2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Drive - Baby Bronco Done Right

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

My first car was a hand-me-down 1984 Ford Bronco II that my parents bought new. I took possession of it as a hot-to-trot teenager in 1997, happy to finally be a licensed driver and glad I was lucky enough that my parents could gift me a car, even if it was over a decade old and even if my end of the bargain was to get a job bagging groceries to pay for insurance and maintenance.

Many teens, even in the relatively well-off suburb I grew up in, don’t get a car when they reach driving age. I had friends from families who were wealthier than mine who ended up hitching rides, as they didn’t have their own wheels. So I knew I was lucky to have a vehicle to call my own.

But man, I hated that thing. Sorry mom and dad, if you’re reading this, but nothing I’m about to say I haven’t told you/you don’t know about already.

I hated my Bronco mostly because it ran terribly. It needed to be warmed up for a long time, especially on cold days, or it would stall the minute it was put into reverse or drive. My parents would start it when they left for work, which was before I got up for school, and when I’d get in and select reverse, it would conk out.

I often had to two-foot drive it. I’d left-foot brake while using my right foot to goose the gas. Like an Indy driver keeping his car from stalling during a pit stop.

There were other things about it that annoyed me, things that I now see were cynical marketing plays by Ford or just poor design. It was an Eddie Bauer edition – tan on green if you must know – and it had terribly obvious fake wood on the dash. And despite the Eddie Bauer name, no cassette player. AM/FM only. The horn was located on the turn-signal stalk. The passenger seat did not slide fore and aft – it was locked in one spot so it could release via spring to allow rear-seat passengers access to the back seat. The hubs were manual locking – you had to get out and lock them before engaging four-wheel drive.

Oh, and it was tippy as hell. Taking a turn too fast gave you a bad feeling that you’d rollover. I never did put it wrong-side up, thankfully, but man was it top-heavy.

Finally, it was slower than the line at the DMV on a day ending in “Y” – in a year and a half or so of ownership, I never drove it on the expressway. I was afraid it wouldn’t achieve a speed faster than 55 mph.

It wasn’t all bad – the turning circle was awesome and the Bronco II did look kind of cool. Especially when the colors were the inverse of mine – green on tan. On the rare occasion that I see a Bronco Deuce that hasn’t fallen victim to rust over the years, I do feel a slight pang of nostalgia. Perhaps if mine had run right – at some point, it did, but for whatever reason, the engine became cantankerous over the years – I’d feel differently about the idea of a baby Bronco.

The reason why you’re getting about 500 words on personal history in what is supposed to be a new-car review isn’t that it’s storytime. It’s because I know from hard experience that the Bronco II, which existed to give Ford a compact sibling to the more-famous full-size Bronco (“you know who I am, goddamnit!”) wasn’t nearly as desirable as its big brother. It was capitalizing on the name, but not quite worthy of the moniker.

Enter the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport. Sharing a platform with the Escape, the Sport is supposed to fulfill the niche the Bronco II once was supposed to – a compact SUV with off-road capability that will mostly see on-road duty on the streets of suburbia. One that uses the Bronco name to evoke off-road adventure.

Here’s the difference (other than the door count, which is now four) – this Bronco is one I’d want to own. Ford didn’t just slap the Bronco name on a boxy, taller Escape and call it a day. There’s real effort put into this thing, and while it has some flaws, it comes out of the box class-competitive with the vehicles Ford claims it’s targeting (Jeep Cherokee and Compass). It’s better than Chevy’s new Trailblazer (which I also dig, and which isn’t really meant to do gnarly off-roading), and will present an interesting alternative to the Toyota RAV4.

Yes, I get that the comparison between the two-door Bronco II of old and the thoroughly modern Bronco Sport is thin at best. All they really have in common is that they’re compact SUVs with off-road ability and the Bronco name. Yet it will be hard for folks of a certain age to not make the connection.

(Full disclosure: Ford put me in a hotel outside of Detroit and paid for my lunch at the event, and sent me home with a scarf and coffee beans. No flight, as Detroit is drivable for me. All COVID protocols, including masks and social distancing, were observed. Also, I traveled to the event well before COVID case spikes led to tighter travel restrictions – there was a LONG embargo time on this one.)

To recap – the Bronco Sport offers two engines – a 1.5-liter three-cylinder (181 horsepower, 190 lb-ft of torque) and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder (250/277) – and several trim levels: Base, Big Bend, Outer Banks, Badlands, and First Edition. Only 2,000 First Editions will be built.

Four-wheel-drive is standard, and both engines use an eight-speed automatic transmission. Badlands and First Edition trims have a different 4×4 system – the PTU is liquid-cooled instead of air-cooled, the rear-drive unit is twin-clutch instead of single, and there’s a differential lock feature. Those two trims also gain paddle shifters for the automatic trans, and both are the only two available with the 2.0-liter engine.

