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A year ago, Jeep was put on notice with the official announcement of the 2021 Ford Bronco, poised to take the fight directly to the Wrangler. Well, eventually. As soon as they could build some. Look, there are only so many ways we can say “finally,” so we’ll spare you the snarky intro and get right to it. Gather ‘round, everybody. It’s Bronco time.  

We’ve covered the Bronco exhaustively since spy photos of early prototypes first appeared, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or need a refresher after an entire year), we’ll recap the items you really need to know.

Like the Wrangler and Land Rover Defender (for now), the Bronco comes in two sizes: a short-wheelbase, two-door model and a longer four-door. So far, Ford has avoided firewalling much equipment behind the larger four-door (a strategy illustrated by Jeep’s Wrangler 4xe and Rubicon 392, among others), so it’s really a matter of how much you’re willing to compromise on either comfort (two-door) or capability (four-door) to suit your lifestyle. Also like the Jeep (but not the Land Rover), it’s a body-on-frame design.

There are two available engines, both of which are turbocharged. The standard 2.3-liter inline-four, shared with the Ford Ranger, produces a stout 275 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque. The 2.7-liter turbo V6 is good for 315 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque, which betters the 2.7 offered in the Ford F-150. You can squeeze significant power out of both by filling with premium, but it’s not required.

The 2.3-liter can be had with a seven-speed manual transmission, which is really just a six-speed with a creeper gear offering a crawl ratio of 94.75:1 with the shortest available axle ratio; the automatic can best achieve a ratio of 67.8:1, again with the optional axle.

Speaking of the automatic, its Ford’s now-familiar 10-speed that’s optional on the 2.3-liter and mandatory with the 2.7 liter. Four-wheel drive is standard on every Bronco, but like Jeep, Ford offers different grades. The standard system features a two-speed, electronic, shift-on-the-fly transfer case with a 2.72:1 low ratio, while the optional system has a 3:06:1 low ratio and adds a 4A mode that automatically goes between 2H and 4H when needed.

The differentials are produced by Dana, with the rear being a Dana 44, with standard AdvanTEK units and available Spicer Performa-TraK electronic locking units.

Cost of entry for a 2021 Bronco is $29,995 for the two-door or $34,695 for a four-door (both those sums include a $1,495 destination charge). There are then five additional trim levels – Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak and Badlands – with varying equipment and capability that we document extensively in this Bronco Trim Level Breakdown. For the purposes of this review, though, know that the Outer Banks is the fancy one, the Wildtrak is the high-speed desert runner and Badlands is the Rubicon-fighter* rock crawler.

To any of these trims, however, can be added the Sasquatch package. It gets you 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels wrapped in 35-inch mud-terrain tires (non-‘squatch tops out at 33 inches), electronic-locking front and rear axles, a 4.7:1 final drive ratio, Bilstein shocks, a suspension lift, high-clearance fender flares and the very-cool Trail Turn Assist, which we’ll also talk about later.

Now, when we said the Badlands is the Wrangler Rubicon fighter*, Sasquatch is the asterisk, because it bundles the majority of the off-road goodies that make a Rubicon so desirable without the corresponding price tag. You’ll still have to splurge on an upper trim to get worthy upgrades like low-speed, forward-facing trail cam and disconnecting front anti-roll bar, but those are more nice-to-haves than necessities.

As for clearances and angles of the various Bronco options, why don’t we let a chart do the talking? Note that the water-fording figure here for non-Sasquatch vehicles is an estimate, as Ford has not officially released a number. 

We originally had a post comparing those figures with the Wrangler, but just a day after we finished driving the Bronco, Jeep dropped its new Xtreme Recon package for the Wrangler, offering 35-inch tires as part of a suspension upgrade exclusively for its four-door Rubicon models. A coincidence? We think not. Despite that one-upmanship, though, and Ford’s decision to go with an independent front suspension (carried over from the Ranger platform from which the Bronco’s chassis evolved), the Bronco holds the upper hand in total suspension travel. 

So what does that all mean? Well, if you’ve been promoting the idea that the Bronco is a “soft-roader,” I hope you’re not a vegetarian, because a certain dark-hued bird is on your dinner menu. Ford was so excited to show the world what the Bronco could do that we were invited to preview its new Off-Roadeo facility northeast of Austin, Texas. This 360-acre facility has multiple dedicated off-road trails, including three fixed courses for Off-Roadeo participants – and we got to try them all. If that sounds cool to you, buy a Bronco. You get a free trip to check it out, and you don’t even have to ding up your own truck to participate; they loan you one.

The Off-Roadeo’s three primary trails (dubbed Jalapeño, Habanero and Ghost Pepper; yay, Texas) offer progressively more difficult challenges, from basic mud, ruts and rubble to low-speed rock crawling. And the latter’s not just a pile of carefully laid boulders, either. These trails utilize natural features and rock formations strung together by dirt trails through the scrub of Hill Country. Curated though they may be to highlight the Bronco’s capabilities, they were nonetheless both fun and challenging to traverse.

