2021 Ford Bronco First Drive Review: Does It Live Up To The Hype?

2021 Ford Bronco First Drive Review: Does It Live Up To The Hype?
Andrew Wendler
The new Bronco is versatile beast, capable of desert running and rock crawling in the same day, then hitting the highway for the ride home in comfort. Ford

The new 2021 Ford Bronco SUV began rolling off the assembly line in Wayne, Michigan, on June 15, 2021, nearly 25 years to the day that its namesake predecessor ceased production in June of 1996 at the same facility. The Bronco had an epic 30-year multi-generational run, but it was a relic among a segment of rapidly proliferating modern SUVs and crossovers at the end. The world changed more in its 25-year absence than it did in the previous 50, but as a cultural touchpoint, the primitive Bronco SUV never relinquished its place in the public’s consciousness. Nostalgia, hard-core off-roaders and popular culture sustained its profile, Hollywood casting the Bronco whenever a righteous character with a rogue agenda required wheels.

We would be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the Bronco’s swan song 1994 starring role in an infamous chase that almost single-handedly created the predatory “real-time” celebrity news genre. Like most primal creatures, the Bronco survived the skirmish unfazed, even if it found itself the butt of more than a few weak jokes.

A New Bronco For A Brave New World

Confirmed at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show, the road to fruition for the new Bronco has been a long and circuitous one, filled with false starts and supplier issues and stymied by a worldwide pandemic. The new Bronco is finally here, and it’s clear the team carefully weighed every decision along the way.

The 2021 Ford Bronco four-door comes with a standard soft top that easy to lower and a module hardtop is optional. the two-door ships with an easily removable modular hardtop. Ford

As detailed previously, the new Bronco was designed to be highly customized right from the factory. Available in six unique trims (Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak, Badlands; a Limited Run of 7000 First Edition models—upgraded from 3500—is sold out); four content packages (Mid, High, Lux and Sasquatch) 11 color choices, numerous additional available options and more than 200 dealer-installed accessories. Suffice to say that the vast array of available trims, options and accessories will leave few buyers at a loss for features, and itemizing them here is unfeasible. Freedom of choice is a virtue, and Ford has prepared a concise rundown of the possibilities on the Bronco website to streamline the ordering process. That said, Two-door Broncos start at $31,490 and four-door Broncos start at $36,190, including a $1,495 destination charge.

It’s hard to fault the exterior design, particularly given the roster of current safety regulations in place today that were hardly considerations when the previous Bronco was conceived. Designing a fresh sheet vehicle today requires hitting numerous prerequisite marks for safety and crash-worthiness, and that can sometimes stifle designers. Blending the past with the present can sometimes yield disastrous results, but the new Bronco is right in the zone. It’s retro-rugged yet contemporary, and you won’t mistake it for anything but a Bronco at 100 paces, or probably even 1000 paces; we tried to prove it but got distracted by a Race Red two-door Black Diamond edition Bronco while counting off the steps.

Two-doors, steel wheels, a removable hardtop and waterfront parking are a perfect habitat for the Bronco Black Diamond. Andrew Wendler

We snagged that very vehicle, complete with the 17-inch black steel wheels shod with mildly aggressive General Grabber A/Tx 265/70 tires to get our feet wet. There’s no shortage of unique 16-, 17- and 18-inch wheel options on offer—and the aftermarket is undoubtedly gearing up with more—but the clean, classic and rugged look of the steelies against the Bronco’s profile is hard to beat.

The same can be said for the simple but durable gray and blue vinyl interior seating. It’s a marine-grade textile, says Ford, perfect for a vehicle with an easily removable top. We can confirm it’s reasonably soft to the touch and doesn’t feel too cheap or industrial. Center-console climate controls are from the Ford parts bin, familiar and easy to operate; the dashboard design is clean and logical, capped off by a center-mounted row of switches that control the front and rear locking differentials and the trail-turn system, among other features. They’re easy to reach, and the weather-proofing rubberized texture is grippy and functional. There’s another row of switches above the windshield designed and designated to control owner-added 12-volt accessories.


Comfort and Capability

Interior comfort may not top the list of requirements for rugged outdoor lifestyle vehicle buyers. Still, at first blush, the Bronco feels more spacious than its arch-rival Jeep Wrangler in a similar two-door, hardtop configuration. The numbers support this perception, but just barely. The front legroom for the two-door Bronco is 43.1-inch vs. 41-inch for the Wrangler; hip room is 56.3-inch vs. 53.9; headroom is 41-inch vs. 40.7, and shoulder room is 57.1 vs. 55.7. Numbers aside, the feeling of spaciousness is aided by a steering wheel that appears to have more travel in both tilt and telescopic functions. Rear seating in the two-door is functional if not prodigious, but the four-offers more legroom. Regardless, no one will complain when the roof is down and the sun is out.

With 330 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque on tap from the twin-turbo 2.7-liter V6 and 10-gears in the automatic transmission on hand to sort out the particulars, the Bronco can be docile, more lamb than bucking bronc. (A 2.3-liter turbo-four rated at 300 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque is also available with the auto or a seven-speed manual.) Seven drive modes are available, but in town and on the winding pavement around the Colorado River outside Austin, Texas, Eco, Normal and Sport are the only ones of concern. (The rest are off-road focused and will prove their worth later.) Sport is the keeper, tightening up reflexes including throttle response, shift strategies and steering.

