Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep’s off-road dominance aside

There’s a serious challenger to Jeep’s off-road supremacy galloping into the picture

Published: August 18, 2021, 6:40 PM
Updated: October 11, 2021, 8:57 AM

Bronco 4-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

CTMP (Formerly Mosport) – Jeep has long been the gold standard for most off-road enthusiasts, but the iconic brand should do a quick shoulder check because there’s a serious challenger galloping into the picture.

It’s been 25 years since the Ford Bronco was last in the marketplace – and versions that closed out the run shared little resemblance to the 1966 original, with less off-road ruggedness and more creature comforts.

Forget those days – this all-new 2021 mid-size, sixth-generation Bronco is a seriously capable, body-on-frame, 4x4 beast with short overhangs and a wide stance that’s more than willing to go anywhere over anything.

Bronco 4-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

2021 Ford Bronco has broad capabilities

To demonstrate its capabilities, Ford set up a variety of routes and driving conditions during a recent media launch. There was a rough cottage trail – basically an unmaintained road through some back country – then a short drive on a four-lane highway, followed by a stint on a scenic two-lane road through the rolling countryside near Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP).

Next was another off-the-grid path, but this time it had a mucky water feature in the midst of the bush land. The final leg was an intense, off-road course through the woods and sand hills alongside the Andretti Straight at CTMP. Throughout the drive, the new Bronco never faltered.

Bronco 2-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

Bronco's rugged platform

The Bronco’s prowess for taking on all kinds of terrain starts with its rugged second-generation 4x4 platform with an independent front suspension and a solid rear axle. The new Bronco-specific Ford T-6 architecture features a fully-boxed, high-strength steel chassis with seven cross-members to deliver class-leading front and rear suspension travel over rough terrain. 

Every Bronco comes with a High-Performance Off-Road, Stability, Suspension (HOSS) system for optimum off-road stability and control. The HOSS system features independent front suspension with twin alloy A-arms and progressive-rate coil-over springs, while the rugged solid rear axle has progressive-rate coil springs with five locating links to deliver both strength and off-road control.

The front, with unequal-length control arms and coil springs, includes a stabilizer bar that can be electronically disconnected (when equipped with the Sasquatch package). When things get tough, the driver simply touches a button on the top of the instrument panel (IP) and the front end just relaxes as the stabilizer bar disconnects, allowing for free movement of the suspension over the rough stuff – and less jarring for the occupants.

That same panel of switches allows the front and rear differentials to be independently unlocked or locked, depending on terrain conditions.

Bronco 4-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

Optional Trail Toolbox

Bronco owners can elevate their experience by adding the available Trail Toolbox suite of off-road technologies. It includes Trail One-Pedal Drive, an innovative acceleration/braking control for more precise and confident slow-mode rock crawling.

For me, however, the most impressive feature in the toolbox package is Trail Turn Assist, which uses torque vectoring to tighten the off-road turning radius. It uses the ABS system to grab and lock the inside rear wheel when the driver is challenged by a tight turn. By pushing a button in the panel atop the IP, the system engages so the vehicle can pivot on the dragging rear tire, enabling it to get around the turn. The assist system, which reduces the turning circle by up to 40 percent, will automatically disengage as speed increases.

During my first run through the woods, I encountered a sharp turn that I could not negotiate without taking several three-point cracks at it among the tree trunks. Apparently, it was a place where we were supposed to use the trail assist but I missed that memo. Learning later of the true intention of that specific part of the circuit, I took another lap and engaged the system at the appropriate point. Amazingly, the Bronco clamped down on its back wheel and cranked through the turn like a hot knife through butter. Very impressive – and appreciated.

Bronco 4-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

2021 Ford Bronco Models and Trims

The Bronco is offered in two- and four-door configurations, starting at $40,499 for the two-door and $45,749 for the four-door. Six trim levels are available, starting with what Ford describes as “essential” trims: Base, Big Bend and Black Diamond. The trio of “refined” trims are Outer Banks, Wildtrak and Badlands.

You can enjoy the open-air experience with either Bronco model. Two-door models come with a standard three-piece roof system (left and right front sections plus a rear section.) Four-door models have a standard cloth soft top, while a hard top with four removable roof sections is available. The roof panels on all models can be removed by one person. The front-row roof panels can be stored onboard on two-door models, while the longer four-door models can carry up to four items in the rear cargo, including all four doors, or two doors and two front roof panels.

Bronco 4-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

Thanks to its modular construction, the class-exclusive frameless doors can be easily removed by simply removing two bolts. Cowl-mounted mirrors maintain sideview visibility when the doors are removed.

