In the past, only slight differences separated Mazda's B-series pickupsfrom the Ford Ranger on which it was based. This year, when the Ranger was restyled, Mazda took the opportunity to give its version a more distinctive look. Research showed that import truck buyers like a lower, wider looking truck, so the designers in Mazda's California studio gave the front of their truck a horizontal theme, with wide headlights and large chrome grille. That look is further emphasized by a fender line that runs from the grille up to the doors. Around back, the rear fenders have subtle bulges stamped into them to create what Mazda calls "a muscular stance," and all of these changes do, in fact, separate the Mazda from the Ford more than last year. Underneath, the heart of the Ranger still exists. Thanks to a 3.6-inch longer wheelbase, the standard cab is three inches longer. There are three engines, two trim levels and regular as well as extended-cab models in two-wheel or four-wheel drive. The base four-cylinder has been enlarged from 2.3-to 2.5-liters, and it has 119 horsepower. The other engines are a pair of V6s, 3.0- and 4.0-liters. To check out the changes, we drove a B3000 regular cab 4X4, whose 3.0-liter V6 has been retuned to give it 185 foot-pounds of torque, or pulling power, an increase of 14 percent. Horsepower is 150, just 10 less than the larger 4.0-liter; however, the larger engine's 225 foot-pounds of torque makes it the choice for pulling large, heavy loads. Mated to the five-speed manual transmission, the 3.0-liter engine had reasonable acceleration, and was powerful enough to carry light loads. For city driving I would prefer the automatic transmission, but the manual gives better gas mileage and allows the driver to have more control for times when she might venture out into the country. Mazda says compact pickup trucks are the sports cars of the 1990s, vehicles that "enhance the carefree, active lifestyle of its owner." Our test truck fits that description well. The longer cab allows greater seat travel, and now the driver can recline the seat back without hitting the back wall. The interior is a mirror image of the Ford's, and that means a thoughtfully designed instrument panel with large, readable instruments and simple, logical controls. The radio has large, fat buttons and the heater has rotary dials that work intuitively. The 60/40 split bench front seat enables three persons to ride in the cab if the need arises, but most of the time only two will fit comfortably. Selecting four-wheel-drive at speeds up to 70 mph is accomplished by simply twisting a knob on the dash, which I appreciated during the occasional snow flurries that accompanied our truck on its visit here. The front axle is equipped with a pulse vacuum hub-lock (PVH) system that engages the front wheels quickly and quietly with no need to stop or back up. PVH a lso improves fuel economy in two-wheel-drive models. The frame is 350 percent stiffer because the rails are now fully boxed, and that makes the ride tighter. Up front, a short-arm/long-arm front suspension has been adopted for a smoother ride and better handling. Two-wheel-drive models get coil springs, while the 4X4 gets torsion bars. Using two systems costs more, but Mazda says they provide better road feel and improved off-road use. Price The base price of our test truck, a B3000 SE, was $16,945. A $3,070 package included alloy wheels, sliding rear window, bed liner, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, and an AM/FM stereo with compact disc player. Including the package discount and destination charges, the sticker price was $19,475. Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Compact pickups are the sports cars of the 1990s, and this one is a good example. The cab is slightly longer for more room, the frame is stiffer and the engine is more responsive. Counterpoint: The 3.0-liter V6 is good for around town use, but if you want to carry heavy items or pull big loads, the larger engine would be the best choice. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 3.0-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: Five-speed WHEELBASE: 111.6 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,433 lbs. BASE PRICE: $16,945 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $19,535 MPG RATING: 17 city, 21 hwy.
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