There have been few vehicle debuts in recent years which have received as much attention as the rebirth of the Ford Bronco. After decades of blue oval off-roading fans calling for the return of the legendary SUV, it has finally returned for the 2021 model year, but unlike the last Ford Bronco, this isn’t a full-sized truck-based machine. This new Bronco is engineered to compete with the Jeep Wrangler and, according to Ford media material, it is more than capable of beating the most popular production vehicle among off-roaders.
To show that the new Bronco is more than just hype, Ford invited a group of Detroit-area media members to Holly Oaks off-road park to test the new SUV in some of the most grueling conditions in the area. The new off-road park has plenty of muddy trails and big rocks to climb, but Mother Nature decided to make things even tougher on the new Bronco. Torrential rains flooded large portions of the park, creating heavy run-off that washed out parts of the trails, making for even tougher off-road testing, but the Bronco proved its mettle, shining bright on a gloomy day.
Bronco on the Road
My day began at Holly Oaks off-road park, where I was handed the keys to a 2021 Ford Bronco 2-door in Outer Banks trim. It was powered by the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine, the 10-speed automatic and, of course, four-wheel-drive. It was also fitted with a handful of key options, including leather seats and the Outer Banks Series High Package, which adds a handful of premium features, the most notable of which is the 12-inch infotainment screen with navigation.
Because of the frequent, pounding rain storms, I kept the top fully in place and found that, like the Jeep Wrangler, the Bronco is fairly noisy inside. My test vehicle had the standard multi-piece, removable hard top with the sound deadening headliner, but it is considerably noisier than your average SUV with a fixed roof. You can hear more of what is going on around the vehicle through the removable top and you get more wind noise, but I am not complaining about this, because the Wrangler is the exact same way. If you hate the sound inside of a Wrangler when driving on the highway with the top in place, you are likely to have the same complaint with the Bronco, but that is really the extent of the downsides with the newest Ford SUV.
On paved roads, the 2-door Bronco Outer Banks offers a smoother ride than a comparable mid-level Wrangler. The rides are similarly stiff, but the Ford is noticeably smoother on the average small-town road with normal bumps and potholes. I would call the ride more refined and for some people, that will be a big advantage over the Wrangler. For others, the difference isn’t going to matter enough to serve as a decision point in off-road-ready vehicles.
In terms of power, the turbocharged four-cylinder in the 2021 Bronco provides plenty of power for most drivers. I spent much of my on-road drive time in the Sport mode, which leads to the most aggressive throttle response and transmission activity along with the most engaging driving dynamics. Sport mode does not force four-wheel-drive, so when the smaller of the two available engines is making all 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque kick in, it spins the rear tires a bit. With a push of the GOAT button, you can select four-wheel-drive and prevent wheelspin, allowing the Bronco to accelerate hard on the wet roads. It accelerated well through the mid-range, so in addition to being able to get away from a stop in a hurry, the four-cylinder Bronco packs plenty of passing power.
Hitting the Trails
Shortly before we arrived at Holly Oaks off-road park in Michigan, it had rained hard, so things were pretty wet when we arrived. It also rained a bit during our on-road drive, so the park continued to take on water, but the hardest rains came while we were actually out playing in the mud. Since I drove a 2-door Bronco on the road, I selected a 2-door with the four-cylinder engine and the automatic transmission for the off-roading portion, but my off-road rig was a Bronco Badlands model with the Sasquatch package.
Holly Oaks is a relatively new off-road park, having opened in September 2020 on the site of a former mining area with 106 acres of trails, rocks and steep hills. The place is as predictably muddy as you might expect, but the rains really made a mess of things. In many places, the rain had worn deep grooves into one side of the path, including steep uphill and downhill grades and much of the footing was flooded with inches of thick, muddy water. The average four-wheel-drive SUV likely wouldn’t have made it up the first steep climb, but the 2021 Ford Bronco was flawless.
I spent much of the off-road time in Mud/Rut mode, which engages four-high. I locked the rear axle and I used the sway bar disconnect feature via the “hero buttons” mounted atop the dash. There are also buttons to turn traction control on and off, to activate the front locking axle and to engage the handy Trail Turn Assist system. The Bronco easily climbed every hill and covered every muddy, crumbling path in four-high, with none of the chosen obstacles posing any real challenge. There was one steep rock wall that we climbed in Rock Crawl mode, which engages four-low, but the Bronco performed beautifully in every situation in four-high with the rear diff locked and the sway bar disconnected. We covered uneven footing, crossed deep water and pushed through mud that would swallow up most SUVs, but none of it forced the new Ford Bronco to break a sweat.
While climbing the steep hills in the pouring rain, the front camera proved to be a tremendous asset in keeping an eye on the guy in front of me. We were driving in groups and there were many situations where I would approach the peak of a steep hill, unable to see where the vehicle in front of me was in relation to my own. The front camera offers a great view for that situation and when trying to avoid the deep ruts where rain had washed away the trails. The camera system turns on automatically in Mud/Rut mode (and Rock crawling mode) and it stays on, so you don’t have to worry about turning the system on when you need it.
Another useful feature of the 2021 Ford Bronco is the Trail Turn Assist system. The Bronco is bigger than the Wrangler and in some cases, that can make it a bit harder to navigate through tight, off-road areas. When you engage Trail Turn Assist, the system locks the inside rear tire during a tight turn, essentially creating an anchor and pivot point and allowing the Bronco to make incredibly tight turns on loose footing. This system came in handy a few times during off-road testing in situations where we needed to stay very tight to one side on a turn to avoid washed-out sections of the path.
I would say that the Bronco is one of the best production SUVs that I have ever tested off-road, honestly rivaling that Jeep Wrangler. I cannot say for sure that the Bronco Badlands with the Sasquatch package is better than the likes of the Wrangler Rubicon, but this new Ford is the only vehicle that I have ever tested which could truly be considered a real challenge to the Wrangler.
Look Out Wrangler
Over the past ten years, I have been fortunate enough to test literally every new Jeep Wrangler on-road and off, most recently including the 4xe and 392 models. During that same period of time, I have tested some very good SUVs that were great off-road, but nothing ever really came close to offering everything that you get with the Wrangler – until now.
The 2021 Ford Bronco isn’t just hype; it is as good as the automaker claims. It offers a smoother ride on-road than the Wrangler while also being a bit more driver-friendly than the Jeep that requires constant steering input to stay pointed forward. The basic ride is as rugged as you would expect from such a capable off-road SUV, but it is a touch more refined than the comparable Jeep in every aspect of the daily drive. The interior offers more space around the driver and overall, the Bronco has a more modern, finished look than the Jeep, but that is part of the charm for many Wrangler owners. Some people will say that the Bronco is simply a copy of the Wrangler, and in some ways it may be, but the interior has a very different look and feel than the Jeep.
Do I think that a bunch of Jeep owners are going to ditch their Wrangler for a Bronco? No. The areas in which I think that the 2021 Ford Bronco outshines the Wrangler are typically things that the Jeep owners I know don’t really care about, such as the extra interior space or a smoother ride on the road. However, in addition to being the best off-road option for Ford fans in decades, the new Bronco provides the first real competition for the Wrangler in the modern era. For those prospective buyers who find the Wrangler to be a bit too rough on the road and a bit too snug inside, the Bronco might be perfect.
Over the past 20+ years, if you wanted a production street vehicle that offered the greatest off-road capabilities for the money, you likely bought a Wrangler because there was no other option. With the arrival of the 2021 Ford Bronco, there is finally a very real challenger for the legendary Jeep and Ford has done everything to make sure that their new SUV can do everything that the Wrangler can do and more.