Dad was a career fireman and a part-time contractor, so he had some strong feelings about using the right tool for the job. When it comes to factory-built off-roaders, the two best tools for the job are without question the 2021 Ford Bronco First Edition and the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. After years of patiently waiting for the return of the Bronco, Ford’s iconic 4×4 is back, and we finally set it loose head-to-head with its old rival on a serious trail, only to find the two SUVs excel at different dirty jobs.
What We’re Working With
Let’s meet our players. First up is the new hotness, the Big Bronco we’ve all been dying to drive. This sold-out First Edition model is loaded to the roof rails with features, including the Sasquatch Package and its 35-inch tires, high-clearance suspension, 4.70:1 manually locking rear axle, manually lockable front axle, and front anti-roll bar disconnect. Also onboard are the Bronco’s available heavy-duty modular steel front bumper with brush guard and full underbody protection, including skid plates and rock sliders. It’s also fitted with the nicest interior offered, the biggest infotainment screen, best stereo, and Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 driver-assistance tech suite. Under the hood is a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 with 315 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque backed by a 10-speed automatic transmission and an electronically controlled four-wheel drive transfer case with low range.
Next is the rig that needs no introduction. The Wrangler Rubicon is the standard bearer, the last old-school off-roader with manually lockable live axles front and rear, a front anti-roll bar disconnect, steel bumpers, skid plates, rock sliders, and 33-inch tires. This 4xe plug-in hybrid model is decidedly new-school combining a 2.0-liter turbocharged eTorque I-4 with an electric traction motor for a total of 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. The combo is connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission and a manually shifted transfer case with low range.
Both the Wrangler and Bronco tested here are four-doors, which are slightly less capable off-road than their two-door versions, but are guaranteed to out-sell the two-doors; at Jeep, four-door Wranglers outsell the two-doors six-to-one. Similarly, both are equipped with automatics, which outsell manual transmissions by an even wider margin. In short, most people will actually buy these four-door automatic variants, rather than the shorer-wheelbase, stick-shift versions we hold up in our heads as ideal off-roaders.
The Big Question: Which Off-Roads Better?
We’ll get to things like ride and handling and interior and all that, but we need to answer the most important question first: which is the better off-roader? Ford claims greater ground clearance, a better breakover angle, and a slightly better approach angle thanks in part to those massive optional tires. None of that matters, though, if you don’t have grip, and the Bronco doesn’t.
Blame Ford’s decision to equip the Sasquatch Package with mud terrain tires instead of all-terrains. As a result, the Wrangler was able to climb up challenging desert obstacles with far greater ease than the Bronco. Out at California’s Rowher Flats Off-Highway Vehicle Area, there are only two trails wide enough for 4x4s and they’re both rated “Most Difficult.” Extremely steep hills dotted with both boulders and the deep holes of previous attempts at them result in a trail that only Wranglers and Broncos can tackle. Throw in loose, dry dirt that’s alternatively silty and sandy and the tires make the truck. Just to be sure, though, we aired both trucks down to 30 psi all around for extra grip.
In these conditions, over multiple obstacles, the Bronco struggled to keep up. Obstacles the Wrangler was able to conquer in 4 High with the front anti-roll bar disconnected and the axles unlocked tripped up the Bronco, which required 4 Low, locked front and rear differentials, and the front anti-roll bar disconnected. Even then, the Bronco often needed to take a run at the obstacles and use momentum. Even on the most challenging obstacles, where even the Jeep needed low gears and locked axles, the Wrangler could crawl up, stop and adjust its line mid-obstacle, and keep going. The Bronco went everywhere the Wrangler did, but just barely.
We spent a long time discussing how to weight the Wrangler’s off-road dominance against the Bronco’s wider range of capabilities. Does the Ford’s high-speed desert running ability offset its struggles on rocky trails? Given most people don’t live in the American southwest, we decided it does not. If the Raptor, TRX, and Gladiator Mojave can go desert running on all-terrains, surely the Bronco can, too.