Jalapeño gets your feet wet (literally and figuratively) with some tight trails and deep ruts, and a flooded gully or three. We took this opportunity to try out a four-door Black Diamond model with the seven-speed, and the combination of 4-Hi and the crawl gear was a sublime match for the constant-speed sections that made up the vast majority of the trail. Some heavily washboarded high-speed stretches allowed the independent front suspension to flex (again, literally and figuratively) and left us impressed with its composure while bombing along on broken surfaces.

The next step up is Habanero, which starts to get tricky, and especially so in our case, as the region had recently been dumped on by a passing weather system, flooding the various gulches to eyebrow-raising depths, which we forded without so much as a gulp. We tackled Habanero in a two-door Wildtrak model, and this gnarlier trail offered obstacles that forced us to ride the Bronco’s factory rock rails here and there on some loose, rock-covered hill climbs. After trying different strategies, we ultimately settled on Bronco’s one-pedal drive mode.

If you’re not familiar with electric cars, you may not be familiar with one-pedal driving as a concept. It’s fairly straightforward; rather than switching back and forth between the gas and brake (or using one foot for each, as off-roading sometimes calls for), higher-trim Broncos offer a one-pedal mode where the accelerator pedal pulls double duty. Pushing it down works just as you’d expect and releasing it actually engages the brakes (unlike in an EV, long story). Take your foot off completely and the Bronco will stop; the faster you release, the more aggressively it brakes.

This is great for low-speed situations because you never have to worry about the Bronco running away when you pitch downhill on the far side of an obstacle. Plus, by virtue of the fact that you’re braking by merely lifting your foot off the pedal, you’re significantly reducing the reaction time necessary to get on the brakes when it’s urgent that you do so. Win-win. 

Despite Habanero nominally being of only moderate difficulty, it was the most complex and diverse of the three trails, and the one most impacted by the aforementioned deluge. Already-soft surfaces further deteriorated as our convoy wound its way through the underbrush, prompting guides from our support vehicle to come up from the rear and help spot drivers through obstacles that simply didn’t exist minutes before. This required close attention to be paid to the constantly-shifting terrain (once again, often literally), and we actually found it to be the most challenging of the three.

On to Ghost Pepper, though, where we finally met the elusive Sasquatch, but not on a Wildtrak or Badlands, as you might expect, but on a no-frills, base-model two-door with virtually no other options. No trail cam. No disconnecting front sway bar. No one-pedal driving. Just two locking differentials, lots of suspension and equally generous proportions of knobby rubber. It’s pictured above.

While other trucks in the group offered more niceties, the base Bronco had enough. And it absolutely slayed. Lined up behind the lead support car this time, we set the pace for our caravan, often waiting for four-doors that were forced to drive over (and occasionally get hung up on) obstacles that our nimble two-door could far more easily circumvent. This was especially true when utilizing Trail Turn Assist, which can greatly reduce the radius of a turn by locking the inside wheel and allowing the Bronco to pivot around it. It’s really useful in the bigger four-door, but the two-door can exploit it beautifully when things get really tight.

Simply put, a base two-door Bronco with the Sasquatch package is an absolute weapon in the hands of an even mildly capable off-road enthusiast. Is there room to grow? Yep. Would the trail cam and disconnecting front sway bar be nice upgrades? Absolutely. But man, kudos to Ford for making such a capable package available on the cheapest version.

And the Bronco has a lot more going for it than an advantage in off-road capability for the price. Put simply, the independent front suspension pays huge dividends. Our on-road time was spent behind the wheel of a 2.3-liter, four-door Outer Banks model (pictured above) with the 10-speed automatic, and we were struck by how effortless it is to drive. Even in the 4,600-pound four-door model, the little four-pot feels strong and accelerates effortlessly. It even sounds pretty good when you really get on it.

Our only real beef with the Bronco’s powertrain stems from the lack of a solid manual-shifting mode for the 10-speed. Ford’s allergy to paddle shifters continues here, leaving you only with the useless thumb-toggle for selecting individual gears. It’s unintuitive to the point where you’d probably never even bother unless you were forced to by some oddly specific set of circumstances. The one-pedal drive mode is a good substitute for using a dedicated low gear in many respects, which makes this shortcoming a bit more palatable.

The ride is quite good too, though the solid rear axle is predictably less composed than the independent front end. The Outer Banks is most comparable to a Jeep Wrangler Sahara, with both being the more style- and comfort-oriented variants in their respective lineups. We noted minimal wind noise under anything but highway speeds from the soft top – impressive – and similarly subdued road noise.

