9.0 / 10

We come to expect certain things from off-road vehicles, but none more so than a willingness to sacrifice on-road livability for dirt-road capability. A Toyota 4Runner, for example, has all the grace and agility of a hippo, while the Jeep Wrangler takes steering inputs as mere suggestions. But we accept these drawbacks because the vehicles are incredibly fun in the dirt and on the rocks. The 2021 Ford Bronco has no such drawbacks.

To be clear, there are things to dislike about the Bronco. But as an off-road vehicle that also works on the pavement, it's as good as the Land Rover Defender. As a pure off-roader, it can go wheel to wheel with the toughest Jeep Wrangler when the road turns to mud or sand. And as the reintroduction of an iconic nameplate, it's faithful to the core. The new Bronco is everything enthusiasts hoped it would be.

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2021 Ford Bronco exterior
2021 Ford Bronco exterior

Dirty Deeds

Questions about the Bronco’s off-road prowess have banged around the internet for the past year. Would it be as good as a Wrangler? Is its fancy independent front suspension a liability in the rough stuff? Is the Sasquatch pack all shirt and no trousers? And what about that manual gearbox and its crawler gear? Should I hold out for the upcoming Sasquatch/manual combo? Yes, no, no, it’s fine, and probably not. We uncovered those answers after half a day at the first of Ford’s Bronco Off-Roadeos, where we tested a four-door Black Diamond with the manual transmission, a two-door Wildtrack, and a four-cylinder, two-door Badlands Sasquatch.

For those that need a refresher, the Sasquatch pack swaps out a particular trim's standard tire (which can be anything from 30-inch Bridgestone Dueler all-seasons on the base to 33-inch BFGoodrich KO2 all-terrains on the Badlands) for 35-inch Goodyear Territory mud tires and 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels.

Where a Jeep only allows the front locker to engage when the rear is on, the Bronco can lock its diffs independently of each other.

It then adds a shorter 4.7:1 final-drive ratio, front and rear lockers (if they aren't already standard), an uprated suspension, and meatier wheel arches to accommodate the larger rubber. In short, if you plan on serious off-roading, you'll want to give the Sasquatch pack a long, hard look. Or just go for the Wildtrak, which includes it as standard while also mandating the V6 engine.

The main challenge of the first course, named Jalapeño, wasn't so much the terrain but managing the Bronco with a manual gearbox. The addition of a crawler gear provides more torque from a standstill, helping to get the SUV going over difficult obstacles. But the long clutch travel and vague catchpoint, combined with a throttle response we never really adjusted to, proved a challenge.

2021 Ford Bronco exterior

The second course, Habanero, and the Wildtrak were a substantial change, featuring more difficult terrain, water fording (the Bronco can manage up to 33.5 inches in Wildtrak/Sasquatch trim), and regular management of the front and rear lockers. Where a Jeep only allows the front locker to engage when the rear is on, the Bronco can lock its diffs independently of each other.

Admittedly, you're unlikely to encounter a situation off road where you'd need this flexibility, but it’s cool from an engineering standpoint. Ford's positioning of the main off-road controls atop the dash and the auxiliary switches above is a big upgrade from the Wrangler, too, which places them at the bottom of the center stack. The rubberized buttons have an excellent action and are easy to reach.

Trail One-Pedal Driving made rock crawling more comfortable and controlled.

But it was the third route, Ghost Pepper, that proved the most entertaining, with steep rock faces that led to plenty of nose-in-the-sky antics. We relied more heavily on Trail Control, Trail One-Pedal Driving, and the Bronco's impressive camera suite, that last item part of the $2,790 High equipment pack, to get through.

In practice, Trail Control is addicting. While you could argue that it takes some of the fun out of off-roading, a lot of the anxiety vanishes too. Engage it by pressing a button at the center of the GOAT mode dial, set your speed on the steering wheel, and focus on your line as the Bronco trundles along. Tap the brakes if you need to assess the situation, and once you let off, it keeps on keeping on. And unlike the similar system on the Jeep Wrangler, Ford’s version works in two-wheel-drive, 4-High, and low-range. Calling Trail Control “off-road cruise control” is a tired description, but it’s an accurate one too.

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Trail One-Pedal Driving, meanwhile, does what it says on the tin, but the use case is more limited. Essentially, it functions by holding the brakes while allowing the driver to still use the throttle – you need to overcome some significant resistance in the gas pedal to get moving, but this relaxation of the throttle response allows easier modulation. Let off the gas and the Bronco comes to a surprisingly smooth and controlled stop. Trail One-Pedal Driving made rock crawling more comfortable and controlled.

Unfortunately, the brake booster Ford is using for the 2.3-liter Bronco isn't compatible with the system, so One-Pedal Driving is only available with the V6, and we weren’t able to use it on the toughest trail.

