Payne: Bronco and Wrangler lock horns at Detroit 4Fest

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Holly — When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Rain put a damper on the first Motor Bella auto show at M1 Concourse Sept. 21-26. But 30 miles north at Holly Oaks ORV Park’s third annual Detroit 4Fest, the water just added spice to the off-road recipe. Holly Oaks is home to an epic off-road playground of dirt, sand, hills, bogs and trails spread out over 192 acres and 200 feet of elevation change.

It's a grown-ups sandbox that attracted 1,200 off-road lovers for a weekend of fun — including this big, 6’5” kid. It also brought Jeep Wranglers and Ford Broncos face-to-face in the most anticipated rivalry since a Camaro and Mustang first squared off at a Woodward stoplight.

“Let’s go!” said King of the Hammers founder Dave Cole as I handed him the keys to my four-door 2022 Ford Bronco tester.

Cole is no stranger to off-road playgrounds. He’s won the Baja 1000, Pikes Peak and countless other off-road races in extreme, Ultra4 off-road beasts. His California-based King of the Hammers is one of the country’s premier off-road racing series. This was his first taste of Holly Oaks (it just opened last fall), and it didn’t take him long to find the biggest challenges.

Darlene’s Ridge rises 125 feet above the sandy floor of Holly Oaks. Getting to the top requires traversing a narrow 30-degree gully that gets steeper as you climb. After days of rain, the trail was slipperier than an oily rope.

Dave Cole, CEO of King of the Hammers, pilots a  2021 Ford Bronco.

“We can get to the top of that,” Cole confidently declared after watching a 4x4 surrender after a failed assault that ended two-thirds of the way up.

Our Bronco is built for this kind of insane terrain.

Dressed in striking Area 51 Blue, the new Ford got a lot of looks in my neighborhood before I headed out to Holly. My neighbor Heather covets it for her next vehicle and liked its smooth ride, all-digital display, wireless smartphone connectivity and roomy interior (the Bronco has about two more inches of shoulder/legroom in front and seven more cubic feet for cargo than arch-rival Wrangler).

But the ute’s enormous, meaty 35-inch tires on bead-lockable 17-inch wheels are there for a reason. Part of the $4,495 Sasquatch package (available on every Bronco model), they complemented our armored Black Diamond trim (rock rails, washable interior, seven drive modes, steel bumpers, skid plates) to make the truck-based SUV a dirt-eating monster: electromechanical transfer case, locking front/rear axles, bulging plastic fenders, higher ground clearance, and brawny Bilstein shocks. Oh joy!

The Bronco doesn't mind getting muddy on the trails and hills at Holly Oaks.

Cole dialed the GOAT (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) mode selector to Mud/Ruts, then selected 4-wheel-drive Low.

WAAUUUGH! We charged up the incline ... only to fall back at the summit, all four wheels churning helplessly. We reversed back down. Tried again. Failed. Cole toggled 4-HIGH for the next assault.

WAAUUUGH! Short again. Off-roading is a social sport. A crowd was gathering at the summit to watch what the new Bronco kid on the block could do. “Try it in manual mode, both lockers on!” advised a bystander (now that's a guy who knows his Broncos!).

We watched two side-by-sides and a Toyota truck fail. Our turn again.

WAAAUUUGH! We made it, the front wheels leaving the ground as we cleared the top. A roar went up from the crowd. Cole punched the Trail Turn Assist feature and did doughnuts in celebration.

Cole went hunting for more obstacles. Then I went hunting for more. Then I handed the wheel to Jeremy, with a Bronco on order, and he found still more. By the end of the afternoon, the Bronco’s blue patina was barely visible, obscured by a layer of mud and dirt — Bronco’s best color.

For years, Mustang, Camaro and Challenger muscle cars have tested each other at stoplights, twisted roads and race tracks. Now the Bronco and Wrangler are headlining new battlefields where the asphalt ends — alongside Chevy Colorado ZR2s, Ford Raptors, Ram Rebels and a growing herd of mudders.

Like their muscle car brethren, off-road competition will raise all boats — er, SUVs.

Wet conditions are no match for the 2021 Jeep Wrangler 392.

Wrangler has already upped its game with an Xtreme Recon package that offers 35-inch tires and specially tuned shocks resulting in best-in-class 12.9-inches of ground clearance, approach angle (47.4 degrees), breakover angle (26.7 degrees) and departure angle (40.4).

Those tools came in handy in even trickier Holly Oaks conditions when I hit the trails pre-4Fest in a steady rain. The Xterme package benefits a lineup that has a big head start on Bronco in drivetrains.

The Wrangler can be had in turbo-4, V-6, diesel, 4xe plug-in electric, and — my favorite — V-8 392 mode.

Jeep CEO Jim Morrison rides shotgun in a 2021 Wrangler 392.

That’s 392 as in the same 392-cubic-inch bear at the heart of a Dodge Challenger Scat Pack. RRRAOOWWRR! growled the Jeep 392 Rubicon as I fired it up. My co-pilot was Jim Morrison, Jeep CEO and a passionate off-roader himself who calls Holly Oaks his backyard.

We hammered around the park’s muddy trails in 4-LOW, putting the Jeep’s trusty twin lockers and detachable sway bars to good use over rocks, hills and gullies. But the 392’s secret sauce is 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque.

2021 Ford Bronco Detroit 4fest on the rocks

Grinding up another impossible grade, we tested the Rubicon’s Selec-Speed Control, which senses slip in all four corners — then distributes torque where needed. We hit a deep rut of mud that challenged even this tool of electronic wizardry — the Jeep slipping, sliding, struggling to get out of the hole.

“Just 392 it!” said Morrison.

I planted my right foot and the Wrangler exploded out of the hole like a mortar shell, scampering to the summit. Ya’ gotta have a V-8.

On the trail over the weekend, Bronco and Wrangler owners happily co-existed. Like muscle car track days, off-roaders are family. They help their neighbors stuck in swamps, on hills, over rocks.

After the park closes, the discussions will grow more heated over dinner as partisans compare their steeds. Jeep owners will highlight authenticity born in World War II, twin solid axles, manual transfer case shifter.

Bronco riders will boast of modern tech, better on-road manners thanks to an independent front suspension, even a front hood that's easier to open.

For my money (and, ahem, these warriors ain’t cheap), they are both correct. They give us motorheads more options for when the going gets tough.

2022 Ford Bronco Black Diamond

Vehicle type: Front engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $40,835, including $1,495 destination fee ($48,325 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 300 horsepower, 325 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Motor Trend est.); towing capacity, 3,500 pounds

Weight: 5,100 pounds (

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 20 city/22 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Easy-to-use off-road tools; those big 35-inch tires

Lows: Feels floaty on freeway; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392

Vehicle type: Front engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $74,995, including $1,495 destination fee ($78,545 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.4-liter V-8

Power: 470 horsepower, 470 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (mfr.); towing capacity, 3,500 pounds

Weight: 5,100 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 13 city/17 highway/14 combined

Report card

Highs: Go anywhere attitude; OMG V-8

Lows: Transfer case shifter requires some muscle; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.