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Ford Bronco targets Jeep Wrangler's 'overlanding' appeal

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When the long-awaited 2021 Bronco gallops into view July 13 Ford Motor Co. hopes to saddle up the “overlanding” generation.

The last decade has seen a heightened wanderlust for America’s great outdoors. The urge has been satisfied by a diverse group of vehicles including the Subaru Outback, Detroit Three pickup trucks, and an all-electric Rivian SUV/pickup that's coming. But no vehicle has capitalized on overlanding more than Jeep Wrangler which has seen sales soar 120 percent, selling nearly 500,000 units in the last two years alone.

1966 Ford Bronco

Ford wants a piece of the action, and thinks Bronco has the legacy to grab it. Bronco debuted in 1966 as a competitor to the truck-based Jeep Wrangler CJ and International Harvester before remaking itself as a big, F-150-based midsize ute from 1979-1996. Gone for 25 years, Bronco will be reborn in its original form — as a compact, Wrangler competitor.

“Society is looking to go overlanding. People want to go places,” said Doug North, president of North Brothers Ford in Westland. “Jeep has done a remarkably good job and has brought in a new generation. We’d like to have that, too.”

The new Ford sets up a showdown with its crosstown Jeep rival at a time when both brands are boasting all SUV/pickup lineups. Bronco vs Wrangler is a battle of icons. Both off-road focused. Both with removable body panels. Both with high-tech interiors.

A third player in the space — the aging, pickup-based Toyota 4Runner —indicates the pent-up appeal for overlanding. The 4Runner, too, is putting up record sales, topping 130,000 units each of the last two years. Sharing many parts with the Tacoma, the best-selling truck in a resurgent mid-size pickup class, the 4Runner offers a daily commuter that can also kick dirt on weekends.

“Overlanding has become a big thing,” said Roman Mica, publisher of TFL Truck YouTube channel, one the nation’s most popular truck sites. “We have an American culture of people who want to drive cross-country in the dirt. They want lifestyle vehicles like the Wrangler and Bronco that lets the world see what you are.”

Mica says the Wrangler has been a hit because it allows buyers to customize their off-road ride. He expects the Bronco will also be a hit.

“The question is: Why did it take Ford so long?” he smiles. “And the million-dollar question is: Why isn’t General Motors doing something like it?”

Always a key player in Jeep’s portfolio, parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV elevated the Wrangler to icon status after the Italians purchased the brand in 2009. Wrangler sales have been on hyperdrive ever since.

The remade Bronco follows the Wrangler formula, offering two-and-four door variants with removable body panels so customers can get closer to nature. According to spy shots, the Bronco will feature retro, round headlights and boxy bodywork harking back to its roots when it was produced as a wee two-door from 1966-1977. Unlike the old mare, however, the new kid is expected to be stuffed with the latest creature comforts while starting in the low $30,000 range.

“Everybody’s talking about it,” said Ford dealer North. “It speaks to Ford customers who have a real fondness for legacy and the brand. It’s true of the F-150 and the Mustang, and now customers will have a real off-road product in a segment we haven’t been in in a long time.”

Retired in 1996, the Bronco is back at a time when Americans are buying all things ute — and at a time when Ford is remaking itself as an SUV brand. Ford is in the process of discontinuing all its U.S. market sedans, confirming Wednesday the end of the Lincoln Continental. Bronco will share the small Ranger pickup platform — not the Ford F-150 architecture as the last Bronco made in 1996 did — as well as its engines.

North says the mid-size Ranger’s success is an indication of the hunger customers have for new truck and SUV segments. Rather than pirate sales from segment leader Toyota Tacoma, new additions like the Ranger, Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon and Jeep Gladiator have just brought in new customers to the pickup class.

Tacoma sales have jumped 72 percent since 2015 — 22 percent in 2019 alone — despite new competitors from GM and Ford successfully entering the market. North said he expects Bronco will similarly bring new customers into the truck-based SUV segment, not merely steal sales from the Wrangler and 4Runner.

“Jeep has shown there is a market for off-road vehicles,” he said. “Clearly, there is a part of the U.S. population that wants to drive these vehicles. Many of them are young people. High school parking lots are full of Wranglers. It appeals to a new generation of buyers as well as the off-road enthusiast.”

Randy Wickman, 54, of Rindge, Hampshire, takes his 1973 Ford Bronco off-roading.

The first generation Bronco saw sales take a hit when 1970s federal fuel economy regulations strangled its 6-cylinder and V-8 powerplants. Bronco eventually morphed into a mid-size SUV that competed against the Chevy Blazer.

This time, however, the Bronco will, like the Wrangler, debut with sippier, small-displacement engines that will comply with stringent mpg rules. North also believes Bronco is perfectly timed for a post-COVID economy.

“The Bronco’s personal, overlanding appeal lends itself to people who want to own their own private vehicles,” he said. “I think the industry has been putting the cart ahead of the horse on autonomous cars. Autonomous may be the future some day, but I think the Bronco and Wrangler will have an appeal for many years to come.”

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