Comfortable, capable, and composed. Inspired confidence. Loves to play in the dirt! Either you’re reading my report card from elementary school or a tale of more than 500 miles behind the wheel of the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands. The journey took a small group of journalists from Los Angeles, California to Lone Pine and back to L.A. via a sand dunes playground and along a 40-mile-long challenging off-road trail on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park.
Once outside the L.A. metro, it became clear that this all-new sport ute’s breadth of competences was impressive, though somewhat expected. Ford wasn’t just going to slap the Bronco name on a traditional crossover and call it a day. The company put this smaller four-door SUV through durability testing parallel to its bigger, more-off-road-skilled sibling, the 2021 Ford Bronco, evaluating it over almost all of the same low-speed crawling and high-speed thrashing exercises in Johnson Valley and the Anza-Borrego desert.
The point is this: the Bronco Sport has ‘real-world’ toughness and a collection of segment-best off-road talents, despite its junior role in the stable. The ‘Built Wild’ test steed was the Badlands model (one of five model choices) bolstered by specialized engineering and off-road proficiencies to enhance the standard four-wheel drive that comes on all Bronco Sport trims that carry forward the heritage G.O.A.T. (goes over any terrain) moniker.
Driving northward from L.A., I had the opportunity to check the boxes for comfort, technology and driving dynamics. The Sports’ brick-like exterior styling is smartly-executed and carries forward Bronco’s design DNA and gives an immediate impression of its off-the-pavement mission, penned with a high stance and chiseled angles of approach and departure, as well as the hint of its four underbelly skid plates.
For its price-point (this model starts at $32,600), I was impressed with the collection of infotainment and navigational technologies, safety features, and ergonomics. Elbow room abounds in the five-seater that wears interior cues that speak more to rough and rugged than premium accoutrements while the high safari-style roof sets the stage for an open and airy feel to the cockpit.
Traveling a highway speeds, I was impressed with the ample and on-demand power derived from the Bronco Sport’s 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine that motivates with 245 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque and the integration of the eight-speed transmission that brings seamless up-and-down shifts. I also appreciated the fully-independent suspension that provided just the right balance of supple ride and responsive handling as I sliced with ease through bustling traffic putting the Bronco’s Sport’s electric power steering to the test. My only complaint was wanting a tad more braking power at the top of the pedal to slow the nearly two-ton SUV.
The Bronco Sport rose to the challenge of desert dunes.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Along our journey, a highway closure south of Lone Pine, due to the crash of an Air Force jet near the main roadway, forced our group to deviate on a dirt-road bypass. The group traveled along the track with corrugated washboard, with divots and holes that dotted the road for a significant swath. For us, it was the perfect first test to check out the Bronco Sport’s manners and ride comfort in an everyday, unplanned experience. The SUV soaked up the bumps and didn’t stray from its intended path, even on loose dirt with pebbles.
Our first authentic off-road experience took us to the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, where we were able to motor up and over tall dunes, drive in deep sand, and perform high-speed maneuvers on a test track that Ford carved out in this desert area. As an experienced off-road racer that has navigated thousands of miles of dunes fields around the world, I was enamored with the Bronco Sport’s traction capabilities. Its talents are derived from an advanced 4×4 system with a class-exclusive twin-clutch rear-drive unit that has a differential lock feature. This pairs with the SUV’s Terrain Management System, which features up to seven G.O.A.T. Modes: standard modes include Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand; Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl are available on Badlands and First Edition versions.
Next up was a full-day of off-roading to check out more of the Sport’s talents. The Swansea-Cerro Gordo OHV Route is a 34.7-mile loop trail located near Lone Pine that offers moderate off-road tracks and travels to an elevation of more than 8,000 ft., with views of Mt. Whitney and Death Valley. Our route along the Cerro Gordo Trail included a rugged backway to the Salt Tram Station and Cerro Gordo Ghost Town. On it, the road climbs rapidly through a corridor into the Inyo Mountains Wilderness and runs along the ridge atop the Inyo Mountains, with great views, wildflowers and historical mining structures.
The Bronco Sport ventured far off the beaten path.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
This was the perfect venue to try out the Bronco Sport’s hardware along a collection of steep, rocky and narrow tracks. Schooled by Eddie Khan, Bronco Sport Engineering Manager, I used different settings on the terrain management system with the locking differential in off and on settings, when the vehicle needed a more aggressive aid to climb up or over an obstacle.
I appreciated the Bronco Sport’s 8.8 inches of ground clearance, 30.4-inch approach angle, 33.1-inch departure angle, 18:1 crawl ratio, and trail cameras when climbing up and over patches of steep rock and while navigating along a lengthy section of narrow shale shelf road with life-ending drop-offs on the side. On this trail in particular, precise driving is critical, as this last part of the road is prone to washouts and rock slides. If you research the trail, you’ll see that it is deemed “suitable for aggressive stock SUVs with high clearance, low range, and skid plates” and, although we lacked traditional low range, the Bronco Sport’s 105-inch wheelbase, with its slightly wider track in front than in the rear, and suspension, made the vehicle feel planted at all times.
Heading back to L.A. and seeing just how much dirt had accumulated on the Bronco Sport from the journey, I was thankful that the cleaning team could take advantage of the rubber flooring throughout the cabin and cargo area, easy-to-clean cloth seating surfaces, and silicone-sealed control switches to make their detailing job easier.
The Bronco Sport’s technology and engineering made trail life easier. Though I’ve piloted thousands of vehicles in countries all over the world, the model and this journey will stand out because of how surprisingly well the compact SUV performed. Now I’m even more excited to get my hands on the four-door Bronco.