The Jeep Wrangler has enjoyed decades of segment dominance, most of them without much in the way of meaningful competition.
Sure, there have been – and still are – alternatives in a general sense; there was the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra, but they’ve long since come and gone. Then there’s the reborn Land Rover Defender and unflappable Toyota 4Runner, which are both on the market today, but neither are the same kind of purebred off-road machine the Wrangler continues to be after all these years. That the doors and roof come off only serves to further separate it from the rest of the pack.
In the 2021 Ford Bronco the brand has brought its A-game directly to the rough and rugged Wrangler, riding a wave of hype that’s been years in the making. Brimming with capability, the born-again Bronco has everything it needs to match up with its rival from Jeep – including a hefty price tag.
To get a sense of the 2021 Bronco’s styling inspiration, one must turn the pages of the history books all the way back to the 1960s. That’s where the very essence of this retro rig was sourced, and by most accounts it’s got the goods. The tester seen here is a two-door, as it’s always been, though for the first time in the model’s history a family-friendly four-door body style is available.
Regardless of configuration, the Bronco nails the throwback aesthetic, while the top-of-the-line Wildtrak trim tested plays up the off-road motif with standard items like chunky fender flares tucking massive 35-inch mud-terrain tires, and exposed tow hooks and tie-downs, as well as optional stuff including a heavy-duty steel bumper ($1,000), and roof rails for the hard top ($495).
Inside, the cabin eschews retro touches in favour of modern ones, but it’s attractive in an everyday utilitarian kind of way. Hefty rubberized grab handles bookend the dash, while auxiliary switches are mounted near the rearview mirror. Did they have to be stuck up there? No. Are they cooler because they were? Absolutely.
User Friendliness: 9/10
Beyond those toggle switches, controls are scattered around the cabin in a way that makes an awful lot of sense – well, mostly. Since the doors are removable, window switches have been relocated to the front of the console bin alongside the controls for mirror adjustment, which takes some time to get used to. (On that note, the folks at Ford rather wisely attached the mirrors to the base of the windshield rather than the doors themselves, so they’re always along for the ride.)
On the console is a gear selector, of course, as well as a drive mode dial that surrounds buttons for the various four-wheel drive settings – high- and low-range gearing for the rough stuff, and automatic for everyday conditions – as well as trail control that works like off-road cruise control. Moving up the centre stack, there’s a full complement of physical climate and audio controls, an infotainment touchscreen, and a separate set of controls for off-pavement excursions (more on those shortly).
Climbing aboard takes the kind of finesse not required by the Escape-based Bronco Sport – that’s particularly true of this Wildtrak trim and its massive 35-inch mud-terrain tires – but the seating position and sightlines combine to provide a strong sense of command and control from behind the wheel. Switchgear falls readily to hand, while the infotainment system is barely a short stretch away from either front seat – particularly with the upgraded 12-inch screen dominating the dash.
It’s obvious from inside that the Bronco is based on the midsize Ranger pickup, with loads of cabin width and a deep dashboard that puts occupants at a far more comfortable distance from the windshield than the Wrangler. Being a two-door model, accessing this tester’s rear seats isn’t especially easy, but the space itself is far more generous than one might expect, with plenty of room for a pair of adults.
Cargo room is never going to be among a stubby little sport utility’s strengths, and while the 634 L listed on the spec sheet may seem sufficient, it’s a shallow space that’s accessed through a wide tailgate that can be a pain in parking lots. More room is afforded with the rear seats stowed (to fold them flat, first pull up on the lower cushions), while a roof rack can be added for even more cargo-carrying capacity. At $495, it’s an affordable accessory – especially since it includes crossbars – but it also must be removed before taking the hardtop off, adding yet another time-consuming step to the proceedings.
Any vehicle with a removable roof and doors is going to be prone to its share of wind noise, though the Bronco’s hardtop tends only to generate a high-volume vortex once triple-digit speeds are achieved. Simple solutions like a layer of carpeting that covers the ceiling mute much of the would-be wind noise, while the doors do nothing to add to the symphony of outside sound.
The biggest trouble spot was an unexpected one: climate control. Whether the dual-zone system was in its three-stage automatic setting or not, the wind noise forcing its way through the vents at highway speeds was loud enough to require outdoor voices to carry on a conversation. Worse still, the recirculation setting had a habit of shutting off after a few minutes, with the awful sounds emanating from deep inside the dash returning. The only way to keep the system quiet was to shut it off completely.
Otherwise, there were no creaks or rattles to report, even after a full day on the trail, while the front seats feature wide bolstering and plenty of supportive cushioning. Ride quality on the highway, too, is excellent, though potholes and pressure cracks around town make this Ford feel an awful lot like its Wrangler rival as it bucks its way across them.
The 2021 Bronco is every bit the modern off-roader it was built to be, with a decent selection of amenities to go with a slew of features aimed to increase capability. That’s true of this Wildtrak trim in particular, which comes fitted with the Sasquatch package from the factory. While the Badlands trim that sits directly beneath it in the lineup gets a disconnecting front sway bar like the Wrangler Rubicon, a feature missing from the list here, everything else is aimed at enhancing off-road performance.
Locking differentials front and rear, beadlock-capable wheels wrapped in 35-inch mud-terrain tires, a Bilstein-backed off-road suspension system, 295 mm (11.6 in) of ground clearance, drive modes for mud and sand, and high- and low-range four-wheel drive gearing. There’s also a so-called trail-turn assist setting that can lock the inside rear wheel to tighten the Bronco’s turning radius at full lock.
