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The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

I drove Ford’s new Bronco Sport in the snowiest week of this winter so far. Which isn’t too snowy in the Greater Toronto countryside, but these days, it is what it is.

I plowed through 10 cm of fresh snow with no trouble and very little tire slippage then ventured down and back up a long, steep and unmaintained road, just to see if the Baby Bronco would make it. It did, of course, with little drama. In such conditions, slow and steady always helps win the day. Winter tires improve the actual grip, and tall ground clearance keeps the chassis from digging into the snow. And all-wheel drive makes all the difference.

The new Bronco Sport is all about the AWD. Without it, this would be just another wannabe crossover with macho aspirations. It’s not the true Bronco, which is a hairy-chested competitor to the Jeep Wrangler and is due to hit the market this summer. The Sport is Ford’s softer, quieter, urban-friendly alternative, built on the Escape platform but designed to be more rugged and more capable.

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My test vehicle was the Badlands edition, the most costly of four available trims and the only version powered by Ford’s four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. It didn’t lack for power, with 250 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, but I can’t vouch for the smaller 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo that’s under the hood of the other trims. That engine makes 181 hp and 190 lb-ft, which is better for fuel consumption and sounds good on paper, at least.

These are the same engines that power the popular Escape, which is a less expensive vehicle and will do the job for almost all drivers. Power is the same, ground clearance is close to the same, interior volume is pretty much the same – though there’s more headroom in both rows. What the Bronco Sport does offer is a more macho image, longer suspension travel, better approach and departure angles, some extra protection under the chassis against rocks, but mostly that Go Anywhere all-wheel-drive system.

Ford actually has its own name for it: GOAT, for “Goes Over All Terrain.” (Officially, it’s supposed to stand for Goes Over All Types of Terrain, which would be GOATT, but maybe it had to adjust because Jaguar Land Rover owns the trademark for the word “Terrain.”)

The Badlands edition is the most off-road-focused of the four trims. It costs $2,500 more than the Outer Banks edition (and $8,000 more than the most basic trim) but sports the more powerful engine as well as a twin-clutch rear-drive unit that allows two more drive modes beyond the standard five: Rock Crawl, and Mud and Ruts. It also features an electronic locking differential back there so almost all the rear torque can go to just one wheel, if needed. The suspension is beefed up with the option of larger tires, and there’s a camera in the grille for looking down at the trail in front.

At the price of the top-end Bronco Sport, you’re well over the $40,499 of the basic Bronco. The more relevant question is how the basic Bronco Sport compares to the basic Escape AWD, which costs most than $2,000 less. The two share the same platform, but the shape is different. The Bronco Sport is almost 20 cm shorter, while the wheelbase is just four cm shorter, which means shorter overhangs at the front and back avoid getting stuck on rocks and ruts. It’s at least 10 cm taller, too, providing more headroom.

This stubbier look may work better in the dirt, but it affects fuel consumption. The 1.5-litre Bronco Sport has an average fuel consumption that is 0.6 L/100 km worse than the equivalent Escape AWD, while the 2.0-litre Bronco Sport is a full 1.0 L/100 km worse.

The Bronco Sport had little trouble plowing through fresh snow and venturing down a steep, unmaintained road.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

  • Base price/As tested: $32,199 / $45,549, plus $1,900 Freight and PDI
  • Engine: 1.5-litre three-cylinder Ecoboost turbo / 2.0-litre four cylinder Ecoboost turbo
  • Transmission/Drive: 8-speed automatic / All-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 1.5-litre: 9.3 City, 8.3 Hwy., 8.9 Comb.; 2.0-litre: 11.1 City, 8.9 Hwy., 10.1 Comb.
  • Alternatives: Jeep Compass, Jeep Cherokee, Ford Escape, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV-4 Trail

Looks

The Bronco Sport's design attempts to strike a balance between approachability and off-road ruggedness.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

It’s a fine line between ute and cute for SUV designers, and the Bronco Sport’s mandate was more challenging than most – make it look like a true SUV, but also be sure it’s friendly and appealing to suburban soccer parents. Ford did this with tall windows and a safari roof (which drips water directly into the rear door wells when they’re open), but with rounded edges and smooth sides. Most people I met like it and nobody hated it, but the final decision is up to you.

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Interior

The cabin is practical and comfortable. The eight automatic gears are shifted with an electronic dial on the centre console to save space, just like on the Escape. It’s not really an attractive cabin, however – there’s a lot of plastic that’s easy to clean but looks cheap and monotonous. The 8-inch central touch screen is relatively small. At least there’s lots of storage, and the hidden storage compartment under one of the rear seats is a clever touch.

Performance

As mentioned, the 2.0-litre turbo engine in the top-of-the-line Badlands tester didn’t lack for power, but most buyers will opt for the smaller engine in the other three trims. The real measure of performance for a vehicle like this is whether it gets stuck when the going gets bad, and, no, the Bronco Sport never got stuck during my time with it – and I tried.

Technology

Like the Escape, the Bronco Sport is available with about as much technology as Ford can throw at it. All the trim levels come standard with Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 system, which includes lane-keeping, automatic high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring and automatic emergency braking. Pay extra and you can get adaptive cruise control, evasive-steering control and navigation. Ford’s Sync 3 keeps everything connected, together with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The real technology is in the all-wheel drive and the beefed-up suspension. The Badlands edition even has an 18:1 electronic crawl ratio and a trail cruise control that can be set for consistent slow speed on bad roads and poor terrain.

Cargo

Space is reasonable, with 920 litres available behind the second row that expands to 1,846 litres when those seats are folded flat. They do fold flat, too, and everything wipes clean fairly easily if needed. The front-row seat backs have small package compartments with zippers to close them.

There’s enough space under the cargo area for a full-size spare tire. Ford says there’s room for two mountain bikes in the back, and the roof rack is designed for carrying kayaks and other macho stuff. The roof will even support a special tent, with a weight limit up there of 270 kg, or 600 lbs. The rear window opens separately from the main hatch, if you need to just reach in, but you’ll have to open the whole rear door if you want access to the cool bottle opener. Nice touch!

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The verdict

Image is everything, and the Bronco Sport does look tougher than an Escape but not so single-purpose as its Bronco big brother. The Go Anywhere chassis does exactly what it claims, and many buyers will be happy to pay the premium for it, even if they really don’t need it and will rarely use it. Ford will surely sell billions of these not-so-cute utes.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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