I may have screwed up – I initially walked over to an Outer Banks to drive for the on-road portion of the event, but I changed my mind and hopped into a Badlands instead. I later found that the Ford believes the Outer Banks or Big Bend will be the volume trim, not the higher-power/more off-road-oriented Badlands.

No matter. The Badlands, which will be the top trim once the First Edition is no more, adds a cylinder and that power is appreciated, although one needs to dig a bit into the throttle to really find it. Furthermore, the throttle is a tad laggy, as I found when I tried to kick the spurs to get a bit of a slide on some gravel roads and on a sand autocross that Ford setup. You may need to light-switch it if you need power in a hurry.

For instance, the Sport struggled a bit to get going with urgency from a stoplight while traveling uphill, but later on my drive, I was able to summon enough punch while cruising to execute a tricky pass. Peak torque is available at 3,000 rpm.

Ride and handling wise, the Sport shines better. I’ve given the Escape praise for being fun-to-drive, at least in terms of being a small crossover, and the use of that platform keeps the Bronco Sport engaging in curves, especially if Sport mode is activated. This is all relative – the Sport is no sports car – but its moves are good for the type of vehicle it is. Well, mostly good – there’s some body roll, as noted below.

Despite the trucklet’s off-road prowess, the on-road ride is mostly acceptable, with just a hint of stiffness. The front suspension is independent MacPherson strut type with coil spring, stabilizer bar, twin-tube hydraulic gas shocks, steel subframe with aluminum lower control arm, and cast knuckle. The rear suspension is independent double lateral link semi-trailing arms with coil spring, stabilizer bar, and monotube hydraulic gas shocks and isolated steel subframe with cast knuckle. Badlands and First Edition models have the same suspension type but all the bits are unique to those trims, and they also have unique coil springs and cast knuckles in the back. These different bits make for a beefier off-road setup.

That off-road setup could’ve been at fault for some of my demerits – I suspect the more on-road-oriented lower trims are a bit more livable in suburbia. On a normal junket, I’d likely have had a chance to drive both the Badlands and an Outer Banks or Big Bend on surface roads, but COVID concerns kept the event small and short.

There is body roll – the boxy and upright Bronco Sport is a tad tippy. Not Bronco II tippy – that would be shocking in this day and age – but there’s enough lean when pushed to bring about some mild concern. To be fair, few Bronco buyers will ever slide into a corner hot enough to experience this.

Noise, vibration, and harshness also reared its ugly head, mostly in terms of noise. The Bronco Sport felt quiet and composed only on the smoothest pavement; and some of the rougher asphalt that Southeast Michigan has to offer created rumbling sounds that filtered up. Not so much that it can’t be drowned out with tunes, but I’d hoped for better sound deadening, especially in the top-trim Badlands.

Inside, the cabin is mostly well-thought-out, although the floating infotainment-screen trend raises its ugly head again. There’s a nice cargo shelf below the screen, though I wonder if Ford was better off scrapping that so it could integrate the screen, especially since there’s another cargo area below that.

Controls are easy to reach/use, though Sync, as is often the case, showed a little bit of bugginess – it initially froze CarPlay so that I couldn’t toggle between apps. A quick unplug/replug of my phone fixed this. The gauge cluster provides info that’s easy to read at a glance.

Rear-seat room seems a bit tight, in terms of legroom, though a boxy shape means headroom is not an issue.

My biggest beef with the cabin is the heavy use of hard plastics, especially given the pricing. That, compared with the noise intrusions, feels a tad downmarket, marring an otherwise pleasant cabin experience.

I said above this is a Bronco I’d want to own, and that’s true despite the flaws I just listed. That’s because individual issues aside, the overall package still manages to work well, and the ride/handling is competent enough to paper over some of the drawbacks.

Then there’s the off-road ability.

There’s the ever-present caveat that when it comes to off-roading, no OEM will put a journalist on a course that the vehicle in question can’t conquer. And in this case, the course was setup specifically to give us scribes a taste of some of the electronic trickery and the various G.O.A.T (Goes Over Any Terrain) modes. That said, the Bronco handled all of the obstacles Ford threw at it with relative ease, and it’s not hard to learn quickly how to best use the various modes (Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, Sand on most models. Badlands and First Edition add Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl) and electronic doo-dads to make your on-trail experience easier.

Standard or available features include flip-up liftgate glass, 17-inch wheels, Sync 3 infotainment, four-wheel-drive, the Terrain Management System, Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 safety system, in-car Wi-Fi, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, push-button start, satellite radio, heated sideview mirrors, 18-inch wheels, black roof, ambient lighting, digital instrument panel, leather-trimmed heated front seats, power front seats, heated steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, remote start, Bang and Olufsen stereo, moonroof, trailer tow package, wireless cell-phone charger, navigation, traffic sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, dual USB ports, dual-zone climate control, evasive steering assist, and reverse-sensing system.

