Ford is bringing back the Bronco. This is not a fantasy. It is not a request. And although our friends in Dearborn are not ready to talk about it, we do not need their official confirmation to see why a genuine Bronco will be back in showrooms in as few as 24 months.
The return of the Bronco starts with the incredible emphasis Ford places on its leadership in trucks, which secured the company’s survival through the great recessions and have enabled Ford’s return to profitability. The Bronco may not be a truck, but its return is inextricably linked with the parallel stories of the returning Ranger and the evolution in SUV buying patterns.
The Bronco’s First 30 Years
The Bronco was Ford’s answer to the Jeep CJ-5 and International Scout. These were spartan utility vehicles nearer in design philosophy to farm implements than to the multi-use off-road capable SUVs we know today.
At the time of the original Bronco’s development, Ford declined the opportunity to position it against the up-market Jeep Wagoneer, which had been introduced in 1963, and the Chevrolet Suburban, which had gained a 4×4 option in 1962. However, in 1969, the Chevrolet Blazer showed up on a full-size truck platform and, within four years, outsold the aging Bronco two-to-one. In 1974, Dodge joined the party with the full-size Ramcharger. And in 1978, Ford finally followed the competition up-market, moving the Bronco away from it’s CJ-fighting roots and into the full-size sport utility segment. This transition left Jeep’s CJ essentially alone to develop the utilitarian end of the SUV spectrum.
The triumvirate of full-size two-door SUVs — Bronco, Blazer/Jimmy, and Ramcharger — had the market largely to themselves from the late 1970s into the 1980s, but in 1984 the four-door Jeep Cherokee was introduced, setting the stage for significant growth and change in the SUV market. By 1991, Bronco sales struggled to reach 25,000 units and the Blazer was in its final year of production. Consumers wanted mid-size four-door SUVs. The Ford Explorer, launched in 1991, exemplified the shift. More than 280,000 Explorers were sold in its second year, growing to more than 400,000 by 1996. The full-size two-door SUV was dead. As each manufacturer updated their full-size truck platforms, their two-door full-size SUV platform mates ceased to exist.
Meanwhile, the plucky Wrangler that started as the 60 horsepower winner of a U.S. Army design competition in 1940, has evolved into the brand-building Wrangler. The Toyota Land Cruiser J40, after years of anemic sales, left the North American market in 1983. The Suzuki Samurai averaged 20,000 units during its ten years, but departed in 1995. Jeep offered the only continuously available utility SUV. By 2000, Jeep was rewarded with sales of 65,000 to 95,000 Wranglers a year. The Wrangler has remained a uniquely low-priced, unrefined halo upon which the modern Jeep brand has been built.
Jeep’s prescient 2007 Wrangler redesign changed everything with five additional inches of girth and two more doors. The brilliance of Jeep’s redesign became apparent as the economy transitioned out of the Great Recession. In 2015, Jeep will sell 225,000 Wranglers in North America, 70 percent of which will have four doors. Jeep has single-handedly developed a thriving market segment that now has Ford’s undivided attention.
Many remember the death of the Ranger in 2011. After 28 years and seven million units, Ford killed its beloved truck for two reasons.
First, the compact pickup segment was in decline and Ranger sales were tracking down with it. By the time the decision was made to let the Ranger go, the entire segment absorbed fewer trucks than the Ranger sold alone ten years prior. When the great recession hit, one may have expected the budget priced Ranger to stage a comeback. However, in 2009, sales tumbled 25 percent to just 76,000 units in North America.
Second, in 2011, Ford transitioned the Ranger’s platform mate, Explorer, to a unibody architecture. The Explorer’s new layout was ideal for a CUV, but is not well suited for the payload, towing, and perception requirements of truck buyers. To deliver a replacement Ranger in 2011, a new compact truck program would have been required no later than 2008, right when Ford was mortgaging itself in anticipation of the looming recession. Consequently, the last Ranger drove out of the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in December 2011.