After we finished up with the Outer Banks, we grabbed a four-door Wrangler Sahara that Ford brought along for on-road comparison. We’d say that was suspiciously convenient, but they brought only that and a two-door Rubicon – not nearly enough vehicles to go one-for-one with the Bronco variants at our disposal – so there’s no point reading much into it.

Compared to the Bronco, the Wrangler’s front end feels sloppy and disconnected. Just going straight on the highway requires quite a bit more correction in the Wrangler than it does in the Bronco, and that’s the fault of the Wrangler’s solid front axle, which is a nightmare for un-sprung weight and utilizes an old-school recirculating ball steering system. The Bronco’s rack-and-pinion steering is significantly tighter and more precise, and the difference is magnified by road surface imperfections and roads with more-challenging elements (tight, off-camber turns or uneven bumps and potholes) where the independent front end absolutely shines. It’s more comfortable and inspires more confidence. For the vast majority of buyers, there’s no downside at all to an independent front suspension in this application.

That assurance may not be enough to sway the hardcore 4×4 buyer who cares only about ultimate durability, but consider this: Ford is doubling the number of choices buyers have in this incredibly narrow and high-profile segment, and its leadership knows that a half-assed effort will cost them dearly. There may be compromises to the IFS setup, but do you really think they would risk the embarrassment of delivering a truck that couldn’t hang with its key – let’s face it, only – competitor where it really counts?

While an independent front suspension is itself a quality-of-life improvement, what Ford really wanted to do in this regard was find ways to sway the uncommitted shopper who might appreciate a fresh take on the drop-top 4×4 formula; if it happens to be more convenient for your daily drive, so much the better. While Jeep made great leaps with the JL-generation Wrangler, there was still room for improvement in processes like removing the top and doors – an opportunity upon which Ford seized.

Both the hard and soft tops come off in a few easy steps, and apart from removal of the rear clamshell portion on the hard top, it can be done by one person. Door removal is especially painless, and can very easily be done solo. It’s also far less consequential to occupant safety, thanks to the Bronco’s body-mounted mirrors, which can remain in place with the doors off. Ford’s side curtain airbags are also compatible with all of its door configurations, which is a nice touch. You can’t get those on a Wrangler.

This do-it-yourself Bronco striptease goes beyond the roof and doors. All four of its fender flares can be removed and replaced in a matter of minutes (with no tools, mind you) and when we say “a matter of minutes,” your painfully out-of-shape author did his best NASCAR pit crew impression and swapped out all four flares in under 90 seconds.

Now, keep in mind, we’re talking about the clipped-on plastic bits, not entire quarter panels. Those will require hand tools and quite a bit more time, but the fenders themselves were made as simple as possible to remove too, paving the way for convenient future customization – both factory and aftermarket. Cheap plastic fenders you don’t care about pinstriping to death in the back country? Swap ‘em on and spare your paint. You can read more about the Bronco’s modular body and roof design in our preview article from last year.

It’s very clear that Jeep has seen the Bronco coming for several years. While a great number of the Wrangler’s generational improvements stemming from the 2018 redesign can (and even should) be attributed to then-FCA’s desire to capitalize on the model’s popularity, there’s no doubt in our minds that many of the quality-of-life improvements were made in anticipation of cross-town competition.

Before we get too carried away with winners and losers here, let’s take a look around. In any other year and any other market, this would be cut-and-dried, but this is 2021. The car-shopping world is far from typical, and while it’s easy to call the Bronco a winner in a vacuum, there’s one thing Jeep has going for it: you can actually buy one, and possibly at sticker – or even below, if you’re not after the sexier variants.

Bronco? Well, if you can even find a dealer that has one on the way that hasn’t been spoken for, you may be looking at markup well into the tens of thousands of dollars. The Bronco may be better overall than the Wrangler, but part of what makes it so compelling for an enthusiast is its value proposition relative to Jeep’s Rubicon variants, and that evaporates if you can’t buy one at list price.

Remember, the Wrangler still has quite a few things going for it. Ford has no answer for the stunningly good 4xe (which admittedly has its own availability drawbacks), nor does it have anywhere near as many powertrain options.

Nor does Ford have Jeep’s existing (and massive) foundation in the aftermarket. Ford is working hard to play catch-up, but one of the advantages to old-fashioned tech and long-running model lines with enormous followings is that there is often built-in support for a new generation before it even starts moving down the production line.  Ford has to do that from scratch.

In the end, the real winner here is you. If you want a good, affordable fun car with some off-road chops and boundless personalization support, there are now two excellent options in the space. So long as they’re keeping each other honest, we benefit.

After decades of evaluating the Jeep Wrangler in a vacuum, we finally have a competitor to provide context. By default, Jeep has long sold the best small off-road SUV; it has also sold the worst. Such is life in a segment of one. From this point on, though, they can only be one or the other. I hate to say it, fellow Jeep fans, but this one goes to Team Blue.

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