2021 Ford Bronco first drive review: Legit Jeep slayer

If you’re about to bring back a legendary nameplate after a quarter century slumber — especially one tasked with dethroning one of the industry’s biggest icons — you’d better give it everything you’ve got. Two days spent driving the 2021 Ford Bronco on- and off-road suggests that not only has the Blue Oval done what’s necessary to take on the Jeep Wrangler, it’s come up with a raft of clever innovations that bring new capability, tech and refinement to the class. How good is the new Ford Bronco? While it’s not perfect, Ford has indeed built a better 4×4.

Frankly, it’s amazing that a new SUV with all the earmarks of a runaway success endured such a tortured road back to America’s garages. From the moment the final Ford Bronco left the factory back in 1996, there have been flickers of hope for a revival, but it’s taken 25 years to get a new model into production. Along the way, there have been countless secret meetings, design studies, business proposals, false starts and pandemic-induced delays. Regardless, today, Ford has more than 125,000 firm orders booked for its new SUV and the model has earned more consumer buzz than any of the brand’s new vehicles in decades, so it might’ve all been worth it.

It would’ve been easy for the Blue Oval to copy the 4×4 formula long adhered to by the Wrangler and other hardcore SUVs that have come and gone — including Ford’s original 1966 Bronco. In short, that stone-tablet blueprint calls for simple body-on-frame construction, solid-axles front and rear, a removable roof and doors and recirculating ball steering. Indeed, the 2021 Bronco has a separate body and ladder-style truck chassis as well as a detachable roof and doors, but Ford decided to go with an independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering instead. Both of these technologies are known for better control, precision and refinement, albeit at a higher cost and with relative question marks around durability and, in the case of IFS, ultimate off-road wheel articulation.

In light of these design decisions, it’d be fair to wonder aloud if Ford elected to gear the Bronco more toward on-road polish than ultimate off-road capability. As I’d come to learn over the course of two packed days at Ford’s new Off-Roadeo driving camp, however, to doubt Ford’s engineers would be to make a very bad bet. This Bronco is truly formidable in the rough stuff and it’s also significantly better to live with on a daily basis.

Road manners

My hours of on-road driving near Austin, Texas confirm that this Ford is streets ahead of its Jeep rival in terms of overall road manners. That’s particularly true of the steering, which doesn’t have the loose on-center play of the Wrangler that requires constant correction — especially in crosswinds. As if to underline that precision, to kick off the media event, Ford took the unusually bold step of having journalists’ initial exposure to the new Bronco take place on a challenging, winding ribbon of lakefront tarmac with significant elevation changes — a sports car road.

Go ahead, wade through 33.5 inches of water.

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To be clear, the four-door First Edition model I’m piloting over this demanding stretch doesn’t feel like the Bronco has taken coaching lessons from Ford’s own Mustang, nor does it feel like a car-based crossover. It doesn’t even feel anything like the already-released Bronco Sport, a unibody SUV that shares this vehicle’s first name and some visual cues, but little else. Particularly on its 35-inch Sasquatch-package tires, this Bronco absolutely feels towering and trucky, issuing an appropriate amount of body roll when taking corners at speed. But for a hardcore off-roader, this SUV handles adroitly and predictably — besides, most buyers of vehicles like this not only expect their 4×4 to feel like a truck, they want it to. The Bronco delivers this traditional SUV experience in spades, but in a manner that’s less likely to fatigue or grate over time.

Speaking of which, this Ford’s ride is simultaneously surprisingly composed and unexpectedly quiet. Yes, I’m in a high-end First Edition model with a sound-deadener-lined four-piece hardtop, but I still expected significantly more tire roar from the meaty 315/70R17 Goodyear Territory rubber. At freeway speeds, there’s definitely plenty of wind noise, but it’s still possible to carry on a conversation without raised voices.