One of the first public indications that Ford planned to reintroduce the Ranger came in the summer of 2015. In July, the company announced the departure of the Focus and C-Max from the Michigan Assembly Plant. Ford insisted that the Wayne, Michigan plant would not close, but also declined to identify what it planned to manufacture there. Speculation inevitably surfaced, but few of the alternatives proffered offer the volume necessary to optimize the 4,000 employee facility.
Ford’s decision to resurrect the Ranger likely came in 2012 or 2013 when the market was in sustained recovery and the company had matched production capacity with consumer demand. However, the 2009 decision to develop the all new, aluminum-intensive F-Series was consuming Ford’s capital and engineering talent. The new F-150 left little room for a new Ranger program, but by November 2014 — when the first aluminum bodied F-150s began rolling out of the Dearborn Truck Plant — Ford’s product development people were in transition to the new Ranger program. And if there were any doubt as to the wisdom of the Ranger’s return, those concerns have been laid to rest by GM’s successful reintroduction of its Colorado/Canyon twins, combined with explosive growth in the compact pickup segment.
The Next Bronco
About two years ago, Ford recognized the unique confluence of events that make the next Bronco essentially inevitable.
First, the risk of entering the utility end of the SUV market has been reduced by the emergence of the Wrangler, its easily deconstructed formula for success, and the fact that the segment contains just one direct competitor.
Second, the significant investment required to develop and produce a new Bronco is moderated by amortizing product development cost across two vehicles.
Third, the marketing challenge is mitigated because not only does Ford possess an iconic badge for the new product, but the new SUV will represent minimal overlap with Ford’s current product range.
The Ranger is the right platform mate for the Bronco for several reasons: It offers an ideal layout, is appropriate sized, facilitates a removable top design, and enables the Ranger itself.
The Ranger and Bronco are ideal platform mates because both products share the need for a rugged architecture. The shared platform will be a body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive/four-wheel-drive design capable of supporting durability, payload, and towing requirements in excess of what the Bronco would independently demand.
The Bronco needs to be mid-size SUV, like the Wrangler. The full-size SUV segment is the only SUV segment in decline — and it’s small, totaling just 270,000 units versus the mid-size segment’s 1.9 million. The global Ranger T6, the nearest stand-in for the new Ranger, sits 73.2 inches wide, less than a half inch narrower than the 2015 Wrangler. If Ford continues its well-established trend toward global architectures, the next Ranger will not only underpin the Bronco, it will also replace the T6. Sharing the Ranger platform helps ensure the new Bronco hits the the market sweet spot in terms of size and price.
The Bronco is ideally suited to share a platform with the Ranger because of the development of the platform itself. Developing a shared platform from the outset with both a pickup and a removable top SUV as its internal customers is a winning strategy. Not only are the development costs amortized over more units, but the quality of the solution is improved. In the absence of this shared development, the Bronco business case would have been radically altered. For example, the F-150 platform was never intended to telescope down to Ranger size and an all new Bronco-only platform would have been cost prohibitive.
The Ranger needs the Bronco as much as the Bronco needs the Ranger. The new Ranger cannot drive sufficient demand to efficiently support the 4,000 jobs Ford has committed to protect at Michigan Assembly. Plant capacity is likely around 240,000 units a year and closer to 300,000 when production is optimized. The math does not work without a new Bronco. For example, the compact pickup market would need to continue expanding beyond this year’s 380,000 units and return to its 2002-2006 levels, averaging 575,000 units a year. Then, the Ranger would need to regain 90 percent its historic 30-percent share, an aggressive assumption for a product that will have been absent from the market for more than six years. Even assuming these lofty assumptions, Ford would find new homes for perhaps 150,000 units per year.
Estimating Bronco demand is more challenging. Historic Bronco sales are not instructive and the Wrangler is the lone competitor in the segment. However, Jeep’s only sales constraint is itself. Jeep has not satisfied customer demand for Wranglers in at least three years. That is why FCA has prioritized a multi-billion dollar investment to update the Wrangler and expand production capacity. A well-executed Bronco will expand the mid-size utility SUV segment, just as the Colorado and Canyon have expanded the compact pickup segment. Therefore, addressing Bronco demand may not be as insightful as simply asking how many Broncos Ford can make. Assuming initial demand for Ranger reaches 150,000 units, Ford can produce about 150,000 Broncos. Neither the Bronco, nor the Ranger, can fill Michigan Assembly alone, but as a platform share they are an ideal match.
