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Dearborn — Ford Motor Co. was confident the 2021 Bronco would be a hit.

But within just a few days of the debut of the all-new off-road SUV, which is mounting a comeback 24 years after Ford discontinued it, Ford executives and franchise dealers say demand has been "overwhelming."

Although the automaker won't say how many $100 deposits it's received since the Monday night debut of the new family of vehicles that includes Sport, two-door and four-door models.

The reservation page crashed soon after the 8 p.m. debut because so many people were attempting to log on at once, Ford says. A First Edition model with a limited run of 3,500 was spoken for by the end of the night.

One Phoenix-area dealer said he had more than 500 deposits by Friday morning.

"I was super-optimistic about the product," Mark LaNeve, vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service for the Blue Oval, told The Detroit News on Friday. "But the number (of reservations) that I had in my mind that we would get in the first two weeks, we have completely blown away in four days."

Industry analysts, however, say that while advance reservations are a good gauge of demand for a new product, only time will tell how successful the Bronco will be — and, with a lot riding on the launch, it's imperative it goes off without a hitch. 

Bronco vs. Jeep

Ford officials, dealership owners and fans say it's the right time for the Bronco's return, as the market for off-road SUVs grows and many Americans turn to outdoor adventures during the coronavirus pandemic.

The resurrected Bronco also taps into nostalgia many feel for the SUV that originally had run from 1966 through 1996. And, dealers agreed, the Ford design team hit the nail on the head: Yes, the Bronco comes equipped with the latest technology, but, most importantly, it looks like the original 1966 version.

Experts say there is plenty of room in the off-road segment — for years dominated by the Jeep Wrangler — for a new vehicle, especially as Americans continue to favor SUVs over sedans.

It's no secret that Ford is attempting to go head-to-head with Jeep by reintroducing the Bronco, but LaNeve said he sees the two customer bases as somewhat distinct. Winning over Jeep customers is "not necessarily our ambition," he said. "We think there's enough market out there."

Ford executives and dealers described Bronco as hitting a certain sweet spot the original Bronco was known for: It has off-road capability, but many will simply drive it to the supermarket.

Ivan Drury, senior manager of insights for auto information website Edmunds.com, however, says most anyone who is shopping for an off-road vehicle is going to look at both Jeep and Bronco: "There is more overlap than there is the opposite."

Early enthusiasm

San Tan Ford is the Arizona dealership that says it had 500-plus reservations by Friday. Owner Tim Hovik had hoped to hit 100.

"This is beyond my wildest expectation," said Hovik, who is vice chairman of Ford's national dealer council and has been in the auto industry for 29 years.

The hype leading up to the return of the Bronco lasted so long that Hovik wasn't sure the actual rollout Monday would keep people's attention. 

"It was probably the longest lead-up to a reveal in automotive history," he said. "So when we hit the 'reveal' button and we pushed 'go,' to have this level of enthusiasm, that to me has been a big part of this story."

Nearly 2,000 miles across the country, Rhett Ricart, president of Ricart Automotive Group outside Columbus, Ohio,  says his dealership so far has taken about 100 reservations.

"It blew right past the Mach-E, and the Mach-E was unbelievable," Ricart said of Ford's upcoming electric SUV. "(Ford) hit every button on this one. I wish I had it right now, as a dealer."

Ricart, an enthusiast who owns a 1977 Bronco, was impressed by the range of tools on the new Bronco that he likens to a Swiss Army knife.

Doug North, president of North Brothers Ford in Westland, said his dealership has about 50 reservations — "huge," he says, compared to the 15 or 20 they got for the Mach-E. He reserved two of the "Wildtrak" trim levels (Ford offers six) for himself and his wife.

But only time will tell if the Bronco is a true success, says Edmunds' Drury. The buzz around the launch puts extra pressure on Ford to get it right, especially on the heels of a botched Explorer launch in 2019: "It cannot go poorly."

And the true measures of success won't be known for years. It's one thing for hardcore fans to rush to put down a deposit; the real test, he said, will be: "Does it have staying power?"

Eric Wilkinson, 33, of Howell falls into the hardcore fan category. He was on Ford's website at 8:01 p.m. Monday making a reservation for a four-door Bronco, and he managed to snag one of the First Edition models.

He and his wife are classic-car enthusiasts who own vintage Broncos and Mustangs. And, as a sales manager at Hines Park Ford in New Hudson, Wilkinson gets to be part of the excitement as both a salesman and customer. His dealership had gotten about 160 reservations by Friday, he said.

Now, with production not starting for months: "I've got to sit and wait with bated breath, not only to sell them, but to get my own."

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

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