It’s been a quarter-century since we last saw a new Ford Bronco. The fifth generation of the famous truck was discontinued in 1996, just a couple of years after OJ Simpson made it infamous.
For the last 25 years, Ford watched Jeep sell Wranglers by the truckload because the Wrangler really had no competition. It was the only vehicle on the road, or off the road, that could remove its doors and go crawling over rocks on the way to the mall. Of course, you couldn’t really do that in the bloated old Bronco, but customers wanted Wranglers and paid handsomely for them. For years, the Wrangler has had one of the best retained values of any used vehicle – people want the image, if not the exceptional capability.
Why wait so long to offer an alternative?
“Ten years ago, our lineup was different and our showroom wasn’t the same as it is today,” says Ford of Canada’s Jeff Burdick, who is Vehicle Line Marketing Manager for Bronco. “Now, we honestly believe this was the right time to bring Bronco back.”
Being late to the party means you can see exactly what’s already available and offer alternatives. Ford knew what works – removeable doors, 35-inch tires, creature comforts, washable interiors, long suspension and a solid rear axle – and added some innovative features of its own.
The doors are cleverly designed to remove quickly, leaving the rear-view mirrors in place on the cowls, and the four-door will let you carry them in special bags in the back (not the two-door, which doesn’t have the space). “You’ve still got your mirrors and you don’t have to chain your doors to a tree,” says Burdick.
Even the most basic Bronco includes Trail Control, which is cruise control for off-road, and the smart Trail Turn Assist, which applies the rear brake only on the side you want to make a tight turn, to effectively swivel the truck in that direction. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it works very well.
The essential statistics for any off-roader include high ground clearance, deep water fording, and generous angles of approach, breakover and departure. Ford knew it had to at least match Wrangler on all these and has done so.
The number of options for customization (or as Ford calls it, “personalization”) are staggering. Six different trims that offer varying levels of on-road or off-road comfort and capability, each available with either two doors or four doors. Two engines, either a 2.3-litre Ecoboost or a 2.7-litre Ecoboost. A choice of 10-speed automatic or 7-speed manual transmission with the smaller engine. Cloth top or hard top, and most trims are available with a choice of two or three packages of options. Once all that’s decided, there are more than 200 factory-backed accessories that the dealership will be pleased to sell you. Phew!
What this might mean, over time, is that buyers will pay the extra for a new truck built to their exact specifications over a used vehicle, which might affect resale values, but that’s not been the case for Wrangler and it’s not an issue for right now. Ford already has 190,000 Americans and Canadians who’ve paid refundable deposits of $100 each to order a Bronco, and if you order one now, it probably won’t arrive this year.
Ford refuses to discuss its inevitable plans to electrify the Bronco. There will surely be a hybrid (as there is for the Wrangler) once the excitement over this truck’s launch settles down, and then a full-electric Bronco to sit alongside the full-electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck. For now though, the gas-powered Bronco should prove more than capable crawling over the rocks with the Wranglers on the way to the mall.
2021 Ford Bronco
- Base price/As tested: $40,499 / $72,639, plus $1,900 Freight and PDI
- Engine: 2.3-litre Ecoboost inline-four, or 2.7-litre Ecoboost V6
- Transmission/Drive: 10-speed automatic or 7-speed manual / 4WD
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km):
- 2-door 2.3-litre: 11.7 City, 10.7 Hwy.
- 4-door 2.7-litre: 14.0 City, 13.9 Hwy.
- Alternatives: Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender
The stubby appearance of the Bronco blends just the right amount of old and new. There’s no mistaking it for a Jeep Wrangler or even a Land Rover Defender, but its short overhangs and wide stance make it clear this is an off-roader. The fender flares snap off easily for their own protection on the trails; once this becomes well-known, look for a growing market for second-hand fender flares, especially near rough inner-cities.
I only drove the high-end Badlands edition, which included a hardtop removeable roof and a 12-inch high-definition centre touchscreen. Leather-trimmed seats are an option but the tester’s seats were vinyl and quite comfortable. You have to climb up a bit to get in, especially with the optional 35-inch tires that add an inch to the height, but once you’re in place, you’ll be happy to stay there. The rear seats have reasonable leg room and there’s plenty of head room throughout.
The cabin is not so quiet as a regular fixed hardtop, and it gets louder with speed on the highway. It’s not as noisy as a Wrangler but not as insulating as a Defender. There have already been some comments by early owners on American forums about deterioration and discolouration of the molded-in roof panels, and Ford is fixing these and improving future production. The four-door models come standard with a cloth soft-top (the hard-top is a $795 option), though I didn’t drive this version and can’t vouch for its level of noise.
You can’t blast out cabin dirt with a pressure washer, but two of the more off-road trims include drainplugs in the floor, for washing out lightly with a garden hose.
So how does it drive? The Bronco is tall, with long suspension and huge sidewalls on its tires, so you would expect it to be as bouncy as a Wrangler or perhaps as squidgy as a Mercedes G-Wagen. But it’s not. On the road, the independent front suspension helps remove any tippiness from the drive, while off-road, the HOSS (high-performance, off-road, stability suspension) components proved themselves highly capable.
The high-end Badlands tester included a semi-active hydraulic stabilizer bar that can disconnect and reconnect during articulation: drive into a deep hole on one side, press the button, and you can feel the wheel drop down to dig in for purchase and stability. The Wrangler Rubicon has to be actually moving for this feature to work.
There are eight different selectable drive modes, though no Bronco has more than seven. On the highway, these include Normal, Eco, Sport, Sand, and Slippery (for rain and snow), and off-road, there’s a choice of Baja (for higher-speed sand), Mud/Ruts, and Rock Crawl. On my drive through deep water and up steep, sandy slopes, I never once got stuck or even had to reverse for more purchase.
The two turbocharged engines make plenty of power and torque for an easy drive: 275 hp and 315 lb-ft for the four-cylinder, and 315 hp and 410 lb-ft for the V6. That’s with regular unleaded. Put Premium fuel in the tank and you’ll bump those figures to 300 hp and 325 lb-ft, and 330 hp and 415 lb-ft respectively. Such power sucks back gasoline though, and the fuel consumption reflects this.
The Bronco comes with all the usual driver’s assistance features and can be fully connected to your smartphone of course – these days, this is just a given. The really smart technology is in the 4x4 systems, which offer either a basic two-speed electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case, or a more advanced two-speed electromechanical transfer case that switches automatically between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, as needed. Both axles have electronic locking differentials.
There’s a camera mounted low at the front so you can see the trail ahead even when you’re reaching the crest of a hill and it’s obscured by the short hood. Ford’s developers probably saw this feature on the Land Rover Defender and recognized it as a good idea. All trim levels offer one-pedal driving on the trail, where the Bronco applies the brakes when you release the throttle. This is popular on EVs and maybe this is practice for the all-electric edition.
There’s reasonable space in the rear of the four-door, though the shorter two-door is cramped in the very back. There’s room at least to store the front roof panels of the hard-top in the back of the two-door.
The Ford Bronco seems to be every bit as capable as the equivalent Jeep Wrangler – as it should be, after Ford’s engineers have had so long to study the Jeep’s abilities. They also understand what it is to be “a Jeep thing.” Pricing is similar, so it will come down to the appeal of the brand. For sure, those 190,000 people who’ve already placed their Bronco deposits will not be disappointed.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.