After the glut of new passenger car unveilings in 2002 - culminating with the Commodore, Falcon and Camry in September/October - the focus switched to commercials; those tough and ready workhorses once the sole domain of the tradesman.
Toyota launched a new Hilux in late October 2002, followed by the Mazda Bravo in November. February 2003 is the turn of the Holden Rodeo - we'll feature that shortly - but for now let's take a closer look at the quiet revolution Mazda has unleashed.
Quiet revolution? What drugs is this bloke on, you ask. It's in the doors - freestyle doors to be exact - proffered on the middle man of the Bravo line-up. The rear doors are rear hinged - remember suicide doors? Same thing. No B-pillar between the front and rear doors, which means much better access to the rear seats.
Suicide doors aren't new, the trick in this 'safety first' age has been building them with the rigidity and safety to withstand a side impact from another vehicle, or a lamppost.
We're tipping that suicide doors will start appearing on a many and varied range of vehicles in the years to come. Why? Because they work. Passenger access and loading luggage into the rear is a cinch through the cavernous opening supplied by both doors.
Perhaps the only drawback of the 'Freestyle' door system is the fact you can't open the back doors without opening the front doors first. But that's why Mazda continues to offer the dual cab Bravo with four conventional doors as part of the line-up.
So, what else has changed? The front-end has been restyled to incorporate Mazda's 'family' grille along with new headlights. The interior gets more comfortable seats, a new stereo and speakers, and more equipment (electric windows, remote door locks, etc).
Suspension modifications are restricted to new dampers front and rear, which Mazda claims improves initial damping and roll stiffness. Roll stiffness, yes, but the front-end now feels a little floaty and unsettled over undulations and rises.
CarPoint tested the 2.5-litre turbo diesel dual cab over 3000km in two weeks on New Zealand's North Island. Highway commuting, beach driving and offroad work were the order of our trip, and the Bravo performed strongly under all conditions.
The three-valve, four-cylinder engine feels more powerful than its 86kiloWatts would otherwise indicate. We tested the 1686kg dual cab, the heaviest of the range, equipped with a robust 5-speed manual gearbox.
The Bravo is rated to carry almost 1200kg in the body and tow a 1800kg trailer for a payload totaling 3000kg. Although we never challenged these limits, the turbo's 280Nm of torque easily handled our 800kg of people, equipment and fishing gear in the soft sand of the North Island's spectacular 90 Mile Beach.
On road the Bravo rode better with the extra weight over the rear wheels, taking the edge off its firm leaf springs. The dual cab we tested came with bigger 265/70R15-inch wheels and tyres which raise the ride height by 7mm to 218mm. The tyre's larger sidewall takes a little of the shine of the Bravo's modified steering system, which Mazda says requires less effort and is more stable on the straight ahead.
There's not a lot of tie-down options in the Bravo's tray, and our luggage tended to slide around a bit. There's obviously plenty of tonneau tiedowns that can be used for a load that's taller than the tray's sidewalls, but if you're carrying smaller loads you may have to get creative like we did and jam the rope in the rear door.
The Bravo's four wheel drive system is dead easy to use, a second stubby gearlever selecting 2wd, 4hi or 4lo. On the top-spec models the front wheel hubs are auto locking, and are released via a dash-mounted switch.
On 90 Mile Beach, heading for the northernmost tip at Cape Reinga, the B Series happily loped along on the hard packed sand just above the watermark at 80km/h in fifth gear. Venture higher onto the soft, dry sand and lower gears with more revs were needed to keep the pace.
The Bravo's cabin is a comfortable affair, even on the long trips we undertook. Regular five-hour drives, covering more than 400km, occurred almost daily. The steering wheel adjusts for tilt, and the driver's seat reclines, inclines and adjusts for height, making it easy for the boss to get comfy.
Rear seat room in the dual cab is not massive, but there's enough leg and shoulder room for two big adults, or three teenagers without problem. Headroom in all five seats is not an issue.
The dual cab, diesel 4X4 Bravo we tested came with CD player, air conditioning, electric windows and mirrors and remote central locking. It didn't have cruise control, which we're informed is not a popular option in NZ due to the lack of long, straight, boring, heavily-policed highways. Roads in New Zealand are a driver's dream; plenty of curves and spectacular scenery that changes every 20 minutes.