The fenders, too, are easily removed and the fender flares can be popped off to avoid damage while clawing through the boonies. There are even inexpensive replacement fender flares available if you want to deflect the mud and grit while saving the original flares for on-road use. 

Trail sights on the front fenders also serve as tie-downs, reminiscent of the first-generation Bronco, and have a 150-pound capacity for securing longer items like canoes.

Bronco Optional Sasquatch Package

If you’re intending to “go anywhere” with your Bronco, the Sasquatch package is a must-have. It’s offered on all trim levels (standard on some) and makes the Bronco a truly capable, off-road machine. It includes 17-inch black-painted aluminum beadlock-capable wheels with 35-inch LT315/ 70R17 mud-terrain tires, electronic-locking front and rear axles, 4.7:1 final drive ratio, high-clearance suspension, position-sensitive Bilstein shock absorbers and high-clearance fender flares.

Bronco 2-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

Two-door models equipped with this package have a wide 43.2-degree approach angle, class-leading 11.6-inch maximum ground clearance, 29-degree break-over angle and a 37.2-degree departure angle. Four-door Broncos with Sasquatch have equally impressive off-road attributes, with 11.5-inch ground clearance, 43.2-degree approach, 26.3-degree break-over and 37.0-degree departure angles. Both Bronco models are capable of fording water up to 33.5 inches deep, thanks to the package’s 35-inch tires.

Turbo-powered Ford Bronco

The Bronco gets its motivation from a standard powertrain using Ford’s turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder producing 270 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with a seven-speed (six-speed plus a crawler gear) Getrag manual gearbox. There’s an optional choice offering a twin-turbo 2.7L V-6 that pumps out 310 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque. Its best-in-class output is channelled to the four-wheel drive system through a 10-speed automatic transmission with Trail Control – a low-speed, off-road speed control, akin to the typical cruise control on a road vehicle.

The base 4X4 system has a two-speed, electronic, shift-on-the-fly transfer case, while the optional advanced system features a two-speed electromechanical transfer case with an auto mode for on-demand engagement using a knob on the console to select between 2H and 4H. Power is distributed to a Dana 44 AdvanTEK® solid rear axle and Dana AdvanTEK independent front differential unit – both with available Spicer electronic locking differentials.

To enhance the Bronco’s off-road capabilities even further, it features a Terrain Management System with up to seven driver-selectable modes, including Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand, plus off-road-specific Baja, Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl modes. Selecting the appropriate driving mode is done by simply turning a dial on the console – the selected mode is displayed on a multifunction colour LCD screen in front of the driver.

Basic and Practical Inside

Inside the Bronco, the instrument panel is more basic than spaceship. The gauges are clearly visible, with all the relevant controls intuitively positioned and within easy reach of the driver, even on bumpy trails. Grab handles are integrated into the modular instrument panel and centre console on Big Bend and higher series. Attachment points are built into the top of the instrument panel to easily mount cameras, navigation units, phones or other devices. USB and 12-volt power connections are positioned nearby.

Bronco 2-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

Select Bronco models come with washable rubberized floors with integrated drain plugs and marine-grade vinyl seating surfaces that resist mildew, so cleanups after intense off-road adventures is a breeze. Instrument panel surfaces are wipeable, with seamless silicone rubber on the dash-mounted switches, while rubber touchpoints protect against dirt and water. Six available upfitter switches mounted overhead are silicone-sealed to protect against the elements and to make customization easy, with pre-wired electrical leads to key accessory points under the hood and in the rear cargo area.

Connectivity, infotainment and safety technologies haven’t been compromised, with the Bronco offering available 12-inch SYNC  4 system with over-the-air updates and seamless integration to the FordPass  Performance app with off-road navigation. This  Bronco-exclusive feature allows owners to easily plan, navigate and share their off-road adventures. The SYNC system also displays the available 360-degree camera system with class-exclusive off-road spotter views to provide additional visibility in technical pursuits such as rock crawling.

Standard safety features include driver and front passenger airbags plus a high-strength boron steel sport bar with integrated side curtain airbags in the upper structure and seats to help protect passengers from side impacts. AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control and Trailer Sway Control is also standard, while Ford’s suite of Co-Pilot360 driver-assist technologies is available.

Bronco 2-Door - Highly-capable 2021 Ford Bronco aims to buck Jeep's off-road dominance.

Without question, this new Bronco is more refined than its competitors, yet fully capable of tackling any off-road challenge. Jeep lovers beware. Or be prepared to change your mount.