First Drive In The 2021 Ford Bronco at Off-Roadeo
Photos Courtesy of Ford
Let’s get this out of the way right now. You want to know if the new Bronco is any good, right? Does it even stand a chance competing against the Wrangler? The answers to those questions are yes and absolutely.
The world has been waiting with incredible patience for the all-new 6th-generation Ford Bronco to arrive. And it’s been a long wait. The very first teaser images were released by Ford in March of 2018. That covered silhouette of the two-door Bronco provided our first indication that this was going to be a hardcore off-roader with the right mix of retro style honoring the original.
Two years (!) later we gave you the full specs and details (https://www.4wheelparts.com/the-dirt/2021-ford-bronco-first-look-everything-we-know-about-fords-reborn-wrangler-fighter/) on the new Bronco. And back in March we gave you a taste of what it’s like to spend a little time with the Bronco along with some excellent hands on photos and video (https://www.4wheelparts.com/the-dirt/we-hit-the-dirt-in-the-2021-ford-bronco-first-drive/).
But last week Ford offered the opportunity to spend a couple days driving Broncos on the great trails around Grey Wolf Ranch near Austin, Texas—a location Ford will use for the Bronco Off-Roadeo. So, we jumped. Ford designed the Off-Roadeo program for owners of the new Bronco to experience and learn more about its capabilities. Other Off-Roadeo locations include Moab, Nevada, and the Northeast.
We slid behind the wheel of several Bronco trim levels in both two and four door configurations. And we made sure to try the manual transmission trucks on the street and trail too. Here’s what we learned.
On the Street
The lineup for the street drive included nearly every Bronco configuration. But it was a particular manual transmission two-door that first caught our eye.
Black Diamond Manual Two-Door
The Black Diamond model is a great spec for those that need to balance capability with a reasonable price tag. For $38,035, our Cactus Grey hard top came with the standard heavy-duty bumpers, rock rails, 7 “G.O.A.T” modes in the 4WD system, locking rear diff, marine-grade wash-out rubber floors and 32-inch (265/70R17) tires mounted on tough-looking steelies. It’s a package that offers a lot of good 4WD hardware for the money. And this one was equipped with the standard 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder as well as the 7-speed manual transmission.
On the roads around Austin, the little Bronco was an absolute blast. The 7-speed manual makes the turbocharged four-cylinder downright quick. It’s a combination that really engages the driver in a way that few 4X4s do these days. On pavement, the manual crawler gear (marked “C”) is way too low to really use outside of a traffic jam. We revved the engine out in that gear and found that it’s good for about 18 mph—max. And because you have to pull up on the lockout ring and shift down and to the left, it’s clunky to use on the road anyway. Instead we had fun playing in gears 1-6. This manual shifts smoothly and the clutch is light.
This rig feels light and athletic when you drive it hard. We put the drive mode selector into Sport, which automatically engages the “auto” all-wheel drive mode. And it’s really fun. The manual makes the most of the turbocharged four-cylinder. Yes, there is some turbo lag to be sure, but when the power hits, this Bronco moves.
When it comes to ride quality, the Bronco is firm but never harsh. It’s about equal to a Wrangler of similar spec. But bend the Bronco into a corner and it’s a different experience from a Wrangler. The Bronco is more composed. Yes, there’s some body roll but it’s well controlled. The steering precision combined with the IFS suspension and the nicely-managed ride control motions inspired us to push it relatively hard on a country road. Hit a bump mid-corner and the Bronco’s chassis never gets frazzled. The same can’t be said for a Wrangler.
In terms of refinement and quietness, the Bronco is a step up from the Wrangler, too. The bodywork feels more enclosed and likely has more insulation. And that seems to keep road noise out. So, driving a Bronco means you don’t have to sacrifice refinement for capability. It acts much more like a conventional SUV on the road—it’s downright civilized and should be easy to live with as a daily driver.
There’s a lot of fun and comfort behind the wheel too. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes with lots of adjustment. And Ford has made sure the door sill is at the perfect height for the driver to rest an arm. We appreciate that. And it’s great to look out over the hood and see those peaked front fenders. The Bronco designers and engineers were thoughtful with just about everything you touch and feel. The grab handles are placed so that you can use them at any angle on the trial. There’s a cutout on the underside of the door marked “lift” for when you want to remove them. The Black Diamond is fairly utilitarian, and we love the removable floor plugs for washing out mud.
