Ford has finally reanimated its icon to battle The Icon. You’re looking at the 2021 Ford Bronco and it’s here to bring the fight to Jeep’s Wrangler and the new Land Rover Defender.
By Nick Miotke
When it comes to off-roading, taking on an icon that’s had the run of America’s hard-core SUV scene for decades is bound to be knotty by nature. Thankfully, after years of false starts and rumors.
Frankly, you might not even need to read any of the words on this page to figure out that the Blue Oval’s engineers haven’t shown up looking for second place. Even so, I urge you to dig in — there’s plenty here to get excited about. Based on what I’ve seen during a secret up-close sneak preview, it’s clear Ford understands you don’t go looking for the king wearing a nice suit but carrying only a rusty pocket knife.
It’s not just about getting the base truck right, although that’s critical. It’s about offering a galaxy of choices so that even Jeep brand loyalists can’t pass up cross-shopping. To that end, not only is Ford’s new 4×4-only SUV available in two- and four-door body styles, it’ll launch with no fewer than seven trims with a catalog of 200-plus accessories.
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There’s something here for everyone. There’s a turbocharged engine churning out 310 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque for the power-hungry. There are off-road clearances and specs designed to show up Mr. Seven Slots in the rough stuff.
There’s even a new unibody kid brother, the Bronco Sport crossover, for those whose tastes run to the less extreme. I’ll cover that model in a separate Bronco Sport in-depth article and video, so for now, let’s focus on the big boi.
It’s been around 25 years since the last Bronco rode off into the sunset, and it’s not entirely clear why Ford kept the nameplate on ice for so long. Yes, the model’s reputation is obviously juiced with some unusual baggage, but that was hardly the automaker’s fault.
Either way, it can’t have been easy to stomach watching Jeep average well over 200,000 profit-rich Wrangler sales every year for the last half decade. No matter, the 2021 Ford Bronco is here now — or, more precisely, it’s here for reservations now. Initial deliveries are promised next spring.
New Bronco has great-looking, historically aware design
First off, the new Bronco looks the business. I typically stay poker-faced upon seeing a new vehicle for the first time, and honestly, with as many photo leaks as this SUV has seen, you’d think I would’ve managed to play it straight when Ford extended an early invite to a Michigan off-road park to check it out.
I’m here to tell you, Ford has absolutely nailed the look of this new truck. In both two-door and four-door forms, the 2021 Bronco has the sort of stance, proportion and detailing that not only give this SUV the necessary aura of utility, but lend the vehicle massive presence.
Ford has clearly leaned heavily on the first-generation 1963-1977 Bronco for stylistic influence, yet the new truck isn’t an overdone retro pastiche like Ford’s own 2002-2005 Thunderbird or, more successfully, a contemporized rebody like the 2005-2006 GT supercar. In much the same way you can tell that today’s JL Wrangler is a faithful, steady update of the war-hardened Willys MB dating from the 1940s, this new Bronco looks like an evolution of the original.
Not unlike Porsche’s 911, it’s as if the Bronco has been on a focused, uninterrupted continuum of off-road badassery up until present day. (Never mind those supersize generations that took hold in the late ’70s on through The Orenthal Years.)
Appropriately, the 2021 Ford Bronco is built atop a fully boxed frame that shares some of its genetic makeup with the Ranger. While this SUV’s overall dimensions are similar to the Wrangler in both two- and four-door versions, Ford’s shorty four-seat model rides on a 100.4-inch wheelbase (a substantial 3.6 inches longer than the Jeep), while the four-door, five-seat Bronco sits on a 116.1-inch wheelbase that’s 2.3-inches shorter than its rival.
Overall, Ford seems to have taken a long, hard look at the Wrangler’s template, but the company has deviated where it felt it needs to. For instance, the front suspension is fully independent, a setup that should yield better ride quality, albeit at the expense of additional complexity (and potentially, off-road ability and robustness).
Top, doors and more: Everything that comes off the Bronco
If you’re like me, one of the first things you want to know about the 2021 Ford Bronco is: What unbolts, and how quickly and easily? The answer to the first of those questions is the roof, the doors, the fender flares, the fenders themselves and the grille.
Unlike on the Jeep, the Bronco’s doors are frameless, which should give this SUV an advantage at feeling like a proper full-fledged convertible when the roof is removed. The Bronco’s doors are aluminum, and they weigh 54 pounds (front) and 43 pounds (rear). Bizarrely, that means they’re actually slightly heavier than the Jeep’s doors, but their smaller size and built-in grab handles should make them easier to operate.
