The 2021 Ford Bronco is easily one of the most anticipated vehicles of our fledgling decade, and we won’t keep you in suspense: Our initial impression after driving the new Bronco is that it absolutely lives up to the hype.
Driven on- or off-road, viewed as a getaway/adventure vehicle, a family truckster, or as a piece of retro automotive art, the Bronco feels like a winner. Indeed, Jeep’s longtime off-road champ, the Wrangler, now has some serious competition, as does our 2021 SUV of the Year, Land Rover’s epic Defender.
We had the Wrangler in mind as we saddled up a Bronco in Austin, Texas, for our first on-road drive. Our trusty steed was a midlevel four-door Black Diamond model with the 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine, manual transmission, and honest-to-goodness steel wheels. Hey, there were more lavish Broncos available to drive, but we can’t resist a stick and steelies on a vehicle like this.
The Bronco made a positive first impression immediately. For starters, its cabin feels spacious and airy. While the Jeep’s instrument panel and windshield sit so close to you that you can practically inhale them, the Bronco’s dash does a better job of social distancing, and we appreciate the additional room.
If you’ve ever driven a first-generation Bronco, you’ll warm to the view out over the new version’s hood. The hood is broad and flat and outlined by flipped-up fender edges, just like the original. Those visible edges, capped with load-bearing metal garnishes Ford calls “Trail Sights,” come in handy when off-roading, which we’ll talk more about shortly. The dash itself is a series of flat planes that recall the original Bronco, but Ford didn’t let nostalgia get in the way of sensible design. The control layout is straightforward, the switchgear is easy to use, and well-placed grab handles help with the long climb into the front seats.
The four-door’s back seats aren’t quite so pleasant: They are mounted high, which is nice for visibility, but they’re also thin, parsimoniously padded, and short on thigh support. The nicest thing we can say about them is they fold down easily to expand the roomy cargo bay, which is lined with hard (and, we hope, hardwearing) plastic. As you can surmise, the shorter two-door Bronco’s rear seats aren’t any better, but they are also more awkward to get into.
A push of the power button lit up our test truck’s 2.3-liter turbo-four. This is the lesser of the Bronco’s two powerplants, producing 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. The optional 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 makes 330 hp and 415 lb-ft. Note these figures are for premium fuel; run your Bronco on regular, and the 2.3 loses 25 hp and 10 lb-ft, and the V-6 gives up 15 hp and 5 lb-ft.
The manual transmission is a seven-speed gearbox, but the lowest gear is conveniently marked “C” for crawl and requires lifting a collar to engage it, just like you must do for reverse. It’s a ridiculously low gear ratio, and you won’t want to use it for normal driving, nor could you: The shifter gate’s design makes it difficult to shift quickly from C to the real first gear. For the purposes of pavement, this is a six-speed ’box. We slid the stubby shifter into first, noting its precise but notchy action, let out the clutch, and were away.
The rest of the transmission’s gearing is excessively tall, and we had to change gears later than we normally would lest low revs magnify whatever turbo lag the 2.3-liter engine exhibits. As we charged up the steep inclines that give Texas Hill Country its name, we found we had to downshift often to fifth or fourth to maintain our mile-a-minute pace. Keep the revs up, and the Ford is pleasingly fleet, and of course this will be less of an issue for those who opt for the 10-speed automatic or the optional V-6.
As we bounced our way through the scenery, we reminded ourselves the new Bronco is designed for Wranglerlevel off-roading, and with that caveat in mind, the ride is acceptable—livelier than the average SUV’s, to be sure, but rarely unpleasant and never uncivil. Straightline tracking is impressive; thanks to the Bronco’s independent front suspension, the horse goes where you point it with something that bears a strong resemblance to precision and stability.
Careening through the curves is something of an adventure: You know your destination (tire-howling understeer), but what the journey will provide is always a bit of a mystery. The steering feels less than linear in corners, and the Bronco’s engineers quelled body roll in normal driving well enough that the yaw you experience in harder driving feels remarkably pronounced.
Driving a Bronco fast through twisty roads is not something we’d recommend to our friends, though it feels less discombobulated than the Wrangler in similar circumstances. Still, the Land Rover Defender reminds us it is possible to combine outstanding off-road competence with true curvy-road athleticism, something the Bronco can’t quite manage. Oh, Ford, why did you ever sell Land Rover?
We experienced a significant amount of tire noise, and we also heard some wind whistle through the removable hard top’s seams. Bronco engineers accused us of not securing the panels properly, but the latches are L-shaped affairs, and it’s obvious when they are snapped home correctly—and they were snapped home correctly. These were pre-production models, so perhaps perfection was too much to ask. But the tops—easily removable via sections, most of which are light enough for a single person to deploy—have proven problematic in production, too, forcing replacements and causing assembly stoppages. The fine-sounding stereo did an excellent job drowning out this extraneous noise, which was impressive; the model we drove had the entry-level infotainment system.
On-roading, however, was only half of our drive. Ford also arranged a demonstration of the Bronco’s off-road abilities at the Bronco Off-Roadeo site in Texas, one of four off-road experience centers spread country-wide where Ford will offer complimentary off-roading demos and lessons to Bronco owners. The company has a lot to prove here. The Wrangler makes the on-road sacrifices it does in the name of exceptional off-road aptitude, and the Bronco’s use of an independent front suspension rather than a live axle is bound to earn derision from the Jeepisti. However, as an out-of-the-box off-roader, the Bronco appears extremely capable.
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