There’s More To Off-Roading Than Grip, Though
Before you tackle an obstacle, you need to set up for it. Ford’s G.O.A.T. modes try to simplify the process as much as possible for the amateur off-roader by engaging high or low gearing, differential locks, the anti-roll bar disconnect, and by adjusting throttle and transmission response based on which of the easy to understand drive modes is selected. If you’re new to these features, the computer should set you up right, but if you’re an experienced off-roader, the process takes longer and requires more steps than simply pulling the Jeep’s transfer case shifter into gear and hitting the nearby locker and sway buttons.
Once you’re lined up on the obstacle, sight lines matter tremendously. The Bronco’s flat hood and “trail sight” corner markers make it easy to see where the corners of the vehicle are, but obscure the trail ahead in a way the Wrangler’s stepped hood and fenders don’t. Both vehicles have forward-looking cameras. The Ford’s gets points for coming on automatically in off-road modes while the Wrangler’s is buried in on-screen menus, but the Jeep claws back some points for overlaying tire tracks on the screen so you know exactly where you’re putting your wheels.
Then there are the door mirrors. We get what Ford was going for by putting the mirrors at the base of the windshield so they stay in place when you remove the doors, but the chunky housings are impossible to see around when you’re trying to look where your front left wheel is headed. Jeep’s door-mounted mirrors (and available bolt-on mirrors for doors-off driving) get the job done better.
Seeing what you’re doing is especially critical in the Bronco, which is more than five inches wider than the Wrangler overall with a 2.5-inch wider track. This no doubt helps high-speed stability, but it makes placing the truck and tires on a narrow trail or difficult obstacle all the more difficult.
What About Getting To The Trail?
If you’re hoping the Bronco’s limitations off-road are offset by its on-road driving experience, it’s a “no” there, too. Despite employing independent front suspension instead of the Wrangler’s live front axle, the Bronco still wanders around on the highway like the Wrangler does, just not as bad. The Bronco’s steering doesn’t have the Wrangler’s dead spot on-center, but the weighting and response feel artificial compared to the Wrangler’s steering, which weights up nicely and provides better feedback.
Handling wise, well, they both handle like old body-on-frame trucks. Quelle surprise.
We thought the Sasquatch Package’s taller sidewalls, combined with that independent front suspension, would make for a noticeably better ride, but here again the Bronco was just a little bit better than the Wrangler.
Similarly, we hoped Ford’s clean sheet design would allow the engineers to make the Bronco considerably quieter inside than the notoriously loud Wrangler. Nope again. Readings taken from our decibel meter at 70 mph show the Bronco is actually slightly louder inside, though the difference between the two (74.2 dB vs. 74.7 dB) is too small for the human ear to differentiate. We were also disappointed by just how loud the Sasquatch’s tires were at low speeds, far more so than the Wrangler’s.
We’d also expected the Bronco to be quicker than it is, especially given how touchy the throttle tip-in is in Normal mode (thankfully it relaxes in off-road modes). We’re big fans of Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine, but that throttle programming is hiding a lack of low-end torque. Needing 8.3 seconds to hit 60 mph is perfectly adequate, but even a non-hybrid turbocharged four-cylinder Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is nearly a second quicker.
Not that the Wrangler 4xe’s powertrain is fully sorted, either. As we noted in our 4xe First Drive and First Test reviews, the 4xe plug-in hybrid system has a lot going on and doesn’t always manage all the moving parts well. It, too, is touchy at throttle tip-in, gear changes are stiff in pure EV mode, and some odd shuddering occurs nearly every time you come to a stop.
Most critically, the hybrid system waits far too long to engage the gasoline engine off-road, even in Hybrid mode. More than once we got into situations where the electric motor didn’t have the torque to pull us over an obstacle and the computer waited until we had the throttle flat on the floor and the truck had come to a full stop before finally kicking on the gas engine at which point you need to remember to immediately back off the throttle. We learned to drive aggressively so the gas engine would stay on all the time.
Life On The Inside
The Bronco’s wider body does give it a big leg up on interior space. Anyone who’s been in a Wrangler knows how close together you sit, how narrow the center console is, and how few bins and trays there are for your devices and such. The Bronco suffers no such constraints, with more shoulder space between you and the door and between you and your passenger. This also opens up plenty of room on the center console for things like a wireless phone charging pad and other places for your stuff.
