If your friendly neighborhood Jeep or Land Rover salesman looks a little nervous this summer, blame the 2021 Ford Bronco.
Reborn with a revered name, familiar looks and innovative features, Ford’s two- and four-door SUV is a breath of fresh air – whether the convertible top is open or closed – in a class of vehicles begging for new ideas and more competition.
Arriving in dealerships now, the Bronco rides on a new body-on-frame architecture that will also underpin the next generation of Ford’s Ranger midsize pickup. A new version of the Ranger using the architecture is expected to go into production in 18 to 24 months.
The Bronco’s not exactly a newcomer, but it’s been away for a while. Ford built a couple of generations of Bronco off-roaders from 1965 to 1996 when it dropped the model as buyers turned to more fuel-efficient models.
Since then, SUVs have gone from being specialized off-roaders to the dominant vehicle style. They come in all sizes – though a distressingly small number of shapes – if you like visual variety on the road. Few have significant off-road ability, creating what Ford hopes is an opportunity to revive an old name with new technology and rugged appeal.
The Bronco will compete primarily with the Jeep Wrangler; Toyota 4Runner and FJ Cruiser, the latter of which is no longer in production; and Land Rover Defender, Discovery and Discovery Sport.
4 features owners will love
Ford engineers wanted to make it easy for neophytes – those new to off-roading – to enjoy their new pursuit. There are four features key competitors can’t match:
Trail control: Think of it as adaptive cruise control for the toughest off-road trails. The driver sets a desired speed and electronic engine, transmission and brake controls maintain it over rocks, through water, and up and down the steepest wheels. The driver can concentrate on steering. Jeep doesn’t offer this, and Ford’s system is smoother than the 4Runner’s crawl control, which also manages speed. A button on the top of the dash activates trail control.
One-pedal driving: A button in the dial that selects settings for different types of terrain locks the brakes. As the driver presses the accelerator, the brakes allow the wheels to turn, stopping them when the accelerator is released. This mimics the two-foot driving method veteran off-roaders use to ease over big rocks without dropping the Bronco violently on its frame. It’s a conceptual cousin to the one-pedal driving electric vehicles use to recharge batteries, reworked to inspire confidence off-road. One-pedal driving is only available with the 2.7L V6 engine.
Trail turn assist: Backcountry trails are more likely to follow deer paths than the dimensions of SUVs. Some tight bends around boulders and trees require three-point or more turns. Ford’s trail turn assist addresses that by locking the rear wheel on the inside of the turn when the steering wheel is at full lock in that direction. This immobilizes the wheel, turning it into a hinge or a Maypole around which the Bronco rotates.
Quiet ride: The result of many choices rather than a single new technology, the Bronco’s quiet ride is a bonus owners will enjoy en route to the trail and in daily driving. The biggest contributor is careful sealing of spaces between panels in the removable hardtop, to reduce wind noise. The multipanel roof is also easier for a single person to remove than the Wrangler’s single-piece hardtop. Even at highway speeds, there was also little road noise from the 35-inch off-road tires on the Bronco First Edition I drove on a variety of roads in and around Austin, Texas.
Can a brother get a hand(le)?
The Bronco is very comfortable, but Ford’s decision to equip it with head curtain air bags eliminated one feature off-roaders appreciate: Roll-bar-mounted assist handles for stepping up into the high SUV.
The curtain bags protect passengers in the front and rear seats from head impacts in side collisions, but they’re installed in the same structural rails where the handles would go. Handles on the rails would become projectiles when the air bags went off, so scratch that idea.
Something had to give, and Ford prioritized safety at the expense of ease of entry.
Handles midway up the B-pillars help with rear-seat access, but the front seat makes do with handles at the outer ends of the dash. They’re OK to brace yourself over bumps but too low to provide good leverage when climbing up into the vehicle.
Wide variety of models and prices
Prices for the 2021 Bronco start at $28,500 for a two-door model. The base four-door starts at $33,200.
The two-door measures 173.7 inches long; the four-door checks in at 189.4. Ford expects 70% to 80% of sales to be four-door models.
All Broncos have four-wheel drive. The base engine is a 300-horsepower turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder. A 330-hp 2.7L bi-turbo V6 is optional. The four-cylinder comes with a seven-speed manual or 10-speed automatic transmission. The 10-speed is standard with the V6. The manual’s first gear is a creeper, with an extremely low ratio for difficult conditions. All Broncos come with rear- and four-wheel drive.
I tested a top-of-the-line four-door First Edition Bronco that stickered at $61,715.