EcoBoost engines and transmissions

Over the course the Bronco’s two-day national medial launch, I would come to test upwards of a half-dozen different Broncos in all specifications and price points, including models fitted with the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (300 horsepower, 325 pound feet of torque on premium fuel) and the uplevel 2.7-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder. My on-road drive impressions are limited to the latter, where I found the V6 powertrain to be a good match for the hulking bulk of the four-door model. This is the same EcoBoost power plant found in Ford’s often-heavier F-150 pickup, tuned here to deliver 330 hp on premium fuel (315 on 87 octane) and a generous 415 lb-ft of torque (410 on regular gas). The engine is also paired to the same 10-speed SelectShift automatic transmission and the combination is just as effective here as it is in the larger pickup, displaying ready power all over the rev range. If you step on it, you’ll be met with a decently growly tone, but the soundtrack isn’t something many will mistake for a V8 (which isn’t offered).

As for that 10-speed transmission, Ford has been working with this unit for years now and it’s exacted continuous improvements after many of us found earlier versions in other vehicles to be indecisive. To be sure, I still observed some hunting around between gears on inclines under light throttle, but the gearbox was otherwise obsequious during my road drive. Just as importantly, as I’d primarily come to learn on Day 2, this cogswapper is an able partner off-road. It’s also worth noting that because Bronco relies on Ford’s latest electrical architecture and Sync 4 infotainment, this 4×4 can easily wirelessly download updated transmission software to deliver an even smoother shifting experience.

You can get a factory model with a steel bumper that integrates a push bar, winch mount and detachable ends for better off-road clearances. 

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Ford has gone the extra mile to develop a new manual transmission for the Bronco, too. This is an unusual but particularly welcome investment in this day and age, a clear nod to the importance the automaker has put on courting traditional hardcore 4×4 enthusiasts. The gearbox is a seven-speed manual, or more exactly, a six-speed manual with an additional ultra-low-speed 95:1 off-road crawler gear. Lift up the lever’s lockout collar and slide the shifter to the left and down to slot into this bonus granny gear. Find it and you can practically get out and walk alongside the Bronco as it inches forward, slowly but resolutely clambering over everything in low range.

The manual gearbox’s throws are spaced agreeably, just this side of too long, and while the clutch might feel slightly springy in daily driving, that same elastic quality helps keep its engagement action forgiving when you’re bouncing along off-road and looking to smoothly swap to the next gear. If you want a three-pedal setup, you can only get the smaller 2.3T — there’s no manual V6 model available. I didn’t get the chance to drive the I4 on the street, but thanks in part to smart gearing, the smaller engine offered plenty of oomph on the trails.

Lackluster fuel economy

All of those ratios will come in handy off-roading, but neither gearbox will turn the 2021 Ford Bronco into an efficient vehicle. There’s no way around it, this is a heavy hitter (up to 5,117 pounds before options) and those hard-working horses get thirsty. Ford says non-Sasquatch 2.3T models with the seven-speed manual can manage 20 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. At least until the 10-speed economy numbers are released, that’s as good as it gets. On the other end of the spectrum, Sasquatch-equipped V6 models are estimated to net out at as little as 17 mpg across all three cycles. Suffice it to say, you won’t be seeing a new Bronco in Rainforest Alliance livery any time soon, but you might just enjoy a banner year amassing gas-station frequent-fueller rewards points — especially if you max out the Bronco’s 3,500-pound tow rating. (In case you’re wondering, there’s reason to believe a hybrid and/or Bronco EV may eventually join the fold, but Ford officials aren’t confirming anything at this time.)

Despite its independent front suspension, Bronco is highly articulate. You can even choose a model with a disconnecting sway bar that can uncouple under load.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Off-road impressions

Even if only one out of every 100 miles in a Bronco’s life takes place off-pavement, it’s fair to say the model’s performance will be judged on the strength of that mile. To that end, even the base Bronco comes equipped with off-road-ready hardware. On the suspension front, base models receive a solid-axle rear matched to progressive-rate coil springs and five locator links. Up front, a twin A-arm setup with matching progressive-rate springs provides the basis for better high-speed responses in the rough stuff than a stick axle might provide.

All Broncos are built in Michigan and all come standard with four-wheel drive, but there are two different 4×4 systems on offer. Lower-end trims come with a Dana 44 Advantek differential out back and a Dana Advantek independent diff up front, matched to a two-speed electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case. More advanced models come with an electromechanical transfer box to shift from 2-High and 4-High modes automatically, with Spicer Performa-Track electronic limited-slip locking differentials available on both systems.

Pricing the G.O.A.T.

