The launch of Ford’s all-new Bronco has been a protracted tease. Ford announced the SUV’s revival back in January 2017 — back when Barack Obama was still president. Ford’s official preview shot arrived in April 2018. Two years of leaks, rumors, message board posts and Ford not commenting on future products followed, all building up to a media unveiling scheduled for March 2020. Then COVID-19 reared its crowny head...and delayed it further.
Bronco reveal day finally happened in July 2020, on a day that was pointedly not O.J. Simpson’s birthday. We finally had a chance to take a ride in the prototype. More delays. More rumors. More COVID. Finally, in June 2021, Ford allowed me and the rest of the assembled media to drive real live 2021 Ford Broncos in Austin, Texas.
Ford has given the new Bronco a full-court press of sub-branding. We’ve heard about the legendary Bronco heritage...that Ford was content to put out to pasture for a quarter-century. We’ve heard about the Bronco’s Built Wild ethos compromising of “the spirit of a Mustang and the toughness of an F-Series.” We even got a mockumentary film starring Walton Goggins and Dennis Quaid.
But the key to understanding the new Bronco lies in the subtext, whether it’s the features Ford chooses to highlight or the not-so-subtle jabs about Bronco being “America’s only all 4x4 brand.” In other words: Ford is coming after Jeep. The Bronco Sport had the Cherokee in its sights, and now, the big boy Bronco is daring to challenge the hallowed Wrangler.
How good is the new Bronco? Well — and I don’t say this flippantly as the son of a mother who has owned and daily driven six Wrangler/CJs over the years — Ford did the damn thing right. The Bronco is as badass as everyone hoped it would be; the Jeep Wrangler has legitimate competition and even— dare I utter this blasphemy — may have some catching up to do.
How does the Ford Bronco drive on-road?
Our trip began with the on-road drive — after the obligatory extended product briefing inside an air-conditioning-free Texas sweat lodge. And the tarmac is where you’ll notice the biggest difference between the Bronco and Wrangler. Jeep, in a nod to Wrangler tradition, has stuck with solid axle front suspension; Ford, starting basically from scratch, took the independent front suspension route. And the latter is simply much better for on-road driving.
Ford let us choose one Bronco for this segment. I went with the Bronco my id would want: a loaded, red, two-door Badlands trim model with a seven-speed manual transmission (only available with the smaller but still capable 2.3-liter inline-four engine). It was not the ideal choice for Austin, which was much hillier than I anticipated — but even with that sub-optimal setup, the Bronco impressed.
The Bronco proved extremely well-balanced and well-tuned for road use. It still feels rugged and truck-based like an off-roader should; you get the ride height, you get the engine growl and the wind noise of a boxy shape traveling through air. The clutch is long, the long-travel stick shift smooth, with a satisfying thunk when you hit your gear. But this off-roader feel came with almost none of the sloppiness we've been conditioned to expect from that sort of vehicle.
The Bronco’s steering is heavy and direct; it goes you were point it, and nimbly. And it held the line and stayed flat through corners. And we’re talking legit, hilly road, whoever-engineered-this-road-may-have-been-drunk corners. The Bronco required none of the endemic course corrections you have to make in a Wrangler. And Ford was happy to let us drive a new Wrangler Rubicon — albeit one fitted with less road-worthy mud-terrain tires — for comparison to emphasize that point.
One caveat to all this: Ford didn’t really put us on the freeway. I only put the car in sixth gear once the entire drive, just to ensure that it was there.
How does the Ford Bronco drive off-road?
Our off-road drive replicated the Austin Off-Roadeo program for Bronco buyers. It consisted of three off-road trail rides — cutely named Jalapeno, Habanero and Ghost Pepper — with spice level corresponding to terrain difficulty. My group didn’t get much of a warm-up, as Ford chucked us straight on the Ghost Pepper with all the rock crawling and other robust events.
With the proviso that these trails were specifically tailored for the Bronco, the SUV proved its mettle. The Bronco can legitimately “go over any terrain,” and often with capability to spare. Our guides were more showing off features like the Trail Turn Assist, Trail Control and differential lockers rather than the Bronco leaning on them to get through obstacles. The Ford's setup is also straightforward and comfortable to use. Even the relatively novice off-roader like yours truly — I’m not someone carting my specialized crawling rig off to Moab every year — can proceed with confidence.
Basic off-road tools like the sway bar disconnect (if that particular Bronco has it), front and rear lockers and Trail Turn Assist are all push buttons located above the touchscreen, making them easily accessible. Having up to seven G.O.A.T. modes sounds complex, but it really isn’t. Three are your standard Normal, Sport and Eco; the others are terrain-related depending on your Bronco trim. And they're handier than you might think; when you shift into “Mud/Ruts,” for example, the Bronco knows you need it to be in 4-High and turns on the terrain camera.