Ghost Pepper did require pretty frequent use of the Bronco’s sway-bar disconnect, though. Jeep has offered similar tech as standard on the Wrangler Rubicon for years, but drivers can't disconnect while the suspension is under load. Ford's engineers eliminated this restriction, so if you end up in a situation where you need more wheel travel, there's no need to reverse course and make another attempt. Just press the button atop the dash and make the change mid-obstacle. That ability saved our bacon a few times on the trail

The 2.3-liter four-cylinder in our Badlands performed far better with the 10-speed automatic than the available manual gearbox.

Off-road-specific hardware aside, the 2.3-liter four-cylinder in our Badlands performed far better with the 10-speed automatic than the available manual gearbox. Naturally, moving off the line was a smoother experience. But the way the gearbox behaved in the different GOAT driving modes (there are seven on the Badlands, but we spent most of our time in Rock Crawl) and how it handled throttle inputs gave us much more confidence on the trail. As for power, the base engine was barely an issue on the toughest obstacles, thanks to its ample low-end torque.

Over half a day of off-roading, the Bronco performed exactly as we expected. It’s capable and sure-footed, with the kind of technology that makes the ample performance accessible for drivers of all skill levels. But the real revelation only comes when you take it on paved roads.

2021 Ford Bronco interior

Giddy Up

Aside from the Wildtrak and First Edition, every Bronco comes standard with a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder, while a twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V6 has proved an exceptionally popular choice with early adopters – as of March 2021, it accounted for around 60 percent of recorded orders. Those buyers won’t regret their choice, as the V6 is something of a revelation.

Its 330 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque makes for impressive straight-line performance, even in a 4,877-pound SUV. Low-end shove is strong, allowing the Bronco to jump off the line, and the wave of twist carries on through the rev range. More impressive is how the V6 sounds. Ford has struggled with the soundtrack on its six-cylinder EcoBoost engines, but in wide-open-throttle situations, the Bronco's 2.7-liter sounds rich and brawny from behind the wheel. It's the most ear-pleasing V6 EcoBoost engine we've tested.

The V6 is something of a revelation.

A 10-speed automatic is the lone transmission choice for the V6. It serves the Bronco on-road as well as it does off, engaging promptly off the line and firing off upshifts in a smooth and predictable manner. Dive into the well-tuned throttle and the trans drops multiple gears with little hesitation. If you'd rather take matters into your own hands, there is a manual mode, but it relies on a rocker panel on the thumb-side of the gear lever – this awkward setup is less than ideal, and we'd very much like to see a Bronco with wheel-mounted paddle shifters at some point.

While we spent most of our on-road time with the V6, we were able to steal the keys to the same four-pot, manual-trans Bronco Black Diamond we tested on the trails. The smaller engine does give up a good amount of power – it packs just 300 hp and 330 lb-ft – while saving some weight, at around 4,400 pounds. The 2.3-liter's overall performance is far closer to what you’ll find in the naturally aspirated, six-cylinder competition from Jeep and Toyota.

The Bronco's 2.7-liter is the most ear-pleasing V6 EcoBoost engine we've tested.

Low-end torque remains a strong point with the base engine, but it runs out of steam earlier and seems to require more throttle in most situations compared to the 2.7-liter. The soundtrack is heavy on whistling, as the single twin-scroll turbocharger does its utmost to force-feed the engine. As for the manual gearbox, it’s more likable on-road than it is off – throws are shorter than a manual-trans Wrangler, while the overall feeling of precision is higher thanks to the accepting gates. The clutch is somewhat vague, which combined with the 2.3's less-predictable throttle tuning made for a rather disappointing experience.

2021 Ford Bronco exterior

Big Foot

Regardless of whether you’re on or off-road, the Bronco will remind you of its size and often. At 76.3 inches across, the Badlands is over 2.5 inches wider than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The Ford is a full 8.0 inches longer overall and the 100.4-inch wheelbase exceeds the two-door Jeep by 3.6 inches. And bear in mind, we're talking about a non-Sasquatch model – at 73.8 inches in height, it's only two-tenths of an inch taller than a Rubicon. Order the Sasquatch package (which we didn’t have for our on-road test) and the high-clearance suspension and 35-inch tires allow the Bronco to tower over its surroundings at 75.2 inches.

The benefits and drawbacks to this girth are obvious from behind the wheel. The cabin feels far larger, with more head, shoulder, hip, and legroom in the front chairs than its chief rival – the increase in shoulder room is tangible, with Ford installing a substantial center console that better accommodates drinks, smartphones, and other driving detritus without crowding the gear lever or GOAT Mode dial. And while neither Ford nor Jeep provides a measurement on it, the pedal box in the Bronco is far better for those with larger feet.

Regardless of whether you’re on or off-road, the Bronco will remind you of its size and often.

But the Bronco feels huge on the road. Its width, which the wide, flat-as-Iowa hood and peaked fenders accentuate, is a particular issue. This off-roader is difficult to place in a tight lane and a poor choice for crowded urban environments. Setting off from downtown Austin, Texas, we relied heavily on the Trail Sights and off-road cameras to squeeze through tight spaces in traffic.