All models also come with a G.O.A.T. mode dial, a drive-setting dial whose playful name is a nod to the original 1966 Bronco’s design brief acronym, “Goes Over Any type of Terrain.” This all-in-one controller optimizes the Bronco’s various systems for specific terrain conditions, including managing everything from the throttle tuning and transmission shift schedule to the differentials, steering weight and electronic safety aids.

Base $29,995 Broncos ($28,500 plus $1,495 destination) come with Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand G.O.A.T. modes. Big Bend ($34,880) and the lux-minded Outer Banks ($40,450 delivered) models add Sport and Mud/Ruts settings and the more-capable Black Diamond ($37,545) goes a step further with Rock Crawl. Splurge on the desert-off-road-oriented Wildtrak ($48,475) or the heavy-duty Badlands ($43,590) and you also get Sand and Baja modes, the latter designed for optimal high-speed running. The range-topping, sold-out $58,410 First Edition (limited to 7,000 units) is billed as the best of everything Bronco, including all of the available off-road hardware and luxury bits. Inexplicably, however, this model does without a Sport mode. (Over-the-air update, anyone?)

Ford’s Off-Roadeo will be open to the public, and some Bronco buyers will qualify for free instruction.

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Open your wallet wider and things get more interesting. The Sasquatch Package pairs 35-inch Goodyear Territory all-terrain rubber (the largest tires I can ever recall seeing on a mass-production SUV) with 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels, locking front and rear differentials, electromechanical transfer case and high-clearance suspension paired with heavy-duty Bilstein shocks and underbody shielding. The best part? The Sasquatch is available throughout the Bronco’s model range ($4,995), it’s not equipment isolated to the most-expensive trims. Some models, like the Wildtrak and First Edition, even come with the package as standard.

Worth noting: Ford’s spec sheet doesn’t talk about curb-to-curb turning radius on Sasquatch-equipped models, but it’s almost certainly bigger than the 35.53 feet cited for Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond and Outer Banks models.

That presumably larger turning radius won’t be as much of a problem off-road as it is on, thanks largely to Trail Turn Assist, an impressively helpful new bit of tech that allows drivers to lock the inner rear wheel in tight corners when low-range is engaged. By locking the rear inside wheel and overdriving the outer rear wheel, the Bronco’s turning radius can be reduced by up to 40% on loose surfaces. I tried this tech and found that it works best in loose sand, where the truck feels like it could practically twirl around in its own wheelbase. TTA is less effective on hard-packed dirt, but this tech could still easily be the difference out on the trail between successfully negotiating a tight bend in one go or succumbing to a multi-point turn.

I’m sure the seasoned off-road enthusiasts and Jeep Wrangler loyalists among those reading this review are wondering how the Bronco’s independent front suspension copes with low-speed rock crawling. After all, IFS is inarguably this rig’s biggest spec-sheet question mark when it comes to off-road performance. While my off-road exercises were limited to low-speed crawls, Ford did partner me with Monster Energy drift star and off-road racer Vaughn Gittin Jr. for some off-road hot laps in a Wildtrak. As you can see in our video, the speed and suspension compliance was truly impressive. That said, without a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon handy on the trails for comparison, it’s impossible to know which is the better rock crawler. However, Ford has taken several key steps to proactively address the issue.

Yep, you can take the doors off. Roof, too. But no, you can’t fold down the windshield.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

To start with, the Sasquatch package is a bit like stacking the deck. Those 35-inch tires and lifted suspension won’t make it easier for shorter folks to clamber up and into the cabin, but they do make it remarkably easy to scale all manner of obstacles. With its shorter wheelbase, a two-door Sasquatch-equipped model is the most-capable Bronco in the rough stuff and it delivers a 42.2-degree approach angle, a breakover of 29 degrees and a tidy 37.2-degree departure angle. Team Sasquatch also delivers up to 11.6 inches of ground clearance and a water fording depth of up to 33.5 inches, all strong numbers. 

