If good things are worth waiting for, then the new Ford Bronco should be downright spectacular, considering the reborn SUV is just rolling into showrooms after a six-month delay. To find out if that old axiom holds true, I set out for Texas and a couple days behind the wheel of the SUV which is making its comeback after a quarter-century absence.
My itinerary was jam packed, with most of my first day spent driving from Austin out into the hinterlands of Hill Country, my second devoted to some truly challenging trails at the first of the Bronco Off-Roadeos Ford is setting up around the country. Every Bronco buyers will be offered a day’s adventure, discovering not only what the new SUV is capable of but also learning how to get the most out of it.
What becomes immediately clear is that the new Bronco — especially in its most aggressive Badlands trim and Sasquatch off-road package — is up for pretty much anything you might throw at it. And that should have the folks at Jeep, and even Land Rover, looking over their shoulders.
When Ford began working on the original Bronco prototype six decades back it went by the codename “GOAT” — short for “Goes Over Any Terrain.” It would have been a fitting name, as the SUV was all but unstoppable, and a serious challenger to the Jeep Wrangler of that era.
By the late 1970s, however, Ford shifted directions. The Bronco name had been tarnished by a series of safety lawsuits. And, whether they were valid or not, the automaker was beginning to see gold in them thar hills as mainstream buyers began shifting from passenger cars to SUVs and other light trucks. It became increasingly apparent that on-road comfort was the top priority for these new buyers who were likely never to traverse anything rougher than a gravel road. So, Bronco made way for the Ford Explorer.
Jumping ahead another four decades, utility vehicles today dominate the market. But, a sizable share of buyers once again want something with serious off-road credibility. And Ford execs, like marketing chief Mark Grueber, see an opportunity to bring back not just one Bronco, but a family of off-roaders. The compact Bronco Sport made its debut late last year, and the bigger Bronco was expected to follow a few months later. Technical problems — primarily with the SUV’s removable roof — as well as COVID-related issues, delayed it until now.
The new model is not only bigger than the Sport, but also truer to the original. Where the compact crossover relies on a “ruggedized” unibody platform shared with the mainstream Ford Escape, Bronco starts out with the same, body-on-frame chassis as the Ranger pickup. It’s undergone some extensive modifications to enhance its off-road capabilities. For one thing, it now boasts up to 11.5 inches of ground clearance, 33.5 inches of water fording, as well as increased approach, departure and breakover angles.
What’s particularly compelling, however, is the way those off-road upgrades were made without sacrificing Bronco’s on-road manners. The new ute proved not only comfortable but reasonably nimble during a winding route that took me from downtown Austin to Horseshoe Bay – with a series of backroad diversions along the way.
I spent most of my time in the top level four-door Bronco Badlands, but also switched between other trim packages, as well as both the two- and four-door models, while out on the trail.
See one pulling up in your rearview mirror and you’ll likely know at first glance you’re being chased by the new Ford Bronco. There are the twin round headlamps and the broad horizontal grille, the near-vertical windshield and the crisp corners. Yet, while the classic DNA is obvious, this is no retro-mobile. From a design perspective, functionality was the key, even with the peaked front fenders which help you know exactly where Bronco’s corners are, no small feature when you’re negotiating a tight space.
The decision to opt for a two-door version of the new Bronco might seem superfluous considering current market trends. But the development team felt that was one nod to the original SUV they couldn’t ignore.
The doors on both models, incidentally, are removable, as are both soft and hard tops. On the four-door they weigh about 55 pounds each up front, slightly less in the rear. One of the trick features is the ability to store the doors in a special rear compartment. They even get special pouches to reduce the risk of damage.
The four-door SUV measures 189.4 inches, nose-to-tail, 21 inches shorter than the Ranger pickup. The two-door comes in at 173.7 inches. There are other key difference, including Bronco’s independent front suspension and, in contrast to Ranger’s solid rear axle. The SUV gets a five-link layout in back. And the frame has seven crossmembers to maximize stiffness on the trail.
