AUSTIN, TX – It’s hard to explain the appeal of extreme off-roading.
It’s popular among young people who don’t mind 99-degree heat (common here in summer), bugs, snakes, angry fire ants and going slow while the rest of the world wants speed. Toss in a heavy rainfall to create mud puddles that smell more rank with each passing hour, and you have the perfect date – for certain people.
For those hard-core types, Ford’s resurrected and fully redesigned body-on-frame Bronco is here to challenge the Jeep Wrangler, which until now has literally owned Wards Small SUV segment all by itself.
But the Bronco (seen, left, in side-view mirror) arguably was the first SUV when it launched in 1966, years before the term would be attached to big family haulers that never leave the pavement.
So how is this head-to-head U.S. sales race shaping up, as Ford dealt with supply issues last year that delayed certain Bronco deliveries? Numbers for the full calendar year do not tell the whole story: 204,610 Wranglers vs. 35,023 2-door and 4-door Broncos, according to Wards Intelligence data.
More telling, however, is the final three months of 2021, when all 35,023 Broncos were delivered, up against 39,900 Wranglers for the same period. It’s shaping up to be a battle.
It’s worth noting the Ford Bronco Sport, which launched earlier and is certainly more rugged than the Ford Escape from which it’s derived, is tearing it up in Wards’ unibody-based Small CUV segment, where 20 high-volume entries are duking it out.
In its short time in the market, the Bronco Sport has assumed the No.3 position, with 108,169 deliveries in 2021, trailing only the No.1 Honda HR-V and No.2 Subaru Crosstrek, while outpacing the popular Chevrolet Trailblazer, Hyundai Kona, Kia Sportage and Nissan Kicks, among many others, Wards Intelligence data shows.
As a staff, we’ve spent lots of time behind the wheel of 2-door and 4-door Broncos of various trim levels, and it’s readily apparent what the fuss is all about: the throwback styling, all-weather interior, fold-down or removable roofs, protruding fender flares, industrial rims, five massive knobby wheels (including one proudly mounted on the rear swing-gate) and the GOAT modes (for Going Over Any type of Terrain).
Marketing a vehicle like this is not the same as the method used to move Mustangs or F-150s.
Instead, Ford has invested dearly in a new concept known as Bronco Off-Roadeo, where customers can come to taste the thrill of putting one wheel 2 ft. (61 cm) off the ground, or pitching the body so far it nearly rolls over, or slamming the steel skidplate so hard on a massive boulder that it’s felt in one’s spleen, or climbing an intimidating rock wall that appears as vertical as the Bronco’s upright windshield.
Within the past year, Ford has opened four Off-Roadeo locations (Moab, UT; Gilford, NH; Mount Potosi near Las Vegas and here on hard-scrabble Texas terrain near Austin), and more than 11,000 Bronco owners and order holders have visited the rugged locales for something that is more than a mere test drive.
In addition, salespeople from Ford dealerships nationwide have come to learn about the vehicles and how to sell them – not just the specs and trim levels but also more than 200 factory-backed accessories to support the bottom line. There are more than 30 Jeep Jamboree events being held coast-to-coast this year, so Ford has lots of Bronco brand building to do.
The Off-Roadeo experience is about the Bronco, of course, but equally important is immersing in a culture that celebrates the outdoors with barbecues, stargazing at night by the fire and lawn games such as cornhole, King of the Hammers and learning how to lasso a goat.
One could argue that tearing up the countryside with a 4-wheeler isn’t exactly communing with nature, but the course managers say they are careful to minimize environmental impacts.
This is part of grasping the off-road experience, all under the watchful eyes of trained spotters who stand precariously close to a vehicle’s front bumper, trusting the driver to do exactly what he says – “turn right, now left, a little more, ride the brake, give it a little gas.”
Do as instructed, and the Bronco will not fail you. You might blow out a tire – as happened here by one test driver – but the spotter will generally prevent serious damage to exterior body panels and the undercarriage.
On road, with its independent front suspension, the Bronco is comfortable to drive and is even reasonably quiet, depending on tire selection (chunky 35-inchers are available).
Turning the wheels are two notable EcoBoost engines – a 275-hp 2.3L turbocharged 4-cyl. (same as in the Ranger) and a 315-hp 2.7L turbocharged V-6, both directly related to Wards 10 Best Engines winners in recent years. The engines are paired with a 7-speed manual (4-cyl. only) or 10-speed automatic transmission.
Early in the launch, the sales mix was leaning toward the 4-cyl., and about two-thirds of initial customers were expected to select the 4-door Bronco.
There’s a Bronco for every purse and purpose, from a $28,500 base model to a $56,915 First Edition, and in between are trim levels known as Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak and Badlands, not to mention the available Sasquatch package.
Regardless of trim level, the Bronco relishes seemingly insurmountable challenges, whether the doors or top are on or off. The mechanical bits make the difference, from the locking front and rear differentials and torture-tested suspension to the front stabilizer bar that can disconnect for higher articulation and better ride comfort.
Clearly, it’s not about fancy stuff in the Bronco: cloth and marine-grade vinyl seats are standard in lower trims, and it’s only with Outer Banks trim and above that leather is offered, as is adaptive cruise control (but not stop-and-go), forward sensing, a 360-degree camera and 12-in. (30-cm) Sync 4 infotainment system.
Standard across all models are an 8-in. (20-cm) Sync 4 infotainment screen, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, hill-descent control and a rearview camera. Driver-assist technologies available include lane-keeping and blindspot detection, but lane-centering isn’t offered at all, nor are cooled seats.
Ford ended production of its previous Bronco in 1996 – just as the SUV craze was about to take off, oddly enough – so Bronco loyalists have been impatiently waiting for its return. Now, they are keeping the Wayne, MI, assembly plant humming, so long as enough parts and semiconductors are rolling in.