First ride: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport conquers sand and hills

The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport wasn’t developed as a full-on off-roader like its larger Bronco brother. Its unibody structure started out as the platform for the road- and family-oriented Escape. The Bronco Sport doesn’t have the Bronco’s solid rear axle, two-speed transfer case, available 35-inch tires, or locking front differential. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not capable off-road.

Last week, I traveled to the Holly Hills ORV Park in Holly, Michigan, to get a first ride in the smaller of Ford’s two off-roaders and see if the Bronco Sport, which goes on sale this fall, lives up to the promise of the revived nameplate.Ford made a Badlands model available for the ride with the optional 235/65R17 Falken Wildpeak A/T off-road tires (29 inches tall) and a Ford vehicle integration engineer at the wheel. I’m not aware of other options on the pre-production prototype, but with those tires it would start at $34,650.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

A first drive is months away, and this was our first in-person experience with the Bronco Sport. Without getting behind the wheel myself, all I have to go on is what the driver told me and showed me and what I witnessed at a course Ford prepared to shed the best light on its baby Bronco.

The Badlands is the top model in the lineup (aside from the limited First Edition) and the top off-roader. It comes standard with hydraulic rebound stops on the front struts to cushion the blows of off-roading, big 46-millimeter-diameter monotube rear shocks to help smooth out bumpy terrain, a 1-inch taller ride height, and a softer tune for the springs and anti-roll bars to allow better off-road ride quality and more suspension articulation.

Ford also outfits the Badlands with additional Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl modes for its terrain management system, four skid plates, front tow hooks, and a 180-degree front camera.

The Badlands gets a more powerful engine and more advanced four-wheel-drive system, too. A 2.0-liter turbo-4 spins out 245 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque and sends it to all four wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission. The four-wheel-drive system uses a twin-clutch rear drive unit that can send almost all of the rear power to one wheel or act like a locking differential. 

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

Before I even sat in the Bronco Sport I was surprised how similar the Bronco and Bronco Sport look from the front. It’s hard to tell them apart. It’s only when you get a profile view and see the fixed roof that the Bronco Sport diverges to look more like a traditional SUV and the Bronco shows its Jeep Wrangler influence. Both look tough, appropriately retro, and purpose-built.

My ride began in Sand mode with a romp through sand and loose dirt. It’s important to keep the revs up through the silty stuff, so Sand acts like a Sport mode by making the throttle touchier, holding gears longer, and loosening the traction control. The Bronco Sport paddled through the loose earth, kicking up rooster tails as we went. The turbo-4 felt strong from the front passenger seat, and it would be my choice over the 181-hp turbo-3 base engine.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

The sand led to a run up a bumpy 19-degree hill. With the terrain management system in its Mud/Ruts mode and the rear differential lock on, we ran up the hill easily.

On a later 18-degree hill, we stopped halfway up the hill and engaged the Trail Control system, an off-road cruise control that can be set between 1 and 20 mph in drive and 1 and 6 mph in reverse. At about 3 mph, the Bronco Sport crept up the remainder of the hill like a good little robot and the driver didn’t have to touch the throttle to get moving.

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The ride also included steep downhill sections of 19 and 25 degrees. Here, the trail control system did its part as well, creeping downhill at 3-4 mph. The Bronco Sport’s crawl ratio tops out at 18:1 compared to 94.75:1 in the Bronco (67.8:1 for a Bronco with the automatic transmission for a more apples-to-apples comparison). Even though the Bronco Sport handled these hills, the Bronco’s more aggressive crawl ratios would give it more control on a trek down a long, steep trail.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

The only challenge came at the bottom of the short 25-degree hill. The Badlands’ 8.8 inches of ground clearance gives it the Bronco Sport’s best approach, breakover, and departure angles of 30.4, 20.4, and 33.1 degrees, respectively. At the end of the steeper hill, the Badlands scraped its front skid plate along the ground, then kept going.

On both the uphill and downhill sections, the Badland’s front 180-degree camera helped the driver point the nose in the right direction to avoid obstacles. It comes on in Mud/Ruts, Sand, and Rock Crawl modes and turns off when the Bronco Sport exceeds 13 mph. It can also be activated with a dash button at lower speeds in other modes, and it has a washer to clean off the lens. The system uses a single wide-angle lens, but it presents with a three-panel view on the center screen.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

2021 Ford Bronco Sport first ride

Off-road vehicles from other automakers have similar front cameras and we view them as essential equipment for serious off-roading.

