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2021 Ford Bronco: It’s finally here [First Drive]

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The oft-delayed 2021 Ford Bronco is (finally) here, and we’ve (finally) gotten behind the wheel. What’s more, there’s some good news: It was worth the wait.

To try it out, Ford invited us to the Bronco Off-Roadeo, a 4×4 amusement park for adults outside of Austin. It has more than 50 miles of curated trails for the expert or novice, and Ford is building three more in Moab, Nevada and somewhere in the northeast.

Bronco buyers will get a free day of training at one of the Off-Roadeo locations, learning both the technical aspects of four-wheelin’ as well as proper trail etiquette with an emphasis on sustainability and respecting the environment to ensure the longevity of the sport.

Like all off-road SUVs, I suspect the new Bronco will spend most of its life on the pavement making school and grocery runs, but I know it’s the 4×4 prowess that everyone is interested in.

Off-roadin’

As expected, the 2021 Bronco is wildly capable off-road and can likely do everything a Wrangler Rubicon can (though we couldn’t compare them back to back).

We took a variety of off-road spec’d Broncos on Off-Roadeo rock crawling trails, through deep water and sticky mud, and even on some high-speed Baja-esque hot laps with 4×4 racer Loren Healy at the wheel.

It excelled at everything and kept us feeling safe and secure while we did it. Even Healy’s high-speed run, done in a base model with the Sasquatch package, everything seemed controlled and capable.

Unsurprisingly, we weren’t able to really push the limits given Ford’s careful design of its off-road facility, but what we were able to do was deeply impressive. Disconnect the sway bar and lock the diffs, and the Bronco can handle more than nearly all buyers would be comfortable with.

On-roadin’

On the pavement, where most Broncos will spend all of their time, things were surprisingly good. The JL Wrangler vastly improved its road manners, and the Bronco is at least as good. We’d need to try them back to back, but unless you’re a ride and handling expert, it’s not likely that you’d find much difference.

There was minimal body roll in the corners — even on the 35-inch tires and with the off-road suspension — and forward-and-back tilt under braking was much less noticeable than in some other off-roaders I’ve driven.

Both of Ford’s turbocharged EcoBoost engine options had plenty of power, and you wouldn’t have any trouble merging or passing on the highway.

Towing maxes out at 3,500 pounds, and the 2021 Bronco is flat-tow capable if you’re looking to haul it behind your RV.

Sasquatch and off-road wizardry

Take a look at the Sasquatch Package, and right away, things get a little interesting. While Jeep stuffs all its off-road wizardry in the top-end Wrangler Rubicon, Ford goes a different direction.

The delightfully named Sasquatch Package is available on all seven trim levels, including the stripped-down base model. We’ll nickname it the Enthusiast Spec, and when the $4,995 Sasquatch is added to the base 2-door Bronco ($29,995 plus $1,495 delivery), you’ve got a competent off-roader for $38,485 out the door.

2021 Bronco

Upgrading to Sasquatch includes 17-inch black-painted aluminum, beadlock-capable wheels with 35-inch LT315/70R17 BSW Mud-Terrain tires, electronic-locking front and rear axles, 4.7:1 final drive ratio, high-clearance suspension, position-sensitive Bilstein shock absorbers and high-clearance fender flares.

Those 35-inch tires are bigger than anything you can currently get from the factory from Jeep, by the way, though Jeep has responded with a new Recon package that addresses this deficiency.

Ford aims the 2021 Bronco squarely at Jeep, which it says hasn’t faced any real competition in the segment for several decades. This back-and-forth is excellent news for buyers, as the increased competition will drive increased innovation and lower prices.

Trail tech

Speaking of innovation, Ford has stuffed the Bronco full of clever tricks to make off-roading more accessible and using technology to do things that simply weren’t possible before.

Spec the optional 10-speed automatic (mandatory on the larger 2.7-liter engine), and you get a bunch of sweet stuff:

  • Trail Control is basically cruise control for low-speed off-roadin’. To activate, simply press the button in the center of the G.O.A.T. Mode selector and then press the cruise control + or – buttons on the steering wheel to pick your speed. It starts at 1 MPH and goes up in 0.5 MPH increments. This is similar to the Crawl Control available in the Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma.
  • Trail One-Pedal Drive is something unique, though. If you press the same button you used to activate Trail Control without selecting a speed, the gas pedal becomes a throttle and brake. It works identically to an EV with one-pedal drive. Press the gas, and you go. Release the gas, and you stop. It’s meant to eliminate the need for complex simultaneous two-pedal driving that is sometimes necessary for tricky off-road scenarios.
  • Trail Turn Assist will, as the name implies, help you turn on the trail. Activated via a dedicated button on top of the dash, this will brake the inner rear wheel on a fully-locked turn, helping the Bronco turn even more sharply. It’s hysterical to play with, and though it’s a niche feature, it is actually quite helpful.

The Hero Switches on the top of the dash allow for a few different on-the-go changes. Up here is where you activate front- and rear- differential locks, and Ford was eager to demonstrate that you can lock just the front diff without needing the rear to be locked. A niche feature, perhaps, but one that Jeep doesn’t offer in the Wrangler.

Unsurprisingly, the Ford reps liked pointing out things that the 2021 Bronco could do that the Wrangler couldn’t.

On properly equipped Broncos (namely the Badlands 4×4-focused trim), a front stabilizer disconnect allows for increased wheel articulation, and, unlike on the Wrangler, it can be disconnected under load. In a spot on the trail where you want a little more suspension travel? Press the Sway Bar Disconnect button, and you feel the entire truck relax a bit as the front wheels disconnect. It’ll automatically reconnect if you go more than 20 MPH.

And yes, the new Bronco has independent front suspension. It’s not an option, and Ford says it drastically improves on-road performance while still maintaining off-road capability.