While I was unable to try unbolting the doors on an early prototype myself, the disassembly and removal process sounds more manageable than for the Jeep, what with the latter’s door-retention check-strap and awkward wiring harness.
What’s more, because the doors are frameless, they fit in the cargo area of both two- and four-door models, so they can be carried on the trail with you. The coup de grâce? The sideview mirrors are mounted on the cowl, so you don’t lose them going alfresco.
Speaking of trailwork, if you’re threading your way off-road through trees or canyons and you’re worried about clearances, the fender flares unbolt with a quick twist using a provided tool. Going a step further, unbolting the fenders entirely not only allows better access to the underbody and more suspension clearance, it also invites aftermarket fender designs.
As one Bronco engineer told me, you can keep a set of old, scarred fenders for playing in the mud and still have a shiny, unblemished set of “church fenders” when you need your Sunday best.
The two-door 2021 Ford Bronco has the Jeep Wrangler in its sights
Ford is launching the Bronco with several different grille designs, and the aftermarket will doubtlessly bring a ton of unique looks, too, especially after people realize how the grille is designed to be swappable with a bare minimum of fuss.
And as for the all-important roof, Ford will offer a modular hardtop (three-piece on the two-door, four-piece on the four-door) and a cloth soft top. Officials say that whether you’re putting on or taking off your Bronco’s roof, significantly less time will be spent cursing and yanking than with the Jeep’s lid.
I can’t wait to test these claims, but while we wait for Ford to make test units available, I’ll simply note that the Bronco is likely to feel airier when the roof is off, particularly for backseat passengers. That’s not only because of the aforementioned sashless doors, but because engineers have moved the Bronco’s cross-brace in the roll cage. Whereas the Jeep has a B-pillar hoop, the Bronco’s is behind the second row.
Ford officials say you can take off the Bronco’s roof, doors, fenders and grille in under an hour with a single tool.
Sounds like Ford hasn’t missed a trick, right? Well, hang on. There’s one thing they apparently couldn’t figure out in Dearborn: How to fold down the windshield like on the Jeep. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why.
Paraphrased excuses ranged from “structural rigidity” to “ADAS camera concerns” to, “Customers told us they didn’t care about that.” Whatever the reason, it’s a bummer that you can’t drop the front glass for the ultimate in safari-spec feels.
The 2021 Bronco only has EcoBoost, no Power Stroke diesel
In terms of what’s under the hood, Ford is going with an all-forced-induction engine lineup; there are no naturally aspirated options. The base engine is the 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder borrowed from the Ranger, and Ford estimates it will put out 270 hp and 310 lb-ft. (For those keeping score, that’s the same horsepower as the Wrangler’s optional 2.0-liter turbo, but with a smidge more torque.)
Those with serious towing or off-road needs (or a heavy right foot) are urged to consider the 2.7-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6. With 310 ponies, it’s got more horsepower than any Wrangler engine — diesel included — even though it’s still 15 hp shy of the same basic engine in the F-150 pickup. More importantly, the 2.7T has 400 lb-ft of torque, an output that downright embarrasses any gas Jeep. Yes, note the “gas” qualifier in that last sentence: At least for now, Ford is leaving its Power Stroke engines to its F-Series trucks. There’s no diesel Bronco.
As a result, it seems likely that the diesel Wrangler will still best any Bronco for total driving range, albeit at considerable extra expense for fuel and for the EcoDiesel option itself. Unlike the Wrangler and Ford’s just-announced 2021 F-150, no hybrid model is expected at launch.
Ford made the Bronco DIY-transmission friendly
If you’re a DIY guy or gal and you like your footwells with three pedals, Ford will happily sell you a Bronco with a Getrag seven-speed manual — provided you’re willing to stick to the 2.3T. This isn’t a seven-speed like you’ll find in a Porsche 911, or in the recently departed C8 Corvette. No, this transmission is essentially a traditional six-speed unit with a dedicated crawler gear.
This gearbox is available with a scarcely believable 95:1 crawl ratio for peak climbing prowess. This ratio is so low it almost sounds like the driver will be able to hop out and walk alongside the truck as it scrambles slowly over everything, guiding it along like a horse on a lead. (It should go without saying, but don’t actually try this. Seriously.)