What To Expect
A new Bronco must meet a variety of internal Ford prerequisites and external regulatory mandates. These fundamental requirements will dictate the Bronco’s layout, architecture, performance, and capabilities.
A Bronco without a removable top does not a Bronco make. A removable top is necessary both to differentiate the product from the rest of the Ford range as well as to attract new customers. In recent years, the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser were the most credible Wrangler competitors. These alternatives had advantages, but they wanted for one pivotal, instantly recognizable feature that ultimately contributed their their cancellations: removable tops.
The Bronco has had two distinctly different removable tops. The original was fully removable, much like the current Wrangler, and was available from the factory in hard and soft versions. From 1978 onward, a fixed roof over the cab was available in conjunction with a removable hard-top over the rear. Consumer awareness of the Bronco probably favors the first generation with its fully removable tops, though a certain full-size white Bronco with a partially removable top remains seared in the public consciousness. Regardless, it’s challenging to quantify the demand impact of a new Bronco with a fully removable top versus one with a partially removable top like the one driven by Al Cowlings. We can, however, qualify that only a vehicle with some form of removable top can rightly be christened a Bronco. We will leave it to Ford to research consumer preferences and balance them with the engineering trade-offs to isolate the best removable top solution.
Off-road capability must be baked into the Bronco. Ford will seek out Bronco-versus-Wrangler comparisons, thus it must provide a range of Broncos that both look the part, like a Wrangler Sport, and are the real-deal, like the Wrangler Rubicon. Working from the rugged body-on-frame architecture shared with the Ranger will make the task relatively easy. No, the Bronco will not have a solid front axle, and it may not offer a leaf sprung rear suspension or perhaps even a solid rear axle, but this hardware is no longer required to achieve supreme off-road performance and durability. Ford has demonstrated an understanding of the off-road market and an ability to not only meet, but exceed, expectations with the Raptor. The next Bronco may not share the Raptor’s high speed mission, but Ford clearly has both the capability and the willingness to execute a genuinely capable off-road SUV. Ford will offer a Rubicon fighting Bronco.
A removable top, up-sized tires, and the short front and rear overhangs associated with a genuine off-roader will help visually differentiate the Bronco from other Ford SUVs. An additional differentiating factor will be its design. It will tend toward the use of utilitarian, purposeful styling queues, little of which will be shared with the Ranger. And it probably won’t drive like Ford’s other SUVs. But the Wrangler demonstrates unequivocally that quiet on-road driving comfort is not a critical purchase factor for consumers in this segment.
Other important factors are less visible. For example, Ford must consider Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). The current standards calculate targeted fuel economy for light trucks based on a footprint formula, wheelbase multiplied by track (How CAFE Killed Compact Trucks And Station Wagons). The smaller the vehicle’s footprint, the higher its targeted fuel economy. This method of regulation offers face validity, but in practice has encouraged manufacturers to develop larger vehicles as they make achieving the CAFE target easier. Ford can keep the platform relatively small and find ways to achieve the more challenging fuel economy target, or edge toward a larger product that makes it easier to satisfy CAFE targets.
Ford must differentiate the Ranger from the F-150, so up-sizing Ranger to ease CAFE compliance is not an option. In fact, if Ford were unable to deliver the Ranger at a size small enough to minimize the cannibalization of F-150 sales, it would not make a new Ranger at all. Ford will therefore leverage its hard-won, unsurpassed expertise in aluminum in the Ranger/Bronco platform. Today’s F-150 SuperCrew short bed 4×4 weighs weighs about 5,000 pounds — strikingly close to a similarly configured Ranger T6 with a 3.2-liter diesel at 4,900 pounds. This is particularly shocking given that the F-150 footprint is a full 20 percent larger than the Ranger. Ford will need to shave a similar 10-12 percent off the Ranger’s weight. When it does, it will go a great distance toward both CAFE compliance and Ford’s claim on truck leadership.
