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2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport First Impressions: More Capable Than Expected?

Like much of the world, we were blown away by the reveal of the 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport SUVs earlier this year. The big Bronco (available in two- and four-door configurations) is a direct challenge to the iconic Jeep Wrangler, while the Bronco Sport throws down against the likes of the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk in ways it’s never been threatened before. In a non-pandemic world, we would likely have already driven them over the hills of Moab, Utah — but with all automakers’ launch and factory production schedules mucked up by the global health crisis, that drive opportunity is on hold.

But Ford is still eager to get media butts in seats, so it recently staged a ride-along event at a new off-road park in Southeast Michigan to coincide with “Bronco Day,” the 55th anniversary of the nameplate’s introduction. 

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We had an opportunity to get up close and personal with the new Bronco and Bronco Sport, including 15 minutes in the passenger seat of each SUV as an engineer responsible for its development threw us over cliffs, splashed us through streams and barreled up hills at Holly Oaks ORV Park in Holly, Mich.

The Big Bronco Two-Door and Four-Door — Emphasis on Big

The first thing you notice upon walking up to a new Bronco is that it’s big — bigger than a Wrangler both in length and width. It looks and feels considerably chunkier, possibly due to the fact that it doesn’t have the Wrangler’s distinct fenders. It’s more of a monoblock look, with a track several inches wider than the Wrangler’s to give more of a bulldog look. The two-door Bronco is especially notable for its size: It practically makes the two-door Wrangler look lithe and nimble by comparison — more minimalist frame than bulky SUV. 

Opening a door starts to reveal how different the Bronco is from the Wrangler. First of all, the doors feel huge and heavy. While I didn’t yet get an opportunity to go through the removal process to see just how heavy they might be (we don’t yet know the Bronco’s curb weight), the way they swing, plus their sheer size and lack of window frames, make them feel like they could be more challenging to remove than the Wrangler’s doors. Getting in and out of the front or rear seats in the four-door Bronco is simple, as the door openings feel wider than the Wrangler’s. It’s a little more complicated for the two-door Bronco, as you have to slide and tilt the front seats forward, and there isn’t a whole lot of room in the second row.

The Bronco feels more spacious inside in terms of hip and shoulder room, but legroom is a different story — it feels about the same as the Wrangler, in either two- or four-door form. There’s barely any second-row legroom in the Bronco two-door, while the four-door model is far more comfortable for backseat passengers. 

Sitting in the surprisingly plush front seats (which feel far more pillowy than the Wrangler’s chairs), you’re presented with an instrument panel that feels more modern than retro and far less bolted together to military spec — the Wrangler’s design aesthetic. The big 12-inch dashboard touchscreen in some models is especially striking, but the overall look is clean, fresh and very attractive. The Wrangler plays off its military heritage, but the Bronco has no such history, preferring instead to draw cues from classic styling of Broncos past. Outward visibility is excellent, and those front trail guides mounted atop the fender corners really do come in handy to help figure out where the Bronco ends.

Some colors employed in the Bronco are also pretty wild — the nautical theme and marine-grade upholstery in an Outer Banks trim makes for a striking combination, utterly unlike anything in Jeep’s pantheon of colors and materials. Cargo space is plentiful in either model, with the two-door again feeling slightly larger than the competition and the four-door stacking up well by comparison.

How Does It Do Off-Road?

While I didn’t get any seat time behind the wheel of the big Bronco, I did get a 15-minute foot-to-the-floor demonstration drive by one of the truck’s engineers in a two-door Bronco Badlands model (the top off-road spec, equivalent to a Wrangler Rubicon). The demonstration didn’t do much for my ability to actually determine how well the thing works, but it served to prove that you can successfully beat the living tar out of the truck on a variety of surfaces at speeds that most owners aren’t likely to attempt with their expensive rigs, and it should come out the other end in one piece. Ford’s engineer powered the Bronco through anything in its path, from super-steep hills to eye-popping drop-offs, loose deep sand to flowing water. The variety of equipment and settings available to adjust on the fly is considerable, and my driver made use of them in dizzyingly quick fashion. Perhaps the most extraordinary one, and the greatest differentiator from the Wrangler, is the Bronco’s ability to disconnect the sway bars even when at full articulation. If you find yourself somewhere that you need to get your wheels back on the ground, just push the button and down they drop. The ride is otherwise what you’d expect from a serious off-road machine and not any better than the Wrangler in coddling its occupants — it will beat you up and knock you about off-road, which is probably why the seats are cushier than those found in the Jeep. 

Still, it’s a tantalizing taste of what the Bronco should be capable of, and it seems like a very different flavor profile from what Jeep is selling with the Wrangler. The Bronco appears to have the same great abilities as its crosstown competitor, but a totally different feel to its interior and technology.

The Bronco Sport: The Day’s Big Surprise

Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the day was the Bronco Sport. Ford bills it as the SUV you’d take to the trailhead, while the bigger two- and four-door Bronco are what you’d take deep into the wilderness to use as your basecamp. I’m not entirely sure that gives the Bronco Sport enough credit, but more on that in a moment.

Of course, the Bronco Sport is the smaller of the Bronco siblings, built off a Ford Escape platform that’s been sufficiently beefed up for off-road use. But that’s not necessarily a disadvantage — the interior of the Bronco Sport is still plenty spacious in front or back, with comfortable seats, excellent visibility and a safari roof providing more than adequate headroom for backseat passengers. It’s actually more comfortable to me than the Escape thanks to the extra interior room, and its backseat feels immediately preferable to the surroundings in the Jeep Cherokee, its main competitor.

Interior styling also departs from that of the Escape or Cherokee. While those two SUVs have gone for a more carlike aesthetic, the Bronco Sport eschews that for a rugged, more industrial look to great effect. The interior is stylish, comfortable and modern, just like in the bigger Bronco, but with fewer retro cues that the Sport’s bigger brother employs to tug on the nostalgia factor. There’s never been a Bronco Sport (only the old Ranger-derived Bronco II, which is nothing like this), so there’s no real reason to try and pretend a heritage for this trucklet exists.

I didn’t get much time to poke around in the Bronco Sport, as the only static display models were the concept trucks that Ford developed to show off an upcoming array of accessories (more than 100 for the Bronco Sport, more than 200 for the bigger Bronco) that will become available for sale when they hit showrooms. But I did also get a demonstration drive of the Bronco Sport, and this is where I received my big surprise of the day: It seems far more capable as an off-roader than we’ve been led to believe.

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Is the Bronco Sport the One to Have?

The Bronco Sport doesn’t have the rugged image of the bigger Bronco (nor, indeed, the rugged equipment of that model), but what the Ford engineers have turned out from the Escape’s starting point is extraordinary. The Bronco Sport can rocket over the same broken terrain that had me bouncing all over the interior of the larger two-door Bronco, but it registers barely a chatter or jostle making it through the wheels, suspension and chassis. It’s astonishingly composed off-road at higher speeds, charging through deep sand without fail like a dune buggy, accompanied by a snorty exhaust note that’s wholly unexpected (and may have been piped in music, I suspect). In short: From my admittedly brief demonstration ride, the Bronco Sport seems a massively capable off-roader made from the bones of a soft-road crossover.

We’ll definitely need to put it up against the Cherokee Trailhawk to see if Jeep’s Trail Rated SUV can stay atop the Bronco Sport’s Badlands model, but I predict that it may have product planners and engineers at Jeep parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles scrambling for an answer to the Bronco Sport’s challenge — especially after Ford showed that the SUV could also sport yet another inch of lift and even more aggressive 31-inch tires on a concept version.

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