Let's get the most important question about the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport out of the way. Yes, it most certainly deserves to be a part of the Bronco family. It's fair to be cynical when an automaker tries to bring a popular, enthusiast-focused badge down market and to a wider audience.
But after going for an off-road ride in the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport at Holly Oaks Off-Road Park outside of Detroit last week, we're confident that the cynicism surrounding Ford's smaller, more affordable Bronco doesn't come at the expense of the brand itself.
This feels like a Bronco, full stop. It's just more manageable and a little less powerful. It never wants for capability, though, at least in the Badlands spec we sampled. Equipped with the most powerful engine – a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder – a lifted suspension with larger rear shocks, and rugged 28.5-inch off-road rubber, this is as capable as a Bronco Sport can get.
On The Trail
The big takeaway from our few minutes in the Bronco Sport is that it's damn comfortable on trails, both in the crossover's willingness to go off-road and the way the suspension handles the rough stuff.
Right out of the gate, the Bronco Sport felt in its element, tackling a steep decline, charging through deep sand, and then climbing a big, sandy hill. It felt eager in these situations, its 2.0-liter engine providing ample power to keep the compact crossover charging ahead. In particular, the all-wheel-drive system provided impressive grip on the climb – we couldn't feel any slippage or let up in forward progress. And we weren't even using the nifty Trail Control system.
The big takeaway from our few minutes in the Bronco Sport is that it's damn comfortable on trails.
We’re guilty of calling that piece of equipment (exclusive to the Bronco Badlands) as off-road cruise control, but there's more to it than that. We couldn't imagine using Trail Control, for example, on level ground, mainly because we prefer our own right foot. But in any situation where we'd normally engage a vehicle's hill descent control, Trail Control shines through going down and up – it does the normal job of hill descent, but also works in the opposite direction. On a rocky, slick, or sandy climb, this system is a godsend.
Tackling that sort of terrain doesn't mean being uncomfortable. In fact, the Bronco Sport's high-riding suspension felt almost plush when pushed around a trail, with limited vertical motion and very tight lateral motions. In general, the Bronco Sports we were riding in were much further along in the build process than the full-size Broncos (and they had fixed roofs), but the level of noise control was also impressive in this compact.
The Right Sounds
Considering the sheer number of dreary turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinders on the market, we'd forgive the Bronco Sport for sounding a bit dull. It doesn't, though. In fact, Ford tuned the exhaust of the Sport to be more enticing than in an Escape, which uses the same engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. And as a cherry on top, the 2.0-liter gets a little throatier in some of the off-road driving modes.
The result is that the 2.0-liter Sport arguably sounds better than the 2.3-liter Bronco Badlands we rode in later in the day. It feels about as peppy, too. Our driver didn't push the Bronco Sport too hard, but we got a couple of bursts of acceleration that revealed similar performance to the 2.0-liter Escape. That means ample low-end shove and a meaty mid-range.
The eight-speed automatic felt up to the task of off-roading, holding gears responsibly and without input from the wheel-mounted paddles. It was difficult to judge shift speeds, although if it's anything like the Escape's 8AT, we're expecting smart behavior on the road.
Get In, Get Out
Being further along in the development cycle than the full-size Bronco, the Sport's cabin felt noticeably more complete. The material quality in our Badlands tester appeared high, and while similarities in design to the Escape are readily apparent, Ford's color and material choices are distinct enough that we can forgive the shared visual elements. As for the main touchpoints, the front seat was comfortable and supportive while bombing around the trails.
Like our first ride in the full-size Bronco, our time with the Sport was fleeting, no more than a few minutes on the trails. But in that time, this small crossover made a big impression with its poise and ability. We're still several months away from our first drive of the Bronco Sport, but it seems safe to say that at least in terms of off-road ability, this new model has the chops to bring a new group of customers into Ford showrooms.
Gallery: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport
2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands