First ride: 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport go off-roading, show Jeep-fighter credentials

Chad Kirchner

Chad Kirchner

The Ford Bronco got its first test in front of the media during an off-roading day last week.

Sculptor Frederic Remington captured the Wild West like no other. His 1895 bronze sculpture “The Bronco Buster” features a cowboy fighting to stay aboard a rearing bronco, with a stirrup swinging free, holding on by the reins for dear life. It looks like a heck of a ride and so is the new family of Ford Broncos.

The 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport are on the way and one of the things the company is trying to emphasize is that it’s nicer to drive than the competition while being just as – if not more – capable. They’ve tamed the Bronco to be more approachable, or at least that’s the theory. With the new trucks going on sale soon and reservations pouring in, the question is this: Did they succeed?

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The Bronco was driven across a variety of terrain.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

While the public hasn’t had a chance to drive them yet, Ford did invite some journalists to the Holly Oaks ORV Park in Michigan to ride in the new four-door Bronco, two-door Bronco, and Bronco Sport. However, they assigned seats so only experiencing two of the three was how it shook out. The complicated courses featured dirt, sand, rocks, and even a water crossing – experiences true off-roading enthusiasts can appreciate.

Here’s what I learned.

2021 Ford Bronco

The two-door Bronco feels bigger on the inside than the similarly-proportioned Jeep Wrangler. You don’t sit as close shoulder-to-shoulder to the passenger as you do in the Jeep. This proved especially beneficial when I was being bounced around the cabin along the high-speed sections of the course.

The 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine feels plenty potent – this author likes this motor in nearly everything he’s driven with it – and the seven-speed manual transmission seems to be geared for the best performance off the tarmac. The Ford employee driver briefly demonstrated the crawler gear on some rough terrain, and it’s pretty cool. Most people still would likely prefer the automatic, but the manual does seem to offer quite a bit of control (and the best crawl ratio of the Bronco lineup).

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Bronco offers an impressive amount of water fording capability and most models offer a floor with drains.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The independent front suspension of the Bronco handles the bumps better than the Wrangler’s solid front axle. Granted, Ford designed this course, but there was nothing that seemed to flummox the capability of the Bronco and the course seemed reasonably challenging. We didn’t ride on the road, but the improved off-road ride quality will surely equate to a better on-road experience.

The other impressive demo showcased during the event was the SUV’s disconnecting front sway bar. It’s hydraulically controlled, meaning that it can work under load. So, if you’re up on an obstacle and realize you should’ve disconnected the sway bar, you can do it on the fly.

Until we can put it back-to-back against the Jeep Wrangler, it’s hard to say which’ll perform better, but under the controlled environment that Ford let us ride in, the Bronco appears to be as capable as it needs to be to directly compete.

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The Ford Bronco is as capable as it needs to be to compete against the Jeep Wrangler.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

The surprise delight of the day was the Bronco Sport. While it technically shares a platform with the 2020 Ford Escape, it’s nearly completely different inside and out.

High speed through sand, the Bronco Sport slides around like it’s a rear-drive-biased AWD system. It’s difficult to feel the economy-crossover underpinnings. Power delivery felt consistent from the 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-banger and the twin-clutch rear drive unit splits power, shifting it from the rear to the wheel that needs it the most at any given moment.

While we didn’t get a chance to experience it on-road, there’s no reason to think the Bronco Sport wouldn’t ride as nicely as the Escape does, though the off-road focused tires might be a tad bit noisier.

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The Ford Bronco Sport is surprisingly capable.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

When tackling some tough off-road trails, the Bronco Sport feels like it is more capable than a Jeep Renegade or the slightly larger Jeep Cherokee in Trailhawk trims. Ultimately, they’ll also need to be tested back to back to verify, but the new Bronco Sport is not the joke many on the internet seem to think it is.

The biggest takeaway from the day is that Ford put time and effort into developing both the new Bronco and the Bronco Sport. Instead of just putting in what they think customers would want, they spent the time going where the potential customers are and seeing how they use their vehicles. It seems like, based on this initial taste, they’re on the right track.

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