The past decade or so has been tough for off-road adventure vehicles. Many were discontinued, while others were resurrected or redesigned as on-road–oriented crossovers. But the winds are shifting yet again, and automakers are rediscovering the fun and excitement of pavement-free adventure.
So for our Motor1.com 2021 Star Awards, we thought it prudent to invite two of our most highly rated rugged vehicles from this year: the Ford Bronco and the Ram 1500 TRX. Both of these hotly anticipated off-roaders scored well in our initial testing, and we decided to round them up in one place to compete for the title of Best Adventure Vehicle. While the Bronco and TRX have wildly different missions, there’s no denying that both are capable of getting a group of friends out into the wild for camping, outdoor activities, and some much-needed R&R.
After a few days of off-roading (with some highway and country lane action peppered in), we tallied our votes. The result was nearly unanimous: Although the exhaust note and mean attitude of the Ram TRX was compelling, it was the retro-modern Bronco that took away the honors. How did the Blue Oval’s heritage-steeped off-roader manage to topple a 702-horsepower pickup? Through a charming personality and accessible off-road performance. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The keen-eyed reader will note we’re not calling this award “Best Off-Roader,” and that’s because off-roading is only one part of an adventure vehicle’s raison d’etre. Luckily, both of our entrants – the hulking, wide-bodied TRX and the nimble Bronco – have plenty of tricks to continue impressing owners even after they’ve washed the mud and sand off.
The Ford Bronco is the highly anticipated revival of the Blue Oval’s rugged SUV, which went on sale in 1966 before being discontinued after five generations and 30 years. The 2021 model is a return to classic form, adopting mid-size proportions and retro styling. Like the similarly heritage-laden Jeep Wrangler, the Bronco is available with two doors or four (our tester had the latter), as well as a removable roof and doors. Body-on-frame construction, a solid rear axle, and a standard two-speed, four-wheel-drive transfer case underscore the Ford’s rugged credentials.
However, the Bronco is far more athletic on pavement than its key competitors, the Wrangler and Toyota 4Runner. Its steering is accurate and precise, and the rugged suspension bits nevertheless handle mid-corner bumps and freeway undulations very well.
Then, when it’s time to play in the mud, the Bronco has a long list of standard and optional off-road kit like one-pedal trail driving, Trail Turn Assist (which locks the inside rear wheel to tighten the Bronc’s turning radius), and a disconnecting front sway bar that even works under tension. For all of those reasons and more, we gave the Bronco a score of 9.0 in our most recent review.
|2021 Ford Bronco First Edition||2021 Ram 1500 TRX|
|Engine:||Twin-Turbocharged 2.7-Liter V6||Supercharged 6.2-Liter V8|
|Output:||330 Horsepower / 415 Pound-Feet||702 Horsepower / 650 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||Ten-Speed Automatic||Eight-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||Part-Time Four-Wheel Drive||Full-Time Four-Wheel Drive|
|0-60 MPH:||6.3 Seconds (est.)||3.5 Seconds|
|Towing Capacity:||3,500 Pounds||8,100 Pounds|
|Efficiency:||17 City / 17 Highway / 17 Combined||10 City / 14 Highway / 12 Combined|
|Weight:||5,320 Pounds||6,350 Pounds|
|Cargo Volume:||35.6 / 77.6 Cubic Feet||53.9 Cubic Feet|
|Base Price:||$28,500 + $1,495 Destination||$70,325 + $1,695 Destination|
|Trim Base Price:||$62,605||$72,020|
While the Ford is no slouch in the powertrain department, especially with our tester’s optional turbocharged 2.7-liter V6, it can’t hold a candle to our other entrant in this category. The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX follows a recipe that Mopar fans will recognize – drop a Hellcat V8 under the hood and hang on tight. With 702 horsepower and 650 pound-feet on tap, the TRX is actually the least-powerful Hellcat-engined car in the Stellantis lineup, but it’s hard to lament anything when you’re hitting 60 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds – with four friends and some camping gear on board.