As for the decision to offer both two- and four-door packages, that was a nod to the original Bronco. And it seems to be paying off. Of the 125,000 initial orders Ford has received, 30% are for the shorter model. Meanwhile, 40% of Bronco buyers are, so far, opting for the Sasquatch off-road package that includes 35-inch Goodyear Territory mud-terrain tires, a trail-friendly 4.70 final-drive ratio, locking front and rear differentials, 17-inch black-painted beadlock-capable wheels, fender flares, and three-mode Bilstein dampers. The Sasquatch package also widens Bronco’s track by three inches.
The 2021 Bronco cabin also pays homage to the original Ford icon without crossing fully into the retro category. The instrument panel picks up on the horizontal shape of the original SUV, but it’s dominated by the touchscreen atop the center stack.
There are going to be some traditionalists who will want as few frills as possible. For the rest of us, the 12.3-inch upgrade is the right choice. It adds a number of features, including the ability to see where you’re going using an assortment of cameras strategically mounted around Bronco’s body. That includes a low-mounted front camera that shows you what’s on the other side of a steep grade that otherwise leaves you staring at the sky.
Atop the IP you’ll find a “hero” bar with switches to control functions like Bronco’s locking front and rear differentials, as well as its sway bar unlocker. Look down at the center console and you’ll spot one of the most important features Bronco has to offer: its “GOAT Mode” selector. That’s something I’ll get back to shortly.
The two-door comes with a hardtop, the four-door with a folding soft top — but it can be ordered with an easily removable hardtop. It breaks down into three separate, easily stowed pieces, and the process can be handled by one person, if need be. That’s a lot easier than the hefty and awkward top used on the Wrangler. The downside was the challenge of getting supplier Webasto to put it into production. Delays with the removable top were the primary reason the Bronco program slipped so far behind schedule.
Recalling the lawsuits that helped sink the original Bronco, the new models feature a “sport bar” just behind the rear seats. It provides both rollover protection and enhanced body stiffness.
Ford designers are quick to boast about all the steps they took to enhance Bronco’s functionality — and ease of use. There are grab handles built into the side of the instrument panel, for one thing. This makes it a lot easier to get in and out if the SUV is parked at a steep angle — something I learned to appreciate while jumping in and out of my Badlands edition out on the Off-Roadeo’s challenging “Ghost Pepper Trail.”
You can also order Bronco with a rubberized interior that can be hosed out after a day on the trail.
For now, the two- and four-door Broncos offer either a choice of a 2.3-liter turbo inline-6 making 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, or a 2.7-liter turbo-6 pumping that up to 310 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque.
There are a number of tradeoffs to consider. For one thing, the smaller EcoBoost package is available with a 7-speed Getrag manual transmission — the first gear serving as a “creeper.” You’ll have to settle for a 10-speed automatic with the bigger engine. But it adds a useful feature called “One Pedal” mode. It’s similar to what you’ll find on many electric vehicles, here allowing a driver to accelerate by pressing the throttle but then slow by easing back. In many off-road situations you won’t need to jump from pedal to pedal anymore.
As you’d expect, the 2021 Ford Bronco’s low-range transfer case is well tuned to off-roading. The system is quick and responsive when it comes to moving torque to where it’s needed. Depending upon your package, meanwhile, you can equip the SUV with front and rear locking differentials. There’s also a push-button system that releases the sway bar to help get a better grip on sharply uneven surfaces. The system automatically reconnects when you get up to pavement speeds.
Safety and Technology
I spent a few days ahead of my trip to Austin driving the all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class. While Bronco can’t come close to matching the Teutonic sedan’s array of tech features, the Ford SUV is no slouch.
There are plenty of systems designed to enhance off-road capabilities, like the aforementioned One Pedal control and the GOAT Mode system which, with the turn of a dial, adjusts a variety of vehicle functions to optimize traction and performance. These include gear shifts, throttle mapping and, with the Sasquatch package, the Bilstein dampers.
The Sync 4 infotainment system gets wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and, with the 12.3-inch screen, those various camera views. One of the most intriguing features takes Ford’s standard onboard navigation system and adds more than 1,000 “professionally curated” off-road trails you can follow, just as if you were on pavement. You even can record a trail and share it with friends. And, to give them a better look at what you found along the way, there’s a “Bring Your Own Device” mount atop the IP that can be used for a GoPro or smartphone.
