1995 Mazda Pickup

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Orlando Sentinel

Over the years, Ford has learned much by tapping into Mazda's small car expertise and technology. The Ford Probe, Mercury Tracer LTS and Ford Escort GT - all high-quality, affordable performance vehicles - are perhaps the three best examples of the Ford-Mazda linkup.

That partnership includes the sharing of manufacturing and technology as well as marketing. But lately Ford, which owns 25 percent of Mazda and is playing an increasingly active part in managing the money-losing Japanese automaker, is helping keep Mazda afloat in the United States.

Currency fluctuations have made it almost impossible for Japanese automakers to make a profit on vehicles built in Japan and shipped here. Ford has helped Mazda around that obstacle by giving the Japanese automaker a version of one of Ford's hottest-selling vehicles. It's the Ford Ranger pickup, which, wearing a different grille and name, is sold as the Mazda B2300. No matter what name is on the Ranger, this compact truck is an excellent vehicle, one that has plenty of style, performance and value.

PERFORMANCE

As with the Ranger, Mazda offers the B-Series in an almost endless number of permutations. For instance, buyers can choose from three engines, three trim levels, two cab configurations, two bed lengths and either two- or four-wheel drive.

I tested a regular cab, short-bed, four-cylinder model with a five-speed manual transmission and two-wheel drive.

The ''2300'' refers to the truck's 2300 cc (that's 2.3-liter) engine, which is rated at 112 horsepower. The B3000 comes with a 3.0-liter V-6 that makes 140horsepower. The top-of-the-line B4000, also outfitted with a V-6, makes 160 horsepower.

Our bright blue test truck ran very smoothly and quietly. But it seemed somewhat slow in first gear - even a bit sluggish at times. It takes some fancy footwork on the clutch and accelerator pedals to move off quickly when the truck is stopped. The driver has to rev the engine quitea bit - to, say, 3,000 rpm or so - to accelerate quickly.

I don't think the lack of low-speed performance is because the engine is a weakling. The engine has plenty of power. Revving it a bit higher will cause the rear wheels to spin. It's as if the high ratio of first gear places a bit too much of a strain on the engine.

The clutch and five-speed transmission are easy to operate. Several times I drove the B2300 in Interstate 4 traffic jams and found that even when constantly shifting and creeping along, the B2300 is civilized and easy to handle. In fact, it's downright sporty.

Once rolling, acceleration is fine. Though the B2300 is no speed demon, there is plenty of power when you need it, and it cruises in fourth and fifth gears quietly and efficiently.

Because I had the air conditioner running most of the time, fuel mileage came in just shy of the EPA ratings; our tester delivered at 22 mpg city and 26 mpg on the road.

HANDLING

The B2300 is enjoyable to drive on the street. But it also is versatile enough to take a pretty good pounding should you decide to veer off the pavement.

I drove the B2300 on several dirt roads that had deep holes, ridges and harsh bumps. The firm, stiff suspension kept the B2300 from bouncing wildly over rough terrain. Nothing squeaked or rattled, and the truck remained easy to control.

The B2300 has a coil spring suspension, gas-charged shocks and a stabilizer bar up front. The stabilizer bar helps keep the cab from leaning when the truck rounds corners. The rear suspension system has leaf springs and gas-charged shocks.

The power-assisted steering, though not particularly crisp, makes the B2300 easy to drive in city traffic.

All B-Series trucks come with power-assisted brakes. Rear anti-lock brakes are standard on the B2300; a four-wheel anti-lock system is optional on several other models. The brakes in our test truck provided ample stopping power.

If the B2300 has a weak point it is that its rear end is quite light. On wet or slippery roads, you have to be careful with the accelerator, because it is very easy for the rear wheels to lose traction when accelerating from a stop.

FIT AND FINISH

Our test truck was a no-frills model. Except for air conditioning and a powerful AM/FM cassette radio, there was nothing in the way of power accessories. And that's OK by me. When you start loading up a small economy pickup with luxury and creature comfort items, the price can soar - a fully loaded, B4000 sells for more than $20,000.

The fact that our test truck did not have power windows and mirrors proved to be no problem at all. The interior is small enough that the driver can comfortably lean over to roll down the passenger window.

The bench seat in our test truck was trimmed with an attractive gray cloth and a fold-down center armrest. Two cupholders were built into the floor console just ahead of the shifter.

Other nice touches included a rear window that can be opened from the inside, a light that shines down on the bed, attractive steel wheels and a set of nicely styled white-on-black analog gauges.

The B2300 is a truck that you feel comfortable in from the moment you settle into the seat. And one test drive will show you that it is designed well and built right.

Truett's tip: Mazda's B2300 pickup is an attractive, well-built, durable, rugged machine with a stylish interior. It is an excellent value for the money.

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