2021 Ford Bronco First Ride – Love at First Glance

Last week marked the Ford Bronco’s 55th anniversary, with the model’s creator celebrating the momentous occasion by throwing an exclusive and socially distanced Bronco party in Holly, MI.

At this off-road soiree, Ford showed off its Bronco family adventure concepts, announced that 165,000 Broncos have been reserved since the July 13 reveal, and proclaimed that Austin, TX would be the first location of the Bronco Off-Roadeo (Ford’s spelling, not a typo) off-road adventure playground.

While all these pieces of information are great, they aren’t exciting enough to headline a Bronco Anniversary party. Instead, the headliners of this party were the off-road ride-alongs in the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport and the 2021 Ford Bronco 2-door.

For this event, Ford took over Holly Oaks ORV Park in Michigan’s Oakland County. Situated behind the towering 350-foot Mt. Holly ski hill, this 235-acre park consists of sand and gravel mines, both active and inactive. It is a joint venture between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Oakland County Parks system, and it’s scheduled to have its grand opening next month.

(Full disclosure: The author has placed a reservation on the Bronco.)

This yet-to-open ORV Park is an excellent place for the Blue Oval to demonstrate the off-road capabilities of its off-road-focused brand. Unfortunately, Ford didn’t allow journalists to drive the Broncos or take pictures of the pre-production interiors. Sad as it may be, we can still provide some feedback on Ford’s most anticipated product since the 2018 EcoSport.

First up was the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport. Riding on the same platform as the Ford Escape, the Bronco Sport targets outdoor enthusiasts who are looking for adventure, Steppenwolf style. At this event, Ford showed off their most capable version of the Bronco Sport, the 2021 Bronco Sport Badlands. Starting at an MSRP of $32,660 with a destination charge of $1,495, it’s also the most expensive.

The 2021 Bronco Sport Badlands is powered by Ford’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Ford is targeting 245 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque in the Badlands. Power is sent through an eight-speed automatic transmission, and four-wheel drive comes standard. The Badlands trim also has an available advanced four-wheel-drive system with a twin-clutch rear-drive unit. Paired with Ford’s Terrain Management System that features up to seven G.O.A.T Modes (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain. Ford capitalizes both Ts, and yes, that technically spells G.O.A.T.T), the Bronco Sport starts to look, from the passenger seat, like a compelling off-road-focused product.

Dropping down the first hill in the park, it became apparent that the Bronco Sport in Badlands trim is more off-road capable than most other crossovers. It has a Subaru-like 8.7 inches of ground clearance and a torque-vectoring AWD system. In Sand mode, the Bronco Sport sliced easily through the floor of the former sand mine. The advanced four-wheel-drive system allowed for some wheel slippage in Sand Mode while never losing traction. When it comes to capability and enjoyment, the Bronco Sport Badlands feels similar on the sand to the Ford Focus RS in drift mode on the track. Part of that is because the rear differential on the Bronco Sport Badlands is similar to that of the RS.

On the trails, the Bronco Sport continues to feel extremely capable, again, as least as near as we can tell from the right seat. It handled mud and ruts with ease, climbed and descended the hilly terrain without complaint, and even plowed through the water hazard. While it was apparent that Ford set an off-road path that the Bronco Sport could handle, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an impressive vehicle off-road. If the Bronco Sport can handle loose gravel while traversing hills, mud, ruts, and some rocks, it should conqueror America’s crumbling infrastructure. For a vast majority of people, the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands will get you to wherever your adventure is located.

If you need to drive your adventure instead, there is the 2021 Ford Bronco. This is Ford’s direct challenge to the Jeep Wrangler’s American off-road supremacy. By the time the Bronco actually lands in dealerships, it will have been over four years since Ford made the announcement of the Bronco’s return. So was it worth the wait?

Yes. It was. The 2021 Ford Bronco appears to be a legitimate Jeep Wrangler competition.

