2021 Ford Bronco First Drive Review: Absolutely the Real Deal

The 2021 Ford Bronco is easily one of the most anticipated vehicles of our fledgling decade, and we won’t keep you in suspense: Our initial impression after driving the new two- and four-door Bronco is that it absolutely lives up to the hype. Driven on-road or off, viewed as a getaway/adventure vehicle, a family truckster, or as a piece of retro automotive art, the Bronco feels like a winner. Indeed, Jeep’s longtime off-road champ, the Wrangler, now has some serious 4×4 SUV competition, as does Land Rover’s epic Defender.

We had the Wrangler in mind as we saddled up a Bronco in Austin, Texas, for our first on-road drive. Our trusty steed was a mid-level four-door Black Diamond model—seriously, who came up with these Bronco trim level names?—with the 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine, manual transmission, and honest-to-goodness steel wheels. Hey, there were more lavish Broncos available to drive, but we can’t resist a stick and steelies on a vehicle like this.

The 2021 Ford Bronco almost immediately made a positive first impression. For starters, its cabin feels spacious and airy compared to the claustrophobic Wrangler’s. While the Jeep’s instrument panel and windshield are so close to you that you can practically inhale them, the Bronco’s dash does a better job of social distancing, and we appreciate the breathing room.

Shades of the Original Bronco

If you’ve ever driven a first-generation Ford Bronco, you’ll immediately appreciate the view out over the new Bronco’s hood. The hood is broad and flat and outlined by flipped-up fender edges, just like the original Bronco’s. Those visible edges, capped with load-bearing metal brackets Ford calls “Trail Sights,” come in very handy when off-roading, which we’ll talk more about shortly. The dash itself is a series of flat planes intended to recall the original Bronco, but Ford didn’t let nostalgia get in the way of sensible design. The control layout is straightforward, the switchgear feels substantial and easy to use, and there are well-placed grab handles at the edge of the dash to help with the long climb into the front seats.

The back seats in the four-door Bronco weren’t quite so pleasant: They are mounted high, which is nice for visibility, but they’re also thin, parsimoniously padded, and short on thigh support. The nicest thing we can say about them is that they fold down easily to expand the roomy cargo bay, which is lined with hard (and, we hope, hard-wearing) plastic. As you can likely surmise, the shorter two-door Bronco’s rear seats aren’t any better than those found in the four-door, but they are also more awkward to get into.

Rowing Our Own in the 2021 Ford Bronco

A push of the power button lit up our test truck’s turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. This is the lesser of the Bronco’s two powerplants, producing 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. The optional 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 makes 330 hp and 415 lb-ft. Note that these figures are for premium fuel; run your Bronco on regular, and the 2.3 loses 25 hp and 10 lb-ft, while the V-6 gives up 15 hp and 5 lb-ft.

The manual transmission is a seven-speed gearbox, but the lowest gear is conveniently marked “C” for crawl and requires lifting a collar to engage it, just like you must do for reverse. It’s a ridiculously low gear ratio, and you won’t want to use it for normal driving, nor could you: The shifter gate’s design makes it difficult to shift quickly from C to the real first gear. For the purposes of pavement, this is a six-speed ‘box. We slid the stubby shifter into first, noting its precise but notchy action, let out the clutch, and we were away.

The rest of the transmission’s gearing is excessively tall, and we had to change gears later than we normally would lest low revs magnify whatever turbo lag the 2.3-liter engine exhibits. As we charged up the steep inclines that give Texas Hill Country its name, we found we often had to downshift to fifth or fourth to maintain our mile-a-minute pace. Keep the revs up, and the Bronco is pleasingly fleet, and of course, this will be less of an issue for those who opt for the 10-speed automatic or the optional V-6.

On-Roading in the Bronco: Better Than Jeep

As we bounced our way through the scenery, we reminded ourselves the 2021 Ford Bronco is designed for Wrangler-level off-roading, and with that caveat in mind, the ride is acceptable—livelier than the average SUV’s, to be sure, but rarely unpleasant and never uncivil. Straight-line tracking is notably better than with the Wrangler; thanks to the Bronco’s independent front suspension (as opposed to the Wrangler’s live front axle), the Ford goes where you point it with something that bears a strong resemblance to precision and stability.

Careening through the curves is something of an adventure: You know your destination, but what the journey will actually provide is always something of a mystery. The steering feels less than linear in corners, and the 2021 Bronco’s engineers quelled body roll to the point that, with quick steering inputs, yaw feels remarkably pronounced. Driving a Bronco fast through twisty roads is not something we’d recommend to our friends, though the Ford feels appreciably less discombobulated than the Wrangler. Still, the Land Rover Defender reminds us it is possible to combine outstanding off-road competence with true curvy-road athleticism, something the Bronco can’t quite manage. Oh, Ford, why did you ever sell Land Rover?

We experienced a significant amount of tire noise, as one might expect, and we also heard some wind whistle through the removable hard top’s seams. Bronco engineers accused us of not securing the panels properly, but the latches are L-shaped affairs, and it’s very obvious when they are snapped home correctly—and they were snapped home correctly. However, these were pre-production models, subject to assembly gremlins, so it’s reasonable to expect production models will be better. Or perhaps perfection is too much to ask for on such an easily removable top (here’s how you do it, with video), which is divided into sections (five for the four-door) most of which are light enough for one person alone to deploy. The fine-sounding stereo did an excellent job drowning out this extraneous noise, which was impressive since the Bronco we drove featured the entry-level infotainment system.

To summarize the on-road experience: It’s no fancy Italian exotic, but we think a cross-country trip in a 2021 Ford Bronco would be far more tolerable than one in a Jeep Wrangler, though not nearly as enjoyable as the same trip would be in a Land Rover Defender.

