2021 Ford Bronco Review: A New Off-Road God Is Born
As promised, the new Bronco is a purpose-built delight on a trail. On road? Well, it’s still a truck.
Not since 1996 have we seen a new production Ford Bronco roll off the assembly line. But now, a quarter of a century later, the beloved truck is back, more modern and capable than ever. And the 2021 Ford Bronco marks the first time it's ever been offered as a four-door, too. It's clear Ford is pushing hard into off-roading segment with the reborn Bronco. Just about everything about it is designed to excel on a tough trail. And given that we're living smack in the middle of a crossroads between the SUV-craze and a surge in off-roading interest, it seems like Ford couldn't have timed the Bronco launch better.
It's also clear what lies directly in the crosshairs: the Jeep Wrangler. Jeep's iconic anachronism has enjoyed a relatively long, competitor-free run in recent years as one of the best off-road vehicles you can buy, period (and also, as the only SUV on the market with a removable roof and doors). It's now time for Ford to hit back and see how loyal those fans actually are. And the 2021 Ford Bronco—preternaturally good off-road and delightfully utilitarian at its core—is one hell of a punch.
2021 Ford Bronco: By the Numbers
- Base price: $29,995
- Powertrain: 2.3-liter turbo inline-four or 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 | seven-speed manual or 10-speed automatic | four-wheel drive with low range
- Horsepower: 275 (4-cyl) | 315 (V6)
- Torque: 315 lb-ft (4-cyl) | 410 lb-ft (V6)
- Seating capacity: 4 (2-door) | 5 (4-door)
- Curb weight: 4,286 pounds (2-door) | 5,117 pounds (4-door)
- Ground clearance: 8.4 inches (base) | 11.6 inches (Sasquatch)
- Off-road angles: 35.5° approach, 21.1° breakover, 29.8° departure (2-door) | 35.5° approach, 20° breakover, 29.7° departure (4-door)
- Cargo volume: 22.4 cubic feet (2-door) | 35.6 cubic feet (4-door)
- EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city | 22 highway | 21 combined (4-cyl); 18 mpg city | 20 highway | 19 combined (V6)
- Quick take: The new Ford Bronco yearns to be off-road. That's where its talents really shine.
Retro Looks Meet Modern Tech
When designing the new Bronco, Ford's engineers went all the way back to the original truck of the '60s and '70s for inspiration. As a result, broad, boxy body panels and cheerful, round headlights make a comeback for the sixth generation. Even the upright, rectangular-shaped taillights return, along with a trunk-mounted spare. The look is contemporary but unmistakably retro. I think it looks great and certainly very distinctive. Walking up to the new Bronco, there's also undeniable presence, mostly due to its size. There are giant, earth-stomping tires (even without the optional 35s) and the hood comes up to my neck.
Built on a modified, body-on-frame
I wouldn't call the inside super high-tech, but then again, I don't expect Bronco buyers to want that. They want something functional and easy to clean, which is why much of the interior is wrapped in rubber and silicone and features hard switches for the climate and radio controls (hell yeah!). An eight-inch infotainment screen comes as standard, but you can spec up for a 12-inch screen. The instrument panel features a speedometer and a digital tachometer readout. Down on the center console is a rotary dial for the individual G.O.A.T. modes (Go Over Any Terrain) and terrain management options. Personally, I thought Ford went a bit heavy on the plastics, but the general layout was nice and simple to use.
The new Bronco comes with two engine options which are available across both two- and four-door models. The first is the standard 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost inline-four that's good for a claimed 275 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque. The optional engine is the 2.7-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 that's good for 315 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque. All Bronco models also come with four-wheel drive.
There's the choice of either the seven-speed manual transmission (six forward gears plus one crawler gear with a 94.75:1 ratio, if you spring for the optional Advanced 4x4 transfer case that also brings a 4-auto mode) or the 10-speed automatic transmission (which offers a maximum 67.8:1 crawl ratio). The manual can be had with both two- and four-door Broncos but only with the 2.3-liter four-cylinder—so no, you can't get the V6 with the manual. The 10-speed automatic is available on both engines, however.
Base model Broncos enjoy four-wheel drive, the four-cylinder engine, the seven-speed manual (the 10-speed auto if you choose the four-door), 16-inch steelies, an eight-inch touchscreen, carpet floors, and cloth seats.