Six pre-wired upfitter switches are standard in the Black Diamond, and Badlands trims, with wiring going to both the engine compartment and the rear cargo area. That means no drilling to install accessory switches for lights or winches.

360-degree cameras are available in the High option package, and the front-facing camera will activate automatically in specific trail-focused G.O.A.T. modes.

Ford also offers a “bring-your-own-device” mount on the middle of the dashboard if you want to record your adventures. It’s perfect for a GoPro or a phone mount, and Ford is developing a smartphone app that would let you use your smartphone to record your trail drive and then overlay performance stats and a trail map on your video.

Engine options

There are two engine and two transmission options.

Standard is a 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-4 that serves up 275 horsepower and 315 pount-feet of torque. If you fill up with premium fuel, those numbers both rise to 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet if you’re looking to maximize performance at the expense of your wallet.

Equip the smaller engine in the two-door model, and you get a 7-speed manual transmission. That’s six standard gears and one special crawler gear that delivers a bonkers 94.75 to 1 gear ratio. Ford says this is best-in-class, which is a not-so-subtle way of saying “it’s better than the Wrangler.”

It’s disappointing but understandable that the 7-speed manual is only available in the small engine/two-door configuration, but certifying all those different options is hugely expensive for something that will likely get minuscule pickup from buyers. At least it’s here in some form.

Get the four-door Bronco or the larger 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6, and you get a ten-speed automatic transmission to go with 315 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque. Again, opt for premium fuel, and those numbers go up to 330/415.

Both engines seemed excellent in our limited time with them, though the 2.7-liter has obvious off-road appeal because of the big jump in torque.

2021 Bronco

Interior

The best part of the interior is the ease in bringing the outside inside.

A cloth soft-top is standard on the four-door 2021 Bronco, and it opens quickly and offers a tilt-up function to get easier access to the cargo area. The optional hardtop has four removable sections (just like the Wrangler), with two up front over the driver and passenger, a larger full-width center panel over the rear seats, and a larger rear section that includes the back window.

It’s particularly nice that there is no roll bar going across the roof at the B-pillar. Remove the front and middle roof panels, and everyone gets an incredible unobstructed view of the sky. It might not seem like much, but it makes an enormous difference.

Ford has also installed side-curtain airbags in the Bronco (another thing the Wrangler doesn’t offer). They aren’t legally mandated because the Bronco and Wrangler are considered convertibles, but Ford found them necessary enough to install. They stressed that it took quite a bit to set them off and that slow-speed rollovers, not entirely uncommon on off-road trails, wouldn’t necessarily cause them to fire.

The four-door Bronco can store up to four items on-board (like two doors and two roof panels, or all four doors. Remove the larger center roof panel or the rear roof assembly, and you’ll need to find someplace to stash them while you go exploring.

Those doors are worth noting, too — they’re frameless and much easier to take off than the Wrangler’s bulky doors. The window disappears into the door, and the included bags (one for each door, with QR-codes on them that link to removal instructions) have carry handles.

Slide the bag over the door, disconnect the electrical leads and bolts holding it on, and the whole thing lifts off and zips up. As an added bonus, the mirrors are mounted to the car body itself instead of the doors, so removing them doesn’t impede your rearward visibility.

Ford repeatedly emphasized that the side doors should only be removed when driving off-road. Right.

Inside, there are 8- or 12-inch touchscreens depending on which package you get, and both CarPlay and Android Auto are supported wirelessly.

If you get things dirty, marine-grade vinyl seats paired with rubberized floors are an option, and you can hose out the whole car if need be. There are even drain plugs in each footwell.

2021 Bronco

Exterior

Outside, the new 2021 Bronco looks like a reimagined old Bronco (and more than a little bit like a Jeep Wrangler since there are only so many ways you can draw a capable 4×4).

There’s no mistaking this as a Bronco, as the word is plastered across the front grille and the Bronco logo prominently adorns the wheels and the tailgate.

Rock rails strong enough to support 100% of vehicle weight are optional, and on models equipped with the steel off-road bumpers, it’s easy to remove the sides of the bumpers to improve approach and departure angles.

In fact, there are removable components all over the Bronco. Anywhere you spot a bolt with the word Bronco on it showcases a removable part. Fenders, bumpers, even entire body panels can be easily removed.

That means if you crunch a quarter panel on the trail, you can just order a replacement instead of an expensive visit to the body shop. No word from Ford on how much replacement panels will cost, however.

Ford says there are more than 200 company-approved aftermarket accessories, including a crash-tested winch that’s available through Ford dealerships. When the winch is installed, the dealer will reflash the Bronco’s safety software, and the car’s sensors will take the winch into account when deciding whether to fire the airbags in a collision.

Trail sights on the corners of the hood double as tie-down points for oversized roof-mounted items like canoes, which is clever, and everything from tube doors and Yakima roof racks are available.

The bottom line on the 2021 Bronco

It’s impossible to get through everything about the new 2021 Ford Bronco in a single article, especially after just a few hours behind the wheel.

But Ford takes the Jeep Wrangler head-on and has made no compromises in the Bronco’s development. All the tech makes four-wheeling more accessible and safer, plus it’s going to be a lot easier for novices to get out and exploring — especially with the free trip to the Off-Roadeo.

At the moment, just about the only issue with the Bronco will be buying one. Ford is taking reservations now on its website, but many new orders (including all 7-speed manual options with Sasquatch equipped) likely won’t show up until 2022.

Having an ultra-popular vehicle is great if you can build them, but know that if you have to wait on your Bronco, it’ll be worth it.

Editor’s note: Driving impressions in this “First Drive” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Ford Motor Co. covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.

Photos in the above gallery are courtesy of Ford Motor Co., by James Lipman / jameslipman.com.

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