Typically, birthdays mean giving presents to the person having the party. But for the Bronco's 55th birthday, our present came direct from the Blue Oval: an all-too-brief, off-road-only ride in the 2021 Ford Bronco months and months before it will arrive in showrooms. As you can see in the video we recorded, I'm understandably giddy about the trip.

Hosted at Holly Oaks Off-Road Park north of Detroit, Ford allocated just a few minutes of time in a Bronco Badlands, complete with the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder and seven-speed, crawl gear-equipped manual transmission. It lacked the Sasquatch package, of course, but I can't say I missed it – the Badlands Bronco felt more than capable of some off-road heroics.

2021 Ford Bronco two-door yellow driving off-road from the side
2021 Ford Bronco from above with accessories


I've looked at the Bronco since its debut as a Wrangler competitor, but don't tell that to my driver, a Ford product development engineer who pushed the big two-door around like it was a Raptor, bombing down trails and through sand at speed. The turbocharged 2.3-liter and its 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque felt eager, revving quickly. There was little lag, although it was hard to look at this engine and not think how much better the twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter would be for high-speed work.

Instead, the Bronco's base engine did its best work surging uphill on an uninterrupted stream of torque. But when it came time to slow down, the turbo-four demonstrated admirable behavior, too. I'm not sure how much experience my driver had, but I've been off-roading intermittently for the better part of a decade, mainly in the Jeep Wrangler and assorted Land Rovers, and I still struggle with throttle inputs at a crawl.

2021 Ford Bronco interior manual gear shifter
2021 Ford Bronco interior infotainment screen and buttons

With the Bronco in low range, both its diffs locked, and the crawler gear engaged though, our driver took us over a set of moguls with such ease that I almost forgot how big these obstacles were. It was borderline smooth, with none of the unathletic heaving about that normally accompanies my efforts at rock crawling or moguls. Thank that crawl gear.

As for the seven-speed manual box, engaging the crawl gear requires the driver to lift a collar on the shifter and then pull far down and to the left. Other gear changes took less effort, with the Bronco allowing quick shifts via short throws. It's hard to judge shift feel based just on looking at the shifter, but I got the impression that getting from gate to gate won't take as much effort as in a Wrangler – again, though, that's based on trying to observe changes while being thrown around. Consider it one of the many questions I'll have to answer when it finally comes time to drive the Bronco.

2021 Ford Bronco driving on sand
2021 Ford Bronco taillight

Lemme See You Bounce

Give our video first ride of the Bronco a watch and you'll see me thrown all about the cabin. But I'm not holding that against the truck – we were stampeding down those trails in a manner you'd expect of a Raptor, but the Bronco happily obliged. The ride was bouncy, but at lower speeds, like on the moguls, the SUV settled down and displayed tight body controls. I'm very excited to drive the Bronco in a gentler manner, because it could prove to be a darn comfortable off-roader.

As for that high-speed running, our driver didn't seem to be working too hard to keep the big Bronco pointed in the right direction. While Jeep fans have criticized this truck's independent front suspension, based on my brief ride, it feels like a more controllable SUV when pushed hard in rough conditions. Whether it will hold up in lower-speed off-roading, where the Wrangler thrives, remains a question that this brief first ride couldn't answer.

As for that high-speed running, our driver didn't seem to be working too hard to keep the big Bronco pointed in the right direction.

Going fast over rough terrain isn't the Bronco's only party trick. Like the Wrangler Rubicon, it also has disconnecting sway bars. Unlike the Wrangler, though, which requires all four wheels to be on even ground, the Bronco can disconnect its sway bars even while one corner of the suspension is under load.

It's a small thing, but this easy adjustment affords additional flexibility for off-roaders who accidentally get in over their head – rather than backing off an obstacle to disconnect your sway bars (or, you know, just doing it to begin with…) you can make the change at the spur of a moment. It's a small convenience and in most situations, we'd probably just disconnect before setting off, but adaptability – from all the removable exterior bits to the wild customization of the cabin to the huge number of possible configurations – seems core to the Bronco's character. It's hard to argue that this system isn't a chief example of that.

2021 Ford Bronco two-door off-road yellow
2021 Ford Bronco driving off-road with accessories

Back To The Stable

There was much this ride didn't show me. I still don't know how the Bronco's 10-speed automatic will behave or whether the 2.7-liter V6 is the better choice. We still haven't seen Trail Turn in action. And while the SUV we sat in had a pretty darn good cabin, there was a fair amount of noise, particularly from the roof, and many of the materials were clearly pre-production items. But those are relatively small things I can forgive on a vehicle that's still six to eight months away from showrooms. And of course, I also don't know how lesser versions of the Bronco will perform.

But after experiencing it, all the enthusiasm the Bronco has conjured feels worthwhile. Even in a very early build, this feels like exactly the sort of vehicle customers have been craving from Ford. It seems eminently capable in most low-speed operations, but the way the Bronco handled high-speed off-roading was a pleasant surprise. While the Raptor will likely remain the king of that particular discipline, it's encouraging that the Bronco has some adeptness and that Ford is providing a more affordable pathway to that sort of performance.

Gallery: 2021 Ford Bronco

2021 Ford Bronco Badlands Two-Door

Engine Turbocharged 2.3-liter I4
Output 270 Horsepower / 310 Pound-Feet
Transmission 7-Speed Manual
Drive Type 4-Wheel Drive
Efficiency N/A
Weight 4,339 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 23.6 / 52.3 Cubic Feet
Towing 3,500 Pounds
Base Price $42,095
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