So, what don’t we like? The window and exterior mirror switches are located on the center console instead of the door—where we reached for them all day. Also, the gauge cluster is one area that Ford could have improved the design. There’s an analog speedometer on the left and an LCD box to the right that displays other functions. The asymmetrical design looks odd. And to our eye, doesn’t present the information as clearly as it could.
That said, the smaller, base-level 8-inch infotainment touchscreen is great. It’s large enough and once we paired our phone, provided easy and seamless switching from Google maps to satellite radio. In short, we’d be happy with this level of interior spec.
The next day we spent some time in a four-door Bronco Wildtrak softop model. The Wildtrak comes standard with the 2.7-liter turbocharged V6 EcoBoost and 10-speed automatic. It also wears the Sasquatch package which includes the big 35-inch tires, font and rear locking differentials, the Bilstein suspension as well as a special Baja G.O.A.T mode.
As much as we like the manual four-cylinder Bronco, the V6 and automatic combination feels like the right match for the 4-door Bronco on the street. The 2.7-liter generates 330 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. That’s 30 hp and 90 lb-ft of torque more than the four-cylinder. The additional torque is noticeable, especially because turbo lag is almost non-existent. And considering this model is riding on relatively big tires—it feels strong. It sounds great too with a solid growl from that Six.
We were expecting the big tires of the Sasquatch tires to feel somewhat ponderous on-pavement. But instead, the Bronco handles securely. It’s composed on the twisty roads with a smooth ride too. In fact, the driving manners are so good, there’s no reason not to have the Sasquatch equipment. There’s no getting around it—soft tops can be loud, and the Bronco had wind noise coming from the top and mirrors. We’d probably opt for the hardtop.
On the Trails
Ford offered up three trails on the Texas Bronco Off-Rodeo course—all named after hot peppers. And we tried a different Bronco on each one.
Our first trail, Habanero, was a muddy mix of water crossings and medium-slow crawling over chewed-up terrain. Our steed was a two-door Wildtrak ($53,650) with the tires aired down to 25 psi. The right G.O.A.T. mode for this trail was Mud and Ruts which locks the rear axle and engages 4WD high range.
First impressions? The Wildtrak’s Bilstein suspension and cush 35-inch tires really smooth out the bumps. The gearing is spot-on too. Even on this mildly difficult trail, where we might engage low range on other 4X4s, there’s no need in the Wildtrak. It has the gearing and clearance to make this trail seem fairly simple.
The location of the buttons for the off-road oriented functions is up high on the dash, right in your sightline where they should be. It makes locking and unlocking the axles and engaging the Bronco’s other trail tools quick and easy. And speaking of the lockers, you can lock them individually, so you can just have just the front locked, which is cool and helps on slick turns when you want the traction without the push of understeer.
The Wildtrak has the larger 12-inch infotainment screen. And it offers an awesome 360-degree trail camera system which can be reconfigured to show 4 different views. It’s so good you could practically drive by just looking at the screen. We definitely didn’t do that but it did help us know exactly how close we were to the obstacles.
Later we used Trail One-Pedal Drive (a button located in center of the G.O.A.T. mode selector wheel). This is may be the best trail tool in the Bronco’s arsenal. As soon as you step on the throttle and then ease off, the brakes are applied. We tried it on a steep off-camber downhill rocky section in low range and it made creeping up and over the obstacles very controlled. This is impressive tech.
Later, we maxed the Wildtrak’s suspension articulation with the lockers engaged and the capability was outstanding. Ford says a two-door with the swaybar connected scores an RTI of 560 which is a fairly good number. We only aired a tire high in the sky once and it was very manageable.
Here’s the thing enthusiasts will appreciate: Ford has made a big effort to keep the four-wheeling as analog as you want it to be. So, traction control never takes over the experience. On the Wildtrak, that means it will spin the tires quite a bit if opposing wheels are off the ground and wait for you to realize you need to take action and lock one or both of the axles. Engineers told us that if a Bronco isn’t equipped with lockers, the traction control does step in more aggressively. That makes a good case for getting theses diffs from the factory.
Toward the end of this ride we tried Trail Turn Assist feature. Press the button up on the dash and the system will essentially drag the inside rear brake to make the rig pivot. Ford says it can improve the turning radius by up to 40 percent. Later we tried it on a four-door Bronco and it was way more noticeable and really helpful too.
