There's a tendency in this industry to look down on vehicles, especially sports or luxury products, that share major bits with seemingly lesser products. Take Audi, for example. Some might scoff at the fact an Audi RS3 has the same basic platform as a Volkswagen Tiguan. But humans share 84 percent of their genes with dogs, and I have about as much in common with man's best friend as an Audi sport sedan does with a VW crossover.
The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is open to similar attacks as the Audi. It’s a Bronco after all, and wearing that name comes with certain expectations regarding off-road capability as well as image (Broncos – old and new – are hella cool). But the Bronco Sport isn't some downsized version of the big model – it rides on Ford’s modular front-wheel-drive platform, which happens to underpin the soft-shoed Escape crossover. So it’s not surprising that some have questioned the Sport’s level of Bronco-ness because its underpinnings are far from the stuff made of rock crawling legend.
Question no more. After some time at the wheel of the new Bronco Sport, I’m now certain: the Bronco Sport has as much in common with the Escape as I do with my dog, Scooter.
Rock And Roll
The shared architecture means the Bronco Sport retains the Escape's same basic MacPherson front/multi-link rear suspension. But like the big Bronco, the Sport features a high-performance off-road suspension system, or HOSS, as Ford likes to call it. More a tuning philosophy reserved for the Bronco family than a specific bundle of hardware, HOSS rethinks the Escape's geometry for improved articulation and wheel travel and then tweaks the springs, dampers, and sway bars to fit the Bronco Sport's off-road mission. The capability gap is widest between Bronco Sport and Escape greater than in how they ride and handle.
Any cynical thoughts that this is some soft-road crossover masquerading as the real thing vanish when you take a turn. On the road, there's roll and lots of it, like you'd expect of a squishy off-road suspension. I had to change my approach a few miles into the drive, from taking corners as I would in a typical crossover to approaching them as if I were in a high-riding, softly sprung SUV – lower speed and more progressive steering inputs to avoid upsetting the chassis. This isn't the result of some shortcoming on Ford's part so much as it is the sacrifice the Sport's excellent off-road character demands.
Any cynical thoughts that this is some soft-road crossover masquerading as the real thing vanish when you take a turn.
The Bronco Sport is shocking in its ability on dirt roads. Even in the modest Outer Banks – that's the cushy member of Ford's convoluted collection of Bronco trims, analogous to Jeep's Limited line – there's a level of composure and stability on rough roads that's hard to overstate. At one point, I looked down as I was blasting along a wooded trail and realized I was pushing 60 miles per hour. A Jeep Compass or Renegade may handle better (i.e., more like a high-riding wagon) on paved roads, but the Bronco Sport is far more composed on dirt (and I say that as a former Compass and current Renegade owner).
After slowing down to a safer speed, I actually started aiming for bumps, potholes, and washboard surfaces, trying to find some combo of frequency and amplitude that would upset this brilliantly tuned suspension. I failed to find one. That stability through the steering and the composed ride give the Bronco Sport an uncommon confidence when it comes to traversing rough terrain at speed. And remember, I was driving an unenthusiastic trim – the Bronco Sport Badlands is even better thanks to specific tweaks to the springs and dampers, and meatier tires.
Like the lesser trims, the Badlands has GOAT (goes over any terrain) modes that optimize the engine, transmission, throttle, steering, and stability/traction control systems based on the terrain ahead.
In addition to Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, and Sand, the Badlands adds Mud/Ruts and Rocks settings to better take advantage of the extra inch of ground clearance (8.8 inches in total). There's also a more advanced all-wheel-drive system with a twin-clutch rear-drive unit and a liquid-cooled, locking rear differential – the Sport Badlands can split the torque fifty-fifty front to back, while the diff can transfer 100 percent of the rear axle's torque laterally.
Switch drive modes, though, and the Sport can do a good impression of a Raptor.
The result is a badass off-roader, compact cuteness be damned. Moguls of smooth rock, situated at a healthy incline, were little challenge for the Badlands or its 18:1 crawl ratio – the CUV trundled forward, requiring little more from me than steady throttle inputs. In Rocks mode, the steering is relaxed to prevent kickback through the wheel, once again contributing to straight-line stability and inspiring confidence – even an inexperienced off-roader would find such an obstacle approachable in the Badlands.
Switch drive modes, though, and the Sport can do a good impression of a Raptor. Ford created a short autocross course on a surface of deep, fine sand and let me have at it. With Sand mode selected, you can steer the Bronco Sport with the throttle – the rear-end will rotate when given a boot-full, while the uprated suspension does a good job of keeping all four wheels on the ground at speed.
On more relaxed trails and at the wheel again of an Outer Banks, there's still more capability than 99 percent of Sport owners would require. The 7.8 inches of ground clearance are suitable (if a bit less than the Jeep Compass Limited and Subaru Forester), and thanks to touches like the flat hood and squared-off nose, it's easy to place the baby Bronco on narrow trails and tight switchbacks. Of course, I wish Ford would offer the Badlands' nose-mounted camera on lesser trims – it'd make such situations easier to negotiate.
