How It Feels to Four-Wheel in the New 2021 Ford Bronco

Beverly Braga, Independent Expert | Aug 18, 2020

Last month we asked if the all-new 2021 Ford Bronco was any good off-road. According to preliminary spec sheets and Ford’s communications team, of course the new Bronco could handle the toughest of trails. Pretty photos and glossy vocabulary terms can only confirm so much, however. We prefer real-world, in-the-dirt experience to verify any such suitable-for-all-adventures claims, especially when four-wheel drive is standard. 

2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door Badlands Black Splashing Through Water

So, to that end, Ford gave us ride-along sessions during Bronco Day at an off-road vehicle park in southeastern Michigan. Did the Bronco hold its own on the steep grades, sand pits, silty ponds, and sudden corners? Find out by reading the ride impressions that follow.

Prototypical Performance - Find the best Ford deals!

As a disclaimer, Ford made it clear that the vehicles we would be transported in were all prototypes. These early production models varied in terms of finality due to their differing launch times (Bronco Sport arrives in dealerships by year’s end; Bronco 2- and 4-Door models will launch in the spring). 

Because of this we also were barred from taking photos of the interior, which did not feature final production finishes. Not that such interior details mattered. Once on the trails, the cabins were covered in a powdering of dust thanks to social distancing-friendly open windows, sunroofs, or no roofs at all. 

As for our steeds, ride rotations were between the new-generation Bronco Sport Badlands, Bronco 2-Door Badlands, and race-tuned Bronco R concept as well as first-generation offerings — including the Baja 1000-winning 1968 Bronco piloted by Rod Hall and Larry Minor. Yes, taking a “hot lap” around an ORV park in a champion race truck is fun in the silliest of ways, but such a joyride is hardly without merit. 

Off-Roading is in the Bronco’s DNA - Find the best Ford deals!

With regard to off-road racing, this 1968 Bronco was not only the first production 4WD vehicle to win the overall race but remains the only production 4WD vehicle to do so. And, thus, it sets the expectations of every Ford Bronco ever made. Not that every Bronco ever made has been or will go off-roading through more than 1,000 miles of desert dunes, rocky roads, and mountains of mud. But there’s that prideful kinship to say that maybe it can. 

1968 Ford Bronco Baja 1000 Winner Rod Hall Larry Minor

The legendary Baja Bronco had been resting in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame (ORMHOF) museum when Hall’s granddaughter Shelby Hall decided to resurrect the SUV in 2015. The elder Hall’s only instructions were to rebuild the vehicle to his 1969 racing spec. “Above all, it needs to be reliable,” he had said. “We have to first finish to finish first.”

After climbing a makeshift stepstool of logs and making a poor Dukes of Hazzard impression of entering through the passenger window, I plop down hard into the purpose-built racing seat next to a grinning Shelby Hall. “Welcome!” My lack of expertise (and awe) is made all the more obvious as I fumble to secure the five-point racing harness.

The Baja 1000-winning Ford Bronco was bare bones, the interior stripped of everything you don’t need and outfitted with nothing but what you do for off-road racing. This meant adding grab handles and switches for functions I didn’t understand but also the removal of floor mats, interior panels, and the roof and pillars (which were replaced with a roll cage).

When I’m finally ready to go, I realize the historic Bronco was never not ready. Sure, the ride was noisy and clanky and stripped of niceties like air conditioning but who cares? Despite being tossed around like an unloved ragdoll, Shelby was cool, focused, and still great at conversation while shifting, turning, drifting along our too-short of a dirt loop. Nothing fazed her, which can also be said of the old Bronco.

Fast forward 50 years to the Bronco R, Ford’s official re-entry into this year’s Baja 1000. Based on the 2021 Ford Bronco 4-Door’s chassis and taking advantage of the available twin-turbo 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6, optional 10-speed automatic, and standard electronic shift-on-the-fly 4WD transfer case, the Bronco R has a solid foundation from which to build a cutting edge off-roader.

Such extreme racing (and survival) also is a testament to what industry insiders refer to as QDR, or quality, dependability, and reliability. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And after a sidewinding loop in the more than 50-year-old veteran racing machine, the bar for the 2021 Bronco seems almost unfairly impossible to reach.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Off-Road Performance - Find the best Ford deals!

From its inception, the Ford Bronco has utilized the GOAT moniker, which refers to its ability to go over any terrain. But rather than remain buried within internal documents, the new Bronco proudly displays its ground clearing prowess with a drivetrain controller labeled with those very letters. The rugged-shaped knob located near the shifter manages drive mode and transfer case controls. Because our test vehicles were all Badlands models, the Bronco’s terrain management system offered the full GOAT gamut, which adds Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl to the long list of standard ones. Not that the extra modes were needed or even used during our ride-and-drive.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands Red Front View on Trail

The first-ever Bronco Sport was developed more for the weekend trailblazer than as a weeks-long overlander, but its smaller size and crossover-based platform don’t mean it is less competitive. With the drive mode set to Sand, we started down an easy slope and drifted an imaginary corner within a sand-filled arena before barreling up another dirt hill. With no apparent difficulties whatsoever. 

A turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine is standard on the higher trim level Bronco Sport Badlands and First Edition models. Its estimated segment-best 245 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque proved to be more than enough maneuvering uphill, downhill, and the occasional sideways drift.

Just as impressive was the class-exclusive Trail Control system, which again is for Bronco Sport Badlands and First Edition models only. Essentially an adaptive cruise control system for slow-and-low driving, my driver stopped halfway up a 17-degree grade, turned the system on, and let the Bronco Sport take control of everything but the steering wheel. 

Additionally, an available front off-road camera is a feature you didn’t know you needed until you have it. Our vehicle was so-equipped, with the camera feed appearing within the Bronco Sport’s standard 8-inch Ford Sync 3 touchscreen infotainment display. The 180-degree view forward can also be switched from a single image to a three-screen split-view. My eyes needed some time to adjust to the latter as the vehicle hurried through a clearing, but if traversing at a leisurely pace, the split-screen video would make clearer sense of your surroundings.

This forward-facing camera, which is equipped with a lens washer, activates automatically when the vehicle is in an off-road drive setting and traveling within a certain speed limit, but can also be turned on manually. Not limited to off-road spotter duties, the camera can be activated any time forward visibility might be compromised, like when parking or driving through inclement weather. Experienced trail blazers will appreciate the extra set of eyes when a spotter is not available, and novices will feel more confident in blazing new trails.

2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door Off-Road Performance - Find the best Ford deals!

Upon hopping into the 2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door, the first thing I noticed was the absolute comfort of the leather seats. An option on Badlands models, prototype truck or not, the leather upholstery was plusher than any first-class airline seat I’ve ever been in.

2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door Badlands Black Front View on Trail

With the Bronco 2-Door, Ford’s trail loop was noticeably longer and more technical than the route taken with the Bronco Sport. We set off with the same downhill sprint but veered left where the Bronco Sport had gone right, and then continued on with more sharp turns, sweeping corners, and enough squiggly maneuvers to give you zero sense of direction. Despite the fact I had no idea whether we were facing north, south, east, or west, I was confident we’d always be right side up. Because, like the Bronco Sport, even though we were using the Sand GOAT mode, I had zero doubt that either one couldn’t do those trails in everyday Normal mode. 

The Bronco 2-Door I rode along in was equipped with Ford’s all-new 7-speed manual transmission. If seven gears seem too many, in this case, it’s not. The new Bronco transmission is essentially a 6-speed stick-shift with an additional “crawler” gear marked as “C.” Also, there is no way to inadvertently shift into C because, like reverse, the driver must release the ring beneath the shift knob before the shifter can slide to the left and down (or back toward you) for C. For reverse, you’d pull the shifter left but then push up (or forward toward the dashboard). 

When engaging the crawler gear, the Bronco generates a crawl ratio of up to 94.75:1, which is class-leading. If equipped with the 10-speed automatic, the maximum crawl ratio is still an impressively high 67.8:1 if paired with the advanced 4WD transfer case. And when off-roading, the higher the crawl ratio, the more torque there is at the wheels to keep you and the vehicle out of trouble. For comparison, the Bronco Sport, which is available only with an 8-speed automatic, offers a crawl ratio of 18:1.

There are two 4WD systems available on Bronco 2- and 4-Door models. The base setup uses a 2-speed electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case. The advanced version utilizes a 2-speed electromechanical transfer case but also adds an on-demand automatic mode for selecting 2-Hi and 4-Hi. My ride appeared to have the latter. 

The available semi-active hydraulic stabilizer bar and deadlock-capable wheels added even more capability for off-camber clambering. With the ability to be disconnected during articulation, the Ford Bronco’s class-exclusive stabilizer bar increases the ramp angle index, essentially acting like a kickstand to keep the vehicle upright even at maximum articulation. While you might feel like you’re going to tip over, it’s an unsubstantiated fear. The bigger Bronco’s high crawl ratio, crazy articulation, and independent front suspension paired with a solid five-link rear axle allow for impressive flexibility and stability.

Final Impressions - Find the best Ford deals!

In the end, the new Ford Bronco does everything its predecessors did but with even more control, more comfort, and more freedom for owners to go farther and stay longer. Its racing heritage is more than a nice-to-have, too, as such exhibitions also demonstrate the toughness the Bronco can endure, even in harsh conditions. In a world increasingly inundated with cute-utes and wannabe trail chasers, the 2021 Ford Bronco is the real deal in letting you opt outside to your heart’s content.

These impressions were gathered during a ride-along event held by Ford on trails selected by the automaker.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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