Ford Bronco Vs. Jeep Wrangler: A Wrangler Owner Drives the 2021 Ford Bronco

jeep wrangler 2021 ford bronco 2021 13 angle  exterior  front  silver jpg 2021 Ford Bronco meets 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon | photo by Aaron Bragman

Over the years, Ford’s Bronco went from being an open-air truckster and rival to the original Willys Jeeps to a big, bloated F-150-based two-door SUV before being quietly discontinued nearly 20 years ago, much to the disappointment of its followers. Well, it’s no secret that the Bronco is back for 2021, spearheading a new off-road-only Ford sub-brand with both a two-door and new four-door model. It’s built on Ford’s next-generation mid-size truck platform, purpose-built to be a body-on-frame, full-bore, no-compromises competitor to the current segment leader, the Jeep Wrangler

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I’ve been a Wrangler owner for six years now, purchasing a 2015 Willys Wheeler two-door as a 40th birthday present to myself (yes, midlife crisis purchases are real). I do love my Wrangler: It serves as a four-season, all-terrain convertible that is an all-weather winter commuter, a fun open-top summer runabout and everything in between. I’ve been rock crawling, dune running, boulevard cruising, you name it. I’ve taken it apart and put it back together countless times — a Wrangler is just a full-size snap-together kit car, after all. So when I had the chance to get behind the wheel of the first new off-roader meant to directly compete with the Wrangler, I jumped at the chance. I had to see what Ford’s take on the ultimate all-weather off-roader would be like and how it stacked up to my own trusty steed.

jeep wrangler 2021 ford bronco 2021 15 exterior  front  hood  silver jpg 2021 Ford Bronco meets 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon | photo by Aaron Bragman

I got my chance at a Ford media event, held at an off-road park in suburban Detroit, and had the added benefit of evaluating the Bronco mere minutes after driving there in a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe. While the Bronco doesn’t offer a comparable plug-in hybrid powertrain (yet), comparing the driving dynamics of the heavy Rubicon four-door and the heavy Bronco four-door is still relevant. So how does it compare? The short answer: The Bronco is an extremely impressive effort with distinct advantages over the Wrangler, but it’s different enough to not feel like a copycat. 

On-Road Civility

Look, neither the Bronco nor the Wrangler are going to be as nice to drive on the street as a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer. That said, the Bronco is noticeably better than the Wrangler on the street thanks to its independent front suspension. My on-road drive, which included a significant portion of unpaved, washboard dirt back roads, was in a four-door Badlands trim with 33-inch tires, the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and the six-speed manual transmission — Ford calls it a seven-speed manual, but that’s because it has a dedicated creeper gear for hardcore rock crawling. The ride is as civilized as the Wrangler four-door — the two-door is bouncier due to the short wheelbase — but on paved roads, the Bronco tracks better with less of the “sailboat in a windstorm” instability that’s always plagued the Wrangler. On broken pavement and washboard dirt roads, the benefit of that independent front suspension becomes clear — you’ll get plenty of lateral movement and axle hop from the back end, but the front stays planted. This is quite unlike the Wrangler, which hops and dances all over the place if you hit such terrain at speed thanks to its solid front and rear axle housings.

ford bronco 2021 03 angle  exterior  front  red jpg 2021 Ford Bronco | photo by Aaron Bragman

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2021 Ford Bronco Badlands
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This was also the first opportunity to try the Bronco’s manual transmission in a longer drive, and I’m here to report that the combination of stick shift with the turbo 2.3-liter is perfectly fine. Acceleration isn’t exactly snappy, and the first gear is extremely short (made more for off-roading than on-road drag races), so that 1st-2nd shift happens very quickly upon hitting the go-pedal. The shifter has a notchy, decently precise feel, and the overall combination is about as good as the Wrangler’s V-6 and manual transmission combination. You can’t get a manual with the Wrangler’s turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder, sadly, so that’s a point in the Bronco’s win column. 

Off-Road Ability

Like the Wrangler, the Bronco’s raison d’etre is to go deep off-road into the unpaved wilderness where the boulders, mountains and actual mud live. Most owners may never venture out of a gravel parking lot, but the SUV must be able to do so should its owners want, and the Bronco showed me that it is perfectly ready to do so. The killer configuration for the Bronco is undoubtedly the Sasquatch Package. It’s a special equipment package available on any model, trim and body style (two-door or four-door). Want to get a base model that can still hang with the big boys off-road? Go for a two-door base trim with just the Sasquatch Package, and you’ll have an amazingly capable rig for under $40,000 including destination.

ford bronco 2021 11 angle  black  exterior  front jpg 2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door | photo by Aaron Bragman

The Sasquatch Package includes a lifted suspension, 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels rocking 35-inch rubber, modified fenders, electronic locking front and rear differentials, and a new final drive ratio to prevent the massive bubble tires from negatively impacting the Bronco’s drivability. Combine this with the two-door’s shorter wheelbase, the 2.3-liter engine’s copious torque and the Bronco’s electronically controlled “G.O.A.T.” modes (short for “Goes Over Any Type of Terrain”), and you have the incredibly capable version in which I got to bomb around the Holly Oaks ORV Park. The only thing that might have made this version of the Bronco more capable would’ve been electronically unlocking anti-sway bars, but you have to step up to higher trim levels for those. 

