2021 Ford Bronco First Drive - Living Up to the Hype

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Few new-vehicle launches in recent years have generated as much hype or been as anticipated as that of the Ford Bronco.

Bronco has been a big story for us and our peers since last summer. We’ve ridden in one already, and now it was our turn to finally drive it. So I dutifully packed a bag and headed to the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin to see if the big Bronco would live up to the hype – and be a strong challenger to Jeep’s venerable Wrangler.

(Full disclosure: Ford flew me to Austin, Texas, and fed and housed me for a night. Brisket was involved. Ford gave us a drink koozie, an off-road survival kit, and a tow rope. We got one hot lap on an off-road course as a passenger in a Bronco driven by a pro. The company also let me drive a classic Bronco at slow speeds on private property. I’d also like to thank a friendly park ranger who waived the $5 fee for entry, even after I offered to pay, so I could take some pics.)

You probably know all the specs by now, but in case you don’t, here’s a refresher on the basics. Bronco offers two engines – a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque (275 and 315 on regular-grade gas) and a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 making 330 hp and 415 lb-ft (315/410 on regular-grade fuel).

If you opt for the four, you can get a seven-speed manual transmission (one of those gears is a “creeper”) on certain trims. A 10-speed automatic trans is paired with the six-cylinder and is optional with the four. Opting for certain trim packages on four-cylinder models also forces you to buy the automatic.

The Bronco is four-wheel drive, of course.

The hype train is real. Ford took 125,000 orders for the Bronco before it has even reached dealerships. And production has suffered from delays related to COVID, supply-chain problems, and issues with the tops. Analysts say Ford has targeted 80,000 units for 2021 and double that for 2022.

Like its most obvious competitor, the Jeep Wrangler, the Bronco offers soft and hard tops and both can be removed to open the interior up to the air. Also, like the Jeep, Bronco will come in two- or four-door body styles.

There are seven trims this year – base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak, Badlands, and First Edition. Base pricing for a two-door is $29,995 and a four-door is $34,695, before adding in the $1,495 destination fee.

Each trim has a different mission. Base is self-explanatory, while Big Bend is supposed to be a step up in terms of features. Black Diamond adds more heavy-duty off-road features, while Outer Banks is meant to offer more in the way of style and comfort without sacrificing off-road ability. Wildtrak is for desert off-roading/desert running and Badlands has the strongest off-road capability – it’s akin to the Rubicon trim offered by Jeep. First Edition mixes Badlands off-road gear and Outer Banks comfort features and Wildtrak looks in an attempt to be a future collectible.

All trims are available with an off-road-oriented Sasquatch package that adds 17-inch wheels with 35-inch off-road/mud-terrain tires, locking front and rear axles, a 4.7:1 final-drive ratio, Bilstein shocks, high-clearance suspension, fender flares, and the automatic transmission with trail control. The Sasquatch is auto-trans only for 2021, but it will be available with the manual in 2022.

If you love to shift for yourself, note that by my count you can only get a stick on these trims: Base two-door, Big Bend two-door and four-door below the Mid package, Black Diamond two- and four-door below the Mid package, and Badlands with either body style and with any and all convenience packages (except for Sasquatch for MY 2021).

Standard and available features include removable doors and roof, Sync infotainment, LED fog lamps, dual-zone climate controls, heated front seats, Co-Pilot 360 driver-assist (pre-collision assist with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot information, cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping system), adaptive cruise control, 360-degree camera, evasive steering assist, premium audio, navigation, heated steering wheel, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, wireless phone charger, satellite radio, and USB.

A combination of COVID restrictions and lack of time made it impossible to drive all possible powertrain and body-style combinations on road. I spent the majority of my on-road time piloting a two-door Badlands manual, and I got a few minutes of on-road time in a four-door 2.7 in Wildtrak trim.

Off-road, Ford offered a mix of transmissions, trims, and engines, and we hopped from one vehicle to the next so quickly I had no chance to track which was which, though I know one was a Wildtrak. I did drive both two- and four-door body styles on the off-road course, and none of the three vehicles I wheeled had a manual. I’ll make an effort in the coming months to try to source each engine/door-count/transmission combo for TTAC for evaluation, pending what Ford makes available in the press fleets.

On-road, the Bronco Badlands immediately reminded me of the tradeoffs one must make for off-road capability as I ambled around Austin. The trucklet had the same sort of bounciness and body motions one gets when driving a Wrangler, though better muted than in the Jeep, and perhaps more noticeable in the shorter wheelbase two-door as compared to the four-door.

