New Ford Bronco debuts, challenges Jeep for king of the hill
Ford took direct aim at Jeep on Monday night with the resurrection of the off-road Bronco.
Starting at $29,995 — virtually identical to the $29,790 Jeep Wrangler — the two- and four-door Broncos go toe-to-toe with the Jeep with similar tools: standard four-wheel drive, the truck-based ladder frame of the Ford Ranger, removable doors and roof, rear-mounted spare tire, detachable sway-bar and low-speed transfer case.
The 2021 models harken back to the first-generation Bronco that debuted in 1966 but come updated with 21st-century design and technology.
Ford says the Bronco intends to up the ante with high-tech gizmos, such as a camera that can peek over hills and a low-speed version of adaptive cruise control that allows pedal-free off-road driving.
The smaller Bronco Sport that debuted Monday, meanwhile, is built on the same unibody chassis as Ford’s best-selling Escape SUV. It expands the Blue Oval’s presence in the compact SUV segment (the industry’s largest outside pickups), just as Jeep’s Cherokee and Compass complement the Wrangler. Pricing starts at $28,155.
“We created the Bronco family to elevate every aspect of off-road adventure and equipped them with class-leading chassis hardware and exclusive technologies,” said Jim Farley, Ford's chief operating officer. “They’re built with the toughness of an F-Series truck and performance spirit of Mustang — and come wrapped in the original Bronco design DNA.”
For design cues, Ford reached back to the original compact 1966 dirt-kicker, not the larger F-150-based version discontinued after the 1996 model year. “It’s designed for function, not fashion,” chief designer Paul Wraith said.
The bigger Broncos
The 2021 Bronco boasts signature round headlights connected by a horizontal grille emblazoned with the Bronco name. The rest of the body is simple and boxy with an upright windshield, single-piece twin taillights, a spare tire that hangs off the rear swing door. Mirrors are mounted on the A-pillars.
The latter is key to the removable doors so riders can get closer to nature.
Unlike the Wrangler, Bronco's doors don't have window frames, and Ford claims their removal is easier thanks to simpler latches and wire-plug decouplers. In the longer four-door version, doors can be stowed in bags and stored in back.
Roof panels atop the steel roll cage are also removable (a soft top is optional). Inside is a console anchored by an 8- or 12-inch screen. Grab handles for when the going gets tough are located on the center console and dash.
The interior is designed to be hosed down after muddy forays, and an optional rubber floor and vinyl seats are available.
One of the most striking differences between Wrangler and Bronco is the latter’s electronic transfer-case for off-roading. Jeep customers swear by their mechanical unit – its second gear-shift sprouting between the seats — to limit the chance of electrical failure far from home. But the Bronco’s electronic, rotary-dial-operated system will likely be easier to move between 4x4 configurations (think of a rotary Escape shifter compared to a manual stick shift).
The so-called GOAT dial (Goes Over Any Terrain) contains up to seven driving modes, including Slippery, Baja and Rock Crawl.
That analog vs. electronic theme is replicated elsewhere as the Jeep holds true to its raw off-road legacy, where the Ford focuses on the technology that has defined its F-150 pickups.
Under the skin, for example, Bronco counters the Jeep’s solid front axle with an independent front suspension (both have solid rear axles), which Ford contends is better for daily driving. Still, Bronco will offer a detachable sway-bar in its Badlands trim to allow extreme wheel articulation when clambering over rocks like Jeep’s legendary Rubicon model.
For all its ruggedness, Jeep has set a high bar in infotainment tech with its heralded Uconnect system. Ford claims to match it — and more. The Bronco and Bronco Sport come equipped with Ford’s latest SYNC 4 system, which offers standard CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity as well as over-the-air updated to improve vehicles over time. The Bronco tops it off with more than 1,000 digitally curated trail maps.
Under the hood, the Bronco offers two members of its Ecoboost engine family: a 2.7-liter V-6 and 2.3-liter turbo-4. The V-6 puts out 310 horses and 400 pound-feet of torque, with the 2.3-liter listing at 270 and 310.
Both engines are mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission, with a seven-speed manual available.
