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2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon Lead

Bronco First Edition vs. Wrangler Rubicon 392 Xtreme Recon—Head to Head Battle

The Rematch: Which four-door trail machine is the top dog?

Back in October, we rounded up the two-door versions of the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler equipped with the most capable options we could get our hands on. Ford sent along a Bronco Wildtrak. The Wrangler? It was Jeep’s classic Rubicon model. Both were fairly well matched for this battle except for two key differences. The Bronco rode on 35-inch tires while the Wrangler used 33-inch rubber. And even more importantly, the Wrangler has the Rubicon’s standard sway bar disconnect system to unlock suspension articulation. The Wildtrak doesn’t come with a swaybar disconnect. That system is exclusive to First Edition or Badlands Bronco models. 

Of course, we attempted to make the battle as fair as possible considering those differences. And in the end, we did prefer the Wrangler overall when it came to most four wheeling scenarios. But that’s not the end of this story—because you, our loyal readers, demanded a rematch. So this time we asked for the most capable rigs available from Ford and Jeep at the time of our test. And they really came through. 

The Bronco Raptor was still a (poorly kept) secret when we hit the trail in mid-January. So for this test we got our hands on the top Bronco at that time: a four-door First Edition Bronco in Lightning Blue metallic with leather interior trim. This 2021-only model combines together just about every trail-capable option you can get into one rig. Our $65,005 four-door comes standard with the Sasquatch package along with the 2.7-liter Ecoboost V6 and ten-speed automatic, the G.O.A.T modes terrain management system including a Rock Crawl mode and the ever-important front sway bar disconnect system. The First Edition also wears a heavy-duty steel brush guard front bumper and beadlock-capable wheels. Our truck had the $1795 two top package with both a hardtop and soft top. Oh and like so many Fords since the 1980s, ours had the old-tech $110 keyless entry keypad.

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 1

Jeep cut loose the top machine in their arsenal—an $83,695 four-door Rubicon 392 wearing the new Xtreme Recon package. Our Hydro Blue Pearl rig was packed with equipment because all 392 Wranglers come just about fully loaded. The most important option was the $3,995 Xtreme Recon 35-inch tire package which comes with 4.56:1 gears, 35-inch tires wrapped around 17X8-inch beadlock-capable wheels, a tire relocator kit for the spare, a hinge gate reinforcement, wheel flare extensions and a jack spacer. Ours also had the $2,000 Sky One-Touch roof, which is essentially a power-activated full fabric roof with hard sides. Other options included the off-road camera ($595), a Trail Rail Management system for the cargo floor ($195) and all weather floor mats ($170).

Since both rigs were more capable than the ones we had last time, we decided to take them on an all-day adventure tackling the rough and rocky hill climbs of Rowher Flats OHV area in the Angeles National Forest. It was the perfect set of trails to test the dirt capabilities of both vehicles. And it was a total blast. The battle between these hardcore factory rigs were closer than ever. Read on to find out how they fared.

The Specs and Hardware

Go back in time 20 years and judge by their wheelbase alone, these two trucks would be considered fullsize SUVs. They are big rigs to be sure. And both are built on modern fully-boxed steel frames. The Bronco rides on a 116.1-inch wheelbase and the Wrangler sits on a frame with 118.4-inches between the wheels. The four-door choice is the one most folks make simply because they need more space for their family. Both are good size vehicles for those that use them on long-distance off-road treks too. A longer wheelbase and more doors equals increased practicality.

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 2

The First Edition Bronco’s suspension doesn’t stray too far from the two-door we had the last time. Up front there’s a Dana Advantek 210 front gearset (4.70:1) with an electronically locking differential. The Bronco is more like a modern SUV in that there’s a double wishbone suspension with coil springs. The Sasquatch package includes slightly taller springs and Bilstein dampers too. And unique to the First Edition and the Badlands models, there’s an electronically disconnecting front swaybar. The First Edition comes with some beefy steel skidplate protection here unlike the plastic faux plates on the Wildtrak we last tested. 