Of course, most buyers will opt for the 10-speed automatic. Here’s hoping that even with the Bronco’s massive 35-inch optional tires (2 inches larger than those on the Wrangler Rubicon) that those extra two ratios will help the Bronco achieve comparable efficiency.
2021 Ford Bronco pricing and fuel economy
Fuel economy will be announced closer to the Bronco’s on-sale date, not unlike full model pricing. For the moment, we only have the two-door Bronco’s $29,995 base price (including $1,495 delivery) and four-door’s $34,695 base price (again, including delivery) to go on. (The $100 reservation process has already started.)
Driveline and suspension
With 4x4s, it’s all about the hardware, and Bronco looks poised to deliver. The model will come standard with Dana differentials front and rear (with available front axle disconnect). A Dana front unit with an electronic locker is optional, as is a matching Dana AdvanTEK44 rear diff with electronic locker.
As mentioned earlier, the Bronco features an independent front suspension, a twin A-arm setup with coilovers. Out back, there’s a solid axle and five locator links, also matched with coilovers. Special remote-reservoir Bilstein position-sensitive shocks with multiple compression and rebound zones at all four corners are optional. The latter come as part of the HOSS — High-Performance Off-Road Stability Suspension — setup.
The front sway bar features a hydraulic disconnect that can be activated even when the wheels are off the ground. The anti-roll bar will automatically re-engage at speed.
I don’t have the space here to get into the rest of the nitty-gritty specs — for that, you can check out Emme Hall’s point-by-point spec comparison with the Wrangler. Suffice it to say, though, that Ford claims the Bronco will feature best-in-class ground clearance, suspension travel and, of course, crawl ratio.
GOAT (Goes Over All Terrains) modes and Trail Turn Assist
Like most modern off-roaders, the Bronco features a whole slate of drive modes that optimize the vehicle’s various systems for different traction conditions and terrains. Things like throttle tuning, stability control, shift schedule and steering weight are all governed by a Terrain Management System with GOAT modes (that’s “Goes Over All Terrains,” but I’m sure officials won’t mind if you think of it as “Greatest Of All Time”).
Up to seven such modes are offered: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand, plus Baja, Mud and Ruts, and Rock Crawl.
In terms of novel off-road tech, the Bronco’s Trail Turn Assist will automatically lock the rear inside brake to allow a tighter turning radius. While it won’t do a spin-in-place tank turn like the forthcoming all-electric Rivian SUV, this feature should be a boon in tight situations.
Another feature we haven’t seen before is Trail One-Pedal Drive, which can be selected to automatically engage the brakes during low-speed off-road maneuvers. Doing so does away with left-foot braking and helps prevent unexpected rollbacks.The simpler control scheme allows the driver to focus on what’s surrounding the vehicle.
You’ll note the presence of a jog dial near the gearshift. A flick of the wrist toggles the drivetrain between 4WD Low, 4WD High, 4WD Automatic and 2WD High (rear-wheel drive).
This is certainly an easier and more space-efficient setup than the heavy, manual secondary shift lever found in the Wrangler, but it also may feel somehow less mechanically satisfying (and potentially less robust).
The Bronco has multiple trims and packages to choose from
With the Jeep, its level of off-road capability is directly tied to what model trim you buy. If you want max rock-crawling ability, you’re obliged to go with a Rubicon. If you want better high-speed trail running, the Wrangler’s pickup sibling, the Gladiator Mojave, is where it’s at.
Ford is taking a slightly different approach to the way it doles out capabilities and features. Yes, there will be a parade of different trim lines at launch, spanning First Edition, Badlands, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks and Wildtrak, each with their own looks and attributes. But the Sasquatch max-off-road package is available on any Bronco, from the stripper base model on up to an all-boxes-checked lux model like the Outer Banks.
The Sasquatch setup includes the more advanced 4×4 system with electronic locking diffs front and rear, HOSS suspension, fender flares and beadlock-capable gloss-black alloys carrying Bronco-specific 35-inch (315/70R17) Goodyear Territory rubber.
This mix-and-match philosophy should be great news for consumers who want to get their SUV exactly the way they want it. Conversely, it also seems like it’s setting the table for a much larger number of build combinations, which can be a recipe for lower quality and frustrated dealers who may have a harder time getting specific models in stock.