Adding to the big truck’s charm is front and rear suspension travel that exceed 13 inches, as well as 11.8 inches of ground clearance and about 32 inches of water-fording ability. A wider track – a la Ford F-150 Raptor – helps improve stability in high-speed off-road maneuvers, such as wide-open desert running. And in spite of all that capability, our fully loaded tester offered many creature comforts, like a massive 12.0-inch Uconnect touchscreen, heated and ventilated leather seats, and plenty of space for five. We gave the Ram 1500 TRX a score of 8.5 when we drove it, commending its blend of luxury, muscle, and pickup truck convenience.
How We Tested
As adventure vehicles, our competitors needed to excel on pavement, simply because even the most dedicated off-roaders spend much of their time on the road (even if only to get to the trailhead). We repeated the same 25-mile loop as the rest of the Star Awards contenders, with plenty of tight mountain switchbacks and wide-open country roads. Much of the geology-tortured pavement – SoCal is right on top of the San Andreas Fault, remember – gave the Bronco and TRX a good shakedown, though both exhibited far better manners than any of us expected.
In addition to our on-road testing, we sampled several of the mountain trails that criss-crossed our test HQ. Although many of these paths were easy enough for most crossovers to handle, we did find plenty of places to put the Bronco and TRX’s impressive clearance and wheel travel to the test. Our route’s tight trails allowed us to check out some of the Ford’s off-road tech, while a couple stretches of wide dirt road were the perfect spot to flex the Ram’s trophy-truck muscles.
And finally, we spent time perusing each automaker’s build-your-own tools and accessory catalogs, noting that many adventurers like to spec their vehicles out to the last degree. As such, the variety and usefulness of those port- or dealer-installed goodies were important to our testers. When the dust settled, our decision was nearly unanimous, with one vote going to the Ram 1500 TRX thanks to its outrageous powertrain and exceptional high-speed moves. The rest of us, however, found the Ford Bronco much easier and more fun to drive on-road, as well as more maneuverable out in the boonies.
Why The Ford Bronco Is This Year's Best Adventure Vehicle
The Ford Bronco does an excellent job of blending daily duties with weekend fun. There’s plenty of space on board for four adults (five in a pinch), the design is look-at-me stylish without resorting to modern tropes, and the Ford’s demeanor on pavement is as good as any 4x4 out there – and even better than a handful of crossovers! Yet, it’s not difficult at all to go off-roading in a Bronco, thanks to several neat technologies that lower the threshold of four-wheeling without taking the fun out of it.
Only adding to the fun is the Bronco’s removable roof and doors, giving it the same carefree attitude of a Jeep Wrangler (or the vintage namesake). And yet, there’s a long list of modern safety and convenience features, like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assistance, automatic emergency braking, and Sync 4 infotainment. Ford absolutely nailed the 2021 Bronco’s balance of old-school charm and contemporary usefulness.
The Ram 1500 TRX put up one hell of a fight, excelling for its incredible powertrain, intoxicating engine note, comfortable interior, and unquantifiable cool factor. But the Ford Bronco was ultimately easier to drive (both on and off-road), equally stylish, and even more fun. That it starts at just under $30,000 and hits $60,000 and change fully equipped – while the TRX can cost upwards of $90,000 – only improved its odds. In spite of the years of anticipation, the Ford Bronco absolutely lives up to the hype.
- October 12: Best Value - Hyundai Elantra Hybrid
- October 14: Best Luxury Vehicle - Mercedes-Benz S-Class
- October 18: Best Electric Vehicle - Ford Mustang Mach-E
- October 20: Best Performance Vehicle - Volkswagen Golf GTI
- October 22: Best Adventure Vehicle - Ford Bronco
- October 25: Best Truck - Ford F-150
- October 27: Best Family Vehicle - Kia Sorento
- October 29: Editors' Choice - Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo
Stay tuned for much more on the first annual Motor1.com Star Awards. As always, we welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.