In terms of creature comforts, heated front seats come standard in the Wildtrak, as does an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while the High package ($1,250) bumps that to a 12-inch screen and adds LED spotlights to the exterior mirrors, among a few other features. For $3,750, the Lux pack added to this tester brought with it a heated steering wheel, 10-speaker stereo, and wireless charging pad.
Advanced safety features vary greatly by trim, with most coming with little beyond the back-up camera mandated by the federal government and automatic high-beam headlights. In the case of the Wildtrak trim that sits atop the lineup, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking comes standard, as does blind-spot monitoring and rear proximity sensors, while the High package adds the same sensors to the front bumper along with a surround-view monitor. Only the Lux package includes adaptive cruise control.
The Bronco can be had with either four- or six-cylinder power, both of which are turbocharged in order to maximize output. The 2.3L that’s standard in all trims but the Wildtrak generates 270 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, and can be mated to the choice of seven-speed manual or 10-speed automatic transmissions, while the 2.7L V6 only comes coupled to the latter and makes 310 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque.
Tested here, the larger of the two motors certainly doesn’t sound all that satisfying, but there isn’t much time spent waiting for the turbos to spool up, either, with quick access to all the torque this 2.7L has to offer. Officially, the full 400 lb-ft isn’t reached until north of 3,000 rpm, but performance feels more like a naturally aspirated engine, with a progressive climb to peak pull.
Driving Feel: 10/10
That 2.7L engine is more than adequate in daily driving conditions, providing more than enough force to smoothly merge onto the highway while never feeling too eager around town. Even the 10-speed automatic transmission it’s paired with, which has been prone to clunky operation in previous tests, proved all but perfect in the Bronco. Braking was equally free of fuss, bringing this stubby sport utility to a stop in a hurry, while handling proved particularly noteworthy.
That’s not among the Wrangler’s strengths, with its solid front axle causing it to wander on the road and requiring busy hands in a bid to keep it moving in something close to a straight line. Not here, though. Ford opted for an independent front suspension instead, and the Bronco is as easy to drive as any run-of-the-mill SUV as a result – and that’s a compliment. There’s even a surprising lack of body roll when hitting highway on-ramps with more speed than what’s suggested as it stays firmly planted and controllable.
Of course, such a suspension setup is usually maligned amongst off-road enthusiasts – particularly Jeep owners – for its limitations. And some of it is just plain true. An independent suspension is never going to be as robust as a solid axle, for instance, nor can it articulate as much. However, none of it proved worth worrying about during a full day of trail driving, with the Bronco not just keeping up with a pack of Jeeps but impressing with its ability to overcome some serious obstacles with such ease.
Meeting with members of the Central Ontario Off Road Jeep Club (COORJC) once again, the day was spent on a different trail than the one that the Wrangler Rubicon 4xe plug-in hybrid made easy work of. After airing down the tires to 15 psi for improved traction on the trail, the Bronco Wildtrak handled itself like it belonged with this pack of proven off-road rigs. Water crossings beyond the bumpers – it’s rated for depths of 850 mm (33.5 in), according to Ford – saw the low-range gearing make effortless work of the soft silt below, while the engine barely broke a sweat powering up and over rocks.
Faced with a boulder that easily stood taller than the Bronco’s hood even with its massive tires, this author was feeling nervous about the chances of making it up and over unscathed. The ever-knowledgeable Mark Sims, founder of the COORJC, imparted wisdom that went a little something like this: when the back tires touch the button of the rock, stay on the throttle. Back off and get hung up; apply too much and all bets are off.
With nerves filling the cabin and the camera rolling, the Bronco approached, its driver’s side tires aimed on the most bulbous part of the boulder. As the rear tires touched, the drama that was anticipated never even entered the equation as this screaming yellow Ford crawled its way up and over like one of the modded rigs that went before it. Overall, there were a couple cases where the low-hanging trailing arms scraped against rocks, but the Bronco Wildtrak held its own the whole time.
Fuel Economy: 6/10
Finding adventure in a V6-powered SUV riding on 35s isn’t an especially financially savvy activity, though a week-long test covering some 1,030 km saw the Bronco Wildtrak do better than its official rating despite a full day on the trail. According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), this version of the Bronco is rated for 14.0 L/100 km in the city and 13.9 combined – worse than an equivalent Wrangler. The 12.7 L/100 km achieved still isn’t especially miserly – and it’s 0.5 L/100 km worse than the onboard computer suggested – but it’s impressive given where the Bronco was driven.
There’s also a price to be paid outright for a rig like this, and while it isn’t much more than a similar Wrangler Rubicon with the same fixings, fun isn’t exactly affordable. This range-topping Wildtrak trim starts at $58,589 before tax including its non-negotiable $2,095 freight charge, while the same four-door is $3,500 more. Meanwhile, everything added to this tester – Lux pack, leather seats, steel bumper, roof rack – ran the price up to $69,529 before the government’s share.
That pricing may be in line with the Wrangler Rubicon, but it’s still a lot of money for a two-door off-roader. Either way, the capability of the 2021 Ford Bronco can’t be overlooked, and it has everything it needs to take Jeep on where it matters most.
Brand loyalty dictates that the diehards will scoff at this Ford – or anything else, for that matter – but it’s objectively excellent. For those without any allegiance to the seven-slot grille, the reborn Bronco has the off-road chops it needs to keep up with the Wrangler anywhere it roams. But more importantly, it also delivers the on-road composure its rival lacks. It’s unlikely the Bronco will ever dethrone the Wrangler in the sales charts, but it’s certainly not for a lack of trying.