With the return of the Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler finally has some direct competition. Bronco is true off-road-capable SUV that's offered with a soft top or hard top in 2- or 4-door body styles. In addition to the removable tops, owners can also remove the doors, fenders and fender flairs. (Alas, the windshield does not fold a la Wrangler.) In addition to Wrangler, competitors include the Land Rover Defender and Toyota 4Runner.
Most Bronco buyers will choose between one of two turbocharged engines. Standard is a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque mates to either a 7-speed manual transmission or 10-speed automatic. Also available is a 2.7-liter V6 that produces 330 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque. It comes only with the 10-speed automatic. Like the Wrangler, Bronco is offered with a host of different trim levels that are designed to cater to specific types of buyers. They include Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Badlands, Wild Track, Everglades, and Sasquatch. Also offered is a limited-production Raptor model that gets a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 that will produce more than 400 horsepower. Towing capacity tops out at 3,500 pounds for the two standard engines, 4,500 pounds on the Raptor.
Prices range from $33,000 to $70,000. Safety features included on all trims includes hill-start assist, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, hill-descent control, trailer-sway damping, and trail-turn assist (automatic only). Standard equipment includes LED headlights, digital instrument cluster, push-button start, power windows, 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with support for wireless Android Auto and Apple Car Play.
The base 4-cylinder turbo has sufficient power for most situations but lacks enough punch when towing or carrying a full load of passengers. The engine is also trucky in the way it delivers power, meaning the engine doesn't like to rev and is most happy cruising around town or puttering off road. The optional V6 is much livelier and a significantly better option if you plan to tow or carry a lot of people around. It can push Bronco from 0 to 60 MPH in about 7.5 seconds -- fairly impressive considering Bronco's size and weight.
Transmission performance with the 10-speed automatic is quite good. It shifts smoothly and doesn't hesitate in downshifts. The manual transmission is a required add in this class. There are many off-roaders that prefer the control a manual transmission provides. Though it's got long throws and is a bit notchy, the clutch take-up is smooth.
Bronco is offered with two 4WD systems. Both come with a low-speed transfer case for off-road slogging. The "standard" system is a part-time 4WD system that offers 4WD Low, 4WD High and RWD High. The "advanced" system adds 4WD Auto mode, which allows the system to be engaged on dry pavement. Ford also offers driver-selectable G.O.A.T (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) modes. Using a console-mounted dial, drivers can select Eco, Sport, Normal, Mud/Ruts, Slippery, Sand/Snow, Rock Crawl and Baja modes. Each mode sets engine, transmission, braking pressure, 4WD system and traction control for the appropriate conditions.
Like Wrangler, Bronco is going to trail most typical crossovers in overall fuel economy. Best-case scenario EPA numbers of 20 MPG city, 21 MPG highway bare that out. In fact, some models are rated in the mid-teens. Wrangler generally fares better for overall fuel economy. Thankfully, Bronco runs fine on regular-grade gasoline. In typical suburban commuting expect to average 18 MPG, perhaps a little worse with the larger engine. Fuel economy craters on the highway at 65 MPH and above.
Though Bronco lags Wrangler in fuel economy, the news is significantly better from a driver's perspective. Bronco has an independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. This compares to Wrangler's solid front axle and antiquated recirculating-ball steering. These two differences result in more direct and communicative steering and a better around-town ride. Still, the Bronco rides with considerable bounciness, especially in off-road trims, and the steering is anything but precise thanks to the swishy tires. All told, Bronco feels slightly more refined than Wrangler in daily commuting with little loss in off-road prowess.
Ford has done a commendable job of creating an off-road-champ Bronco that's streetable without becoming a chore to drive (meaning too many compromises). Brakes have ample stopping power and an easy-to-modulate pedal. There's a fair amount of body lean in quick transitions, but the wide tires take a confidence-inspiring set in sweeping off-ramps. Still, Bronco lags more conventional crossovers in overall ride quality.
Noise is a problem. Like Wrangler, Bronco assaults occupants with a deafening combination of wind, tire and gear noise at anything above about 50 MPH. Thankfully, the hardtop helps take the edge off, but even it gets quite noisy on the highway.
Ford had decisions to make in re-imaging the Bronco. Do they go retro with the interior (like they did on the exterior) or do they do conventional modern? Interestingly, they split the middle, and to much success. The interior certainly has a retro vibe, but also is quite modern in design. Either way, the layout is quite functional and the materials, though rugged, are price appropriate.
The dash is upright and wide with a large digital instrument cluster standard. Rather than being configurable like some digital gauge clusters, the Bronco's is mostly fixed, but provides a good mix of information and is easy to see day or night. Radio and climate controls are right out of Ford parts-bin, but that is a good thing as they are nicely conventional and easy to operate. The available 12-inch touch screen is impressive, but even the standard 8-inch scree is sufficient. Ancillary controls are logically placed and there are lots of blanks around for customizers to install optional equipment like light bars and winches.
The front seats are upright and firm. They don't have a lot of lateral support and could use a bit more cushioning. At least head and leg room are generous. Rear seats are no more comfortable, but do offer decent room for 3-abreast seating -- something that cannot be said for Wrangler. Both 2-door and 4-door have good head room, but the 2-door has only modest leg room. The 4-door model has ample rear-seat leg room. Regardless, the step-in can be quite a challenge. It's also quite difficult to get into the rear seats of the 2-door model because of the small door openings.
Outward visibility is fair. There are lots of pillars to the rear and the windows are narrow due to the high beltline. There is a surround-view camera option.
From a tech standpoint you might think the retro-styled Bronco would be behind the curve. That's not true as Bronco offers all the safety and tech goodies you might want, including adaptive cruise control and the aforementioned surround-view camera. In addition to that, Bronco offers a suite of useful off-road aids that make even a novice driver seem like a seasoned pro.
Being slightly larger than Wrangler gives Bronco a leg up on storage. The 2-door lists 22.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and 52.3 cubic feet overall. The 4-door lists 38.3 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 77.6 cubic feet overall. Both numbers are slightly better than Wrangler but trail more conventional SUVs like 4Runner. Interior storage is adequate, with a few cupholders and nooks and crannies for personal items. Door pockets are replaced with netting and it's mostly useless for anything other than paper storage. Some models have front seatbacks with attachment points for hanging equipment.
Bottom Line -- Bronco...what a perfect name for a rough and tumble, off-road ready vehicle. And the name is more than matched by its performance. Bronco is a worthy competitor to Wrangler and a considerably better value than Land Rover Defender. While it lacks refinement compared to 4Runner, it is hard to fault its off-road prowess. Considering its mission, nits are few and mostly related to things that are a "hard stop" for true off-road enthusiasts. Of course it is noisy inside, but that's a concession to convertibility. Of course the ride is bouncy, but that gives it off-road chops. Of course fuel-economy isn't the best, but that's the price of it's overbuilt ruggedness. Like Wrangler, Bronco makes little sense as a daily-use grocery getter. Thankfully, there are still people that make vehicle purchases based on emotion -- and more importantly there are still car companies that are willing to build vehicles like the Bronco.