The on-road behavior improved a bit as I made my way out of town onto the rural two-lanes of Hill Country, and the Bronco handled the curves I encountered with more aplomb than its rival, thanks to the independent front suspension, though I never forgot I was driving an off-road rig because of ever-present body roll and occasional understeer. Its on-road manners are better than what’s on offer from across town (well, across state lines if we’re talking about where the rigs are actually built), but it’s still a vehicle that is meant to rock crawl, and there will always be unavoidable tradeoffs in terms of on-road dynamics.

Steering feel is a tad light and artificial, but there’s still enough engagement that the actions of the front tires don’t feel too removed.

The 2.3-liter turbo-four seems to have enough grunt on paper, but it felt a bit sluggish in spots, especially when climbing a grade. I found myself downshifting more than I expected to, and it wasn’t until I hit some open highway late in the drive that I found myself using fifth and sixth gears. I wonder how the four-cylinder can handle the extra weight of the four-door – and how it works in concert with the 10-speed, regardless of door count.

I’d also love to test out the manual off-road – the closest I got was using creeper gear to climb some rocks after a photo op. It handled that easy task just fine.

Shifting the manual is fun, at least, thanks to throws that are just right in length and a light clutch that has good engagement feel. I did stall it once at a traffic light, but that was because my attention drifted in stop-and-go urban insanity. I can’t blame the Bronco. Similarly, the gates were demarcated well enough that I only missed one shift – I attempted to leave a parking lot in third instead of first. The lugging engine alerted me to my error.

Perhaps the biggest on-road dynamic flaw involved the brakes – they felt soft.

My time with the six was brief, but I found it to be stout and smooth – unless you really, really like rowing your own, you probably want this engine. It’s torquey. I didn’t encounter many curves in my drive with the four-door, but the longer wheelbase did seem to smooth out the ride.

Off-road, tires aired down and proper drive modes engaged, the Bronco delivers. It’s as capable as a Wrangler Rubicon and offers at least two features that Jeep doesn’t: A trail-turn assist that can brake an inner wheel to cut your turning radius and a one-pedal drive mode that can help a driver be more smooth during low-speed rock crawls.

As per usual, no automaker will put journalists on an off-road course that its vehicles can’t handle, and Ford stacked the deck a bit in order to show off all the Bronco’s electronic off-road features. That said, the course in Texas was fairly challenging, and the Broncos never missed a beat.

I’d driven a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 off-road the week prior and I found that the Bronco is on par with the Jeep when it comes to off-road ability. Both machines are very, very capable in the boondocks.

Key off-road specs include a 2.72:1 low ratio for the four-banger and 3.06:1 for the V6, approach angles of 35.5 and 43.2 degrees (depending on whether you have 35-inch tires or not), breakover angles of up to 29 degrees, and departure angles of up to 37.2 degrees. That’s not comprehensive – the numbers change depending on body style and tire size. Maximum water-fording is 33.5 inches with the Sasquatch package.

The standard suspension is independent up front with a solid axle in the rear, and front and rear electronic locking differentials are available, as are Bilstein dampers.

In addition to the electronic locking diffs, trail-turn assist, one-pedal driving, and camera system that can give you a front view and also show you where your tires are placed, the Bronco has what Ford calls G.O.A.T (Goes Over Any Terrain) drive modes. Depending on how you outfit your Bronco, up to seven are available – normal, eco, sport, slippery, sand, Baja, mud/ruts, and rock crawl. As far as I could tell on the off-road, all worked as advertised.

Bronco buyers can visit one of four planned off-road adventure facilities called Bronco Off-Roadeo that the automaker has planned – the one we visited in Austin, one in Moab, Utah; one in Nevada; and one in the Northeast.

I didn’t get a chance to futz around with a soft-top Bronco, but I did take a few minutes to try to put a hard-top’s panels in place after starting out my on-road drive with the front part of my two-door steed open to the skies. One person can do the job, but it took a bit of finagling (and some help from Ford) to figure out how to line up the panels. That said, it’s one of those things owners will get used to quickly. One note: Stowing the panels took up almost all the cargo room behind the rear seats in the two-door and impeded rear visibility.

Both the two- and four-door exhibited a fair amount of wind noise at higher speeds with the top in place.

Bronco’s biggest letdown is the cabin – it looks cool, but even in the Badlands, the materials feel chintzy. Too chintzy for a vehicle costing over 50 large. The Wrangler’s materials feel more upscale – and no one considers the Jeep’s cabin to be the height of luxury. This seems to be a pattern with Ford lately – the smaller Bronco Sport’s cabin is a similar mix of attractive design and down-market materials.

I did stuff myself into the back seat of the two-door, and it was tight for my tall frame, with entry and exit being an adventure. If you plan on hauling adults in the rear seat on a frequent basis, opt for the four-door.

For reference, the two-door Badlands I drove based at $42,095 and added $8,470 in options, including the Mid, High, and Lux packages. That plus destination had it price out at $52,060.