There's also a clear distinction between the two all-wheel-drive systems. The standard setup is broadly similar to the Escape's, and it struggled on some steep or sandy inclines unless the driver gathered momentum and maintained consistent pressure on the throttle.
It's reasonable to assume an experienced off-roader would find the less enthusiastic Sport trims still plenty capable.
Sitting at the back of a lead-follow session around an off-road course, I saw some other Bronco Sports (Outer Banks and Big Bend models) struggle, having to slowly reverse down aggressive inclines that proved too much. With the lessons from their struggles in mind, I didn't experience any difficulty on the obstacles – it's reasonable to assume an experienced off-roader would find the less enthusiastic Sport trims still plenty capable.
Can't Escape Some Things
Despite the very different handling character and capability, customers familiar with the Escape will undoubtedly recognize its elements in the Bronco Sport. That starts under the hood, where like the Escape, most Bronco Sports will feature a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder. The Badlands and the sold-out First Edition pack the Escape's turbocharged 2.0-liter. Eight-speed automatics are the order of the day.
With similar weights from three-pot Bronco to three-pot Escape, it's little surprise the relaxed performance I experienced in the latter carries over to the former. Like most turbocharged triples, there's a diesel-like character to this engine, which offers 181 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque.
Despite the very different handling character and capability, customers familiar with the Escape will undoubtedly recognize its elements in the Bronco Sport.
There's plenty of shove at low engine speeds, but while the torque peak is a relatively lofty 3,000 rpm, the Bronco Sport runs out of steam as the revs climb. This is by no means a quick vehicle, but it still feels punchier around town than the turbocharged Jeep Renegade (177 hp and 210 lb-ft) or the naturally aspirated Jeep Compass (180 hp and 175 lb-ft) thanks to the ample low-end shove and a likable transmission.
That eight-speed is a major contributor to the praise, easily besting FCA's dimwitted nine-speeds – its relaxed upshifts, minimal hunting on downshifts, and ability to just hold a damn gear for more than a few seconds are all positives. Icing on the cake comes off-road, where the drive modes help produce predictable behavior in most circumstances. The Bronco will hold gears as needed, whether via engine braking on descent or when surging up an incline.
There are some parts-bin items in here, of course. The steering wheel, aside from the bucking bronco badge on the airbag cover, is an Escape item, and the basic layout of the climate controls and infotainment system (despite the 8.0-inch display's smaller bezels) will look familiar. But I can forgive those shared components.
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Looking The Part
That's mainly because the rest of the Bronco Sport's cabin goes to such great lengths to distinguish itself from the Escape. Two cubbies sandwich the climate controls, with the lower unit featuring a wireless charge pad – they're a boon to usable space in the front seats. And touches like the rubberized surround on the gear selector dial and GOAT mode selector feel macho. But the Bronco Sport creates the biggest gap with its choice of color and materials.
Yes, plastic is prevalent in the cabin and some of it is cheap – that's the worst carryover from the Escape. But Ford contrasted the hard plastics on the dash and door panels with plenty of padding on major rest points and splashes of color to break up the fields of black dullness.
The Sport looks nothing like the Escape – you'd never know these two vehicles ride atop a shared architecture.
On the Outer Banks and Badlands, the Bronco Sport includes brilliant upholstery – the former features a neat and modern combo of blue and gray, while the Badlands is available with an optional saddle-and-black finish, which looks like something from an F-150 King Ranch. These two-tone finishes are a big reason to consider the Bronco Sport's top trims – the bottom pairings feature less interesting monotone finishes.
I'm going to resist the urge to wax poetic about the exterior, which I think looks fantastic, especially in Cactus Gray. In short, the Sport looks nothing like the Escape – you'd never know these two vehicles ride atop a shared architecture. But hidden in the Sport's design are smart, functional touches.
From behind the wheel, the broad, flat hood immediately conjures up images of old-school off-roaders. The subtle kick-up for the safari roof grants the baby Bronc’ even more headroom than the Escape, while the tailgate gets some extra usability thanks to the pop-up rear glass. In the cabin, there's MOLLE webbing on the seatbacks, clever cargo tie-downs in the trunk, and even a hidden bottle opener – these items all contribute to the overall utility of this crossover.
I said way back after the July debut of the new Bronco clan that while the full-size model was more exciting, the Bronco Sport was the more significant product. After a few hours in the Outer Banks and some off-roading in the Badlands, I'm now more certain of that than ever. This is a compact crossover like Ford has never built – it's fun and style-conscious, offering impressive capability and everyday versatility. And most importantly, the Bronco Sport has personality.
There will always be people out there criticizing parts-sharing between mainstream and enthusiast vehicles. The Bronco Sport is the latest sign that not only is that criticism wrong, but that this sharing can still breed very different and very interesting products.
Bronco Sport Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Drive
2021 Ford Bronco Sport Outer Banks