1998 Mazda Pickup

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Orlando Sentinel

Let's say you live on a very tight budget and you need a durable, dependable workhorse.

And let's say you can do without power windows, a sunroof, electric door locks and all those other price-bloating frills.

The 1998 compact Mazda B2500 SE is one vehicle that could fit nicely into your budget and your garage.

This snazzy-looking little hauler is a pretty good way to beat the high cost of transportation.

PERFORMANCE, HANDLING

You could say Mazda's B-Series trucks are built Ford tough.

Ford, which owns a controlling interest in Mazda, builds Mazda's trucks in the United States alongside its Ranger pickup. Although there are significant styling differences between the Mazda and Ford trucks, they are identical under the skin. And that's a good thing because Ford's Ranger has built a reputation for dependability and durability.

Our dark red test truck sported the base drivetrain - a 119-horsepower, 2.5-liter, in-line four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission. Two V-6s, a four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive are on the options list.

In a 622-mile test drive, I found that the four-cylinder engine delivered spritely performance and good fuel economy. More than that, the B2500 was easy - even fun - to drive.

Because there is plenty of low-end power available, the engine in the B2500 can spin the tires on dry pavement. Mazda rates the towing capacity at 1,580 pounds and the payload at 1,260 pounds. The refined but rugged engine feels as if it is more than up to working hard. Acceleration is strong at all speeds.

The manual transmission's long floor-mounted shifter is easy to move through the gears. Each time you switch gears, you can feel the big shifter click slightly, which gives the truck a sturdy, hard-working feel.

At highway speeds the engine runs smoothly and quietly. Fuel mileage was 23 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, about average for an economy car.

But when you drive the B2500 over large bumps, you are reminded you are in a truck. Its leaf-spring live rear axle and front strut suspension system is very firm. Large bumps cause major bouncing, but the B2500 didn't bottom out over some fairly horrendous terrain.

Ford engineers did a nice job of tuning the B2500's steering and brakes for the way most people will use the vehicle - as an economical commuter. The power-assisted steering is light, but it has a positive feel and it responds crisply. The power-assisted front disc, rear anti-lock drum brakes are very strong. The B2500 stops very quickly and is easy to control in an emergency stop.

FIT AND FINISH

The B2500 is about as basic as transportation comes these days.

With the exception of an air conditioner and a decent AM/FM radio, our truck had no frills at all.

And that was no big deal.

We Americans must be spoiled when it comes to conveniences in our autos. We want power eve rything, but then we gripe about the price.

Well, I can't remember the last time I drove such a sparsely equipped vehicle and enjoyed it so much. There is something nice about the simplicity of rolling the windows down manually, reaching outside to adjust the mirrors and using your hands to lock and unlock the doors. These things are not bothersome at all in the B2500.

Perhaps that's because the interior is much like that of a two-seat sports car. It isn't cramped, but there is not a lot of room, and everything is within easy reach.

The 60/40 split bench seat is covered with a thick, attractive cloth, and it was well-padded. I took several two-hour trips and emerged free of fatigue. The seats are divided by a fold-down armrest that opens to reveal a storage area. Small things like a wallet and sunglasses can fit there; there's also a built-in coin holder.

The seats fold forward, but there is not much room behind them to store anything bigger than an umbrella.

The analog gauges and the dash were attractively styled and very carlike. The air conditioner's rotary knobs are easy to use. The only other thing I adjusted regularly was the radio. That's really all there is on the dash.

Our truck had two options: The air conditioner added $805 to the price, and the SE package - which includes a bedliner (recommended if you are going to haul heavy stuff), mag wheels, upgraded tires, sliding rear window and chrome trimmed tailgate and grille - added $150. For some reason, Mazda charges $1,100 for the package, then subtracts $950 off the vehicle's price when you opt for the package.

Specifications:

1998 Mazda B2500 ES Base price: $13,205. Price as tested: $14,250. EPA rating: 22 mpg city/27 mpg highway. Safety: Dual air bags, rear anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection. Incentives: None.

Truett's tip: The 1998 Mazda B2500 SE is a solidly built, comfortable pickup that offers good basic transportation for an attractive price.

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