Of course, Bronco also features plenty of advanced driver assistance systems, such as forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking.
And the new SUV comes equipped with smartphone-style over-the-air update capabilities. Bronco officials expect to use that not only to update — and, if necessary, fix — software but also to add new features and functions in the future.
My trip to Texas Hill Country began in downtown Austin, where I nabbed a Bronco Badlands edition. It’s one of six trim packages that will be offered — seven, if you include the limited-run First Edition. The four-door model had pretty much everything you could want, starting with the larger touchscreen, as well as the 2.7-liter V-6 and Sasquatch package.
With 35-inch tires I was wondering what the ride experience would be like. But I was quickly surprised by how well-mannered the SUV was on pavement. There was none of the tire “singing” I’m used to with a Wrangler shod in 35-inch tires. Wind noise was apparent but reasonably moderate.
More importantly, my Bronco Badlands proved unexpectedly nimble on pavement. Though Horseshoe Bay is only about 90 miles from downtown Austin, my drive ran nearly twice that length, Ford suggesting a meandering route through lake country. No, you wouldn’t confuse the Bronco with a sports car — or even one of the new Explorer ST editions, but the stiff body held its own when the pavement got rough and body roll was surprisingly modest when heading into sharp corners at extra-legal speeds.
As expected, the 2021 Ford Bronco really shines off-road. The Off-Roadeo experience Ford set up in Hill Country offers an assortment of different trail grades that offer thrills — and a learning experience — whatever your experience off-roading. I began the day on the “Ghost Pepper Trail,” without question the sort of route even moderately skilled drivers would want to approach with caution.
Yet, the Bronco made light work of its broken, rocky terrain by making use of the various features Ford has built into the SUV. That includes Trail Control — essentially a low-speed version of cruise control designed for tough off-road conditions where you might not want to be constantly jumping from throttle to brake. Yet another notable feature is dubbed Turn Assist. It locks up the inner wheel to help you turn much more sharply than would otherwise be possible — helping off-roaders avoid complicated and potentially risky three-point turns.
Equally impressive was the Badlands’ “High-Performance Off-Road Stability Suspension” — or “HOSS,” if you prefer. I’m sure there’s a way to get it stuck, but I couldn’t find it during a day on the trail.
Actually, what may have been the most impressive point was how even low-trim models were able to keep up with our pack, albeit working a bit harder without all those special features.
It took several years to convince Ford management to greenlight the Bronco program, recalls marketing chief Grueber. After spending a few days behind the wheel, it’s clear that they made the right decision.
The new Bronco is the latest in a growing line-up of what Ford calls “heritage” models. But while it may bring back the original truck’s go-anywhere capabilities, it’s got far more to offer, especially when you consider its starting price of $29,995 for the Bronco Big Bend two-door. Even a fully loaded four-door Bronco Badlands, which can push well above $40,000, offers plenty of value for the money.
The 2021 Ford Bronco is a true, go-anywhere vehicle. Better yet, you’ll find it a surprisingly capable daily driver if you only expect to take it off-road a few times a year. That’s where it could pose a real challenge to its biggest rival, the Jeep Wrangler.
If you’re planning to order one, be patient. The program got off to a late start and, with the current order bank, new customers could be in for a lengthy wait.
2021 Ford Bronco — Frequently Asked Questions
Should I buy a 2021 Ford Bronco?
Returning to the Ford line-up for the first time in a quarter-century, the new SUV is feature packaged, reasonably priced and incredibly capable, both on-road and off.
Is the 2021 Ford Bronco roomy?
There are several different configurations of the 2021 Bronco, including both two- and four-door models, and you can get one with a removable hardtop or folding soft top. The latter in the four-door configuration offers up to 108 cubic feet of passenger and cargo space, about 50% more than a four-door Jeep Wrangler.
Is the 2021 Ford Bronco comfortable?
The Bronco is offered in six trim levels, as well as with an options Sasquatch package that provides variable dampers that maximize comfort on-road while increasing grip off-road. You can order a number of creature comfort options, depending upon trim package.