The Jeep Wrangler has existed in various forms for some 80 years, the majority of them without any true competition.
Sure, a number of manufacturers have taken their shots at competing with the legendary off-roader over the last eight decades, but none were ever able to hit the mark by offering Jeep’s unique blend of rugged functionality and off-road capability, not to mention the doorless, topless fun factor. Until now, that is.
Enter the 2021 Ford Bronco. Perhaps the hottest, most widely anticipated vehicle of the year, Ford put the Wrangler directly in its crosshairs in hopes of usurping the throne – or at the very least carving out a corner of it.
A Brief History
Unlike the underwhelming resurrection of the Chevrolet Blazer nameplate, Ford brought the Bronco back in a manner that does justice to the original. Built on Ford’s midsize truck architecture, the one that underpins the Ranger, it has been designed to tackle a variety of on- and off-road adventures. This application also allowed for best-in-class breakover and approach angles, according to Ford.
The original Bronco was launched in 1966 as a fun, capable sport utility vehicle. Four generations succeeded it before production ended in 1996. Sales had been slowly declining for several years while interest in the more family-friendly Explorer exploded. Interestingly, the bad press of the O.J. Simpson police chase increased sales, but the stage was already set for the model to be replaced by the larger, less interesting Expedition. After a 25-year hiatus, the sixth-generation Bronco returns with new styling and features, along with the option of a four-door model for the first time.
Interior and exterior styling blends retro elements in a cool, futuristic way, with Bronco logos scattered throughout the vehicle. As is the case with Jeep’s long-standing Wrangler, there’s the option of two- or four-door models, as well as soft- and hardtops. It even offers the same towing capacity, style of cargo opening, and door and roof removal functions as the Wrangler.
The frameless doors are easy to remove, and unlike the Wrangler’s mirrors, which are mounted on the removable doors, the Bronco’s are affixed to the base of the windshield so they’re still usable when the doors are off. The four-door model even has space to store its doors in the rear storage compartment. The interior is comfortable and well-equipped but rugged, featuring durable materials and robust grab handles. Available marine-grade vinyl upholstery, rubberized flooring, and drain plugs add to the functionality.
From the easily removable body panels and fenders to the pre-wired auxiliary switches and dash mounts for smartphones and GoPros, this vehicle is made to be enjoyed, modified, and personalized from the get-go. Buying one is just the beginning of the journey.
Bronco purists and fossil-fuel-burning enthusiasts will lament the lack of a V8, but these are the days we live in. Thankfully, the standard turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder engine makes 300 hp, with the option of upgrading to a 2.7L V6 for $2,000 that’s good for 330 hp. A seven-speed manual transmission is offered with the smaller engine, but a 10-speed automatic is available with both. The transfer case features two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive with high- and low-range gearing, as well as a part-time automatic setting that will shift power to the front or rear as needed.
Trim Levels and Packages
The new Bronco is offered in six trim levels: Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Badlands, and Wildtrak. Each trim level offers different levels of comfort and capability. A so-called Sasquatch package can be added to any trim, which includes 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels, 35-inch all-terrain tires, electronic sway bar disconnects and locking differentials, a 4.7:1 final drive ratio, high clearance suspension including Bilstein shocks, and high-clearance fenders. The package starts at $7,000 but drops in price as you move up through the higher equipped trim levels.
Additional packages include Mid, High, and Lux. The $1,750 Mid pack offers features such as dual-zone climate control and heated front seats, enhanced voice recognition, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and automatic high-beams, among others. The $1,250 High package adds features such as a 12-inch centre stack infotainment screen, surround-view cameras, and additional sound deadening, while the $3,750 Lux package adds adaptive cruise control, a 10-speaker sound system, evasive steering assist, additional USB ports, a voice-activated touchscreen navigation system, and a wireless charging pad.
Tons of Tech for the Trail
The Bronco takes a more electronic approach than the Wrangler by offering a terrain management system that features eight settings. Every model gets normal, eco, slippery, and sand, while others get sport, rock crawl, mud/ruts, and Baja, depending on trim level. For instance, the Badlands gets a sport setting while the Wildtrak gets a Baja mode. The Bronco also features low-speed corner vectoring, low-speed cruise control for the trail, hill descent control, and a one-pedal drive mode.
A digital display features pitch and roll angles, and the optional 12-inch touchscreen provides a selection of camera views that are incredibly helpful when navigating trails or off-road obstacles. The infotainment system offers voice capability, and, when optioned with navigation, owners can access a trail map system as of September 2021 that allows users to access curated trail info along with the ability to share trails and video with other users. The infotainment setup also accommodates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
A Different Drive, On and Off the Trail
I had the opportunity to drive a two-door Wildtrak and a four-door Badlands, both with the Mid and Sasquatch packages. The Bronco’s on-road manners differ from the Wrangler in that, well, it has some. Its independent front suspension means steering feels composed and precise, unlike the Wrangler, which wanders all over the road and becomes skittish through corners even at moderate speeds. The Bronco is also quieter, especially when it comes to highway driving. I was able to have an audible phone conversation at normal volume with the roof off, which I’ve never been able to do in a Wrangler.
The big question is how the Bronco will compare to a Wrangler off-road. We didn’t do hardcore rock crawling, but embarking on a moderate, uneven grade comprising loose dirt and sand saw the wheels start to spin. No matter – I simply tapped the buttons atop the dash to lock up both diffs and I was off to the races.
Then came the deep ruts and moguls. Push another button and the sway bar electronically disengages. It hunkers right down to give all four tires a better chance at traction over uneven terrain. Engaging the trail turn assist system applies braking pressure to the inside rear wheel at full steering lock, allowing the Bronco to essentially skid-steer around a tight corner or efficiently turn around in a small area.
Engage four-low and the 12-inch touchscreen activates one of many available camera views. Front bumper, left or right front tires, or surround views save your spotter from jumping in and out of the vehicle regularly to check clearance. The raised suspension and 35-inch mud-terrain tires of the Sasquatch package made water fording a simple, even uneventful experience.
The base trim starts at $40,499 for the two-door version, which includes the 2.3L engine mated to a seven-speed manual transmission, cloth seats, and an eight-inch touchscreen. The top-trim Wildtrak four-door starts at $59,994 and goes up from there. I drove a four-door Badlands edition, which starts at $56,994 but was optioned up with the 2.7L V6 engine, Mid package, hard top and Sasquatch package, ringing in the register at an as-tested price of $74,539 before destination and taxes. For those uninitiated with the cost of getting into such an off-road vehicle, there may be some sticker shock, but you have to pay to play.
Regardless of how good the 2021 Ford Bronco is, there’s a legion of diehard Jeep fans whose loyalty won’t be swayed. While Ford is obviously targeting a portion of Jeep owners with the new Bronco, it will no doubt attract a wider audience beyond just the overlanders and aspiring rock crawlers thanks to its improved on-road handling and highway comfort.
From regular folks intrigued by a convertible SUV with character to passionate off-road enthusiasts, the Bronco is finally a vehicle worthy of getting into the ring to compete with the mighty Wrangler. Let the battle begin.