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 3

Around back, the four-door has the same rear suspension layout and axles as the two door. There’s a Dana Advantek 220 solid axle with 4.70:1 gears and an electronically locking rear diff. The coil spring suspension is located by a five link design and uses Bilstein dampers like the front. 

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The Wrangler 392 comes from the factory with a Dana Advantek 220 solid front axle that’s slightly beefier than the standard Rubicon axle. These axles are similar to those in the Gladiator Mojave and feature cast iron knuckles with thicker axle tubes. There are also CVs at the ends of the axles instead of U-joints because the 392 ditches a default rear-drive mode for full-time all-wheel drive. Because this is the Extreme Recon package, those axles come filled with 4.56:1 gears along with the electronic-locking front differentials as a normal Rubicon. The five-link coil-spring suspension of the 392 is 2-inches taller than a standard Wrangler (1-inch over a Rubicon) and that height remains for the Xtreme Recon package when you opt for a 392. Get the Xtreme Recon on a normal Wrangler and you’ll gain 1.5-inches of lift (.5-inches over a Rubicon). In any case, the 392 Xtreme Recon does have unique dampers and spring tuning. And to keep the big 35-inch BFGs from contacting the fenders, up travel is limited slightly. And like all Rubicons, there’s an electronic disconnecting front sway bar here too.

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Around back the 392 Xtreme Recon has the beefier version of the Advantek 220 here too, filled with 4.56:1 gears and an electronic locking rear differential. This 392-specific axle comes with thicker axle tubes and revised mounts for the suspension components to aid handling. There’s also a thicker rear sway bar for 392-equipped Jeeps. 

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Under the hood, the Bronco retains the same 2.7-liter Ecoboost V6 as the last one we tested producing 330 hp at 5,250 rpm and 415 lb-ft of torque at 3,100 rpm on Premium fuel. Go with the cheaper stuff and horsepower drops by 15 and torque by 5 lb-ft. 

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The Six is bolted to a 10-speed automatic and power is split to the axles with Ford’s Advanced 4X4 transfer case (standard on Wild Trak, Badlands and First Edition) with 2WD, 4WD high range, 4WD low range and an all-wheel drive mode. The low range gearing here is 3.06:1 which combines with the transmission and axles for a crawl ratio of 68:1—not too shabby. The Ford’s transfer case is operated with a knob behind the shifter and some of the G.O.A.T modes automatically shift the transfer case too, a feature some testers liked and others distinctly did not. The Bronco can ford rivers 33.5-inches deep.

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The Jeep is in another league in terms of engine performance. Under that hood is an SRT-built 6.4-liter V8 that belts out 470 hp at 6,000 rpm and 470 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm. And Jeep says most of that torque comes on-line right off idle. Giddyup! Jeep puts an exhaust button on the dash so you can uncork those sweet sounds and make your neighbors angrier than they normally are. 

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The V8 gulps air from that massive scoop called the Hydro Guide which can take on 15 gallon-per-minute of water over the hood and helps the regular 392 Wrangler idle through water crossings that are 32.5-inches deep. That’s impressive. But the Xtreme Recon version can handle 33.6-inches—a tenth of an inch more than Ford. Hmmm.

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 10

The V8 is paired to an 8-speed automatic. In place of the typical 4:1 transfer case found on conventional Rubicons, the 392 uses the Selec-Trac case with full-time 4WD (no 2WD) and a 2.72:1 low range. It’s likely that spreading the 6.4-liter’s fury over two axles accounts for fewer broken parts. The Jeep’s transfer case is shifted by a good old fashioned lever. The 392 doesn’t really have drive modes per se. Instead there’s an Off-Road Plus button that when pressed adjusts transmission shift points, throttle, traction control and allows the rear locker to be engaged at higher speeds. It’s like a high-speed performance mode.