What Happens When the Pavement Ends?

On-roading, however, was only half of our drive: Ford also arranged a demonstration of the Bronco’s off-road abilities at the Bronco Off-Roadeo site in Texas, one of four off-road experience centers, spread country-wide, where Ford will offer complimentary off-roading demos and lessons to Bronco owners.

Ford has a lot to prove here: The Jeep Wrangler makes the on-road sacrifices it does in the name of exceptional off-road aptitude, and the Bronco’s use of an independent front suspension rather than a live axle is bound to earn derision from the Jeepisti. Well, guys, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as an out-of-the-box off-roader, the Bronco appears to be every bit as capable as the Wrangler, and moderately easier to use. (For off-roaders who love to modify their vehicles, the Jeep may be the better choice.)

The Ford engineers on site for the 2021 Bronco’s drive event told us one of their design goals was to help amateur off-roaders drive competently and confidently, and for experienced off-roaders to do what they know how to do with greater ease. The philosophy encompasses both the machinery and its interface, and we think the execution is laudable: The 2021 Ford Bronco doesn’t necessarily take the skill out of off-roading (though it can if you need it to); rather, it provides easy access to the tools you need, when you need them.

Heavy-Duty Hardware on Lightly Equipped Models

All 2021 Ford Broncos come with four-wheel drive, and buyers can pick from two transfer cases. Both are electronic and come with low ranges, but the more advanced case has a “4 Auto” mode that automatically sends power to the front wheels when the rears begin to slip.

The Bronco’s terrain-response system has a variety of drive modes, the exact number varying by trim level. All are off-road capable, but the optional and ridiculously named Sasquatch package bundles 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels with 35-inch tires, increased ground clearance, front and rear locking differentials, a shorter final-drive ratio, and remote-reservoir dampers.

It’s notable that Ford offers this package on the base model Bronco; Jeep requires you to buy a higher-trim Wrangler to get similar goodies. Switches for the various lockers and off-road driving aids are located conveniently in a row atop the dash, which makes them feel more like driver tools and less like cheats.

We drove a variety of 2021 Ford Broncos on a collection of courses that included rock crawling, river wading (to show off the Bronco’s maximum 33.5-inch water fording depth), and mud, mud, mud. We expected Ford to design an off-road course that would show the Bronco in its best light, but we’ve done enough off-roading to know the terrain we tackled requires serious off-road hardware—in other words, these weren’t trails you could drive in your Honda CR-V. The Bronco did everything we asked it to do, but most significant was the ease with which it did it.

Technology to Make Off-Roading Easy

The optional camera setup—we preferred to set it to display a split view of the front bumper cam and the top-down 360-degree view—all but eliminates the need for a spotter except in the roughest situations. The flipped-up fenders and aforementioned Trail Sights are equally helpful when maneuvering through narrow spaces. If the 2021 Ford Bronco starts to slip while climbing a rock, dash-top buttons lock the front and rear diffs (either or both, which is notable; in a Wrangler, you can’t lock the front differential independent of the rear). Need more articulation? Unlock the front anti-roll bar with another button press. Don’t know which buttons to use? The Bronco’s terrain modes, accessible via a rotary dial ringing the transfer case switch, will pick a baseline setup for you.

One of our favorite features is Trail Turn Assist, which brakes the inside-rear wheel to help bend the Bronco around sharp turns. It’s especially helpful with the longer-wheelbase four-door model. If the terrain looks too intimidating, the Bronco also has a crawl-control mode that will keep it moving at a speed you set in half-mph increments, uphill or down. This same system also offers a one-pedal driving mode: Pressing the accelerator moves the car, and easing up or releasing it applies the brakes, allowing you all the precision of the crawl-control system with more direct and immediate speed control. All of this hardware provides a combination of prowess and ease of operation that sets the new Bronco apart from off-roaders that either do it all for you or require you to do it all yourself.

Does Our Opinion Really Matter?

Our initial opinion of the 2021 Ford Bronco may well be irrelevant, as Ford has already sold out of the first year’s production, and probably the second year’s, as well. The best we can do is to tell those who have already put down a deposit that, if their expectations are geared to an off-road vehicle, they are unlikely to be disappointed. We’re eager to experience more Bronco, including more seat time in the two-door and V-6 models, and putting them through our thorough testing regimen.

Along with our enthusiasm for the 2021 Ford Bronco, something else excites us: There’s no way Jeep is going to stand pat in the face of this new and very real Bronco threat, and we predict massive and enticing improvements for the next-generation Wrangler. Perhaps General Motors will also get into the game and replace the trendy but tame Chevrolet Blazer with an off-roader worthy of the name. GM certainly has the hardware, proven by the ZR2 version of the Colorado. And let’s not forget there’s a Bronco pickup coming to take on Jeep’s hot-selling Gladiator.

Yes, the 2021 Ford Bronco is a strong contender, and the SUVs it competes against are only going to get better, too. We can’t wait.

2021 Ford Bronco Specifications
PRICE$31,490-$62,605
LAYOUTFront-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 2- or 4-door SUV
ENGINE2.3L/300-hp/325-lb-ft* turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4 / 2.7L/330-hp/415-lb-ft* twin turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION7-speed manual, 10-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT4,300-5,150 lb
WHEELBASE100.4-116.1 in
L x W x H173.7-190.5 x 75.9-79.3 x 71.9-75.3 in
0-60 MPH5.9-8.0 sec (est)
EPA FUEL ECON16-20/17-22/17-21 mpg city/hwy/combined
ON SALENow
*Ratings based on premium fuel; regular fuel ratings: 275 hp/315 lb-ft (2.3L), 315 hp/410 lb-ft (2.7L)

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