While IFS has historically equated to limited wheel travel, Ford reps say the new baby actually exceeds the Jeep in this regard. The longest-travel Bronco is the Badlands equipped with 33-inch tires. Ford says this model nets 9.44 inches of front wheel travel and 10.3 inches out back. What’s more, Badlands and First Edition models feature a unique front sway bar disconnect for maximum articulation. This hydraulically actuated system differs from its Jeep counterpart in that it’s possible to disconnect the stabilizer under load (Wrangler drivers have to be better planners). The ability to disconnect the bar mid-obstacle isn’t just a neat party trick and it’s an easy and satisfying one-button solution to enable max articulation when you get in over your head.

I had the chance to off-road everything from a pretty basic four-door Black Diamond manual-transmission model to a full-house First Edition two-door and both ends of the Bronco spectrum are attractive, do-anything machines. In particular, the benefit of being able to add the Sasquatch model’s hardcore off-road equipment to any model series becomes clear in such scenarios. As amazing as Jeep’s Rubicon-specific hardware is, it’s limited to higher-content, higher-dollar models, while Ford’s add-on solution feels more democratic and accessible.

The Bronco’s dashboard smartly treads the line between utilitarian and high-tech.


Take it all off

Ford took that same flexible, egalitarian mindset and applied it to the Bronco’s removable body parts, too. As with Jeep, you can specify soft-top or hardtop and you can remove the doors to go knees-in-the-breeze with simple (included) hand tools. The Bronco feels a bit better engineered in this regard, as well. The doors are frameless, which allows them to be stored onboard the vehicle regardless of whether you have a two or four-door model. You can even buy a set of carry bags to protect your doors and they can be zippered into place while the door is still on the hinges for easier handling.

Furthermore, unlike the Wrangler, removing the doors leaves the side mirrors in place, so you don’t need to carry around a dedicated secondary set to keep safe when driving al fresco. Sadly, you won’t be able to fold down the windshield like you can in a Jeep, but at least the door- and roof-removal processes are easier.

The Bronco’s “sport bar” (Ford lawyer-speak for roll bar) surrounding the cabin not only contains innovative side-curtain airbags to improve crash safety, the structure itself is designed to facilitate better open-air motoring, too. Instead of bisecting the sky between the first and second rows at the b-pillar, the rear crossmember is located just behind the second row to ensure unobstructed stargazing and no funky tan lines for first- and second-row occupants. Despite this change, Ford officials say the Bronco should be at least as safe as rivals — officials took pains to point out that their vehicle doesn’t require a waiver to pass federal side-impact laws when the doors are off.

One last word on body-part removals: Knowing how 4×4 enthusiasts love to customize their vehicles — and how frequently hard-charging off-roaders tend to damage their vehicles — Ford engineers have not only made it easy to bolt on and power-up accessories, they’ve also made it pretty simple to change-out additional parts of the vehicle, including the grille, fender flares and the fenders themselves (be sure to check out Roadshow’s how-to videos for all the details). It won’t be long before the aftermarket has a full range of objectionable angry-eyes grilles and weirdly angular fenders for people to Mr. Potatohead into their dream custom Bronco.

Ford will build 7,000 First Edition models and all are already spoken for.

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Cabin tech and comfort

Those aforementioned passengers should be a bit comfier in the Bronco, too, especially when you compare two-door models. The two-door rides on a significantly longer wheelbase than the Jeep, which makes for improved rear-seat access and seating comfort. You needn’t be in the second row to feel like you’re in a better place, however, as the interior feels substantially less claustrophobic. Even the entry-level Bronco’s cabin plainly shames the Wrangler’s older, more basic furnishings. The same can be said in terms of tech, where the Bronco’s base 8-inch Sync 4 touchscreen is nearly the same size as the Jeep’s optional 8.4-inch Uconnect display, and Ford offers a massive 12-inch display that’s even better. The latter isn’t just preferable for playing music on the available 10-speaker B&O audio system, it actually helps make off-roading easier. The Ford’s available forward-facing and 360-degree bird’s-eye camera coverage acts like a digital spotter to help make life on the trail much easier. You can use the cameras to place tires over obstacles with confidence, as well as see ahead when positioned nose up or nose down on steep hills.

Those generous screens will also make it easier to take advantage of the Bronco’s new FordPass Performance App and its off-road navigation abilities. This smartphone-based software helps find new trails with topographic maps, as well as capture and share directions and video with fellow off-roaders on the fly. Out in the sticks, connectivity can be rough, so thankfully you can download the maps for use when wanderlust exceeds your mobility provider’s best efforts.

