The last time a brand-new Ford Bronco rolled off the assembly line, the iconic 4×4 had become a bit of an Elvis. Not the hot apple pie, Blue Suede Shoes Elvis, but more of the sweaty, I-still-got-it-god-dammit Elvis. The fresh-faced little off-roading trucklet that debuted to instant stardom in 1965 was, by the mid-Nineties, clinging to life as a full-size F-150 in a wig. Add to the Bronco’s resume a surprise cameo as the getaway vehicle in the most famous live police chase in television history, and the writing was on the wall. The Bronco was put out to pasture in 1996, and Ford put an even beefier dumb thing, the Expedition, in its place.
It’s bewildering sometimes, watching the fall of a superstar. The Bronco is widely credited with creating the sport utility vehicle segment in America. Yet somehow, the Bronco faded from the market right as Americans started buying SUVs like they were time machines filled with Bitcoin. The field was plowed by the Bronco, but the imitators hogged all the sun.
Thing is, there was another trucklet bouncing around back in the Sixties, being sporty and utilitarian long before the Bronco set our hearts a-flutter with its slabby sides and well-understood marketing value. That vehicle was the Jeep CJ, a rounded steel shoebox with enough ground clearance and traction to go just about anywhere the two full-grown hamsters under the hood could take it.
If the Bronco lived Elvis’ life, the CJ was Chuck Berry, who’d already invented most of rock ‘n’ roll long before Elvis appointed himself the King of it. Berry’s life wasn’t easy, and neither was he. Keith Richards tells a story of his first time meeting the American rock hero. He made the mistake of moving a little too quickly towards Berry’s open guitar case, and found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. That was the Jeep CJ. It didn’t promise you volleyball on the beach, it told you stories about parachuting out of a plane in WWII. It barely even had doors.
The Jeep CJ was fully its own thing before the Bronco arrived. And it hardly changed afterwards. It took more than 20 years after the Bronco debuted before the CJ was succeeded by the Wrangler. Even then, Jeep barely elaborated on the proven family recipe: an open body riding on a couple of live axles, high- and low-range four-wheel drive, and a simplicity that encouraged owners to beat them to hell and back. That’s pretty much what the Wrangler still is today.
Which brings me to why I stepped off a plane last week in Austin, Texas. Since those Jeeps never stopped being Jeeps, and since an unrelenting throng of people keeps buying them, Ford brought the Bronco back to try and get a slice of Jeep’s pie. Ford is well aware of what Jeep has been doing—and not doing—with its last quarter-century as the only player in the open-top off-road category. And the folks in Dearborn clearly feel the Bronco has a rightful spot at that table. After five years of what I’d like to imagine as a fast-forward Rocky training montage, Ford has introduced not just a new Bronco, but essentially a brand-new, fully-realized Bronco sub-brand. And they’ve parked it right next to Jeep’s guitar case.
Not including the Escape-sized Bronco Sport, which Ford wisely rolled out earlier this year so it wouldn’t get squashed by its own big brother, the real-deal Bronco comes in no less than seven different trim levels. Each is available in either two- or four-door guise, with either a 2.3-liter turbo four-cylinder making 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, or a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 putting out 330 hp and 415 lb-ft (all outputs with premium fuel). The four-cylinder offers a 7-speed manual transmission with an ultra-low Crawler gear, while a 10-speed automatic is available with either engine. There’s a dizzying array of equipment packages available across the lineup.
A base two-door Bronco starts at $29,995 ($34,695 for a four-door), and is essentially a steel-wheeled blank canvas with a manual transmission. From there, you can spec up your Bronco depending on how nicely you intend to treat it, and how nicely you’d like it to treat you. The trim lines, in increasing order of fanciness: Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Badland, Wildtrak, and First Edition. I’m not going to rehash the immense spectrum of individual differences here—it would make my fingers hurt and it’s already widely covered. But the option you’re gonna wish you ordered, regardless of trim, is the Sasquatch package. That’s how you get the gear meant to humiliate your Wrangler Rubicon-owning friends: massive 35-inch Goodyear Territory mud tires on beadlock-capable wheels (lesser models get 30-, 32- or 33-inch tires); front and rear electronic differential lockers; a 4.7:1 final drive ratio; and position-sensitive Bilstein shock absorbers. The great thing is, you don’t have to buy the very top-dog Bronco to get the Sasquatch stuff—you can turn any model into a Sasquatch, even the base trim. But depending on your driving style, there’s one bit of bad news: The manual transmission won’t be available with the Sasquatch package until later this year.