No matter, it didn’t need them, regardless of what I threw the Bronco at in this former quarry-turned-playground. It does everything a Wrangler can do, and maybe even does it a little bit better. The availability of the Sasquatch Package means that any Bronco trim can be had with a lift kit, electronic locking diffs and 35-inch tires, things that are only available on the Wrangler’s top Rubicon trim. The Wrangler only just now offers factory 35-inch meat with the top Wrangler Rubicon Xtreme Recon Package, meaning you’ll need to spend thousands of dollars more to get the same level of equipment as you’d get on a $39,000 Bronco because it’s also only offered on the four-door Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon and Rubicon 392. The Bronco should force Jeep to have a serious rethink of their options packages and trim scheme, given that the Ford is now the clear leader in value for off-road capability and components. 

ford bronco 2021 01 group shot jpg 2021 Ford Bronco | photo by Aaron Bragman

The biggest difference in how the Bronco and the Wrangler perform off-road comes in the approach the two brands take in going off-pavement. The Jeep Wrangler assumes you know what you’re doing and what buttons to push, what dials to spin and what levers to pull to engage the systems you’ll need for the environment and terrain you face. The Bronco assumes you know nothing and uses its electronic G.O.A.T. modes to adjust all of its systems appropriately for the terrain that you select. You can adjust everything yourself if you have a more advanced level of expertise, but it also will let complete beginners roll up to the dirt, spin the dial to whatever terrain they’re looking at and head off with everything appropriately set. It’s simpler, more user-friendly, less intimidating and could be just the thing to get more people to actually go exploring.. 

Where the Wrangler Has the Advantage

The situation here is like the comparison between the Ram 1500 and the Ford F-150 — the Jeep Wrangler has a more upscale interior loaded with more premium materials than the Ford Bronco does. The Bronco goes for a retro-inspired look that’s still very modern but is awash in cheap-feeling plastic, whereas the Wrangler goes for an industrial-chic, military-inspired, metal-and-bolts aesthetic that actually looks and feels expensive (because it is). They both feel about the same size inside, front and back, with the Bronco perhaps a bit wider in the cabin. You also sit a lot lower in the Bronco than in the Wrangler, with a more expansive, deeper dashboard in front of you than the more flat-front, shallow dash in the Jeep. They’re both washable, water-resistant and feature drain plugs in the floor. The Bronco offers wilder color combinations, but again, the materials just feel better in the Jeep. You’re probably going to pay a lot of money for either one of these SUVs — shouldn’t you feel like you’ve gotten a quality piece for your money and not just a value special?

ford bronco 2021 06 cockpit shot  dashboard  front row  interior jpg 2021 Ford Bronco | photo by Aaron Bragman

The Wrangler also has some interesting top technology that the Bronco doesn’t have, such as the Sky One-Touch power top on the test Wrangler I drove to the Bronco event. A combination of large sliding canvas roof and removable hard sides, it’s an interesting compromise between hard and soft tops, and allows for quick, easy open-air motoring. But removing the doors is easier on the Wrangler than it is on the Bronco, as the Bronco’s frameless windows but thick and chunky doors make it a bit more challenging despite the handled carrying cases that Ford provides. 

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Would I Buy a Bronco?

That’s the question all my friends have asked me. There are indeed advantages to considering a Bronco over a Wrangler — more modern technology in the multimedia system, four-wheel-drive powertrain and computer-controlled G.O.A.T. modes; better value if you’re looking for some serious off-road equipment right from the factory; thoughtful attachment points and accessorizing options. But there are areas where the Jeep still has the upper hand — longtime owner loyalty, proven ability, a massive aftermarket supply of accessories and parts, legendary resale value and a plethora of powertrain options and special edition trim levels.

As to whether I’m ready to trade my Wrangler in on a new Bronco, the answer is no. I’m happy with my Wrangler, but if I was looking now like I was looking in 2015 when I bought it, it would be a seriously hard decision choosing between the two, and I honestly don’t know which one I’d be taking home.

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Photo of Aaron Bragman
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman has had over 25 years of experience in the auto industry as a journalist, analyst, purchasing agent and program manager. Bragman grew up around his father’s classic Triumph sports cars (which were all sold and gone when he turned 16, much to his frustration) and comes from a Detroit family where cars put food on tables as much as smiles on faces. Today, he’s a member of the Automotive Press Association and the Midwest Automotive Media Association. His pronouns are he/him, but his adjectives are fat/sassy. Email Aaron Bragman

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