HOLLY, Mich. — The Ford Bronco is no longer a ghost. The mythical qualities that surrounded its first life — from 1960s cult classic to ‘90s gas-guzzler — are giving way to a modern vehicle you can buy right now. It will take a minute for you to actually get your Bronco, as Ford has an order bank of 125,000, but the Bronco is real again. Hell, we’ve even driven it twice now this summer.
Our first taste of the 2021 Bronco is still fresh as we travel to an off-road park an hour north of Detroit called Holly Oaks. The trails are interesting and challenging, a mix of hills, mud, water, rocks and trees. It’s enough to keep an off-roader with some experience on their toes. In other words, a good place to further scrutinize the Bronco. The most obvious takeaway: The Bronco is one of a handful of vehicles that can tackle anything, just like its chief rival, the Jeep Wrangler.
On-road, the differences between the Bronco and Wrangler are more noticeable. The Bronco handles better thanks to its independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. That said, the Ford still requires steering correction, and it’s work to drive the Bronco. We expected this dynamic. If you’re looking for a relaxed driving experience, the answer is neither of these off-roaders. For comparison, the Land Rover Defender is easier to steer and more comfortable on-road, and the jouncy Toyota 4Runner handles worse than any of them. The Wrangler may be tougher off-road thanks to its primitive solid front axle, but we may never be able to test that extreme case definitively.
We make our way through the edges of Detroit's sprawl, where the suburbs meet farmland. Our 41.6-mile route is on public roads, though much of it is actually soft. Our Bronco First Edition trundles over dirt roads, many of them pockmarked with holes a foot deep. Trees line our path and the occasional deer takes note of our presence.
Back on solid ground, we open up the throttle and test the 2.7-liter EcoBoost’s mettle. The turbo V6 makes 330 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque (using premium fuel). There’s a lively amount of torque low in the range and the 10-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly. The Wrangler doesn’t have anything quite like this, instead relying on the Pentastar V6’s 285 hp and 260 lb-ft. We didn’t test the Bronco’s 2.3-liter turbo I4 this time around (300 hp, 325 lb-ft on premium), which outguns the 270 hp and 295 lb-ft turbo four in the Wrangler. Ford’s two turbo offerings top Jeep on paper with top octane, but it’s worth noting in off-road situations, the Wrangler’s naturally aspirated V6 is plenty capable.
Jeep also offers the V6 with an eTorque mild-hybrid system, an EcoDiesel that produces 442 lb-ft of torque, and the 4xe plug-in hybrid with 25 miles of electric range and 375 hp. Oh, and there’s the 392 Hemi V8 Wrangler with 470 ponies. On balance, it’s hard not to give the edge to the Jeep portfolio, even if Ford’s engines shine individually. Ford has hinted that it plans to electrify the Bronco as the ‘20s roll on, though details are not clear.
Seated in the Bronco, we immediately note the good visibility. The fenders rise just above the wide hood and are topped by trail sights with tie-down points, recalling the first-gen Bronco. Our First Edition has attractive blue accents on the insides of the doors and blue and gray leather-trimmed vinyl seats. There are also First Edition badges, a black leather-covered steering wheel and Bronco spelled out on the panel over the glove box. We slightly prefer the shapes and layout of the Wrangler’s interior, which is fortified with plenty of Easter eggs. Jeep also has Stellantis’ Uconnect, which is easier to use than Ford’s Sync 4.
The Bronco’s interior is surprisingly quiet (relatively speaking) with the windows up thanks to the optional sound-deadening headliner, and with the windows down the muggy summer air breezes through the cabin pleasingly. We prop an elbow on the frameless door and drape one hand over the steering wheel, soaking in the moment and letting the unmistakable coolness of the Bronco wash over.
A four-door Cyber Orange Bronco Badlands awaits at the start of the off-road course. The hills at Holly Oaks are steep, muddy and far trickier than most would expect for a course this close to a metro area. It’s a great place to test some of the Bronco’s tricks. One-pedal driving is useful. In simple terms, the Bronco brakes unless you’re on the throttle, so when coming down a hill or rock crawling, it offers an extra degree of control. We were skeptical for a minute but quickly came to enjoy the experience. The trail camera shows the path ahead streaming through the 12-inch infotainment screen. Initially, we thought we’d disregard it, but the camera is a nice-to-have feature. We later ascend Mount Magna, a rock formation that tries to replicate Moab’s rocks. It’s not quite that much, but we make full use of the Bronco’s bash plates, smacking onto the slab to begin our ascent. That’s what they’re there for, and we glide up easily. Ford’s G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) modes can be tuned via a knob, and we spend our time wheeling in Mud/Ruts mode. As the name implies, it’s good for that. There’s also Sport, Eco, Normal, Slippery and Sand, Baja and Rock Crawl. For more uneven paths and rocks, we disconnect the front stabilizer bar to allow the wheels to move independently and for maximum articulation.
Watch Ford demonstrate the feature below at Holly Oaks:
The Bronco’s design is a clear differentiator. It’s nostalgic, but not a carbon copy of the first generation. With its sharp lines and a stocky profile, the 2021 model exudes some of the brashness of the later squared-off models. The oversized circular headlights and wide grille still evoke the mid-century vibe that was a highwater mark for Ford. Put simply, Ford nailed the looks, which meld the idea of a Bronco with its modern purpose.
The Bronco does face an uphill battle against Wrangler in the marketing department. The Wrangler is still a Jeep, and when almost any American sees a vehicle with tire on the back, fender flares and a squat silhouette, the synapses fire "Jeep." The Bronco is unmistakable from any distance, but it’s still competing against the notion of a Jeep, which is transcendent. A Bronco is still a Ford. Nothing wrong with that. Ford also makes Mustangs and Explorers and a lot of really cool things like the Mach-E, and a few lame things, like the EcoSport. It’s a mainstream brand. Jeep, which long ago started making grocery-getting crossovers and has had a clunker or two in its lineup, still maintains an aspirational value that Wrangler embodies. Ford also needs to literally deliver the goods. With a lengthy order bank and customer demand at a fever pitch, the Blue Oval simply cannot have any launch issues with the Bronco, like it did with the Explorer, Lincoln Aviator and some early 2021 F-150s.
We previously gave a small edge to the Bronco over the Wrangler, and that’s how it feels after this test, too. That said, it’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment. The Bronco is probably more coveted right now as a reborn legend. There’s an element of surreality. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Jeep Gladiator’s splashy launch. That pickup was one of the most anticipated vehicles of 2019 and sure, the Wrangler was overshadowed for a minute. Like with the Gladiator, the Bronco’s shooting star will level off and the Jeep Wrangler will still be standing, as it has in some form for the last 80 years. Rivalries are good for the fans, and Bronco vs. Wrangler is just getting started.
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