It’s worth mentioning that a Sasquatch’d Bronco still won’t deliver quite as much suspension clearance as a Wrangler Rubicon when pushed to the limit. But it’s also worth pointing out that the Bronco comes damn close while offering a modern independent front suspension design that’s worlds more advanced than the ancient solid-front-axle setup found on every Wrangler—and largely unchanged since the CJ. Ford’s betting that for 99 percent of people, the trade-off of losing a little potential clearance in the most extreme articulation events is worth it in exchange for modern steering feel and predictable handling. Count me as one of those people.
Ford rolled out every conceivable Bronco configuration in Austin for the media to sample. It would have been impossible to draw meaningful on-road and off-road comparisons between each setup in the time available. Luckily, Ford is launching the Bronco with a top-dog trim line called the First Edition, combining many of the best off-road features of the hardcore Badlands edition with the tech and comfort options of the Outer Banks model, as well as the underbody bash plates and Baja drive-mode tuning from the Wildtrack edition. And of course, don’t forget the Sasquatch. I grabbed a two-door First Edition in Cactus gray, with the twin-turbo V-6 and 10-speed automatic, and spent as much time behind the wheel as I could, logging highway miles, crawling trails, and being cornered by perfect strangers nearly everywhere I went.
Getting into the the Bronco on its optional 35-inch tires requires a little vertical effort, but once you’re in, it’s a nice place to be. All the modern conveniences you’ve come to expect in your road car are here: adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, Ford Sync 4 with CarPlay, all that. The interior design has a lot of right angles and sturdy flat surfaces for a suitably macho theme.
Down on the console is the G.O.A.T. Mode dial. The acronym is a throwback to the original Bronco’s stated engineering mission—to “go over all terrain.” In 2021, people will probably assume it’s something to do with being the Greatest Of All Time, and Ford’s probably fine with that. The knob controls your four-wheel drive setting and your terrain-specific drive modes.
Twist the G.O.A.T. knob (a phrase that will never not sound strange), and the display in the gauge cluster will scroll through the available terrain settings. For general off-road trails with a mix of bumpy stuff, try Mud and Ruts. Sand, Wet, Eco—all self-explanatory. One strange item with the First Edition: It doesn’t have a Sport mode, despite it being present on most other trims. That was a bit of a disappointment. In road driving, I often felt like I had to push the throttle harder and longer than I anticipated to get a response, and the transmission felt a little sluggish on upshifts. I’ve since learned that the First Edition adds Rock Crawl mode, available on the Badlands and Black Diamond trims, thus squeezing out Sport mode as one of the 7 total settings available. (With these option package names, the Bronco’s configurator is bound to feel like a National Parks map.)
The First Edition also gets the Baja mode setting available on Wildtrack models. Apparently, it acts like Sport mode, except it defaults you to 4WD Hi instead of 2WD, and it locks the rear axle. The unofficial workaround, as explained by some rando on the internet, is to go into Baja mode, switch back to 2WD, and unlock the rear axle. If I’m paying over $50,000 for a top-dog Bronco, I’d appreciate getting Sport mode, preferably on its own toggle switch.
Right in the middle of the G.O.A.T. knob is the button that turns on one of the Bronco’s smartest features: One-Pedal Driving. It basically works like cruise control for a super-hairy section of an off-road trail, helpful if, for example, you’re crawling over some big, slippery rocks. Once activated, you’ll start inching forward at a snail’s pace, able to adjust your speed in 0.5-mph increments using buttons on the steering wheel. One-Pedal Drive manages all the subtle throttle inputs you’d need to maintain grip and momentum in a dicey situation, leaving you to focus on your line and apply the brake as needed. On a descent, the system will even brush the brakes automatically to hold your desired speed.
