Evidently the domestication of the SUV can only go so far. As a counterpoint to the metrosexual Escape, Ford has now given it a baby-Bronco brother with classic off-roader styling cues. Even the Toyota RAV4 – the originator of the car-based “soft-roader” concept – looks chunkier these days, and offers more-rugged Trail and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) Off-Road versions.
Ford offers the Bronco Sport in four grades, all with standard all-wheel drive (AWD), starting at $32,199 and topping out at $40,199 for the off-road-oriented Badlands. A vast range of RAV4 models starts below $30,000 for front-wheel drive, or $30,690 for AWD; the Trail lists for $39,390, while the TRD Off-Road package bumps that up to $42,910.
Unique to the Bronco Sport Badlands is a 245-horsepower, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo engine, while the three lower trims share a 180-horsepower, 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbo. All RAV4s, conversely, share the same 203-horsepower, 2.5-litre engine.
If you’re really serious about roughing it in a crossover, the Bronco Sport Badlands goes further down (or off) that road than the RAV4 TRD. Both offer modified suspension, extra ground clearance, underbody protection, assorted tricky-terrain drive modes and all-terrain tires, but the Badlands adds a lockable rear differential, and much bolder approach and departure angles. The Toyota’s AWD has torque-vectoring and the ability to disconnect drive to the rear wheels, neither of which seems to promise enhanced off-road traction.
Our Bronco Sport test sample, however, was the mid-trim 1.5-litre Big Bend. Its adversary was a full-on TRD Off-Road version of the RAV4. That’s not quite the mismatch it seems, since the TRD has the same powertrain as other RAV4s that are closer in price and purpose to the less off-roady 1.5-litre Broncos. The RAV4 XLE AWD, for example, is priced almost identically to the Bronco Sport Big Bend. And while the Toyota’s 203 horsepower beats the Ford’s 181, you have to rev it to get it; more relevant for everyday driving, the Ford pumps out 190 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm, while the Toyota needs 5,000 rpm to reach its lower peak of 184 lb.-ft.
We think Ford has nailed the poor-man’s-Land-Rover look of the Bronco Sport. It looks bred in the bone, no need for tacked-on cosmetic cues. The RAV’s basic shape is chunkier than many crossovers, but relies more on body mouldings and mud guards for its Bear Grylls personality. The TRD adds only five millimetres more ground clearance compared with civilian RAVs, but at 217 millimetres, that’s almost 20 millimetres more than the civvie Bronco, at 198.
Off-road vehicles traditionally seat the driver tall in the saddle for a better view of oncoming rocks and ruts, and despite only six-way seat adjustment the Bronco comfortably meets that mandate; close, upright windshield pillars and a clear view of the blunt snout further help the Ford feel small and easy to aim. The Toyota’s seat is eight-way adjustable, street-driving visibility is excellent, and the cockpit feels airier, but tailoring a lofty view forward may be limited by headroom (51 millimetres less than the Bronco) and diminished thigh support.
We preferred the Toyota’s more business-like gauge cluster, and while both screens are eight-inchers, the Toyota’s looks bigger as it’s set into a larger, more free-standing panel and offers more hard-button alternatives to poking the screen. Traditionalists may wish to note the Toyota’s conventional shift lever, compared with the Ford’s rotary knob.
As for passengers, official numbers credit the Ford with 105.7 cubic feet of passenger volume compared with the Toyota’s 98.9 – a big difference – but the practical reality is more nuanced than that. Most of the Ford’s advantage comes from generous headroom; and while the Toyota has more rear-seat knee clearance, most adults will likely find more comfort on the Ford’s rear bench than the Toyota’s, which is close to the floor and enforces a knees-up posture.
A stopwatch and a test track would reveal similar zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour times in the low-nine-seconds range, which is competitive among base-engined compact crossovers. The Ford, however, feels quicker in utility driving, thanks to its richer torque at lower engine speeds; the Toyota always has to rev higher for the same effect.
Sometimes at idle, or when lugging at low rpm, you can feel the Ford’s uneven three-cylinder beat, but most of the time it’s surprisingly muted and doesn’t sound as frantic as the RAV4 does at maximum effort. Likewise, although both are surprisingly long-legged cruisers (about 2,000 rpm at 120 kilometres an hour) the Toyota sounds a little busier (in part because there’s less wind noise to mask the engine’s exertions).
Neither trucklet will give you neck strain if you get frisky on a clover-leaf on ramp, and not for the first time in a modern Toyota we noticed the stability control intervening to keep the tail in line at the limit. The Ford, however, simply feels much more fun to handle in normal-to-brisk cornering, its steering lively and engaging, where the Toyota’s tiller feels limp and lifeless. The Toyota does get some points in ride comfort; they both ride stiffly, but the Ford’s reactions have a sharper edge.
We saw slightly better fuel consumption in the Toyota, which syncs with official numbers that are about a wash in city driving but meaningfully better for the Toyota on the highway.
This pair illustrates how once-esoteric technology has now become mainstream. Driver-assist features standard on both include blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, auto high-beam, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. Adaptive cruise and automatic lane following are also standard on the RAV, but require an extra-cost package on the Ford. Rear cross-traffic automatic braking is unique to the RAV4 Limited.
On the infotainment side, all the usuals are there, though only the RAV still has an auxiliary port and also has one USB port more than the Ford. Wireless phone charging is standard on the RAV4 Trail and part of a package on most Bronco Sport trims, while a Wi-Fi hotspot is standard on all Bronco Sports.
Seats up or seats down, the Toyota has visibly more cargo room (as well as a lower rear load height) and the numbers confirm it: 1,062 versus 920 litres seats up, 1,974 versus 1,846 seats folded. The Ford seat-backs do fold a bit flatter, though, and it offers little extras like a slide-out table that’s part of a configurable cargo-management system, plus zippered pouches behind the front seats, hidden storage under the rear bench, and a flip-up tailgate window.
Towing? Most RAVs are rated to haul 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds), but the Trail is upgraded to 1,588 kilograms (3,500 pounds); the Ford rates 907 kilograms (2,000 pounds) with the 1.5-litre engine or 997 kilograms (2,200 pounds) with the 2.0-litre Badlands trim.
Based on specs alone, we’re confident a Bronco Sport Badlands could go further off-road than a RAV4 TRD Off Road. But who really does that? Most prospective Bronco Sport buyers will be shopping for one of the suburbanized trims like the Big Bend tested here. And they’ll be cross-shopping XLE or Trail versions of the RAV4. So, are you a left-brain or right-brain thinker? Choose the Toyota if you value practicality, fuel economy, predicted reliability and a no-brainer driving experience on the way to the mall. Pick the Ford for styling that makes a statement, with all kinds of potential for personalization, and a much more entertaining drive to the trailhead or the lake.
2021 Ford Bronco Sport Big Bend
- Base price/as tested: $34,199/$38,299
- Engine: 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbo
- Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 kilometres): 9.3 city/8.3 highway
- Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD with Off-Road Package
- Base price/as tested: $39,390/$43,450
- Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 kilometres): 9.4 city/7.1 highway
- Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Bronco Sport, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan