Mazda B2000 LX

TODAY'S pickup trucks are a far cry from the crude workaholics of the past. With reclining bucket seats, chrome wheels, digital quartz clock, AM-FM multiplex stereo radio, and aerodynamic outside mirrors, the pickup truck has all but crossed over into the passenger-car lane.

The Mazda B2000 LX, for example, is surprisingly quiet inside, the handling crisp and sure, and the visibility first rate. It shows how far the Japanese auto industry has driven in the past few years. Sitting comfortably behind the wheel, you can forget you're in a lightweight pickup. The aura inside the cab is that of a passenger car, yet with the ruddy good looks of a pickup.

Indeed, lightweight pickups are on a fast roll, with last year's sales topping 1 million, a threefold rise since 1978. Mazda's pickup sales alone have soared from a scant 4,700 in 1978 to almost 120,000 in 1984. It's a gold mine for vehicle manufacturers both in Japan and the United States. Even though Nissan now produces the Sentra subcompact, the first vehicle to roll out of its new assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., was a pickup. The demand seems nowhere close to slowing down.

Buyers like the versatility of a small pickup truck which can be used to transport a bundle of things, yet can also act as a car when the back is empty. You also can dress up the cargo bed as an option. Besides the usual fiber-glass covers for the cargo deck, there are high-security covers, such as Armor Deck, a foldover aluminum cover that spreads securely across the top of the truck bed and defies an intruder to open it.

The technically sophisticated Mazda B2000 comes with either a standard or long truck bed, depending on the needs of the buyer. The wheelbase of the standard bed is 108.7 inches, compared with 117.5 inches for the elongated version. At 2,710 pounds, the long bed is a bare 50 pounds heavier than the short bed. Gross vehicle weight for each version is 4,175 pounds.

The only transmission is a 5-speed manual with synchromesh in all forward gears. Predictably, the performance is swift with the 2-liter engine. Payload is 1,400 pounds in both versions and towing capacity 1,000 pounds unbraked and 1,500 pounds braked. Estimated fuel economy runs from 22 m.p.g. in the city to 27 on the highway. The truck also comes with two lower-trim models, a standard and SE-5.

While a Ford or GMC pickup is a lot more roomy inside, the inside space of the Mazda B2000 is remarkably large. An extended cab version is due out in the fall.

Prices start at $5,995 for the standard Mazda pickup, with the LX $1,000 more. The long bed is $200 more than the standard bed.

Today's pickup buyers are becoming a lot more demanding, listing fuel economy, quality, trouble-free operation, and purchase price as the ``big 4'' in making choices, according to a J. D. Power & Associates study.

Besides its passenger-car personality on the road, the Mazda B2000 can earn its keep within the limits of its capacity to haul cargo. As with most pickups these days, it has a double-walled bed so that you won't be punching dents in the side walls.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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