What wasn’t included in the ride could be telling. No low-speed rock crawling that the bigger Bronco’s taller ride height and higher crawl ratio would certainly handle better. No high-speed runs on bumpy trails, which a taller, tougher, body-on-frame SUV would better withstand than a unibody vehicle. To be fair, my ride in the Bronco didn’t have those elements, either. My Bronco ride did include a run through water and the Bronco Sport ride didn’t, despite Ford’s quoted 23.5 inches of water-fording capability.

After my ride, I was left with the impression that the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands is a worthy competitor for a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. Both have real off-road capability to go with a unibody structure that makes them more comfortable on the street than bouncier body-on-frame off-roaders. They’re lifestyle vehicles to be sure, and that lifestyle includes going off the beaten path to experience nature. The Cherokee and soon the Bronco Sport should be used that way.

Ford offered a ride in the 2021 Bronco Sport near Detroit to bring you this firsthand report.



2021 Ford Bronco Sport preview: The Bronco gets an Escape-based companion

published 7/13/2020

While its big brother the Bronco takes on the Jeep Wrangler, the new 2021 Ford Bronco Sport goes after the Jeep Cherokee and Compass.

Ford revealed the 2021 Bronco Sport on Monday as a smaller, less capable off-roader that is still meant to conquer the terrain where the road ends.

Based on a modified version of the unibody platform from the Ford Escape, the Bronco Sport is a lower-cost, smaller, and slightly more refined alternative to the Bronco. It has independent front and rear suspensions rather than the Bronco’s solid rear axle, and it also lacks its larger sibling’s locking front and rear axles.

Set for release this fall, the Bronco Sport will be offered in base, Big Bend, Outer Banks, Badlands, and First Edition models. The First Edition will be limited to 2,000 units. Higher-line models will not only get more equipment, but more off-road functionality. For instance, Badlands and First Edition models have hydraulic rebound stops on the front struts for less jarring during off-roading, large 46-millimeter-diameter monotube rear shocks for improved off-road ride quality, and softer springs and anti-roll bars for more suspension articulation.

Under the hood, the Bronco will come with a choice of two engines, a 181-horsepower 1.5-liter turbo-3 or a 245-hp turbo-4, both teamed with an 8-speed automatic transmission. Turbo-4 models add steering wheel shift paddles and extra coolers for the transmission and rear differential. All models come with all-wheel drive; some offer a twin-clutch rear-drive unit that can send power to the rear wheel with grip. A standard terrain management system, which Ford labels G.O.A.T. for Goes Over Any Terrain, includes Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, and Sand modes, while the Badlands and First Edition models will add Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl modes.

The Bronco Sport will be able to tow up to 2,200 pounds and ford water as high as 23.6 inches thanks to a ground clearance as high as 8.8 inches (7.8 inches is standard) with the optional 29-inch tires. Approach, breakover, and departure angles top out at 30.4, 20.4, and 33.1 degrees, respectively, for the Badlands and First Edition models. An off-road cruise control can be set for up to 20 mph moving forward or 6 mph in reverse, the crawl ratio is 18:1, and an available forward-view camera shows the trail ahead. Four skid plates will be offered, as will front tow hooks. Ford will offer 17- and 18-inch wheels.

The Bronco Sport’s design has retro-inspired looks like its larger brother, with round headlights, flat side panels, and short front and rear overhangs.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

The design is also functional. The hatch area is tall enough to fit a pair of upright 27.5-inch mountain bikes (Ford will sell you the Yakima bike rack as an accessory). The rear glass flips up for easy access to the cargo area, and the higher-line models get washable rubber flooring in the passenger and cargo areas, easy-clean cloth upholstery, and silicone-sealed control switches.

A bin under the rear seat is ideal for stowing wet or muddy gear, and Ford will offer a configurable cargo management system with a slide-out table. Team that with a 400-watt inverter and liftgate floodlamps to create a convenient setup at a campsite or tailgate party. In addition, Ford is launching the Bronco Sport with more than 100 available accessories, including four packages aimed at camping, bikes, snow, and water.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

Elsewhere in the interior the Bronco Sport features an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and modular Molle straps. Leather upholstery, navigation, and B&O audio will also be offered.

Ford will make its CoPilot-360 safety suite standard on the Bronco Sport. It includes forward-collision warnings with a pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts, active lane control, and automatic high beams. Also offered are adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, evasive steering assist, speed limit recognition, and intelligent adaptive cruise control that slows down for new speed limits, junctions, and curves.

Ford is taking orders now with a deposit of $100 at Ford.com. The base model will start at $28,155, including destination. Watch for complete pricing closer to the Bronco Sport’s launch.

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