From there, you can choose between seven different trim levels—ranging from Basic, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Badlands, Wildtrak, and First Edition—and five different package options—ranging from Standard, Mid, High, Lux, and Sasquatch. You can mix and match trims and packages according to Ford's guide. As an example: Dedicated off-roaders might want to pair the Badlands trim, which gives you vinyl-trimmed seats and rubberized flooring, with the most aggressively off-road Sasquatch package, which offers electronic-locking front and rear axles, high-clearance suspension and fender flares, and 35-inch mud-terrain tires from the factory.
The First Edition Broncos blend Badlands hardware with the more luxurious Outer Banks interior and Wildtrak exterior. They also include features from the Lux and Sasquatch packages. Statistically, it's unlikely this matters to you—First Editions have a limited production run of 7,500, and they've all been sold. Separately, a Ford representative said the automaker has accepted 125,000 Bronco orders as of this writing and that 70 percent of them are for the Outer Banks and higher trims. This tells me people are very into the more luxurious and rugged Broncos.
Truckish on the Road
Here we go. For the road test, I climbed into a red, two-door Badlands Bronco with the seven-speed manual. It had the 12-inch infotainment screen, 360-degree camera, 33-inch tires paired with 17-inch wheels, sound-deadening headliner, and a locking front differential. Total price came to $51,760.
The manual transmission is friendly! The clutch engages about a quarter of the way off the floor and the gear gates are spaced intuitively apart. There's quite a bit of torque on tap, even with the four-cylinder, so you really don't need to touch the throttle when taking off on a flat road. That part made stop-and-go traffic pleasant. However, I thought first and second gear felt particularly short, as the engine demanded I shift sooner and at higher rpms than I was used to in other manual cars I've driven. This is probably good for low-speed off-roading, but accelerating to 40 mph from a stoplight meant I was shifting a lot.
I had a chance to try out the crawler gear on a very steep hill and it worked like magic. I put the truck in four-low mode, stuck it in gear (it's located below reverse) and took my foot off the clutch. The truck pulled itself up the hill without needing me to get on the throttle much at all.
But there's no getting around it: The two-door Bronco has an extremely truck-like quality to the way it handles the paved stuff. It drives like it's big because it is. It rattles over bumps, dives during braking, and was rather ungainly on curvier roads. There were times where I watched normal SUVs take a curve and found myself scrubbing speed before entering the curve myself because I didn't feel confident the Bronco would be able to comfortably handle it. Just once, I attempted a curvy section of road at the suggested speed limit, but it caused my purse to go sliding across the back seat as the truck tilted hard on its tall tires. It was an experience I worked hard not to repeat again.
Big wing mirrors and a long, tall hood also made it a bit challenging to place the Bronco's front, but the thoughtful tie-down points placed at the far corners of both front fenders (each good for a maximum load of 150 pounds!) helped me gauge the truck's position on the road. And I was extremely grateful for the optional 360-degree cameras, because backing it out of a parking space in a tight lot wasn't the easiest thing in the world.
Sitting on the highway at speed, all kinds of noises droned into the cabin: Road noise, tire noise, wind noise, engine noise. There was a sound-deadening headliner but it didn't seem very effective. Though despite its shape and the sensory overload a highway blast can induce, the Bronco does carry its momentum better than the Jeep Wrangler or Gladiator above 50 mph. And yes, the independent front suspension gives it more accurate steering than the Jeeps.
Of course, the four-door—which I didn't get a chance to drive on the road—would at least have a more stable ride thanks to its 16-inch longer wheelbase. I strongly suspect its middling on-road manners won't be a dealbreaker anyway. I know there are people out there who, at worst, would tolerate these characteristics and, at best, find them charming. Because just like with the Wrangler, the tradeoff is a truck that'll go over just about anything.
Time to hit the dirt. Now, there was a point during the rock crawling portion where I wasn't sure if the instructor was going to make it up the rock face. His Bronco sat squat on its rear tires, its front tires raised up on the rock like a dog begging for a treat. The truck's nose pointed at the sky. Slowly but surely, I watched him power up the incline. There was some slippage of the Bronco's individual wheels, but the terrain management system helped pull it up and over the crest without so much as an inch of backward slide. From the outside, it looked gravity-defying.
During my attempt, there was a clean disconnect between my own terror and how cooly and calmly the truck actually handled the trail. Doubt filled my mind every time I saw the trail drop below sight or rise up above my head, but I put my full trust in the four-door, V6-powered, 10-speed First Edition Sasquatch Bronco I was now driving in four-low mode. (Total MSRP for this truck came out to be $63,855.)
