In September 2020, my wife and I took delivery of a Jeep Renegade Limited. This was not the original plan. We wanted the car pictured here, a 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands. In a fit of optimism after the July debut, we got as far as submitting a preorder and deposit before realizing six weeks later that a $450 monthly car payment made little sense with COVID keeping us indoors and working from home for the rest of time.
We were right, as seven months later the Slate Blue Renegade we got for a song has a mere 3,000 miles on it. But after a week behind the wheel of the Baby Bronco, our buyer's remorse is stronger than ever. For her, the Bronco was “cuter.” For me, it's everything else. The Sport Badlands, more even than the Outer Banks I reviewed in November, is packed with character and a joy to drive. It's capable, powerful, and for now, unique. In other words, it's a cure for the common crossover.
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The Bronco Sport has become an increasingly common sight on the roads of metro Detroit, and it's easy to understand why the Motor City has taken to it so quickly. It's a boxy thing, with strong lines on the flat hood and slightly flared wheel arches working with a simple, two-box profile. The neat safari-style roof breaks up the profile and adds a dose of vintage Land Rover Discovery flair, while also amplifying cargo volume.
While I'm reviewing the Badlands, this Sport is technically a First Edition, which is little more than a loaded Badlands with some trim tweaks, graphics, and gloss-black wheels. I'm ambivalent on the black stickers, although they add a bit more variety to the Area 51 paint and black roof, and the First Edition wheels are not the good ones.
In the cabin, though, the First Edition wears Navy Pier leather upholstery, which is otherwise only available on the three-cylinder Outer Banks. It's the main reason I won't begrudge any of the 2,000 buyers for the limited-edition option – I like the three upholstery choices on the Sport Badlands, but the blue leather and gray fabric feel more modern and refined. The bucking Bronco logo embossed on the seatbacks adds to that impression, although that touch is hardly exclusive to the First Edition.
There's a clear argument to make regarding the Bronco Sport's interior material quality. Plastic is abundant and it's harder than expected on a car that starts at nearly $30,000, particularly on the doors, around the climate vents, and on the center stack. But in a week of testing, I never heard a creak or a groan, or stumbled across a sharp piece of trim. This is hard plastic, and I wish Ford would do better, but at the very least it feels durable and well screwed together, rather than cheap and flimsy.
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The Bronco Sport features a cushy and supportive pair of front chairs with ample headroom and, on the driver's side, eight-way power adjustments. Heating is standard on both the Badlands and First Edition and proved a worthwhile feature on a few frosty mornings. The First Edition adds a standard heated steering wheel (it's part of an option pack on the Badlands), while the seating position is excellent regardless of model, with solid fore, aft, and lateral sightlines.
Life in the back isn't as stellar. The second-row bench is comfortable while climbing in or out is easy enough, but with just 36.9 inches of legroom the Ford gives up a substantial 1.4 inches on the Jeep Compass. As a place to store things, though, the backseats are impressive. Most trims, including the Badlands/First Edition, offer zippable storage pouches in the front seatbacks and MOLLE webbing to hang stuff from. The seat cushion lifts up revealing a cubby for hiding valuables, too.
Smart storage space is a calling card in the cargo area, as well. Pop the rear window up for quick access to the 32.4-cubic-foot trunk. There are tie-down hooks and loops, a 110-volt outlet, and even a handy pair of lights hidden in the tailgate. This tester had a simple cargo mat, but you can get a slide-out table and shelving, too. And of course, the hidden bottle opener near the passenger's side taillight helped feed my Topo Chico habit during testing.
The composed ride, meanwhile, is pleasant even on rough roads. As I remarked during the first drive, the Bronco Sport is unflappable when facing potholes or other pavement defects, providing stable and predictable behavior. But comfy as the ride is, it's also louder than most crossovers with an on-road focus.
If you've spent even a small amount of time with the fourth-generation Escape, you'll recognize the Bronco Sport's tech suite. An 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system operating Ford's Sync 3 software is adequate, if unremarkable. Sync 4 would be welcome here, so the Bronco Sport could adopt some of the same off-road connectivity features as its big sibling.
The big Bronco's more advanced infotainment system enables features like Trail Maps, allowing owners to create and share off-road maps and reference them without requiring a cellular signal. Here's hoping a future Bronco Sport facelift addresses this shortcoming. But beyond technologies exclusive to Sync 4, the infotainment largely does what it needs to with attractive graphics and adequate response times.
The Bronco Sport splits the difference between the Escape's two available in-cluster displays. It lacks the full 12.3-inch screen from range-topping models, but the 6.5-inch unit is a marked upgrade over its cousin's base 4.2-inch screen. This screen looks nice, but is rather limited in its functionality, mimicking the same collection of pages as the 4.2-inch unit.
Frankly, the Escape's tech suite is perfectly serviceable but hardly worth writing home over. I like Sync 3, but Sync 4 would be better, and the 8.0-inch display is tiny relative to newer Ford products. Features like a standard wireless phone charger are nice, but Ford has more interesting tech available for a range-topping model like the Bronco Sport Badlands.