Ford brought two pre-production two-door Broncos to the event. Luckily, we were able to ride in the vehicle with the top removed. Our ride came in the Outer Banks trim. Based on Ford’s Bronco trim documents, the Outer Banks is one of the more luxurious trim levels. It is the first Bronco trim that allows you to add leather, a 12-inch touchscreen, heated steering wheel, and the Bang & Olufsen ten-speaker audio system. This trim starts at $38,955 with D and D fees of $1,495. That is for the two-door version.

Under the hood of the Bronco provided was Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 twin-turbocharged engine paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission. This engine and transmission combination is one of the most popular pairings in the Ford F-150. In the Bronco, the 2.7-liter engine is good for 310 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque. The V6 is not standard on the Outer Banks, but the 10-speed transmission is the only transmission available for that trim. That standard engine is a 270-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine that also powers the Ford Ranger. The Outer Banks also features six G.O.A.T modes. Four-wheel drive is standard on all Broncos.

The most noticeable enhancement to our Bronco tester was the off-road-focused Sasquatch Package. This package includes 17-inch beadlock-compatible wheels, 35-inch mud tires, an electromechanical transfer case, locking front and rear axles, larger fender flares, a high clearance suspension, and heavy-duty Bilstein shocks. The Sasquatch Package is available on all Bronco trims. It requires the 10-speed automatic transmission and will have a price that varies by trim. So far, the price is as mysterious as Bigfoot himself.

Before hitting the trail, our driver demonstrated one of the Bronco’s off-road tricks; a spotter camera that shows you what’s in front of your Bronco. In certain G.O.A.T. Modes, the camera remains on for better visibility. In this instance, the camera showed off the steep incline we were about to enjoy.

As the Bronco descended into the off-road park, I was eager to see how it compared to the Jeep Wrangler. While I’ve had extensive seat time in a Wrangler, the ride can be unforgiving and harsh. I’ve been told that is the trade-off for a premier off-road experience. But maybe that’s just a Jeep thing. The Bronco’s monotube Blistein shocks feature remote oil reservoirs for better cooling and position-sensitive dampening. This smooths out the bumps over rocks and ruts while helping the Bronco attack sand and dirt.

Throughout the Holly Oaks ORV course, the Bronco’s powertrain felt much more powerful than the stated 310 horsepower. The 2.7-liter delivers a linear punch of power to all four wheels and provides blistering acceleration. Paired with the Sasquatch Package and G.O.A.T Modes, it feels as if you’ve unlocked some sort of off-road cheat code. Features like Trail-Turn Assist, which brakes the inside wheels when making a tight turn, and Trail One Pedal Driving, which lets you drive precisely with one foot while rock crawling, will help you feel like Ivan Stewart.

Despite all of these features, a good portion of the drive was spent with the G.O.A.T. Modes off. Our driver enjoyed the Bronco most while just putting the pedal down and navigating obstacles. Sand, rocks, hills, and water were minimal disruptions to the Bronco. All of this was completed in relative comfort with little drama. The Bronco with the combination of the 2.7-liter V-6, 10-speed transmission, and the Sasquatch Package seems to be the new off-road capability leader. We can’t wait for more Bronco seat time to fully verify that statement.

(Ed. note: The rumor mill suggests the first media drives of the Bronco will be next spring, pending the pandemic’s effects on travel. Of course, rumors are just that. Stay tuned to these pages and as soon as we get wheel time, and not just seat time, we’ll have a full first drive.)

While the two-door Sasquatch Package Bronco will most likely be the Bronco with the most capability, it’s easy to see that off-road adventure comes standard on every Bronco model. With six trim levels, numerous options, and over 200 accessories at launch, Ford is looking to take on Jeep. Based on our much-too-short ride along, Ford has the right product. Now they have to execute building and launching the vehicle. One-hundred and sixty-five thousand orders mean that a lot of people want a Bronco, but a lot of people also have high expectations of the Bronco. The good news for Ford is that if the 2021 Bronco performs like the pre-production model we rode in, they’ll exceed most of those expectations.

[Images © 2020 Adam Tonge/TTAC]

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