You might be starting to worry about all these knobs, buttons and modes. A true off-road pilot should be able to rely on skill, not software; maybe you’re suspicious that these digital doodads are hiding some kind of deficiency in the core of the vehicle’s engineering. I don’t think that’s true. If drive modes aren’t your thing, you never have to activate them, relying only on your wits. But Ford has clearly put a ton of time into honing this machine to help make average Joes into off-road heroes. For some folks—probably the hardest nuts to crack in the Jeep crowd, those who live and die by their simple, decades-proven rigs—all this drive-mode trickery might seem frivolous. But let me point something out: Ford used the exact same approach with the almighty Mustang GT500, creating a muscle coupe with supercar-level performance hardware and using software magic to allow a regular person to get the full flavor of its sky-high capabilities. And nobody’s arguing that the GT500 isn’t as legit as a street car can be.
If you still prefer not to fondle the G.O.A.T. knob, good news. On top of the dashboard sits a row of hero switches that, provided you checked the right option boxes, control the full whack of the Bronco’s most important off-road features. There’s a switch for each axle’s electronic differential lock, a switch to disable traction control, an electronic front sway bar disconnect, and one more party trick: Trail Turn Assist. Say you’re crawling up a trail in 4WD Low with both axles locked, and the path hairpins off at a disgusting angle. The drivetrain’s going to fight you through that turn. Trail Turn Assist instructs the Bronco to lock up the inside rear brake and torque-vector the other three wheels, pivoting you around the corner as smoothly as a politician side-stepping a question about universal healthcare. Pretty neat.
When it comes to road manners, the Bronco does just fine, even on those monster 35-inch tires. Road noise is minimal, and the modular hard top keeps things relatively quiet and calm. Better to take them off, though. Going roofless in the Bronco is a totally great idea. The panels are lightweight and popping them in and out is a breeze.
Full disclosure: My point of reference for my off- and on-road driving impressions is my own truck, a Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 on 33-inch tires. The ZR2’s signature feature is the triple spool-valve shocks, designed by racing firm Multimatic specifically for the off-road Colorado. They’re miracle workers, reigning in excess body movements, but even so, I’m no stranger to how it feels to take a 5000-lb lifted truck on big-ass tires around a corner.
Still, I had to recalibrate my butt to feel confident on pavement in the Sasquatch-equipped Bronco. The first few times I pushed it, the rig smooshed and leaned over so far, for a split second I thought maybe we were losing our attachment to the road. Two more inches of sidewall will do that. But after a mildly alarming initial lean-in, the Bronco reliably digs into a predictable, steady squat. The seats are perfectly fine, comfy for long distances, but a little more side bolstering would go a long way in reassuring you that those enthusiastic body movements are under control. Regardless, it’s a blast ripping around town in the Bronco.
As my time with the Bronco wound down and I jotted my last few notes for this story, I realized that I hadn’t really put down a single word about the design of this new truck. Maybe on some level I figured I’d let the pictures do the talking, and I hope they do. It’s a fantastic looking machine. It’s a tricky and treacherous job raising an iconic vehicle from the dead and putting it in a modern context. The new Bronco is right on the money, perfectly integrating the truck’s modern mission while preserving what it must have felt like to see it for the first time in 1965. The styling is so good, it barely needs mentioning. It’s just unquestionably a Bronco. Like it never left.
No matter what hill you call home in the off-roading world, Ford deserves (and has already gotten) some real applause for this deeply considered truck. When a superstar comes back to life it’s quite an achievement, but the mission here seems bigger than just recreating history. After all, if this really was 1965 all over again, Jeep would hardly even notice this shot directly across its bow. The Bronco is here to compete. And while high stakes one-upmanship doesn’t always make for good art, it has often made for some of our greatest automobiles. And Ford may have already gotten its answer: Just days before the first round of Bronco reviews were set to publish, Jeep announced that the Wrangler Rubicon will now be available with 35-inch tires, matching the Sasquatch Bronco—and an optional 4.56 gear package gives the Rubicon a crawl ratio that beats Bronco’s by something like 2 percent.
Welcome back, G.O.A.T.
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