The Ranger will benefit Ford in ways beyond amortizing Bronco development costs and its own sales. It will extend Ford’s already powerful network effect, which dictates that the wider and deeper a product range, the more likely a company is to retain customers and attract new ones. This is particularly true in the commercial market, but is also valid in retail trucks and SUVs. The value Ford places in the network effect was exemplified by their introduction of the Transit Connect in 2009. The Transit Connect has been a success, with sales posting incremental annual gains. But even its record 54,000 units this year do not make it an independent home run. The Transit Connect contributes to keeping customers in the Ford ecosystem, and it played a role in the unqualified success of the Econoline to Transit transition. The Ranger, at its worst, will extend the same influence.
Part of the Ranger’s historic appeal was its class leading availability of cab, bed, and drivetrain configurations. Unlike Toyota and GM, Ford may elect to retain a regular cab option. Not only would this provide Ford with a cab not available elsewhere in the market, but its wheelbase, in short bed form, may be shared with a two-door Bronco. Ford will match the Ranger’s competition with extended and crew cab configurations, as well as a pair of bed lengths. And somewhere among these combinations will be a Ranger wheelbase that supports a four-door Bronco. Seventy percent of Wranglers sold are Unlimited four-door models, meaning the Bronco will be available in both two and four-door versions.
The Ranger and Bronco will be available with three, and perhaps four, shared engine choices. If the Ranger were produced today, the base engine would likely be the 170 horsepower 2.5-liter Duratec, already employed in the Ranger T6. Two potential upgrade candidates include the 282 horsepower normally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6 and the 325 horsepower 2.7-liter Ecoboost V-6. Both engines are segment competitive and presently available in the F-150. Ford is certain to offer at least one Ecoboost in the Ranger, making the 3.7-liter V-6 the odd-engine out if four engines choices are too many.
Ford will offer its North American customers one diesel. It may not be available at launch, but GM’s twins are available in diesel, as will be the next Wrangler. The leading diesel option from Ford’s current product portfolio is the 350 lb-ft 3.2-liter unit offered in the North American Transit as well as the Ranger T6, but Ford may develop a more competitive alternative for torque-war-torn North America.
Based on recent Ford announcements, the F-150 will receive an electric drivetrain of unknown configuration by model year 2020. This move suggests the Ranger may also receive electric or hybrid running gear, which may be ideal for some urban-centric municipal and commercial customers. The same alternative power source may or may not make its way into the Bronco.
Reasons to Believe
Aside from the numerous practical reasons already enumerated here, there are at least three more reasons Blue Oval watchers can be confident the company will responsibly resurrect the Bronco nameplate.
Ford has launched multiple SUVs over the last 15 years, yet in the absence of the right product has demonstrated no appetite to leverage the Bronco legacy. Ford has not botched a new truck or SUV in many years. And Ford already has a comprehensive SUV/CUV lineup. From the Escape to the Expedition, there are no significant weak points. Ford will therefore revive the Bronco only as a well-differentiated product designed to find new customers.
Automakers, like other consumer goods producers, are their brands. For example, Nike revived the bankrupt Converse shoe brand by making more traditional Converse shoes, not Converse branded penny loafers, wingtips, or high heals. Likewise, Ford will not attach the Bronco name to a fixed-top penny-loafer-SUV.
The SUV tide will continue rising and Ford will sell as many or more Broncos as it will Rangers. The Bronco will also command higher average transaction prices than the Ranger. At the top of the Bronco range, particularly if Ford Performance Vehicles is invited to the party, Ford will acquire yet another aspirational vehicle. Ford may even elect to launch the Bronco before it introduces the new Ranger.
The North American Wrangler franchise is now worth nearly a quarter-million vehicles and seven billion dollars annually, all uncontested. What’s past is prologue. Ford will enter the utility SUV segment once again to do battle with the Jeep.
As Mike Levine, Ford’s Truck Communications Manager, recently reminded me, “We don’t comment on future products.” Regardless, we know what is coming and why. Get your carports, driveways, two-tracks, and campsites ready — a new Bronco is on the way.