The Bronco Sport's base turbocharged three-cylinder engine is an okay companion, but I'll take the turbocharged 2.0-liter every day of the week and twice on Sundays. With 250 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque to motivate just 3,700 pounds of crossover, the Bronco Sport is something of a pocket rocket. There's ample low-end torque and solid mid-range thrust, so the Sport feels as at home on highways as it does around town. This is the better sounding powerplant, too, substituting the three-cylinder's harshness with the refined tone of a four-cylinder.
An eight-speed automatic handles shifting and is quick and predictable when executing its duties. Down changes arrive promptly, while off-the-line engagement contributes to the Bronco Sport's nippy character. My only complaint comes not from the gearbox itself, but from the rotary gear selector. I like the rubberized surround, which distinguishes it from the same knob found on the Escape, but the resistance between park, reverse, neutral, and drive should be higher. It's a little too easy to twist right past where you want to go.
The Bronco Sport sacrifices some on-road handling manners relative to more traditional CUVs. There's substantially more body movement in corners and the steering is relaxed, so something like a Mazda CX-30 Turbo is a far better choice if you enjoy winding roads in your crossover. But those on-road manners give way to a hilarious character in the dirt, where the Sport occasionally feels more like a Baby Raptor than a Baby Bronco. It's a great deal of fun to blast down a dirt or snow-covered road.
In a somewhat surprising revelation, the Sport's stability control gives the driver a surprising amount of freedom to throw the tail out. On the snow-packed surfaces I tested on, an entertaining slide was little more than a bootfull away. While I normally switch off the nannies entirely for these sorts of shenanigans, it always felt like the Bronco was encouraging it. There are more entertaining small crossovers on paved roads, but on anything else, the Bronco Sport delights.
Sadly, snowy dirt roads were the extent of my off-roading time during this test, which happened while easily accessible off-road parks were closed for the season. Motor1.com will have much more on the Bronco Sport's abilities off-road, including all its fun GOAT modes, in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
Every Bronco Sport comes standard with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and automatic high beams as part of the Co-Pilot 360 active safety suite. The First Edition adds the Co-Pilot 360 Assist + pack to the mix as standard (it's a $795 option on the Big Bend, Outer Banks, and Badlands), this upgrade introduces full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and traffic-sign recognition.
The technology is broadly competent, taking some burden off the driver without feeling intrusive. The lane-centering tech could be a little more aggressive and the pre-collision warning will scare the bejeesus out of you (which is probably by design), but as a tool for commuting the Bronco Sport has the right stuff.
This score is disappointing, but with its upright aerodynamics and powerful turbocharged engine, it shouldn't be too surprising. Were it not for the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and its standard 3.2-liter V6, the Bronco Sport Badlands would be the least efficient vehicle in its class. It guzzles 87-octane fuel at the rate of 21 miles per gallon city, 26 highway, and 23 combined.
The aforementioned Cherokee and its Pentastar powerplant returns ratings of just 18 mpg city, 24 highway, and 21 combined, with only a modest horsepower advantage (271 hp) and a torque deficit (239 lb-ft). The rest of the class trades power for efficiency, with the 181-hp Compass Trailhawk netting 22 mpg city, 30 highway, and 25 combined, while the 177-hp Renegade nets 22 city, 27 highway, and 24 combined figures with its turbocharged 1.3-liter engine. The Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, meanwhile, leads the class at 25 city, 32 highway, and 28 combined.
This Bronco Sport First Edition starts at $38,500, not including a $1,495 destination charge and a $645 acquisition fee. As it's sold out, though, I'm basing the Price score on the Bronco Sport Badlands, which starts at $32,820 without destination (sans markups).
You'll need all three packages to match the First Edition, so plan on ponying up $2,595 for the Badlands Package (power driver/passenger seat, Bang and Olufsen audio with HD radio, dual-zone automatic climate control, a sunroof, remote start, and a heated steering wheel. A $395 Towing pack is also necessary, as is the aforementioned $795 Co-Pilot 360 Assist + pack. A First Edition–equaling Badlands, then, carries an as-tested price of $38,745.
The priciest compact off-road crossover around is the RAV4 TRD Off-Road, which demands $35,880. The Cherokee Trailhawk follows closely, at $35,550. Undercutting the Bronco Sport Badlands is the Compass Trailhawk, at $30,815, and the Renegade Trailhawk, at $28,900. Those figures don't really illustrate how clear a value the Bronco Sport is, though.
It has more torque than anything else in the class, is more powerful than all but the V6 Cherokee, and is arguably the most capable off road. Yes, it's a bummer that both Co-Pilot 360 Assist + and the Badlands Package feel like must-haves and add $3,400 to the price tag, but even with those additions, the Sport Badlands feels like a good value in this enthusiast-focused class.
Bronco Sport Badlands Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands: Review
2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Edition