There’s more: Upper trims add the two extra G.O.A.T. modes, the 4×4 system with the twin-clutch rear-drive unit, the 2.0-liter engine, off-road suspension, skid plates, Trail Control, 28.5-inch all-terrain tires, paddle shifters, front camera, front tow hooks, 17-inch wheels, and rubberized flooring.

First Edition buyers will get black Bronco badging for the grille, the Badlands powertrain and suspension setup, 17-inch wheels, 29-inch all-terrain tires, black door and hood decals, a trailer tow package, body-color door handles, leather seats, heated steering wheel, power moonroof, and uplevel audio.

Base pricing is $26,660. The Badlands I drove started at $32,660 and was $37,545 out the door, including the $,1495 for destination.

There are four bundles of accessories – Bike, Camping, Snow, and Water – for the true adventurers among us, and a quick scan of the consumer site shows plenty of other outdoorsy accessories available.

My time as a Bronco II owner didn’t last long – I sold it to a close friend after a year and a half or so, mainly because I was seeking out a Fox-body Mustang. But I spent enough to time with it to come away with a few conclusions. One of those is that Ford probably should offer a compact SUV with off-road chops in its lineup. As you know, the Bronco II eventually morphed into the larger Explorer, although Ford tried to keep a place in this space with the two-door Explorer Sport (more disclosure: One of my parents drives one. Now, in the year 2020.).

Another conclusion I came to is that Ford could do better if it put the effort in. More so than with the Bronco II in the ‘80s or the Explorer Sport in the early Aughts. And it has.

Yes, this baby Bronco has two more doors and there’s no comparison between 1984 build quality and 2020 build quality. That said, with Ford reentering the compact off-road crossover space, it needed to come on strong. And it did.

The overall package is better than that of the mostly unremarkable Cherokee, and I’d probably take the Sport over a Jeep Compass, too, though both Cherokee and Compass offer similar off-road ability in Trailhawk form. The RAV4 probably can’t do what the Bronco does off-road, even with the TRD treatment, but it’s more well-rounded with a nicer interior.

I did ask Ford, half-jokingly, if the Bronco II name was even considered. I got a polite response about heritage or some such but the exasperated look I got translated to “Do you think we’re stupid?”

More seriously, I was told that they don’t expect the Bronco Sport to cannibalize Escape sales, because not all customers need or want four-wheel drive. I’m not as confident – the Bronco Sport’s more-rugged looks and the fact that many consumers are convinced they need all-wheel/four-wheel drive for snow makes me think the Bronco Sport could easily poach some Escape sales. Except, of course, among hybrid buyers, as only the Escape offers that kind of powertrain.

The Bronco Sport is one of those vehicles that it works well overall, despite some demerits. If you don’t mind the hard plastics and some noise over rougher pavement, and can be patient with the power, you will be quite happy with this little trucklet. Especially if you wander off road at all.

Usually when an automaker talks about how a given SUV is built for adventure, it’s marketing BS, best met with an eye roll (or another, lewder gesture involving one’s hand), but in the case of the B.S., it’s not BS. Ford has built a compact SUV that can get you past the trailhead while delivering a pleasant if not truly excellent on-road experience.

If Ford can get the baby Bronco this right, that bodes well for the big brother.

To the teen getting a hand-me-down Bronco Sport in the 2030s: Be glad Ford got it right this time.

[Images @ 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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2 of 69 comments
  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Dec 10, 2020

    The old Bronco II's were garbage that we often used to see at the auctions with leaky, knocking 2.8's or 2.9's and often blown head gaskets, paint peel and the usual electrical issues. I'll never forget starting my new job in late 1997 I was driving myself home after work at 4PM in a rather snowy day and saw not one but two flipped Bronco II's on the side of the road. They truly were a dangerous vehicle in the wrong hands.

  • Legacygt Legacygt on Dec 14, 2020

    "Sport" is the most meaningless word in the automotive world...maybe second most meaningless after "Limited." I hate it. It means different things. Sometimes it's an upper trim. Sometimes it's a lower trim. Sometimes it actually has something to do with sporty. Sometimes it's an entirely different model as it is here. I probably would have called this the Escape and called the new Escape something else (maybe Focus).

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys i was only here for torchinsky
  • Tane94 Workhorse probably will be added to the heap of failed EV companies.
  • Freddie Instead of taking the day off, how about an article on the connection between Black Americans and the auto industry and car culture? Having done zero research, two topics pop into my head: Chrysler designer/executive Ralph Gilles, and the famous (infamous?) "Green Book".
  • Tane94 Either Elio Motors or Aptera Motors.
  • Billccm I think we will see history repeat itself. The French acquired AMC in the 1980s, discovered they couldn't make easy money, sold AMC off to Chrysler. Jeep is all that remained. This time the French acquired FCA, and they are discovering no easy profits. Assume an Asian manufacturer will acquire what remains of Chrysler, but this time Jeep and RAM are the only survivors.