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The 2021 Bronco Sport.

Courtesy of manufacturer

There are four versions of Ford’s new off-road(ish) Bronco Sport crossover, but only the top Badlands trim has the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. That’s the one I drove for this preview, and I’m putting it out there, right up front, because the 2.0-litre engine is a large part (though not the only part) of why I liked the Bronco Sport so much.

Three other versions are powered by a turbocharged, 180-horsepower 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine – the same one found in most versions of the Escape, with which the baby Bronco shares its engineering genes. The 1.5 is a solid enough performer as base engines go, but it’s not a standout.

The Escape, of course, is a car-like crossover based on a front-wheel-drive architecture, so the Bronco Sport is not quite the extreme bush-basher like its step-sibling, the Bronco. The latter is related in name only, built on a different body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive truck architecture.

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Despite its Land-Rover-on-safari shape, the Bronco Sport remains closer to its car-based crossover roots than any kind of hardcore all-terrain 4x4. The three lower trims with the 1.5 engine (Base, Big Bend and Outer Banks) claim unexceptional ground clearance, roll on street-oriented all-season rubber, and although “4x4” drive is standard, it’s really an all-wheel-drive system for bad roads, not no roads. The closest it gets to any no-road readiness is the Terrain Management System (TMS) with modes for Slippery and Sand in addition to the usual Normal, Eco and Sport.

If you’re serious about getting down-and-dirty in the wild, you need the Badlands model. Its off-road-tuned suspension provides an extra inch of ride height (up to 8.8 inches), plus it has bash plates, all-terrain tires (full off-road rubber optional), segment-best approach and departure angles and a twin-clutch rear drive unit that acts like a locking differential. As well, its version of TMS adds Rock Crawl and Mud/Ruts modes, and its wading depth is 23.6 inches.

The Ford Bronco Sport is the little sibling to the larger Bronco SUV, combining off-road capabilities and truck-like practicality with style at an affordable price. James Engelsman and Thomas Holland from Throttle House say the tradeoff is a noisier cabin and harsher ride compared to other crossovers. The Globe and Mail

All of which should give the Badlands way more off-road chops than most CUVs. That said, it lacks the Low range of the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, which also has a better breakover angle.

While sharing the genes of the compact-class Escape, the Bronco Sport has a stubbier wheelbase and shorter overhangs, so it’s really a subcompact, closer in length to the Chevrolet Trailblazer and Jeep Compass. Pricing from $32,199, however, positions it in the next size class up. The Badlands starts at $40,199 and can be optioned beyond $46,000 … even before you add accessories such as a rooftop tent.

We haven’t driven a Bronco Sport with the 1.5-litre base engine, nor did our two-hour spin around the GTA allow us to take the Badlands off-road. But let’s face it, most people these days buy “off-road” vehicles for the look, not for the mud-plugging, rock-crawling reality. Any Bronco Sport has that look in spades, and the 1.5s should still be a fun-yet-functional tool in the ‘burbs where most will spend their lives. The Badlands doubles down on the fun with its terrific 2.0-litre engine, and if it’s not the ultimate 4x4, we’re confident it can still go further off pavement than most owners will have the need or the nerve to do.

Tech specs

The Bronco Sport has clear off-road styling cues such as its boxy body and blunt snout.

Courtesy of manufacturer

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands
  • Price: $40,199 base, $45,399 as tested
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: 8-speed automatic/AWD
  • Fuel consumption (L/100 km): 11.1 city/8.9 hwy
  • Alternatives: Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Nissan Qashqai, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, VW Tiguan

Looks

The boxy shape, blunt snout, abrupt overhangs and elevated rear roof line are classic off-roader styling cues. Depending on trim, wheel sizes go up to 18 inches, but only 17 on the Badlands, including an extra-cost “carbonized grey-painted low-gloss” wheel option that looks like plain-Jane steel. Strange.

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Interior

An eight-inch LCD touch screen is standard on all trims.

Courtesy of manufacturer

The official interior volume of 105.7 cu. ft. isn’t just generous for a subcompact CUV – it’s well up there among compacts as well. I suspect that’s largely a function of expansive headroom, since legroom seems less exceptional, though it’s still not cramped, and the rear-seat comfort is fine. Ditto the driver’s seat, though for some, achieving an off-road-appropriate lofty posture may entail losing thigh support (the seat-bottom adjusts for height but not tilt). Visibility is mostly fine, but while the lofty, blocky hood is easy to see and aim, it also limits what you can see up-close in front. That’s not as issue on the Badlands, however; it has a forward-facing “spotter” camera up front. A semi-integrated eight-inch LCD touch screen is standard on all trims (which, happily, you don’t have to rely on too much, as there’s plenty of hard-button redundancy). The shifter is a rotary knob on the centre console.

Performance

For all its off-road intent, the Badlands is a treat to drive on pavement. Ford’s 250-hp two-litre turbo engine is one of the industry’s unsung heroes – refined, punchy, responsive and with no noticeable turbo lag. That combines with a seamlessly intuitive transmission, plus lively, natural-feeling steering and agile, balanced cornering, to deliver an unexpectedly engaging experience. All this with a relaxed highway stride (just over 2,000 rpm at 120) and a firm but entirely enjoyable ride quality.

Technology

Standard detect-and-protect tech includes (among others) automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert, while an available package further adds adaptive cruise with stop-and-go, lane-centering and evasive-steering assist, plus navigation with Sirius XM Traffic and Travel Link, and speed-sign recognition. SYNC 3 (not the latest SYNC 4) includes CarPlay and Android Auto, plus a WiFi hot-spot. HD Radio, wireless charging and a B&O 10-speaker-plus-subwoofer audio system are part of a $3,000 package that also includes a moonroof, heated steering wheel and more.

Cargo

The lower trims have cargo volumes close to average for a compact CUV.

Courtesy of manufacturer

By the numbers, the lesser trims’ cargo volumes (32.5 cu. ft. seats-up, 65.2 seats-down) are close to average for compact CUVs, though they shrink to 29.4 and 60.6 cubes respectively on Badlands, which has a full-size spare tire. Perhaps some space is also lost to the Badlands’s thick rubber floor protectors. Given the body’s tight rear overhang, the cargo deck doesn’t have a lot of square-footage but makes it up with height. Other notable utility assets include a flip-up tailgate window, hidden storage under the rear passenger-side seat cushion and a slide-out table that’s part of a configurable cargo-management system.

Courtesy of manufacturer

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

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