2021 Bronco: A serious new off-road competitor
Ford has revived the legendary Bronco nameplate in 2021 with not one but two all-new vehicles — the compact Bronco Sport and the midsize Bronco. Unlike most other new SUVs, both are off-road capable but will appeal to different consumers.
The Bronco Sport is a compact crossover based on the Ford Escape but upgraded serious off-road components and technologies. The midsize Bronco is a tradition bond-on-frame SUV based on the Ford Ranger pickup, but also upgraded for serious off-roading.
Both have great retro styling based on the original Bronco introduced in 1996. They attract a lot of attention everywhere they go. But more important, they are designed and built to compete directly against such off-road capable SUVs as the Jeep Wrangler and Land Rover Defender.
This is not the first time Ford has produced a small and a larger Bronco, just the first time they've been offered together. The original Bronco was arguable the first SUV after the Jeep developed for WWII. It was small and tough, with a standard four-wheel-drive system that appealed to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. The larger replacement introduced in 1978 was based on the full-size Ford F-150 pickup and more family-oriented, but still capable of serious off-road travel. The last previous Bronco introduced in 1982 was downsized onto an original compact Ford Ranger pickup frame for better mileage after gas prices soared. It did not find much of a following, although some are still on the road today.
The first three Broncos were all two-door hatchbacks. Depending on the year, they were powered by a variety of four, V6 and V8 engines. Their four-wheel-drive systems were simple but effective. Each of the two new models can be ordered as two- or four-door hatchbacks. The Bronco Sport is powered by a turbocharged 1.5-liter four. The Bronco is powered by either a 2.3 turbo four or a 2.7 turbo V6. Two 4x4 systems will be offered on all Bronco models, a base setup and advanced 4x4. The base system utilizes a two-speed electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case, while the optional advanced system features a two-speed electromechanical transfer case that adds an auto mode for on-demand engagement to select between 2H and 4H.
By coincidence, I was able to test both of them at the same time but under different circumstances. Each performed well, although I couldn't do a head-to-head comparison. But I think Ford has hit both targets it was aiming for.
I took delivery of a 2021 Bronco with a turbo 2.3 and a six-speed manual transmission just before driving from Portland to the Olympia area for Mudfest, the annual test of outdoor activity vehicles sponsored by the Northwest Automotive Writers Association. Once there I was able to test a 2021 Bronco Sport with an eight-speed automatic transmission on both a race track and speciality designed off-road course. Ford did not authorize the larger Bronco for Mudfest testing, but I was able to spend some time in the countryside around Portland after returning home.
Although I didn't spend nearly as much time in the Bronco Sport, I found it to be a peppy, well handling crossover with enough ground clearance and traction for serious off-road driving. Ford engineers have done a remarkable job transforming the urban-oriented Escape into a vehicle that can go head-to-head against small Jeeps. The other auto writers at Mudfest agreed and we awarded it second place in the Extreme Capability category.
A previous Pamplin Media Group review of the Bronco Sport by auto writer Jeff Zurschmeide can be found here.
The larger 2021 Bronco is even more off-road capable. The turbo 2.3 produces a healthy 270 horsepower and 310 foot pounds of torque. But the optional turbo 2.7 generates a class-leading 310 horsepower and 400 foot-pounds of torque, enough to instill confidence in all circumstances.
In addition, a segment-first seven-speed manual transmission can be paired to an advanced 4x4 system. And a segment-first 10-speed automatic transmission option makes for easier driving on- and off-road, while still offering a maximum 67.8:1 crawl ratio with the available advanced 4x4 transfer case. Optional equipment includes a terrain management system, marketed as "G.O.A.T. Modes" (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain), that calibrates throttle response, four-wheel drive, traction control, and transmission shifts to maximize traction for off-road driving. Up to seven modes are available with this system: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, and Sand, along with Baja, Mud and Ruts, and Rock Crawl.
The Bronco also features 11.6-inch of ground clearance, maximum 29-degree breakover angle and 37.2-degree departure angle, plus best-in-class water fording capability of up to 33.5 inches. Off-road capability is further reinforced by exposed tow hooks in the front and rear and available heavy-duty modular steel bumpers with integrated Ford Performance accessory winch mount.
In addition to its off-road capabilities, the new Bronco also comes loaded with advanced technologies. Ford's latest in-dash Sync 4 software powers the 8.0- or 12.0-inch touchscreen that's embedded in the middle of the dash. It allows over-the-air updates and can connect to the cloud and user's smartphone wirelessly. The infotainment system also supports a host of modern infotainment features that include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a subscription-based Wi-Fi hotspot. Driver-assistance features include automatic high-beams and parking sensors to make low-speed rock crawling and trail driving easier. Key safety features include available forward-collision warning and automated emergency braking, available lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, and available blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
I was initially puzzled by the interior materials. Most of the surfaces are hard plastic, even in the $42,124 Black Diamond trim level four-door that was delivered to me. But then I remembered that all versions have removable roofs and doors, which means the interiors need to hold up to dust, dirt, mud and rain. Hard plastic is a lot easier to clean up than most other materials.
It's no secret that Ford was not pleased with the fit of the first versions of the removable roofs, which were produced by an outside contractor. The company is replacing them free of change for everyone who already made a purchase. Interested customers should either make sure the work has been done or pin down when it will happen.
Not surprisingly, because the Bronco is based on the Ranger, in a week of testing, I found that drives like a truck instead of a crossover. The turbo 2.3 provided sufficient power, and freeway speeds could be reached in fourth gear, allowing a jump to sixth for cruising. The seventh gear is actually the first, Crawl for extremely slow off-road driving.
Although both versions of the Bronco have retro styling, the Bronco Sport looks like an original Bronco while the larger Bronco looks like an older Land Rover Defender. That's only natural since Ford never produced a first-generation four-door Bronco. Everyone at Mudfest loved the look and are hopeful we can put one through its paces at next year's event. My guess is that it would take home some awards.
2021 Ford Bronco
Base price: $28,500 (2-door)
Price as tested: $42,124 (4-door Black Diamond)
Type: Midsize SUV
Engine: 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (270 hp, 310 lbs-ft - as tested); 2.7-liter turbocharged V6 (310 hp, 400 lbs-ft)
Transmissions: 7-speed manual (as tested); 10-speed automatic
Modes: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, Sand, Baja, Mud and Ruts, and Rock Crawl
EPA estimated mileage: 20/22 (as tested)
Overall length: 189 inches
Curb weight: 4319 pounds
Final assembly: Wayne, Michigan
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