This was the most hardcore trail of the bunch. It offered plenty of steep rocky climbs and ledges that required a locked front axle. Fortunately, we found a seat in a $57,430 four-door Badlands model with the Sasquatch package. This is the top rung in the Bronco trim ladder and the most capable model. So, this was our first opportunity to experience Rock Crawl mode as well as the swaybar disconnect system.
Rock Crawl mode works well, and we noticed that the system would add a hint of traction control to limit wheelspin at times. We felt it in the front axle as we were climbing a steep ledge with just the rear locker engaged. It added just enough brake to limit the slipping tire but not enough to slow our momentum. Ford says tuning the system to work that subtly took a lot of work. And they did a great job.
The front swaybar disconnect system unlocks quite a bit of flex and comfort. You can “set it and forget it”. In other words, once you press the button, the swaybar will engage and disengage as your speed moves above or below the 20-mph threshold. And the additional flex (RTI on this four-door is approximately 620 with the swaybar disconnected) not only helps keep the front tires in contact with the terrain but it smooths the ride.
We played with the system while creeping across a rocky section with watermelon-sized rocks. When connected, the ride became fairly rough with some head toss. Disconnected, the harshness of those suspension impacts motions are damped out. We certainly didn’t need the swaybar disconnect here for traction. Ford says the Badlands has 8.7-inches of wheel travel up front and 10.1-inches in the rear. We’d really like this system to eventually become a free-standing option, available once you’ve checked the Sasquatch option box.
It’s clear just how valuable the 315/70R17 (35-inch) tires are on a trail like this. At street pressure, Ford says there is 11.5 inches of ground clearance. But even with them slightly aired down to 25 psi, these tires give you just enough room to clear just about everything on the trail—when you put the tires in the right places. We rarely heard any rubbing or scraping underneath the truck. And we didn’t notice a compromise from the 4-door’s 116-inch wheelbase on this trail.
The Jalapeño trail was the mellowest of the bunch. It’s designed to give folks the experience of driving on a rough two-track. We only really needed 4WD low range a handful of times.
For this last round, we picked a $42,720 Black Diamond with the four-cylinder and manual transmission. It was just like the one we had the first day on the street right down to the color, except this one was a four-door.
This powertrain is quite a lot of fun in the dirt. When you use the crawler gear in 4WD high range, it has a crawl ratio of nearly 30:1, thanks to the 6.588:1 transmission ratio. That’s cool because it acts like a midway point between high and low range. But shift into low and you’ll have a crawl ratio of 94.75:1. That’s better than nearly any new 4X4. And it makes this Bronco a real trail tractor. You can idle up and over very tricky spots with amazing control. And in our testing, 2 mph is about the top speed in this gear. Downside? You do miss out on Trail Turn Assist feature when you opt for the manual.
The Black Diamond’s standard suspension and 32-inch all-terrain Generals felt a bit harder in terms of ride quality on this trial—even at 25 psi. So, after experiencing the 35-inchers and the Bilstein dampers on the Sasquatch trucks, we wouldn’t hesitate to order that package on any Bronco.
The Fun Havver
The goodness of the Bilstein suspension became clear when we arrived at an open field and were offered rides on the “Fun Havver”. This short, high-speed off-road course was designed with the help of racers Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Loren Healy—who were both giving rides.
We hopped in a Wildtrak with Gittin and as soon as he saw our name badge remarked, “4-Wheel Parts, huh? Well I know I don’t have to take it easy on you!” And we were off. He pushed the Bronco hard, over a section of whoops (at around 30 mph no less), into some chuckholes and over a jump. The Bronco felt remarkably composed. There was no pogoing in the front suspension likely thanks to those Bilsteins. And it never smashed into its bumpstops or felt like it was on the edge of abuse. It’s clear that a bone stock Bronco Wildtrak could be an excellent high-speed desert vehicle.
What We’d Buy
The Bronco is a legit competitor to the Wrangler. In fact, the Bronco probably has a wider breadth of capability when you consider it’s on-road refinement and its excellent high-speed dirt performance. After a couple days sampling nearly all the trim levels, we know how we’d spec our own.
Ford says upwards of 70 percent of all Broncos are the higher trim levels and more than 60 percent are V6. But the best deal of the bunch is the Base model. So, we’d simply get a base two door hardtop with the four-cylinder engine and 7-speed manual. Ford revised the options to allow manual transmission Broncos to have the Sasquatch package—so we’d add that and have one stellar $38,000 4X4.