. Power was more than adequate for keeping up with city traffic, and it also felt at home on the freeway. The five-speed automatic invigorates acceleration because it enables the engine to operate longer in its optimum power band. Switching into four-wheel drive, either high or low range, is done electronically by twisting a knob on the dash. No hubs to lock, no getting out of the cab. Nothing could be easier. This truck's tall stance and macho look can b e attributed to the ground clearance needed for off-road work and the gigantic off-road tires on 15-inch wheels. Mazda distinguishes its trucks from Ford's with a different grille and chrome trim around the side windows. Fairly bright graphics are emblazoned on the side, as well. I could do without those, but the chrome trim adds some brightness that is welcome. The 1998 Ranger that goes on sale in October has received a thorough rework, including a much stiffer frame and a cab that is three inches longer. Mazda's version will share those improvements, as well, but it may be equipped in such a was as to make it more appealing to younger buyers. Price The base price of our test truck was $19,485. Add in floor mats, automatic transmission, the SE-5 Plus equipment group and the towing package and the sticker price was $24,375. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are suppl d by the auto manufacturers. Point: When you equip the B4000 with the SE-5 Plus equipment package you get a very pleasant truck with all the amenities of a car. The five-speed automatic transmission is excellent. Counterpoint: The cab is a bit tight, and the lack of a third door inhibits access to the back seat. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 4.0-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: Automatic WHEELBASE: 125.4 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,355 lbs. BASE PRICE: $19,485 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $24,375 MPG RATING: 16 city, 20 hwy.
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