You can’t learn everything from riding shotgun, but you can pick up a fair bit. With theand still a ways away from dealerships, Ford brought me out to Holly Oaks ORV Park in Holly, Michigan, to take a ride (but not a drive) in these hotly anticipated SUVs. Without giving away the whole kit and caboodle in the first five sentences, I can tell you with assurance that Ford isn’t blowing smoke when it says these two Broncos can really hit the dirt.
Ford Bronco Sport: Starting small(er)
Not everyone needs some body-on-frame mamma-jamma capable of stumping and rock climbing. Some folks are simply after a rugged-enough unibody crossover that does allow for some fun in the dirt without related on-road sacrifices. I wasn’t sure if the Bronco Sport would fit that bill, but now I am.
Sliding into the front passenger seat, the first thing I notice is the dashboard. It’s surprisingly thin, taking up very little space between the firewall and the cabin, helping the whole shebang feel perhaps a bit bigger than it actually is. Since these are preproduction models, I can’t speak to the material choice or final build quality just yet, but initial glances are quite promising.
While my time in the Bronco Sport is brief, I spend most of it cackling like a madman. The reason why is under the hood: The Bronco Sport Badlands trim I’m in has the optional 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 gas engine, which puts out 245 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. That may not seem like all that much in an age where a certain competitor will shove 700-plus-hp into anything made of metal, but the Bronco Sport scoots, pushing through dirt and sand with a surprising amount of hustle with an engine note that sounds surprisingly beefy for a four-pot.
I’ve seen a wide variety of “off-road-capable” unibody crossovers in my time, not all of which lay down the power as well as their marketing departments would have you believe. That said, I am walking away from the Bronco Sport impressed. The Holly Oaks ORV park offers up plenty of dirt, mud and sand, and this plucky little number plows through it all with aplomb. Some of that comes from the purpose-built 235/65R17 Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires, which will grab dirt much easier than the basic all-seasons found on the lower trims.
The mode switch on the center console dials in the throttle response, shift points and other factors to promote as much traction as possible, and there are some steep sandy slopes that the Bronco Sport climbs with no problem. A front-facing camera helps the nose stay pointed in the right direction, although the lack of guidelines seems like a major oversight. With between 7.8 and 8.8 inches of ground clearance and nearly the same amount of suspension travel, deep ruts and sharp dips don’t incur any horrible underbody noises.
Speaking of underbody noises, the serenity inside the Bronco Sport also surprises me. Some off-road-friendly crossovers generate a cacophony, but not here. The low-speed crawl control manipulates the brakes on its own, but even steep, slow downhill travel doesn’t incur the antilock-brake crunchies. Large suspension movement isn’t met with bump-stop pings, either. It’s an impressively quiet way to traverse the rougher stuff.
But the beauty of the Bronco Sport isn’t that it’s this capable. It’s that it can be this capable if the buyer so chooses. The sheer variety of trims on offer means that some folks can option out the mall-crawler of their dreams with a smidge of off-roading pretension, while other people can go full tilt with the Badlands trim and all the extra gimmicks that come with it. That kind of variety is nice to see, and should make an appealing new SUV better for a larger swath of consumers.
Ford Bronco: Back with a vengeance
Dust. That’s all I see as I get into the open-top, two-door Bronco: Just a sea of copper-colored particulate across every nook and cranny. In an ordinary SUV, this sort of interior decoration might end up with a trip to the dealership when, well, everything stops working. The Bronco keeps on truckin’, though: Not only do exposed ports come with doors to keep dirt out, the switches atop the dashboard have a cover that prevents unwanted intrusion, and there appears to be a good amount of sealing between the large infotainment screen and the rest of the dashboard. This car was designed to be in this very situation. Hell, you can even hose some of it down, thanks to drain plugs in the floor, although I would still exercise aquatic restraint in and around the expensive-lookin’ bits.
It’s not hard to feel the familial relation between the Bronco and the Bronco Sport, even though the two couldn’t be more different, engineering-wise. Many of the same design elements are present, from the nonprotruding dashboard to the rugged switchgear on the center console. The big-boy Bronco’s body is more upright, leading to better visibility on all sides. Those who aren’t extremely confident in their rock-crawling placement will appreciate the markers atop the ends of the front fenders, which double as gear attachment points or tie-down loops.
You’re going to want all that visibility, because the Bronco’s baked-in capability wouldn’t be nearly as usable without it. My time with the Bronco is spent in similar conditions to the Bronco Sport, but everything is… more. The speeds we carry are higher, the ruts a little deeper, the inclines a little steeper. Yet, at no point does the Bronco seem fazed, thrusting its nose into a makeshift river and sending water careening over the body panels — and the windshield cowl, like I’m in the splash zone at a Gallagher show. Bring a poncho if you leave the roof or door panels at home.
I expect a more dedicated off-roader like this kitted-out Bronco to feel rougher around the edges, especially given its body-on-frame roots and Dana 44 solid rear axle, but nope — it’s still impressively compliant. Unwanted noises are few and far between, and the mechanicals do their thing without translating unnecessary feelings into the cabin. It feels just as capable as something like a Wrangler, but the Ford also feels like a bit more attention was put into mitigating noise, vibration and harshness, which do not have to be part and parcel of the experience.
Just like the Bronco Sport, the Bronco’s optional engine also puts out way more thrust than is necessary. My time is spent in a 2.7-liter, twin-turbocharged V6-powered Bronco, producing an estimated 310 hp and 400 lb.-ft. Whenever the ground is flat enough, the Bronco launches itself forward with authority while leaving sound waves that are even more appealing than those in the hopped-up Bronco Sport.
It will also rip some sick dirt donuts. Just sayin’.
Down to brass tacks
So, what is there to learn from my all-too-brief time in the passenger seat of both the 2021 Ford Bronco and the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport? Well, first of all, it’s obvious that both of these vehicles have been designed to live up to the capability that the Bronco nameplate has possessed during its history. And in addition to being able to party when the roads turn to terra firma, it’s clear that great care was taken to ensure the occupants get a slightly more mature and refined experience no matter what is under the tires.
Of course, there are still metric tons of questions left unanswered. When it comes to how it feels to actually drive these cars and live with all the tech that’s baked in there, we’ll have to wait just a bit longer. But for those waiting for any good Bronco news with bated breath, you’ll be happy to know Ford is definitely on the right path.