The fuel-economy numbers vary by trim, with the lowest city rating being 16 mpg and the best highway number clocking in at 22. Combined F.E. ranges from 17 to 21. the computer in the Badlands I drove had me around 18.5 mpg, but that number should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is a computer estimate and not as precise as calculating fuel economy after a refill.

Few people need a Bronco (or Wrangler) for family-hauling duties. Other SUVs do that better. You buy this vehicle (or the Jeep) because you plan on going (or need to go) off-road and/or because you think it’s cool. That said, if you plan on buying a Bronco to take the kids to school and yourself to work and the most off-roading you’ll do is parking on the grass at the children’s soccer games, a 2.7-liter four-door, probably in Outer Bank guise, is the Bronco for you.

If being cool (or nostalgic) is what it’s all about for you, a two-door stick is your choice. For off-roading, all trims will do, but the Wildtrak and Badlands will be the most capable.

I wish Ford would make the stick available with the V6, as well as on more of the mid-level trims, and I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why not. I suspect it’s a take-rate issue with the mid-trim four-cylinders. As for the V6, I’ve heard rumors that the manual can’t handle the torque, but Ford folks wouldn’t confirm that and were generally vague on the reasoning for not pairing the manual with that motor.

Whatever the reason, it’s too bad, since the smooth and powerful 2.7 would likely be even more of a blast to drive if one could row his own.

I’d probably grudgingly opt for a loaded Badlands manual four-door if my money was on the line, but then, I am one who finds joy in shifting for myself. If that doesn’t matter to you, a 2.7-liter four-door is going to be a good all-around choice.

Bronco isn’t perfect. The biggest flaws are cheap-feeling interior materials, soft brakes, and a trim mix that will make types frown. Plus the usual tradeoffs one makes for off-roading. Oh, and its rival offers hybrid, diesel, and V8 powertrains, which the Bronco does not. Ford was mum about possible future powertrain additions, other than talking about an “electric SUV” that company boss Jim Farley has mentioned. One that may or may not be a Bronco, or even fully electric.

Those flaws and caveats aside, Ford still has a winner on its hands. Ford could’ve made a cynical nostalgia play (think Thunderbird in the early Aughts), but instead, it came up with a utility vehicle that’s perfectly adept off-road and more than merely competent on road. Ford put the work in, and it shows.

I don’t know if Ford will steal Wrangler buyers from Jeep – the Bronco has better on-road manners and a more attractive interior design, but the interior materials are inferior. Off-road, the two are similar and both are extremely capable, though Bronco has a few tricks up its sleeve that Wrangler does not.

What I do know is that if you were hoping the Bronco would be good, you got your wish and then some. It lives up to the hype, and its few shortcomings are not dealbreakers.

Fret not, Bronco fans, for Ford has delivered the goods.

[Images © 2021 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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3 of 35 comments
  • EBFlex EBFlex on Jun 28, 2021

    Clearly a half effort. Something that was worked in over the weekends outside of normal work hours. A pet project. And with all the severe compromises this is yet another overpriced and underwhelming low quality vehicle from Ford. Many will be fooled by the rather ugly body and the unwarranted hype but those who know the industry will see this for what it is. A Ranger with a bed cap.

    • Dave M. Dave M. on Jun 29, 2021

      I think it's great looking, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sorry to hear the interior materials were chinzy though....

  • Mjz Mjz on Aug 04, 2021

    Ford seems to have botched yet another major vehicle launch again. More and more reports of owners of early delivered models with problems with BOTH the hard top and soft top versions. Echoes of the disastrous Explorer/Aviator launch. Perhaps the 2023 models will have the kinks worked out by then.

  • Daniel J Alabama is a right to work state so I'd be interested in how this plays out. If a plant in Alabama unionized, there are many workers who's still oppose joining and can work.
  • ToolGuy This guest was pretty interesting.
  • NJRide So this is an average age of car to be junked now and of course this is a lower end (and now semi-orphaned) product. But street examples seem to still be worth 2500? So are cars getting junked only coming in because of a traumatic repair? If not it seems a lot of cars being junked that would still possibly worth more than scrap.Also Murilee I remember your Taurus article way back what is the king of the junkyard in 2024?
  • AMcA I applaud Toyota for getting away from the TRD performance name. TuRD. This is another great example of "if they'd just thought to preview the name with a 13 year old boy."
  • Jeff Does this really surprise anyone? How about the shoes and the clothes you wear. Anything you can think of that is either directly made in China or has components made in China likely has some slave labor involved. The very smart phone, tablet, and laptop you are using probably has some component in it that is either mined or made by slave labor. Not endorsing slave labor just trying to be real.