Dan Schaffer is a veteran Ford engineer who has specialized in off-roading and four-wheel-drive systems. He’s a 30-year Jeep Wrangler owner, and he can drive the hell out of a 2021 Ford Bronco on an off-road course. His skill behind the wheel and familiarity with the Bronco’s engineering are likely the reasons he’s one of two drivers giving rides in the Bronco on a sunny August afternoon at the Holly Hills ORV Park in Holly, Mich.

And the Bronco can handle everything Schaffer has to dish out.

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

I’m here for a first ride in the Bronco months before we get to take the wheel. For now, I have what Schaffer tells me and shows me to go by on a course prepared by Ford likely to shed the best light on the Bronco. Still, what I’m about to see looks promising.

Shaffer is piloting a Bronco Badlands model with the 2.3-liter turbo-4 and 7-speed manual transmission at the Holly Hills ORV Park in Holly, Mich. The Badlands is the top off-road-oriented model, but this one lacks the Sasquatch package that maxes out the off-road capability. The Badlands comes with a disconnecting front stabilizer bar, a heavy-duty suspension with Bilstein dampers, full-time four-wheel drive with locking front and rear differentials, seven driving modes, rock rails, marine-grade vinyl upholstery, rubberized flooring, and a powder-coated modular front bumper. 

This model features 285/70R17 Goodyear Territory tires instead of the Sasquatch package’s 35-inch beadlock-capable 315/70R17s. It also lacks the Sasquatch’s high-clearance suspension and fender flares, and therefore doesn’t have the best approach, breakover and departure angles in the Bronco lineup. What we’re about to do, in theory, isn’t even all the Bronco might be able to do.

We fly off anyway, banging around off-road obstacles only slowing down when necessary. Shaffer apparently doesn’t subscribe to the old adage that off-roading is the most fun you can have in a vehicle at low speeds. Tread lightly? Why bother when your company can come in and rework the course when you’re done.

He chooses Sand mode for the first section, which is deep sand. It’s important to keep up speed and revs to paddle through the stuff, so Sand mode acts like a Sport mode to make it easier to tap into the estimated 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque of the 2.3-liter turbo-4. I’m not in the driver’s seat, so I can’t tell you what the throttle response is like, but the Bronco cuts through the sand with ease and some combination of power and Shaffer’s right foot make this vehicle feel like it has plenty of grunt.

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

Next up is a bumpy run up an 18-degree hill. For this section, Shaffer stays in Sand mode and locks the rear differential to give the Bronco consistent power as each of the rear tires momentarily loses traction as they bounce over the numerous bumps. The Bronco climbs right up the hill without a sweat.

Long, steep descents between 17 and 19 degrees await on the trail and Shaffer switches to 4 Low and simply keeps the vehicle in a lower gear to control the speed downhill. No hill descent control is needed here, just the high crawl ratios afforded by the 7-speed manual transmission and the 4 Low gearing.

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

On one shorter but steeper hill, Shaffer shows me how the Bronco’s crawler gear works. It requires coming to a stop, pulling up on the ring around the gearshift to shift to reverse, then moving the gearshift straight down into C. The Bronco is now in its most-extreme 94.75:1 crawl ratio.

The two-door inches down the hill and the front and rear ends clear without touching the dirt. The Bronco also cleared the crest of the hill without touching. The base Badlands may not have the taller, 11.6-inch ride height of the Sasquatch package, but its approach, breakover, and departure angles are still quite forgiving. Ford is also running a four-door on this course, but I’m not in it so I can’t say if it would bottom out over the top of any of these hills.

One very helpful feature for these steep hills is the forward-view camera. It comes on automatically when the vehicle is in 4 Low and switches off when the Bronco exceeds 13 mph. It shows rocks that might be in the way, turns ahead when the nose is pointed to the sky, and how close the nose gets to the ground when exiting steep grades.

Shaffer doesn’t use the Trail Control feature, which is essentially off-road cruise control, but he does note that the speed can be set in 0.5-mph increments between 1 and 20 mph when in 4 Low. Otherwise, it adjusts in 1-mph increments.

Sandy, dirty terrain separates the various challenging bits on this track and Shaffer takes the opportunity to rail on the Bronco in these sections. Throttle pinned, shifting with the revs, and kicking up rooster tails, he’s having a good time, and so am I. I like this guy.

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

2021 Ford Bronco two-door first ride

Next up is a large puddle that fails to show off the Bronco’s water-fording capability. It’s maybe a foot deep and the Bronco can run through as much as 33.5 inches of water. This bit is child’s play for the Bronco, but Shaffer makes it fun by charging through it to kick up a gout of water. The front section of the Bronco’s top is off, so the water splashes on us. I feel like a kid on the log ride at Six Flags.

The final obstacle is a series of articulation bumps that send two wheels up in the air while two others rest on humps of earth. Shaffer brings the Bronco to a stop, teetering in this position, then hits the active anti-roll bar button and the front end drops down to find traction. It hits the ground and gives the Bronco much more stability. Schaffer compares it to a table on three legs versus one on two. Of course, an electronically disconnecting sway bar isn’t new. This just shows that Ford’s works as advertised.