2021 Ford Bronco interior is purposeful
The Bronco’s cabin is, as you’d expect, purposeful and rather basic-looking at first glance. This aesthetic is appropriate for a hard-core off-roader, but there’s more than first meets the eye. The dashboard assembly itself is bookended on either side by substantial grab handles, which, along with the transmission tunnel passenger-side handle, are all unboltable to facilitate personalization.
The steering wheel and switchgear are similarly chunky. There’s even full physical switchgear for the audio and climate control systems mounted below the touchscreen — you won’t have to use the touchscreen to turn on the seat heaters, for instance.
One other small switchgear victory? The window controls. They’re mounted at the front of the center armrest, making them easier to locate and operate by feel than the Jeep’s awkwardly positioned rockers mounted vertically ahead of the shifter.
As you’d expect, the floors are offered with built-in drains for hosing out after a day spent mudboggin’ or dune running. However, you might not expect the available Molle seatback organizer system for clipping in things like emergency kits and storage bags.
Out back, there are a number of clever party tricks, too. The main one is an optional (late availability) slide-out tailgate that gives you a tailgating perch or a spot to organize your tackle box on. There’s a bottle opener, too.
The Bronco has the best cabin tech Ford makes
Taking a deeper look at the cabin’s tech reveals substantial dual screens are at the heart of this interior. The reconfigurable 8-inch gauge cluster display sits offset, next to a traditional analog speedometer. When it comes to the center stack, Ford’s latest Sync 4 infotainment runs on screens up to 12 inches (an 8-inch unit is standard).
The system will include everything from Alexa integration to wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wireless charging will help make cord-cutting while streaming that much more convenient.
The dashboard is interesting, too. Ford actually went to the trouble of developing a cabin mockup set on a steep angle to make sure items wouldn’t fall out of the built-in storage wells at off-road angles. Another neat touch? An available “bring your own device” dash-top rack with 12-volt power outlet that allows accessories like off-road GPS handhelds and GoPro cameras to be easily mounted.
Speaking of cameras, a 360-degree surround-view suite is optional. It will not only help in parking maneuvers, there are special off-road views to help avoid close-in obstacles. And speaking of GPS, Ford is making a big deal about Trail Maps, new software that lets you download topographical off-road maps to your smartphone and project them on the infotainment display.
Not only will they show up on screen, you can actually record your off-road wanderings, including telemetry and mapping data, and upload the recording to the cloud so you can share your adventure with friends.
Also, if you’re staring googly-eyed at the sunny orange two-door with the top removed and the cut-out doors, or the cement-gray four-door wearing no doors at all, note that Ford has fitted these vehicles with a bunch of nonstandard prototype parts. Many will be considered for Ford’s catalog, while others will be idea springboards for the aftermarket.
Co-Pilot 360 is standard, Active Drive Assist not available (yet)
The Bronco will offer a full suite of advanced driver-assist systems as part of Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 suite. Features include precollision assist with automatic emergency braking (including pedestrian detection), blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist and post-impact braking.
For the moment, officials aren’t suggesting they’ll offer the Bronco with Active Drive Assist, the hands-free partial automated drive system confirmed for the next F-150 pickup and Mustang Mach-E electric SUV.
In terms of passive safety, Ford engineers have also cleverly figured out how to package side-curtain airbags into the roll cage, a feature not offered on Wrangler.
The Bronco brand
With the launch of this new brawler and its unibody Sport kin, Ford is actually approaching Bronco not simply as a model, but as a brand — a subbrand, to be more accurate. Much like Ford is doing with Mustang and the upcoming Mach-E EV, the Blue Oval is turning one of its best-known nameplates into a mini marque that lives under the company’s big tent.
It’s an interesting strategy, one that might serve to focus Ford’s attention as it sheds other nameplates like Taurus, Fusion, Fiesta and Focus in the coming years.
When can you buy the new Bronco?
As with all new vehicles, the proof will ultimately be in driving. Based on early exposure to the 2021 Ford Bronco, I’m not only extremely excited about this new truck, I’ve actually put personal thoughts of buying a Jeep Wrangler (OK, a Gladiator) on hold.
Whether looking at the spec sheet or the feature list or just staring this SUV’s handsomely rugged mug in the face, I’m having trouble not being frustrated that the Bronco won’t be in dealers for another nine months or so.
Then again, it’s taken a quarter-century for Ford to get off its duff to give the world another one, so perhaps I can be a little more patient.
Originally published at Cnet.com