But throughout the roughly three hours of off-roading on three different trails, nothing bested it. It never failed. It never got stuck. So surefooted and unshakable was the truck that after some time, I felt more and more at ease in spite to myself. I split my time between the First Edition on the rock-crawling trail and a $59,200 four-door, automatic, V6 Badlands Bronco on the milder dirt trail. Both handled the terrain with incredible aplomb. The trucks climbed up and down hills, forded creeks, and splashed through the mud like it was child's play.
With the Sasquatch package, it wheeled over boulders that would have mangled lesser vehicles, the metallic smacks on its bash plates sounding like applause. The steering, which felt a bit loose and vague on the highway, was lightweight and easy to manage quickly when I needed to feel out more treacherous parts of the trail. The high-definition image on the 12-inch center screen, fed in by the front-facing camera that stayed on throughout the duration of the trail, acted as a handy additional set of eyes for seeing around the truck itself.
On slightly higher-speed trails—but staying under 20 mph—activating the Badland model's optional quick-disconnecting stabilizer bar smoothed out the ride quality considerably. Obviously, you expect turbulence when driving a truck across a literal field of rocks. But with the sway bar disconnected, the ride took on a far less jarring and more rounded-off feel. Social media editor Stef Schrader, who was riding along, likened it to "a suspension made of pudding." But in a good way.
I tried out the Bronco's one-pedal off-road drive mode but turned it off after a few minutes, however. I could see how some might find it useful; I personally found its braking habits intrusive and rather unpredictable. I didn't get a chance with the four-cylinder on the trails, but the V6 packed great low-end power to effortlessly pull the big body through the challenging terrain.
Brazenly, Ford also had a new four-door Jeep Wrangler Sahara on hand for back-to-back comparisons. Stef, who had some extra time to check it out, reported the Wrangler had more plasticky interior parts, its hard top felt "kinda cheesy," and that it "blew around like a sailboat on-road." The Wrangler also had a smaller infotainment screen and she found the transfer case lever harder to switch between the four-low and four-high drivetrain modes. In the Bronco, it's easy: just a matter of putting the truck in neutral and hitting a button on the G.O.A.T. mode dial selector.
I'm probably as novice an off-roader as they come, but behind the wheel of Ford's new truck, I felt reassured and confident that I could rely on the thing. Of course, I'm also very aware I was driving something that belonged to Ford, on a trail Ford curated and scouted, all while being chaperoned by Ford employees. Nothing bad or unexpected was supposed to happen.
But as a preview into what the truck is capable of, it impressed the hell out of me. I expected the Bronco to off-road well; I didn't expect it to feel damn-near unbeatable. I felt like I could have taken it to the very ends of the Earth, where there are no more roads. It wouldn't be a problem.
Though on- and off-road seat time was limited to a few hours, I walked away with the sense that the Bronco, adequate on paved roads, really shines when you throw it onto rough terrain. This is where it truly wants to be, kind of like the way a supercar hankers to be on a racetrack. The Bronco ate up the abuse and thirsted for more.
Hype and long reservation list aside, it's too early to say if the Bronco will outsell the Wrangler. But at the very least, it will introduce some serious competition—something the OEM off-road market sorely needs. And I'll leave you with this small bit of insight, courtesy of a Ford spokesperson (there was a lot of Jeep comparison talk during the media event): The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon starts at $40,795. Meanwhile, the $4,995 Sasquatch package is Ford's answer to the Rubicon—with the extra bonus of 35-inch tires, which the Rubicon just now started to offer—and you can also get it on the base Bronco, where a few other necessary additions bring the starting price to $37,380.
Because it's as I've suspected: The Bronco prioritizes off-road abilities over on-road talents. This is no Subaru Outback Wilderness that does some light off-roading sometimes. It's also no Land Rover Defender that skews further in the luxury direction. The Bronco is one you can take straight from the showroom floor and straight to the off-road park with the factory equipment. It just means you have to make some sacrifices when it comes to on-road comfort.
The new Bronco isn't a luxurious vehicle by any means, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in utility. There's a certain satisfaction I get from spending time with something that's overwhelmingly functional. The Bronco is indeed that kind of vehicle. From bumper to bumper, it's obvious its designers really considered the buyer that values usefulness over everything else—and certainly doesn't mind getting a bit of mud inside their truck from doing fun stuff. Whether or not Bronco customers will actually take advance of the truck's off-roading abilities remains to be seen.
But you can rest assured that it'll deliver whenever you want it to. You won't even need aftermarket mods—though if the Wrangler is any indication, the development of that whole ecosystem will be interesting to watch as well.
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