A quick run up the final hill, and the ride is over. This short experience shows me the Bronco just may be everything it’s cracked up to be and more. In person, it looks macho, retro, and cohesive, but the performance is thoroughly modern. The base 2.3-liter turbo-4 in this Badlands model feels powerful, which is made more appealing by the 7-speed manual transmission. The Bronco charges up hills and crawls down them, its disconnecting front stabilizer bar acts like a kickstand, and its rips through sand with ease. A Jeep Wrangler can do it all just as easily, but this ride shows the Bronco will immediately become a worthy rival in what has been a class of one for decades. Let the competition begin.

Ford made rides available at an off-road park it had prepared and paid for a one-night hotel stay for Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this first-hand report.

 

2021 Ford Bronco preview: Ford wrangles a Jeep rival

Jeep Wrangler, you've had it too good for too long. The 2021 Ford Bronco is coming for you with a well-thought out, thorough lineup of retro-styled off-roaders that incorporate all the best Wrangler features and add some of their own.

Ford unveiled the 2021 Bronco on Monday in two- and four-door body styles, along with a little brother called the Ford Bronco Sport.

The 2021 Bronco is a body-on-frame SUV based on the next-generation T6 platform, the current version of which underpins the Ranger pickup. Dana axles are used front and rear, with a MacPherson strut independent front suspension and a solid rear axle with coil springs and five locating links. An upgraded suspension with long-travel Bilstein dampers is reserved for more serious off-road versions. It also features end-stop control valves to smooth out hard off-road compression.

The Bronco will offer all the off-road goodies: part-time or full-time four-wheel drive with a 2-speed transfer case, Spicer Performa-TraK front and rear locking differentials, 35-inch tires with beadlock-capable wheels, plenty of suspension travel, skid plates, a low crawling ratio, a disconnecting sway bar, a variety of terrain modes, and even off-road navigation. It will also come with the features that make the Wrangler so special: a removable top and doors.

The standard hard top on the two-door model will come in three sections with two up front and one in the rear. Buyers will be able to get a version with a removable section over the rear seats. Four-door models have four-section roofs. All have removable quarter windows. Four-door buyers will also be able to choose a cloth soft top. The removable doors are frameless and can be stowed on board in bags in the four-door model. 

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

Best-in-class capability

As a shot across the bow at the Jeep Wrangler, Ford claims best-in-class ground clearance of up to 11.6 inches, front and rear suspension travel that gains 17 percent over the closest competitor, a crawl ratio of 94.75:1, water fording capability of up to 33.5 inches, and breakover departure angles of 29 and 37.2 degrees, respectively.

Ford also claims best 4- and 6-cylinder torque and fuel economy. The base engine is a 2.3-liter turbo-4 making an estimated 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. An available twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6 is projected to make 310 hp but turn up the torque to 400 lb-ft. Fuel economy numbers have not been announced.

The 94.75:1 crawl ratio will be available with the standard 7-speed manual transmission and full-time four-wheel-drive system. A part-time, shift-on-the-fly 4WD system will be standard. Buyers will also be able to choose a 10-speed automatic transmission. With the automatic and the full-time 4WD system, the lowest crawl ratio is 67.8:1.

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

A model for every off-road need

Set to go on sale next spring with a starting price of $29,995 (including $1,495 for destination), the Bronco will come in six models, five of which sound like ultimate off-roaders. The trim levels include base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak, and Badlands. For good measure, an additional Sasquatch package for all models amps up the off-road capability. It comes with full-time 4WD, locking front and rear axles, high-clearance suspension and fender flares, 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels, and a high-performance suspension with the aforementioned Bilstein dampers. A Launch Edition based on the Badlands will also be offered in a limited run of 3,500 units to play off the 35-inch tires.

Notable features of these models will include heavy-duty bumpers, skid plates, water-resistant marine-grade vinyl upholstery, and a locking rear differential for the Black Diamond; LED headlights and taillights and glossy trim for the Outer Banks; the V-6 and 35-inch tires with beadlock-capable wheels for the Wildtrak; and the disconnecting front stabilizer bar, performance suspension, and locking front and rear differentials for the Badlands.

Ford will launch the Bronco with more than 200 accessories, including donut doors, so buyers can customize their vehicles. Exposed front and rear tow hooks will be on the menu. Available underbody protection will include a front bash plate; engine, transmission, transfer case, and fuel tank skid plates; and side rock rails that can support the full weight of the vehicle on each side.

2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco

The Bronco will come standard with a terrain management system that Ford calls G.O.A.T. for Goes Over Any Terrain. It has Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, Mud, Sand, Baja, and Rock Crawl modes. Its controller is located on the center console, with additional off-road controls on the top of the dash. These activate an off-road cruise control function, a turn-assist feature that uses torque vectoring to help the vehicle rotate around tight off-road turns at low speeds, and one-pedal driving.

Inside, the Bronco gets an 8.0- or 12.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment, an optional surround-view camera system with off-road spotter views, wipeable surfaces, and silicone rubber switches. Ford will also offer washable rubber floors, and six upfitter switches.

The Bronco will be available with forward-collision warnings with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, auto-dimming high beams, automatic headlights, blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts, active lane control, rear parking sensors, and post-impact braking.

Look for complete pricing closer to the Bronco's launch next spring. In the meantime, interested buyers can place $100 deposits now at Ford.com