Adding to the confidence is the Bronco’s serious modularity. Ford had Broncos available for us to wrench on to show how easy it is. A major reason most SUV owners don’t use their vehicle’s capability is a natural aversion to wrecking them and causing an expensive repair job. It’s much less stressful if you know your bumpers and fenders can be easily replaced (or you have special ones for off-roading).
The Sasquatch Package, with its 35-inch tires, may feel like overkill from an appearance perspective. But if you do plan on doing anything resembling a full send, you’ll want it for the Bilstein position-sensitive Monotube shocks, which enhance capability and deliver a more comfortable ride. Ford says about 50 percent of buyers are choosing the package so far. (You can get the Bilsteins on the Badlands trim with 33-inch tires if you want a more understated look.)
And if you do plan on sending it, the Bronco can take whatever punishment you can offer. A stock Bronco did not just complete the NORRA 1000 rally in Mexico; It finished on the podium. The only damage it suffered: two flat tires.
What's the Ford Bronco like inside?
Ford went for function over fanciness with the Bronco interior. Ford stressed its durability, including its marine-grade vinyl seats and a special package that lets you wash out the interior. The flip-side of that is Ford doesn’t overwhelm you with material quality, design or the latest amenities inside. It's not an F-150; there’s no Bronco King Ranch equivalent you can level up to.
There were a few notable omissions. Ford didn’t include automatic wipers, which would have been nice on a car designed to go splashing through mud — off-road racing drivers we rode with on hot laps had to slow down and use the stalk. Not having ventilated seats was also notable on a nearly-100-degree day.
Ford opted for simplicity with the dashboard look as a purported nod to the 1960s Bronco, which was about as simple of a vehicle as one could get. That makes things a little wonky, however, as the 2021 Bronco has to do far more things. Controls for the windows and side mirrors are located under the center console armrest facing toward the dashboard, out of the driver’s line of sight. The parking brake is also electronic— Jeep gives you a manual one — and not visible to the driver.
The quasi-digital instrument cluster isn't ideal. There’s an analog speedometer, located unnaturally on the bottom left corner; meanwhile, the digital tachometer — in a car where you need to pay attention to revs — had a weird “2.1 x1,000” graphic and a meter where a standard gauge would have been helpful.
How much does the Ford Bronco cost?
Ford is offering Bronco buyers maximum flexibility. But as buyers cutting the cable TV cable for streaming services have found out, flexibility can be a double-edged sword — and you can end up paying as much or more than before.
Crafting a realistic Bronco build that can do the off-road things and has reasonable amenities can get pricey on the configurator. The Bronco Base model starts at $28,500, but things can climb fast from there. If you want a four-door base Bronco and a hardtop roof, you’re already up to $35,000 — and still running on steelies. You can get the Sasquatch package on the base model, but just that plus floor mats will take that build north of $41,000 — before you add any equipment or accessories.
Want to load a Bronco up? The top-tier Badlands trim starts at $44,950 for the four-door. But that doesn’t come with everything, either. Just adding a hardtop and leveling up to the larger 2.7-liter V6 engine brings that to $51,000. It’s still another $2,495 from there to get the Sasquatch package. You’ll definitely want an equipment package — Mid Package ($1,450) at a minimum for heated seats, but probably the $5,000-plus Lux Package if you’ve come this far.
Here's another way of looking at it: only one of the four Broncos I drove on the trip had an MSRP below $50,000, and that one was around $48,000. I suspect the second-tier Big Bend trim will do a lot of volume in the low $40,000s for people who just want a Bronco. But those building serious off-roaders and still wanting a decently equipped vehicle will have a tough time keeping it under $50,000.
So, should I sell my Wrangler and go buy a Bronco right now?
You might want to hold your horses. Ford has 125,000 Bronco orders on the books. Not reservations — orders. For perspective, Ford sold about 100,000 Ranger pickups in 2020. The entire industry is dealing with supply chain issues right now; Ford has had particular difficulties setting up new supply chains for the Bronco, and the first Broncos are just starting to arrive now.
In other words: if you walk into a Ford dealership today to reserve a Bronco, it may take quite a while before you can see it parked in your driveway. Whereas the Jeep dealer probably has a Wrangler Rubicon sitting on the lot waiting to go home with you.
The 2021 Ford Bronco
Engines: turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four / twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V6
Transmissions: seven-speed manual, 10-speed automatic
Horsepower: 275 / 315
Torque: 315 lb-ft / 410 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 17–20 mpg city, 17–22 mpg highway