In terms of tires, both machines wear 35-inch tires. In fact, they use the same size—315/70R17 and both sets are mounted on beadlock-capable wheels. However the Jeep has an 8-inch wheel width and the familiar BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires and Ford specifies the new Goodyear Wrangler Territory on an 8.5-inch wide wheel. To our eye, the Jeeps tires look taller and perhaps that’s because they’re mounted on a narrower wheel. In any case, the Jeep has 11.1-inches of ground clearance and Ford quotes 11.5-inches. Both excellent numbers.

On the Road

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The overall refinement and street-driving practicality of both vehicles improved significantly over the last Jeep and Ford pair we tested. That’s because the stretched wheelbases of the four door models simply offer a more comfortable ride and more room inside. The edge on street manners once again goes to the Ford. But the Wrangler is easily the more fun of the two.  

The Bronco was not only smoother-riding and more composed over rough roads, but it had much more precise handling. And you can thank the IFS up front for that. The Wrangler’s solid front axle and slow, vague steering really made it feel like a generation behind. 

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But when you light the fire on Jeep’s beastly 6.4-liter V8 and lean into the throttle, the Wrangler’s short comings nearly disappear. The 392 is a ridiculously fun rig. At times it feels so potent and so wild that you wonder how this thing is even legal. Heck, it’s a Wrangler that will scorch it’s way to 60 mph in 4 seconds flat and clear the ¼-mile under 13 seconds according to Car and Driver. Whoa. The power and torque are so intoxicating and the transmission so well matched to it, that this Jeep will make every day you drive it—a great day. And with the exhaust in full arrest-me mode, it’s just an awesome experience. The downside? We saw high single digit fuel economy thanks to our juvenile driving style. We did manage to see 12 mpg on a 33-inch tire Wrangler 392 which is slightly more respectable but certainly not great. 

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As refined as the First Edition is, it’s not nearly as explosive off the line as the Jeep. And it’s not nearly as fun either. Still, the response of Ford’s turbocharged V6 is quite good. Car and Driver recently tested an Outer Banks four door, which is a little lighter and wears smaller tires. It scampered to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Our heavier First Edition model on 35-inch tires is likely a bit slower. But here’s the thing, while the Wrangler practically begs you to drive it like a lunatic and burn fuel like a Trophy Truck, the Ford is more subdued and goes about its work in a more mature way. The reward for that is mid-teen fuel economy over mixed-route driving which is far closer to the respectable zone than the Jeep. Plus, the Bronco is probably the one we’d grab the keys for as a daily driver—but it’s close.

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On the inside, we have a split decision. The Wrangler 392 has a great interior with upscale leather and amazingly supportive and comfortable seats. In addition the materials and colors Jeep uses here feel special. The First Edition on the other hand is a little boring. There’s plenty of hard gray plastic and the seats aren’t nearly as good as the ones in the Jeep. Even though this is a First Edition, the interior doesn’t seem any better than any other Bronco. 

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That said, the Ford is the roomier of the two rigs. And that’s especially true in the rear seat area. Several testers of varying heights experienced the back seats of both vehicles and unanimously gave the Ford top honors for comfort. And that advantage extended to the cargo hold as well. The Bronco offers 35.6 cu-ft. of cargo space behind the second row of seats and the Jeep has 31.7 cu-ft. That means if you are planning long-distance excursions with a few people or perhaps a little overland adventure, the Ford might be the more accommodating. 

In the Dirt

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The Wrangler 392 and Bronco First Edition are both more capable than the two-door models we evaluated last time. And so we wanted to put them to the test on a more difficult trail section so we could clearly experience the differences.