The Bronco offers this blizzard of options across six trims (Wrangler offers four): Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak and Badlands. Shoppers can opt for more luxury with, say, Outer Banks, or more macho with Badlands. If more options are required, some 200 factory-backed accessories are available. A Sasquatch performance package is available on all models and includes big 35-inch tires, twin-locking differentials and Bilstein shocks.
Saddled for the trail, Ford claims best-in-class crawl ratio, ground clearance, suspension travel, water-fording capabilities, plus best breakover and departure angles.
The Michigan Assembly-built Bronco is available next spring. Reservations for all the new Broncos are now open at Ford.com for a $100 deposit.
Though based on the Escape, the Bronco Sport piggybacks on brother Bronco's square-jawed profile.
That allows a rear cargo area that can store two bicycles upright on its rubber floor. The tailgate opens upward like a proper sport utility, unlike the Bronco's swing-gate.
The Sport also shares four trim names with Bronco: Base, Big Bend, Outer Banks and Badlands.
Designers don’t expect owners to take the Sport to the ends of the earth like Bronco, so there is no transfer case — but the Sport still gets that seven-mode GOAT rotary dial. And, like the bigger Bronco, the Sport claims to beat its Jeep Cherokee and Compass competitors in ground clearance and approach/departure angles.
Behind its round peepers, the Sport offers a choice of two turbocharged engines: a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 250 ponies and 27 pound-feet of torque; and a 181 horse, 190-torque 1.5-liter. No manual here, just an eight-speed automatic.
The Bronco Sport, built in Hermosillo, Mexico, will be in showrooms this fall.
Bronco vs. Jeep
Industry analysts say there's room for competition in the off-road segment dominated by Jeep, but it might be a difficult war for Ford to win given Jeep's head start in the off-road segment.
"For years, Jeep Wrangler has stood alone, king of the hill of off-roaders, largely unchallenged," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader. "Ford’s effort to take on Wrangler with the Bronco will not be easy as Jeep is a long, well-established global icon."
But the Bronco's modern amenities could give it a leg up.
"There is no doubt that Bronco will be more than capable off-road, but what might be the most appealing is the vehicle's combination of classic styling with modern features and conveniences," said Ivan Drury, senior manager of insights at Edmunds.com.
The Wrangler has averaged about 17,000 sales per month for the past five years and was the best-selling midsize SUV in the second quarter of this year, according to Kelley Blue Book data. Ford has not made Bronco sales goals public.
The challenger to the popular Jeep Wrangler could be very good, said Brian Moody, executive analyst at Autotrader: "However, we’ve been down this road before — Blazer, FJ Cruiser, Xterra, Defender, Ramcharger and 4Runner have all tried the tough, funky and also cool utility-vehicle formula. Most gave up.
"Introducing a four-door Bronco is the smart move. But in many ways, Jeep has likely already won the first round of the battle: Everyone is talking about the Wrangler as king of the segment, and most Bronco conversations are firmly parked in a Wrangler context."
Bronco has built a cult-like following in the years since it was discontinued, and fans of the SUV have been eagerly awaiting the new model since Ford confirmed in 2017 that it was in the works.
"I am a big Bronco fan and owning my third one I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of this," said Robert Parsons of Chicago, who is a member of a Bronco fan page on Facebook. "But after looking at the photos I am impressed!" He plans to buy a new Bronco — but not right away, because he wants to see "how well it holds up like its predecessors."
Todd Maynard, of Holland, Michigan, was less impressed, comparing it to the discontinued Toyota FJ Cruiser. The range of models and trims, and the technology, were too much for the taste of Maynard, who currently owns a 1993 Bronco and has owned several others over the years: "When I'm wheelin', the last thing I need is a WiFi touchscreen."
Robert Yeager, 44, of Splendora, Texas, has wanted a Bronco since he rode in his uncle's 1975 model years ago. He decided to wait on the 2021 model before taking the leap.
Shortly after 8 p.m. Monday, he planned to put down his $100 deposit for a four-door, which he hopes to get in yellow.
"We're always doing something in the mud, out in the woods, riding around," he said of his family, including a 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son who are just as excited as he is: "I'm just glad it's back. It's been three years we've been waiting and waiting and waiting."
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
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