Payne: In the saddle of the bucking Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Holly – The new Holly Oaks Off-Road-Vehicle Park off Interstate 75 will be one of the premier off-road playgrounds in Michigan when it opens this fall — just in time for the 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport.

I got a sneak peek of the park while riding shotgun in the Ford siblings’ most extreme Badlands trims last week. In their natural ORV habitat, the Broncos are a blast. And, yes, I’m including the unibody Bronco Sport in the same breath as the truck-based, scene-chewing, rock-stomping Bronco.

With its fancy rear clutch packs and four skid plates, the Bronco Sport Badlands brings big bandwidth as a daily driver and weekend warrior. More on that later. Let’s start with the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon-fighting headliner, the truck-based Bronco Badlands.

The $43,590 Badlands sits at the top of Bronco’s dizzying, six-model ladder (Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak, Badlands). Bronco Badlands isn’t bashful about copying Rubicon’s playbook: retro-looks, two-or four door configuration, outboard spare tire, removable body panels, manual transmission option, washable interior. My tester was further equipped with the Sasquatch package — 35-inch tires, dual-locking differentials, 12-inch screen — that can be had on any Bronco model.

This two-door Bronco got a workout at the Holly track

Holly Oaks is gonna be a Bronco-Wrangler war zone when the Ford comes to market next spring. The park echoes California’s epic, state ORV sandboxes with its high-speed canyons and skyscraper-high trails. With pedal to the metal in our skid-plated armored, 310-horsepower Bronco Badlands, Ford engineer Dan Schaeffer rocketed up formidable, 27-degree dirt inclines, splashed through ponds and devoured sand.

But Holly ORV park isn’t just about trails. Like any serious ORV park it offers diabolical obstacle courses as well. Its signature hill is a re-creation of some of Moab’s most infamous rocky terrain: the 45-degree steep Hot Tub. Mogul-pocked Mashed Potato Hill. Or the I-dare-you-to-cross-me Golden Crack.

A Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport navigate the trails of Holly ORV park

For these outdoor torture chambers, Badlands brings a deep toolbox like Wrangler Rubicon. The key difference is modern Badlands’ equipment like the hydraulic, detachable front sway bar that helped us crawl over an impossible incline. Or the independent front suspension (Wrangler prefers solid axle front and rear) that allows for a smoother ride.

Off-road veterans will swear by Wrangler’s mechanical purity, but a new generation reared on 21st-century electronics will cheer the Bronco’s advances.

Perhaps most significant is Bronco’s rotary, transfer-case controller with seven signature GOAT modes (Go Over Any Terrain) in Badlands models. It counters Wrangler’s manual option (essentially a second gearshift growing from the console).

As we grunted around the ORV park, Bronco cowboy Schaeffer simply spun the dial when he needed to switch from four-wheel-high to four-wheel-low or (Bronco exclusive) four-wheel crawl. It’s hardly a bucking Bronco.

A Wrangler Rubicon, by contrast, has to be stopped so you can arm-wrestle the stick shift to the proper mode.

New Ford Broncos -- three times the fun

Taking inspiration from the original Bronco that became the first production vehicle to win the grueling Baja 1000 endurance race in 1969, the Bronco team developed its toolbox (engines, 10-speed tranny, suspension, chassis) alongside the current Bronco R Baja racer. Both the V-8-powered ’69 Baja Bronco and the ’19 Baja Bronco R were available for Holly Oaks rides.

From the right-hand saddle, the ’69 machine — driven by pro driver Shelby Hall, daughter of ’69 Baja winner Rob Hall — proved to be a serious rodeo ride compared to the state-of-the-art R. But its V-8 roar made me nostalgic. The new car’s 2.7-liter turbo-6 (which Shelby will pilot at Baja this November) packs plenty of punch but lacks the visceral thrill.   

Bronco history includes the 2019 Bronco R Baja racer, left, 1969 Baja winner, and original 1966 Bronco two-door.

As for the unibody Sport SUV, Ford likes to describe it as the mule that will haul gear, bikes and kayaks to the trailhead. If you want to go further, take the Bronco. Well, maybe.

Bronco Sport Badlands wants a piece of the action.

Holly Oaks echoes California’s epic ORV parks with its high-speed canyons and skyscraper-trails. Barreling along in the four-skid-plated Bronco Sport Badlands model, Ford engineer Kyle Culek attacked the same 27-degree dirt incline I’d experienced minutes before in a Bronco Badlands. Piece of cake.

At the summit Culek pressed the console “Trail Control” button — turning adaptive cruise control into a sort of low-speed crawl system. At 5 mph, we calmly descended the other side of the 27-degree hill. Look ma, no feet! All Culek had to do was steer.

Back in the canyon, Culek rotated the GOAT to sand, then floored it. WAAAUUGHRR! The throaty, 2.0-liter turbo-4 howled as all four wheels spit sand. Credit the same, rear dual-clutch pack found in Ford’s Focus RS track monster — calibrated for off-road performance. That’s my kind of family vehicle.

The demonstration indicates Sport’s unique appeal in the volume, compact SUV segment. It’s as if Bronco and Escape had a baby. This kid has off-road instincts without sacrificing road manners. If priced right, the roomy, all-wheel-drive Sport (note the same cavernous, sliding second-row seats as Escape) should be a serious challenger to mainstays like the Jeep Compass and Subaru Forester.

Matching their AWD capability with handsome looks, Sport can store two bikes upright in the rear hatch.

Like the U.S. pickup market, Wrangler vs. Broncos is going to be a Detroit civil war. They will square off on battlefields like Holly ORV park, and first impressions are that Bronco has brought serious firepower.

But for those who want their Bronco with a more comfortable saddle, Bronco Sport may be the sleeper pick.

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