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 17a
2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 17b

To get a sense of the trail articulation potential of both trucks, let’s look at some RTI numbers. A few months ago, our pals at Four Wheeler magazine ramped the exact Wrangler 392 we’re testing here. They found it to deliver an RTI score of 532 with the sway bar attached and a score of 684 with the bar disconnected. We ramped our test First Edition four door on our pal Dan Edmunds’ (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVJI5i48SvXVZ6HMPOETaiQ) ramp. The Bronco delivered an RTI of 463 with the sway bar connected and a score of 560 with it disconnected. So on paper, the Jeep seems to have the advantage in terms of suspension flex. 

The steep and rutted Rowher Trail has some fairly challenging sections. And because these two rigs are both very capable we took some of the tougher lines to see how they compare. We kept both trucks at their standard street tire pressures. And we started the trail in low range with both trucks. However in order to find out how far each would make it without adding any traction tools, we kept the sway bars connected and the lockers open. We would engage those tools to each vehicle as needed.

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The first obstacle is a gatekeeper of sorts. It’s a steep and rutted loose dirt climb. The Wrangler was up first and easily crawled the section without spinning a tire or needing it’s sway bar detached. The Ford had a more difficult time. It ran out of flex about halfway up and no matter what line we selected, it would not climb. So we disconnected the front swaybar of the Bronco, which unlocked enough wheel travel to get the rig to the first plateau. But that climb in the Bronco still wasn’t as elegant as it was in the Jeep. The Bronco’s traction control would intervene frequently and aggressively. Whereas the Jeep’s system was perfectly calibrated to arrest wheelspin delicately, almost before it happens. 

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2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 19b

As the trail progressed we left the Bronco’s swaybar disconnected. In general, the Bronco runs out of flex much sooner than the Jeep and requires more trail tools to get through tricky areas. We had to engage the rear locker fairly consistently—and even the front one a few times. The Bronco has to work harder and as a result makes the driver work harder too, when tackling tough trails. The Jeep on the other hand seems to be built for this terrain and only required a locked rear axle at certain moments. We never needed to lock the front. And even though the Jeep didn’t have the normal Rubicon’s 4:1-geared low range, that 392 made crawling so effortless. 

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Of course there were moments when we ran out of flex in both vehicles. And subjectively speaking, it was the Jeep that felt more stable and comfortable in those scenarios. In slow speed four wheeling with the front swaybar disconnected, the jeep’s ride is marshmallow soft. It’s a more comfy ride on this terrain than the Ford. In our testing, the slow speed champ was once again the Jeep.

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2021 Ford Bronco First Edition vs Jeep Wrangler Recon 21b

But as soon as speed picks up a little, that changes. The Wrangler 392 with the Recon package may have beefy 35-inch tires but to get them to fit at max articulation, Jeep has to limit the uptravel so they don’t contact the flares. That combined with the heavy V8 up front made the big Jeep cumbersome to drive on higher-speed whoops. As soon as we picked up a little speed, the front of the Jeep would come crashing down and we’d have to back off. 

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The Bronco is much better suited for higher-speed terrain. The Ford chassis can handle much more pace before bottoming out and feels better when it happens. Compared to the Jeep, the Bronco is like a prerunner. And we found that on the fire road that twists back down the mountain, the Bronco’s more precise steering and better suspension made it feel tight, composed and generally more enjoyable. Here, the 392 Wrangler feels a little sloppy and loose. Plus there’s more rattling in the Jeep’s cabin at speed.


The Bottom Line

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In this, round two of our Bronco vs Wrangler battle, we’re going to give the Wrangler 392 Xtreme Recon the edge. It’s clearly the better 4X4 on hardcore trails and the new V8 is simply wickedly good fun. That said, the Bronco does offer a more balanced package. Oh and it’s quite a bit less expensive too. Plus if we were planning to use these rigs more for higher speed desert driving, the Bronco would be the one we’d have to choose. In both cases, the aftermarket offers incredible support for both vehicles. It’s not hard to make either one much more capable in the dirt. 

The new Bronco Raptor promises a stellar off-road experience. Will it be enough to finally take a win from Jeep? Perhaps we’ll get a chance to host a third and final battle and find out.