Despite the presence of a big screen and loads of tech, the Bronco’s cabin has a welcome function-over-form aesthetic. The dashboard is a simple rectangular block, bookended by a pair of hefty (but removable) grab handles, while the door panels are skinned simply and devoid of switchgear to facilitate easy removal (the window and side-mirror switches are mounted below the center armrest). One other nice bit of news? The 10-speed automatic’s shifter is a beefy lever with a distinctly old-school, mechanical action. Ford resisted the urge to install the electronic rotary dial PRNDL puck it’s been fitting to other models. While more space efficient, the latter would have felt too dainty for a rig like this.

There are a raft of other clever touches, including a mounting point on the dashboard’s top-dead-center for brought-in devices like GoPros and off-road navigation units, and you’ll find USB-A and USB-C power points atop the dash, too. Rear seats can be fitted with Molle system straps for securing extra gear and you can even opt for water-resistant marine-grade vinyl seats and rubberized flooring with drain plugs for easy cleanup.

“I wonder if I can get an OTA update out here?”

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Cabin complaints? It’d be great to have optional rear-seat HVAC controls on premium models (there are only under-seat vents). Furthermore on automatic models, it’d be preferable to have shift paddles instead of the shift lever’s plus/minus rocker switch for manual gear changes. Finally, it’d be nice if ventilated seats were available. Yes, I know that goes against Bronco’s hardcore ethos, but lux-oriented models like Outer Banks and First Edition could easily get away with it — and besides, it can get hot out with the top off.

Overall, the 2021 Ford Bronco’s interior is great, striking the right balance between utilitarian and posh, pairing an appropriately traditional aesthetic with high-tech conveniences. The interior’s overall feel stops somewhere short of the premium vibe found in the new (and generally much costlier) Land Rover Defender, while still sitting well north of the accoutrements in the nicest Jeep you can spec.

Superior cargo space

Whether you want a two- or a four-door Bronco, there’s a meaningful cargo space edge over the Jeep. Two-door hardtop models vary from 22.4 cubic feet to 52.3 with the back seats folded. That may not sound like much, but the equivalent Wrangler has just 12.9 and 31.7, respectively. That’s a massive quality-of-life difference. The four-door Ford’s advantage is less gaping, but it’s still real. It ranges from 35.6 cubes to 77.6 with the rear seats down, besting Jeep’s 31.7 and 72.4.

Safety measures

Even in a hardcore 4×4, advanced driver assist systems are important and Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 standard suite of safety aides includes pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, as well as automatic high-beams. Additional features — including blind-spot assist, lane-keep assist and a 360-degree camera system — are optional, as is adaptive cruise control with steering assist. Unfortunately, those key features are all unavailable on Base, Big Bend and Black Diamond models, so if you want all the safety gear, you’ve got to pony up for an Outer Banks, Badlands, Wildtrak or First Edition.

The 2021 Ford Bronco looks retro and modern all at the same time.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Bronco’s biggest problem

There’s no denying that Broncomania is real and it’s justifiable. The Blue Oval hasn’t just designed a better Bronco, I believe the automaker has actually built a better Wrangler for a majority of Jeep loyalists who are willing to consider switching teams (I say this as someone who nearly bought a Gladiator last year).

But there’s a big question mark: Execution. In recent years, Ford’s new-model launches haven’t gone well, marred by quality-control issues and recalls. Indeed, even before the first Broncos hit showrooms, the Blue Oval is already struggling mightily to get the customer experience right. Part of that reality can be blamed on the pandemic, but part of it can’t. From the Bronco’s initial reveal night, when the reservation website crashed, to substantial product changes attributed to COVID-related supplier issues, to confirmed-then-postponed production delays for individual customer builds, it’s been rough. To be an early Bronco reservation holder is to be subjected to an unfunny comedy of errors and a parade of “we’re sorry, we got this” apology emails. If it isn’t careful, Ford may just squelch the considerable momentum this new Bronco has built among the SUV’s earliest and most fervent supporters.

It’d be a real shame if Ford somehow snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. After all, this spectacular new Bronco and its legions of eager customers deserve better.

Editors’ note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow’s staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.