While it's difficult in tight environs, the Bronco does handle the other hassle of city life – awful, pockmarked pavement – well. Yes, this is a body-on-frame SUV, but the Bronco’s new platform (which will underpin the next Ranger) suffers from few of the paved-road ills that flummox a Jeep Wrangler, thanks in large part to its excellent independent front suspension.

The Bronco’s new platform suffers from few of the paved-road ills that flummox a Jeep Wrangler.

The Bronco shrugs off most impacts with little of the classic chassis shake that typifies body-on-frame vehicles, while the steering feels like it's actually attached to the front wheels. So where a Wrangler’s vague electrohydraulic steering requires constant course corrections, the Bronco's electric power-assisted steering is stable, predictable, and easier on the driver at highway speeds. The IFS and steering make the Ford far more competent in corners, too.

In Texas Hill Country, we grew more and more confident pushing the Bronco along, with the well-weighted steering eliciting surprisingly precise responses despite our tester's 33-inch BFGoodrich KO2 tires. Ultimate limits are low, and yeah there's plenty of roll, squat, and dive. But the Bronco feels so sure-footed while hustling along a winding road, that its handling is basically on a level playing field with more refined off-road vehicles, like the Land Rover Defender.

2021 Ford Bronco interior

Annoyances Of The On- and Off-Road Variety

That's not to say the Bronco matches those products in every measure, though. Ford's decision to fit frameless windows pays dividends with the top off, but the design results in a lot of wind noise. There was constant whistling in our Badlands over the driver's shoulder. We thought the issue might be down to our tester’s pre-production nature, but a four-door Black Diamond was even noisier (likely thanks to the extra doors at the back). This is pretty darn disappointing as it mitigates the impressive advantage that comes with the Bronco's optional sound-absorbent hardtop roof panels.

The plastic-intensive cabin is also a bummer, although more understandable, considering both the need for water resistance and because its chief rival is hardly a masterclass in material quality. The vertical face of the dash is the most offensive bit, finished in hard, gun-metal plastic on the Badlands. We wish Ford offered some of the brighter finishes we saw last summer. Importantly, the places in the cabin that will see the most traffic – the steering wheel, gear lever, door pulls, and GOAT mode dial – feel sufficiently good. And overall, the cabin itself has a real sense of durability that should only improve with full-scale production.

Ford's decision to fit frameless windows pays dividends with the top off, but the design results in a lot of wind noise.

Speaking of that GOAT mode dial, while it feels sturdy and has a nice, rubberized surround, the Bronco does a poor job of conveying which mode you’re in. There’s no indication on the knob itself (five buttons occupy the face, covering the four-wheel-drive controls and Trail Control), and after a flashy graphic shows up in the 8.0-inch in-cluster display, the only indication is a tiny graphic in a small section of the display. Selecting modes requires left and right rotations, rather than allowing the driver to just turn one direction to cycle through every mode, which is kind of annoying.

2021 Ford Bronco interior

An Absolute Win

If all the Ford Bronco had done was serve as an adequate off-road competitor to the Jeep Wrangler that evoked the style of the past, it'd have been a success. There's little question the Bronco pulls this off. But what impressed us most during our first test is how much better the Ford is on paved roads, where owners will spend most of their time. Yes, it's quite large, cabin quality could be better, and there's too much wind noise, but we struggle to think of a situation where a Wrangler would serve us better than a Bronco. The Ford is just that good.

Perhaps the worst thing about the Bronco is just how long folks will have to wait to get their hands on one. Ford is currently building its newest SUV at the Michigan Assembly Plant, but with 125,000 confirmed pre-orders, it's unlikely the Bronco will be a common sight at dealerships for a few years. When it is finally available on a large scale, though, it should mark the start of an exciting new chapter for the off-road SUV segment. We can't wait.

Correction: Ford has reached out to Motor1 regarding the horsepower and torque numbers for the Bronco. While we used what was listed on Ford's consumer site, the correct output is 300 hp and 330 lb-ft for the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder and 330 hp and 415 lb-ft for the twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V6. The story has been edited to reflect this. We regret the error.

Bronco Competitor Reviews

Gallery: 2021 Ford Bronco: First Drive

2021 Ford Bronco Badlands Two-Door

Engine Twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V6
Output 330 Horsepower / 415 Pound-Feet
Transmission 10-Speed Automatic
Drive Type Four-Wheel Drive
Efficiency 17 City / 18 Highway / 17 Combined
Weight 4,877 Pounds
Seating Capacity 4
Cargo Volume 22.4 / 54.3 Cubic Feet
Towing 3,460 Pounds
Payload 982 Pounds
Base Price $28,500 + $1,495 + $645 (Destination and Acquisition fees)
Trim Base Price $44,235
As-Tested Price $56,145
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