It’s on! Off road.
Sure, there are plenty of 4×4 SUVs and pickups that can give the Wrangler a run for its money on the roughest roads and rock trails, but not many of them let you take off the top, let alone the doors.
Really, you need to go back to 1977 when the Wrangler was still the CJ and the first-generation Bronco was in its final year before morphing into a two-door F-series SUV. This time, the Bronco is ready to go head to head with the Wrangler on both its two-door and four-door turf.
The Bronco is only slightly larger than the Wrangler and features a similar body-on-frame construction. Its chassis is an evolution of the one under the current Ford Ranger, which it is built alongside at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant where previous Broncos were assembled up until 1996.
It seems kind of odd that it took so long to bring it back, considering that’s right when the SUV craze started to kick in. Now it’s in such a high gear that Ford has stopped making cars altogether, aside from the Mustang, which made the Bronco’s long-awaited return almost inevitable.
Ford isn’t tiptoeing back into the fray, either. The Bronco is launching with seven different trim levels at starting prices ranging from $29,995 to $60,800 with names like Badlands and Outer Banks that indicate the kind of customer each is optimized for. You can dig into the nitty gritty of them all at this link, but here are the general highlights:
The Bronco’s entry-level powertrain is a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 300 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque — when it’s running on premium fuel — and a 7-speed manual transmission. The seventh gear is actually an ultra-low crawler marked C that delivers a little extra grunt before you have to shift the standard part-time 4×4 transfer case into its low range, and a tremendous amount at a 94.75:1 crawl ratio after you do.
A 10-speed automatic is also available and a turbocharged 2.7-liter V6 rated at 330 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque is either optional or included on every trim, but only with the automatic. Both engines can also drink regular, but lose few ponies in the process. An Advanced 4×4 system with a full-time all-wheel-drive setting can also be had in a few configurations.
Inside, the Bronco has a well laid-out, but low-grade plastic dashboard that’s not as charming as the Wrangler’s. All of the controls are water resistant, however, and the floor is equipped with the requisite drains. The cabin feels wider than a Wrangler’s, but the legroom isn’t as generous. Marine grade vinyl and wash-out plastic flooring comes on some trims and removable hardtops are standard across the board.
You can order a soft top for the four-door from the factory, but will have to go to the aftermarket to get one for the two-door. You may also need to do that in order to get a hardtop for the four-door anytime soon. Production issues at Ford’s supplier are causing delays, so a lot of early buyers are going to have to settle for the soft top if they don’t want to wait for their trucks.
There are hundreds of other accessories available at launch from Ford and various aftermarket companies, and the Bronco was engineered to be easily customizable. Along with the doors and roof, the fender flares can be removed by flicking a couple of thumb levers and the fenders themselves and grille are held on by just a few readily accessible screws.
The Bronco’s side view mirrors are mounted to the cowl and its doors are frameless, unlike the Wrangler’s, so they can all fit in the cargo area when they’re off. A set of cases with a cat’s cradle of straps that wrap around the roll cage and rear seat to secure them are a $350 add-on that also comes with two cases for the front roof panels.
Perhaps the most significant mechanical difference between the Bronco and the Wrangler is that the Ford uses an independent front suspension rather than a live axle. Some serious off-roaders swear by the latter for durability and articulation, but an independent setup is undeniably better on pavement. Ford would argue it’s just as good off of it, too.
A Sasquatch package that adds front and rear locking differentials, 35-inch tires, special shock absorbers with remote reservoirs and hydraulic jounce bumpers steps things up a notch and is offered across the lineup as an alternative to the Wrangler’s high-end Rubicon trim.
With it, the Bronco achieves its best approach, departure and breakover angles and reaches a maximum ground clearance of 11.5 inches in two-doors and 11.6 inches in four-doors while gaining the ability to wade through 33.5 inches of water. Jeep recently countered this with an Xtreme Recon package for the Wrangler Rubicon that has 35-inch tires and a lift kit that gives it even better clearance angles, 12.9 inches of ground clearance and a 33.6-inch water fording height. One-upmanship in the most literal sense.
The Bronco’s secret sauce is what Ford calls the G.O.A.T. modes, which stands for Goes Over Any Type of Terrain. (Don’t ask me where the second T went, perhaps the singer from Ratt stole it.) A console-mounted knob allows the driver select the kind of surface they’re about to tackle and the computer takes care of adjusting the traction control system, differentials and transfer case to match. Each of which can be manually overridden for a custom setup.
Additional off-road friendly tech includes a 360-degree camera system with a view of what’s directly in front of the grille, hill descent control, Ford’s low-speed Trail Control cruise control system that can be set from 1 mph to 20 mph, and a unique one-pedal driving mode for rock crawling that automatically eases onto the brakes as you let off the accelerator. The last of those takes no time getting used to and works great.