The electronic assists are welcome, but the single most crucial factor in the new Bronco’s smooth on-road ride is the independent front suspension (IFS). A fully boxed high-strength steel frame with seven cross members provides a stout and rigid foundation, and combined with the IFS’s long-travel coil spring and damper setup, it does wonders for handling and ride quality. Body lean is also kept in check; it’s not going to give any sport sedans competition, but it’s good enough for you to occasionally forget you’re driving a vehicle positioned as a competitor for the Jeep Wrangler. It’s also surprisingly quiet at highway speeds. By the end of a roughly 85-mile jaunt of heavy driving, we averaged a dash indicated 17.6 mpg, not too far off its 18 city, 20 highway and 19 combined EPA estimates.  

Sasquatch Sighting

But a Bronco without uncharted territory to traverse is like guacamole without chips. Conveniently, our rendezvous point is the new Bronco Off-Roadeo facility located in the Texas Hill country outside of Austin.

Our 4-door Cactus Gray Wildtrak four-door Bronco with optional 35-inch tires made quick work of about any obstacle we threw at it. Ford

With the ambient temperature approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity to match, we switched to a four-door Bronco Wildtrak with the factory Sasquatch package that includes 35-inch Goodyear Territory tires. Ford has made a lot of noise about being the only manufacturer to offer 35-inch tires from the factory on a mid-sized SUV. (The Ram TRX and Ford Raptor run a 35-inch tire but are in an entirely different class.) But just as the Bronco began hitting showrooms, Jeep fired back with the Xtreme Recon Package, which includes—you guessed it—35-inch tires for the Wrangler Rubicon and Wrangler Rubicon 392. Brand loyalty and one-upmanship aside, we say more choices for all are a good thing.

Ford has also leveraged the original Bronco’s “GOAT” nickname (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) by co-opting the moniker for the new Bronco’s G.O.A.T. drive modes. In addition to the previously mentioned modes, the off-road Slippery, Sand, With Baja on Wildtrak and First edition), Mud/Ruts, Rock Crawl.

The GOAT modes terrain modes and transfer case settings are selected via a dial on the console. The front and rear differential locks and tral turn control are engaged via the switches atop the dashboard. Ford

We started our off-road journey in Normal mode in four-wheel drive high-range with the front and rear differentials unlocked, despite the numerous electronic options at our disposal. Sufficient for the type of hilly, loose and rocky terrain native to the region, we soon found ourselves in situations only dedicated wheelers will likely pursue. Locking and unlocking both front and rear differentials, utilizing the low-range for a better crawl ratio and torque multiplication and choosing drive modes ala carte for the terrain at hand proves simple given the control layout. Whatever the selection, the hardware moves in and out of engagement with nearly imperceptible action, the lights on the instrument the only indicator of activation. Unlike most systems, the Bronco allows you to lock the front differential independently of the rear, an excellent option to have in your off-road arsenal.

With the Broncos rock crawling and mudslinging skills verified, we handed the wheel to Formula Drift Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. for a high-speed lap around a specially prepared circuit designed to display the Broncos high-speed running skills and aerobatic capability. Airborne just moments after the start, Gittin busted the bronc without mercy, launching it up, over and around a tight, twisting path through the kind of terrain generally reserved for mammals of the hooved variety. A thrill-ride to be sure, it also gives us confidence the Broncos chassis and IFS has the grit to withstand the abuse doled out by drivers of all skill levels.

Professional “Fun-Haver” Vaughn Gittin Jr. moments after rearranging the author’s internal organs with a high-speed pass through an off-road circuit located in the heart of the Bronco Off-Roadeo facility in Austin, Texas. Andrew Wendler

Two new assist features on the Bronco stand out as potential game-changers for novices and old pros:  Trail Turn Assist and One-Pedal Drive. When activated by a switch atop the dashboard, Trail Turn Assist puts in play an algorithm that locks the inside rear wheel when the steering wheel reaches a certain threshold just short of full lock. The resulting action allows the vehicle to pivot around the anchored wheel, reducing the turning radius by up to approximately 40%. That’s indispensable on tight trails, where there is often not enough room available to perform a multi-point turn; remember, it only works when the rear axle is unlocked.

One-Pedal Drive uses similar onboard electronics to allow the accelerator to control vehicle movement and braking. The system brakes all four wheels at idle, then gradually releases the braking force commensurate with the throttle application. An odd sensation at first, it makes it possible to crawl over rough, sharp and steep inclines and other rugged terrains without using the traditional two-foot method. Skilled off-roaders may find it a tad gimmicky, but it works once you acclimate to it.    

As with the Jeep Wrangler, the new Bronco is designed to deliver off-road without exception. But its real trick is centering the off-road capability, on-road finesses and purchase price metrics that define this small segment into a Venn diagram comprised of nearly overlapping circles.

Your move Wrangler.

2021 ford bronco