2021 Ford Bronco First Drive: Old-school meets a new era

Some rivalries run deep. The 2021 Ford Bronco is a legend reborn, a fresh SUV at a time when the market is ripe for them, and boasts a long laundry list of goodies its predecessors could hardly dream of, but all we really want to know is one thing: can it truly take on all-conquering Jeep Wrangler? After all, the Bronco nameplate first appeared back in 1966 to compete with the International Harvester Scout and, you guessed it, the original Jeep CJ-5.

The first-gen Bronco had a model-specific chassis not shared with any Ford, Lincoln, or Mercury vehicle of the same era. As the second-gen Bronco arrived in 1978, though, it faced more prominent competition: models like the Dodge Ramcharger, Jeep Cherokee, and Chevy K5 Blazer. Ford took the decision to switch over to a shortened F-Series chassis, and the rest is history.

After five generations, the Bronco gave way to the Ford Expedition in 1997. With the nameplate absent for 24 years, off-road fanatics have clamored for a tough-as-nails, affordable, and practical midsize SUV that isn't a Jeep Wrangler. After two and a half decades of demurring and teasing, the 2021 Bronco storms into view promising the sort of go-anywhere features that were only available to the Jeep Wrangler until recently.

First off, the new Bronco is a brand, not just a model. You won't find an obvious Ford logo in the Bronco, not unless the automaker hid some Easter eggs. It's available as a 2-door or 4-door model, while the Bronco Sport is a four-door soft-roader riding on the Escape's underpinnings.

In contrast, the Bronco shares the rugged ladder-frame chassis of the Ranger pickup truck, giving it the proper heritage its forebearers demanded. My test cars included the fully-loaded Bronco First Edition 2-door and 4-door models, which Ford initially said would number just 3,500 units. It later acquiesced, and doubled the production number due to overwhelming demand, only for all 7,000 to sell out pretty much instantly last year.

With base prices starting at around $46,980 for the 2-door and $61,605 for the 4-door, the Bronco First Edition is not what you would refer to as 'affordable.' Then again, it's not a spartan ride, with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a range-topping off-road-ready machine.

The First Edition packs the larger and more potent 2.7-liter Ecoboost V6 engine with 310 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque. Like many Bronco enthusiasts, I was pining for an optional V8 engine; still, after spending time behind the wheel, I'm with Ford in sticking with the V6. The muscular and boxy styling would have matched perfectly with any of Ford's V8 engines, yes, but I kept reminding myself that the Bronco is sitting on top of a Ranger and not an F-150.

Now I love off-roading as much as track day, so a long stint around Austin, TX in a roofless Bronco is a dream come true. From behind the wheel, it's easy to notice the Bronco's impressive fit and finish as well as the unexpectedly spacious interior. Without a roof and with plenty of natural light, dare I say the Bronco feels airier than a roofless Wrangler? Despite the retro-inspired exterior styling, the Bronco looks and feels like a thoroughly modern SUV from the inside, which is more than I can say for Jeep's rival. As I was jostling around on the mud course, I was grateful for the ample breathing room and elbow room too.

Ford's base powerplant is a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, a perfect match to the available seven-speed manual gearbox with six forward gears and a crawler gear with a 94.75:1 ratio. So far there's no hybrid or all-electric Bronco, though you have to believe Ford is planning for them both.

The turbo V6, meanwhile, is only available with a standard 10-speed automatic; that's optional in the 2.3 four-banger. All Broncos have a 4x4 drivetrain, with the base version using a two-speed electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case. Optional is a 4x4 system with a two-speed electromechanical transfer case and an auto mode to engage 2H or 4H on-demand.

The Bronco has up to seven G.O.A.T. terrain management driving modes – including Sport, Slippery, Sand, Baja, Mud/Ruts, and Rock Crawl – depending on engine and 4x4 system. I particularly like the Sasquatch package ($2,495) that throws in 17-inch bead-lock wheels, front and rear locking differentials, chunkier 35-inch tires, extra ride height, bespoke remote-reservoir shock absorbers, and a shorter final-drive ratio.

I had the opportunity to test out all of the drive modes (except for Sport mode, in the First Edition) in various road conditions, and I'm happy to share that I'm impressed! Off-roading can be a funny thing, as much about your confidence in the vehicle as in its actual capabilities, but the new Ford held up in both respects. In the video below as I run out the different G.O.A.T. modes on a performance and handling track, to give you a taste of it.

Ford, of course, understands that most Bronco owners still live in areas where paved roads and smooth highways are the norm. As such, it gave the Bronco a dose of civility with an independent front suspension and a five-link rear solid axle with coil springs. The result, on tarmac, is that the Ford Bronco is more refined than any Jeep Wrangler I can remember driving.

I get it, practicality isn't fun. And I know that for some, the Wrangler's jouncy ride and willingness to telegraph every road joint, pothole, and undulation right into the cabin is an important sense of connection with what's going on under the wheels. That may be true, but it sure can be exhausting on road trips too.

The Bronco is a far worthier steed on those arduous cross-country journeys, but it still rises to the challenge when the roads turn to muck. The steering is just as good on dirt or mud as it is on paved surfaces, making it feel better-sorted and less jiggly. You can see what I mean as I tackle this light to medium off-road terrain, interspersed with creeks with a couple of feet of water.

Demonstrating its wares at the Bronco Off-Road site in Texas, the Bronco – regardless of trim level – is just as capable as the Jeep Wrangler when it comes to the rough stuff. What really impresses me is how easily the Bronco made it feel as I rumbled over loose and muddy soil. The steering, somewhat placid on the tarmac, wakes up with aplomb and offers precise control to counteract the sliding rear end.

Indeed, the Bronco is all about having fun, and you can do so without tinkering endlessly with various engine, suspension, and drivetrain settings. I'd go so far as to say you could have zero knowledge of off-roading and still have fun – and safe fun – in the Bronco, a solid testament to Ford's engineering team.

Space for improvements? Well, the new Ford Bronco would have been the ultimate G.O.A.T. with an optional V8, but I can't really criticize its ability to go over any terrain with specs and equipment on Ford's options sheet. I'll reserve judgment on electrification until Ford spills the beans there, too.

Overall, though, the long-awaited sixth-generation Bronco brings top-notch off-roading prowess to the masses, and with little in the way of compromise we're used to having to accept. Give yourself a few weeks to let the glee wear off a little, and you'll start noticing the more thoughtful touches too: the classic hints to the interior design, for example, or its bevy of grab handles, MOLLE hooks, and easy accessorization. Ford knows people are going to want to make their Bronco their own, and the customization potential will be clear from day one.

So how is that Wrangler comparison looking? Seldom have we seen something that might make cheating on your Jeep so appealing: 11.6-inches of maximum ground clearance, a max tow rating of 3,500 pounds, and the ability to forge river crossings up to 33.5-inch deep mean the Bronco isn't lacking in practicality, and the base model starts at around just $30,000 too. Most important: the Bronco's talents on and off the road live up to the promises Ford's design is making.

Would I have preferred not to have to wait 24 years before there was a Bronco back in my life? Sure, but I'll gladly settle for delayed gratification when the payoff is this good. Jeep may have thought it won the enthusiast off-roader battle back in 1997, but the Bronco is back and the war is anything but over.