A fun and very useful party trick is called Trail Turn Assist, which locks the inside rear wheel to create a pivot when you crank the steering all the way in a tight turn on a slippery surface and can decrease the turning radius by as much as 40 percent. Toyota employs a similar system on several models, but the Bronco’s feels more aggressive. It’s only available on trucks with automatic transmissions because it might stall a manual. If you do that yourself in a tricky situation, all you need to do is press in the clutch and the engine restarts on its own.
Finally (I think!), the Bronco is available with an electronically detachable front sway bar that increases the suspension’s articulation and can be released when it is already under load. So, for instance, if you find yourself with a wheel in the air you can just press the button on the front of the dashboard, the truck settles down and you’re on your way.
Of course, it needs to stay engaged on the road where the independent front suspension pays off. The Bronco’s steering doesn’t feel as vague and drifty as the Wrangler. The cabin is also noticeably quieter than the Wrangler’s, more like a traditional SUV’s. Automatic emergency braking is standard and lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and evasive steering assist are available to make long highway drives to your favorite OHV park less of a slog.
It does ride like a truck, though. Its soft suspension reared itself on the twisty roads in the hills outside of Austin where Ford held its launch test drive event and the rear end of the four-door I was in visibly twerked like a pickup bed on anything other than perfect pavement. The Wrangler has a more solid feel on similar surfaces, but the Bronco shines when it gets dirty.
Ford curated a selection of trails for a variety of Broncos to be tested on at a location that will serve as an Off Roadeo, which is a one-day driving school that comes with every purchase. The initial locations are near Horseshoe Bay, Tex., outside of Austin; Mt. Potosi near Las Vegas; and Moab, Utah. Another will be added on the east coast. Owners just need to get themselves there and don’t have to use their own trucks for the class. Ford obviously didn’t design the venue with anything it wasn’t sure the Bronco could handle, but the collection of muddy gullies, boulder fields and daunting outcrops were surely as challenging as those 99% of customers will try to tackle in the real world.
The turbocharged engines, which are borrowed from the Ranger and F-150, proved effortlessly powerful across the board. The V6 seem like more than you need unless you’re going to be towing at the Bronco’s 3,500-pound maximum often, but doesn’t give up much fuel economy to the four-cylinder. Neither is a sipper, however, with EPA combined ratings ranging from 17 mpg to 21 mpg, depending on the configuration.
I’ve been driving a lot of Wranglers off-road recently, and at no point did the Bronco come across as lacking. The electronic assists all did their job as advertised and the steering’s easier feel is a bonus during tough maneuvers. The suspension travel felt more than adequate and being able to disconnect the sway bar anytime you want can help gloss over bad decisions.
The manual performs just as well and the crawler gear is useful in certain situations and definitely more than a gimmick. Unfortunately, one-pedal drive also isn’t offered with the stick and the Bronco’s use of an electronic parking brake on the dash by your left knee means there’s no handbrake to help on extreme inclines.
The Bronco also likes to run. At least one of them does. The Wildtrak trim is geared toward high-speed off-roading. I has a Baja G.O.A.T. mode programmed for this and is fitted with the Sasquatch package but not the sway bar disconnect. Ford brought pro drivers Vaughan Gittin Jr and Loren Healy to show off its capabilities on a motocross style track with whoops, berms and a couple of small jumps and it stuck the landings in a much cushier fashion than I anticipated considering the suspension is the same as it is on the other trims, and not next-level like the Ford F-150 Raptor’s. Rest assured, there will no doubt be a Bronco along the lines of the Raptor one day as it targets the Wrangler and its many, many, many iterations. At the moment the choice between the two SUVs is … tough.
With a clear target to hit, I thought the Bronco was going to blow the Wrangler out of the water in every way, but there are pros and cons to go around. The Bronco is techier than the Wrangler, but not everyone is going to load theirs up with all of the available features. The independent front suspension should have been the ace in the hole for daily driving, but the rear vibration offset its advantage for me. No doubt many hardcore Jeep fans won’t give the Bronco the time of day, anyway, and the Wrangler offers a wide selection of powertrains including a V8, a diesel and a plug-in hybrid to persuade them not to. Nevertheless. the Bronco has plenty of appeal for Ford fanatics and anyone in the middle of the road, wherever it may be.
In any event, the no-door SUV war has begun and if you need know how dirty it’s going to get, listen to this: Several Bronco trims are fitted with Goodyear Wrangler Territory tires, but Ford went out of the way to have special versions of them made with the Wrangler name removed from the outside sidewall.
Talk about cancel culture.