The Triumphant Return of the Ford Bronco

After the last Bronco was produced in 1996, Ford brings back their icon—and it's a pleasure to drive

There’s so much to cover with the 2021 Ford Bronco—the return of an icon—that the most practical place to start is by pointing out what it doesn’t offer (like options that aren’t available or what equipment combinations can’t be pieced together) rather than what it does, as there’s simply so much to discuss. While there are a few specifications that aren’t possible, buyers have carte blanche to build their Bronco in many, many ways. And Ford is banking on the majority of buyers doing just that.

For starters, you cannot get the larger of the two available motors (a 2.7L V6 EcoBoost vs the standard 2.3L I4 EcoBoost) if you choose the manual transmission, nor can you get the Sasquatch package for serious off-roading. The former isn’t a huge loss since rowing your own gears in the Bronco doesn’t particularly enhance the overall experience—at best it’s for veteran fans who just have to go analog and at worst it’s for newbies who want to learn a valuable life skill. For everyone else, the 10-speed automatic and the big motor is the way to go. As for the Sasquatch package, Ford won’t allow front and rear lockers, 35-inch tires and seven manually operated gears to be combined into one enthusiast-baiting package until next year.

Buyers also cannot mix seating colors and materials across the whole model range. In certain models, like the Black Diamond, you’re limited to black marine grade washable vinyl with stitched orange accents; in the Badlands it’s either the aforementioned or black leather trimmed vinyl, also with stitched orange accents. Also unavailable, a cloth soft-top on the four-door Wildtrack and First Edition models, as well as all two-door Broncos, although there are options for the latter from Ford’s licensed accessory partner Bestop. There’s no option for cooling ventilated seats, no matter what model you choose nor how many doors it boasts.

Those few options and combinations aside, customization by way of a giant accessories catalog is a major part of the Bronco’s appeal. Buyers can get items from Yakima, Rigid, ARB, Warn and more. Ford is likely to add more brands in the future, given the wild demand for plug-and-play bits that keep a warranty valid. On the lifestyle side of things, co-branded merch with Yeti is available at the Bronco Off Roadeo facility (which we visited) an hour west of Austin, Texas. We imagine it’ll be available online soon enough because clearly the line of thought is that Bronco isn’t just a vehicle; it’s a lifestyle.

It seems that Bronco is gunning for Jeep’s Wrangler in almost every conceivable way and, based on first impressions from our 48 hour experience, they’ve landed a solid blow to the crosstown rival. The Wrangler is the obvious competition, but we’re curious how the Bronco might stack up against another re-designed legend that recently returned to the US: the Land Rover Defender. Given Ford and Land Rover’s history (Ford owned Land Rover from 2000-2008) and how long the Bronco’s return has been gestating (we were told development actually began the day the last fifth-generation Bronco rolled off the line, back in June 1996), we can’t help but imagine that there’s some Defender DNA woven into the new Bronco—and vice-versa.

For instance, the Bronco team clearly understands what the “town and country” off-road community looks for in a vehicle—a pair of wellingtons and a Barbour jacket wouldn’t be out of place next to this SUV. There’s also not an immense drop off in tactile or visual quality between the two on the inside. Outside, the Bronco looks the business all around; two door, four door, Sasquatch package and beyond. The Outer Banks (the lux model in the line-up) also looks good riding on standard all-season tires. Apparently Bronco fans share our opinion because we were told that of the 125,000 orders Ford has accepted, 70% are for Outer Banks or higher-tier models.

Even with all its lovely squared-off corners and just the right amount of retro-design mixed into the formula, the best view of the Bronco is from the driver’s seat, preferably with the driver’s roof panel off. The view over the flat hood, between the black metal “trail sights” positioned at either corner, is one to enjoy for hours on end—whether driving on pavement, dirt, water, sand, mud or rock. It’s a comfortable seat, no matter the terrain you’ve found yourself on.

The two-door Bronco rides and drives like one would expect of a short wheelbase off-roader. It’s squishy in corners, bouncy over pavement imperfections, and lets in a good deal of noise, even with the optional sound deadening headliner. But we found the sound enjoyable, and think two-door remains the more alluring of the two Broncos. However, the four-door Bronco is noticeably more comfortable and competent on pavement, and thanks to trick features like Trail Turn Assist (TTA), which utilizes torque vectoring on the rear axle to tighten the turning radius, it’s not a handful in demanding off-road situations. That TTA is standard on Outer Banks, Wildtrack and First Edition models with the 10-speed automatic gives us insight into an important theme running through the whole Bronco brand.

While they may draw inspiration from the past, Ford has a keen eye on the future, and the future of a vehicle like the Bronco relies on the growth of the off-road community. Cue the lightweight and easily removed doors and hardtop roof panels, One-Pedal Drive (very effective off-road cruise control) and 12-inch screen with 360-degree view trail camera. Bringing down barriers to entry into this community is essential, and the Bronco is positioned to do just that with all these practical, intuitive off-road technologies.

Ford is also offering educational experiences at four Bronco Off-Roadeo locations, the first of which we enjoyed in the hills west of Austin. These facilities are open to drivers of all skill levels and Ford encourages any new Bronco (and Bronco Sport Badlands or First Edition) owners to take advantage of the 10-hour program—which takes place over the course of two days. Eventually these facilities will be open to the public for a nominal fee, but for the time being the only way non-Bronco owners or reservation holders can get out there is as a guest of someone who owns or will be taking delivery of a Bronco. The $395 price of admission ($295 for a second or third guest) is worth it, based on just how much knowledge can be gleaned from the instructors and the unforgettable moments out on the trail.

While the course was purposely built by Ford to show off the capabilities of the new Bronco, thanks to Mother Nature providing a night of torrential rain before our drive, we got to experience just how capable the vehicle is. The word thrilling comes to mind, and that’s increasingly scarce in the automotive marketplace these days. Since scarcity creates demand, we expect the Bronco to be a sought-after SUV as word gets out about just how good it is.

Images by Andrew Maness