The Bronco competes most directly with the similarly priced Jeep Wrangler. Both the two- and four-door Broncos are longer than the Jeeps. Passenger space is comparable, but the Broncos have more cargo room.
Removable soft and hardtops are available, as are removable doors for totally open-air driving.
2021 Ford Bronco lineup and prices
Base: $28,500 two-door; $33,200 four-door
Big Bend: $33,385 two-door; $35,8800 four-door
Black Diamond: $36,050 two-door; $38,545 four-door
Outer Banks: $38,955 two-door; $41,450 four-door
Badlands: $42,095 two-door; $44,590 four-door
Wildtrak: $46,980 two-door; $49,475 four-door
First Edition: $56,915 two-door; $61,110 four-door
All prices exclude a $1,495 destination charge
Features available on 2021 Ford Bronco:
Electronic locking front- and rear differentials
Disconnecting hydraulic front stabilizer bar
Trail turn assist
60/40 split rear seat
Heated front seats
Removable hard or soft top
8- or 12-inch touch screen
Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
Selectable on and off-road driving modes
Up to 35-inch tires
10-speaker B&O audio
The four-door hardtop Bronco First Edition I tested had plenty of headroom and good storage in its front seat. The rear seat had plenty of leg and headroom.
My loaded Frist Edition Bronco had leather-trimmed seats, but also hard surfaces on the dash and door tops and lightly padded armrests that were not overly impressive at its $60K-plus price.
The 2.7-liter, 6-cylinder engine provided good acceleration on road. The ride is smooth and comfortable on city streets and on the twisting roads of the Texas hill country. The electric power steering adjusts to different conditions and drive settings to provide a good response on the road without becoming finicky over rough backcountry surfaces.
The Bronco should be a surprisingly comfortable daily driver for commuting, errands and the like.
Off-road, the Bronco proved very capable on a variety of rock sand and clay surfaces, including climbing over significant boulders and inclines.
The trail-turn assist feature, which locks the inside rear wheel to reduce the turning radius in tight quarters, is very effective. “Three-point turns are for amateurs,” one engineer told me over dinner. The one-pedal driving feature will help beginning off-roaders match the control experts attain with two-foot driving.
The disconnecting front stabilizer bar contributes to plenty of front wheel travel over rugged territory and improves ride quality notably at low speed, even when you’re practically hopping from one big rock to another.
The 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and 2.7-liter V6 both generate good torque, thanks to the combination of turbocharging, wide gear ratios and low ranges for scrambling.
Both Bronco engines generate more power than the Jeep’s optional 2-liter turbo, but the Bronco’s EPA fuel economy estimates trail the four-cylinder Jeep. The 2.7-liter Bronco scored an EPA rating of 19 mpg in combined city and highway driving, three mpg lower than a 2-liter Jeep.
There won’t be a hybrid Bronco for some time. The new Jeep 4xe plug-in hybrid has the edge in that area.
Jeep currently also has the fastest, more powerful model in the 470-horsepower Hemi-powered Wrangler 392. Ford is expected to challenge the Wrangler’s 4.7-second 0-60 mph time soon, if not the big V8’s outright power.
2021 Ford Bronco safety and driver assistance features
Adaptive cruise control
Automatic high beams
Blind spot and cross-traffic alerts
Lane-keeping alert and assist
Driver attention alert
Front collision alert
Automatic front emergency braking
Evasive steering assist
2021 Ford Bronco at a glance
Base price: $28,500 (all prices exclude destination charge)
Four-wheel drive, two- or four-door, 4- or 5-passenger SUV
On sale now
Specifications as tested:
Model tested: Bronco First Edition 4x4 four-door
Price as tested: $61,715
Engine: 2.7L bi-turbo V6
Output: 330 hp with premium fuel/315 with regular; 415 pound-feet of torque with premium fuel, 410 with regular
Transmission: Ten-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy estimate: 18 mpg city/20 highway/19 combined. Regular gasoline.
EPA estimated annual fuel cost: $2,400
Wheelbase: 116.1 inches
Length: 189.4 inches
Width: 76.3 inches (mirrors folded)
Height: 73 inches
Ground clearance: 11.5 inches
Passenger volume: 103.7 cubic feet (hard top)
Cargo volume: 35.6 cubic feet behind second; 83 behind first
Water fording: 33.5 inches with 35-inch. tires
Curb weight: 5,117 pounds
Towing capacity: 3,220 pounds
Assembled in Wayne, Michigan
Follow Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan on Twitter @mark_phelan.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 2021 Ford Bronco review: SUV boasts impressive off-roading capability