The extra width also makes room for a massive 12-inch touchscreen infotainment system, something Jeep couldn’t come even close to without tearing up their whole interior design. While we like the graphics and the response of Ford’s screen, we just wish it was connected to a better stereo. The optional 10-speaker B&O system requires a lot of fiddling with the equalizer to find a reasonable compromise between too muddy and too tinny. Jeep’s stereo is great right out of the box.
While the Bronco’s extra width was also appreciated in the back seat, it was otherwise just as upright and uncomfortable as the Wrangler’s. Neither offers abundant leg room, and both position rear occupants way higher than those in front, making for an awkward seating position.
Opinions were split on the interior designs. Jeep went retro inside and out and it works, but not everyone’s into retro. Ford went retro on the exterior but fully modern inside, and it, too, works. While editors disagreed on which was more attractive, we were all disappointed Ford didn’t make any effort to dress up the Bronco’s all-shiny-plastic interior with optional colorful trim or soft-touch materials like Jeep does on higher trims. These are expensive trucks, after all, and as Jeep has amply demonstrated, you can still make nicer looking materials waterproof.
Letting The Outdoors In
Ford couldn’t go up against the Wrangler and not make the doors and roof removable, but it’s obvious Jeep has more experience in this department. Ford’s struggles with hardtop production are well known and were evident on our test vehicle with rough interior surfaces and internal honeycomb structure clearly visible through the outer layers. The roof itself comes off as easily as the Wrangler’s does, so points for that. Not this exact Wrangler, though. It has the optional ($4,095!) power-retractable roof installed, which isn’t meant to be fully removed. Instead, a fabric panel accordions backward like a large sunshade, leaving a huge opening above the front and rear seats but the majority of the roof structure in place.
The doors are another matter. Ford’s are noticeably lighter, making them easier to carry around, but finding the Bronco’s concealed hinges when reinstalling the doors was much more difficult than on the Wrangler, with its exterior exposed hinges. It also doesn’t help that the Bronco’s hinges don’t open as wide and give you far less room to get hands and tools where they need to go.
Like with the side mirrors, we understand why Ford went with frameless door windows for the Bronco. With them rolled down, the doors are much less bulky and can fit onboard, unlike the Wrangler’s framed units (frameless half doors are available as part of a pricey option package). The problem is, frameless windows have to automatically drop about a half inch every time you open the door so they don’t get caught on the weather stripping, and the Bronco’s don’t open fast enough. Every editor opened the door too quickly and caught the top of the window in the weather strip, causing it to loudly vibrate like a cartoon character that just ran into a wall. We were honestly worried we were going to break them.
Dollars and Sense
Remember we said these trucks are expensive? This First Edition Bronco is $64,510 as it sits and this Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe is $68,845. Factory off-road performance doesn’t come cheap.
Lest you think the Jeep is a rip-off, consider how it’s configured. Swapping that pricey power roof for a four-piece hardtop like the Bronco’s erases the price difference. Remember also this Jeep is equipped with the more expensive hybrid powertrain. Going the other way, removing the Bronco’s sold-out First Edition package saves a couple thousand dollars.
Bottom line is, the trucks cost about the same with similar options. For that money, you get a Bronco that’s better in the desert but not as good on more common trails and is barely any nicer to drive on the road. Or you get a Jeep that’ll go anywhere off-road, just slower in the desert, and doesn’t have as much space or fancy tech.
What To Buy
If you’re one of the few who haven’t picked a side yet, we can help. The Jeep Wrangler wins this comparison by being better at the one thing these trucks are supposed to do: go off-road.
With all the time in the world to tear apart and study the Wrangler, we expected Ford to build a better Jeep. In fact, we thought the Bronco might crush the Wrangler under its Sasquatch tires. Instead, the Bronco is a flattering copy of the Wrangler with kickass styling. Where Ford clearly learned from some of the Wrangler’s compromises, its solutions were equally compromised in fresh new ways. The Bronco is an excellent Wrangler competitor, but it’s no Wrangler killer. As such, the reigning king of factory off-roading keeps its crown. For now.
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