It might seem fair to say that Ford benchmarked the Jeep Wrangler when it created the new Bronco. But that understates what happened. Ford ferreted around the Wrangler lineup with the ardor a passion project deserves; like a callous dental hygienist, the new Bronco prods vulnerabilities Jeep didn't know they had.
As a result, the resulting tit-for-tat battle seems certain to get profoundly and gloriously petty. The Bronco will force Jeep to adapt. That’s already happening, with a more powerful gas engine coming to the Wrangler; we'd bet the Wrangler will also receive a Sasquatch package rival, so you don’t have to go full Rubicon to get the best off-road goodies. We suspect the next Wrangler generation will convert to an independent front suspension like the Bronco has, as well. Jeep has decades of accrued brand loyalty; the Wrangler will change, compete and survive.
The Defender and Bronco shared the same task: convert enthusiasm for six-figure vintage off-roaders into a profitable modern SUV. We haven't driven either vehicle yet, but on the surface, it seems like Ford did the better job.
Ford gave enthusiasts what they want, for the most part.
The standard Bronco looks like the old Bronco brought back to life. The Sasquatch Package version with the wider track and bigger tires looks even cooler. Sure, some Bronco message board jockeys are probably upset there's no V8 under the hood, but other than that, Ford seems to have nailed it with their new boxy off-roader.
Land Rover took a different route. The Defender is not bad looking, at least to these eyes —but it reads more like a random member of the modern Land Rover family than A Defender. If you told me it was a future version of the Discovery, I'd believe you if I didn't know any better.
Much of that may be due to external constraints, rather than execution. Ford had the resources to produce another truck-based SUV. Land Rover didn't. Ford's core business is building body-on-frame trucks; they had the midsize Ranger platform, and had the engines found in it and the F-150. Those two foundations no doubt eased the way toward producing an affordable, body-on-frame Bronco.
Land Rover doesn't make truck-based SUVs anymore; they haven't for years. In 2020, they build upmarket unibody SUVs with sophisticated off-roading tech. Not surprisingly, then, the new Defender ended up being an upmarket, unibody SUV with sophisticated off-roading tech. Developing a new truck-based Defender on a bespoke platform would have been ludicrously expensive; indeed, with Europe's new fleet-wide emissions standards — note how Ford is not bringing the Bronco to Europe — it may not even have been possible.
Ford better captured the heart of the off-roader market
Accessories are a big part of the reason why SUVs like the Bronco, Defender and Wrangler exist. Accessories don’t cost much to produce, but carmakers can charge a lot for them. Once upon a time, these add-ons were strictly the realm of the aftermarket, but bringing them in-house turns the cars into even larger profit generators. Land Rover did a decent job of this, but Ford took it to the next level.
When buying a Defender, most buyers will choose one of the four pre-curated accessory packs: Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban. You select the paint and wheels, and tack on other bits and bobs (make sure you get the correct mud flaps). It’s a rational, conventional means to give upmarket buyers what they want.
Ford, however, took a novel route that should pay dividends. They made the Bronco incredibly modular; it's launching with more than 200 available accessories. Many of them will be swappable using standard tools. You could opt for a fully loaded version, of course — or you can genuinely use the base model as a blank canvas to build the precise Bronco you want...unless you wanted the Sasquatch package with the seven-speed manual.
The Defender costs nearly twice as much
The base two-door Bronco starts just under $30,000. That’s about $20,000 less than the base Defender — a four-door 110 model, which begins $49,900. Most buyers will spend more on a Bronco; most buyers will also spend far more on a Defender. (We don’t expect the stripped-down, white-on-white Defender with steelies will be a popular build.)
This means, of course, that an anemic base-model Defender costs about the same as a fully-loaded Bronco. The Defender now faces a rival that may be more fun, does not appear to be overmatched...and could cost half the price for a comparable model. (The Defender is also so expensive that, even if you’re a gung-ho fan, the price point is not that far away from the resto-modded vintage rig you really want.)
The Defender could turn out to be brilliant; likewise, driving the Bronco may reveal a fatal flaw. But right now, as we see things, the Bronco appears set to be a legitmate phenomenon for off-road enthusiasts...while the Defender may wind up be a more rugged choice for potential Range Rover Velar buyers.