One of the spoils of being a kid in the 1970s was seeing all of the different kinds of vehicles available in the marketplace. That included vehicles that were designed for an extreme recreational pursuit known as off-roading.
You had the Jeep CJ, which still looked like an old military reconnaissance vehicle that went to gym with Arnold Schwarzenegger. You also had the International Scout – a product from a company that made both medium- and heavy-duty trucks along with farm implements. Both General Motors and Chrysler made their own competitive off-roaders our of shortened pickup trucks.
Soon, Ford would transform their wild and squared-off first-generation Bronco into a shortened version of an F-Series pickup truck, just like GM and Chrysler did. That was a shame, considering how those old Broncos would become legendary in the decades to come.
Legendary enough for Ford to create a comeback for the off-road icon.
When it was announced that Ford was going to bring back the Bronco, everyone was jumping for joy. The next step was to make it into reality. They did so.
Last year, Ford didn’t just re-introduce the Bronco. They created three of them and put them under a sub-brand.
This was one of those three. This is the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport.
Before I dive into what the Bronco Sport is, let’s talk about what it is not.
This is not THE Bronco we all have been expecting for years. That Bronco will be produced on the Ranger frame at its plant in Wayne, Michigan. It has been touted as a highly capable off-road vehicle that will compete with the Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner, and Land Rover Defender. We’re probably weeks away from customer deliveries of these highly anticipated vehicles, as long as there’s more than enough microchips and rubber parts for them.
This Bronco Sport was developed from the same platform as the Ford Escape. Therefore, the engine is mounted transversely with an enhanced all-wheel-drive system that has been marketed as “four-wheel-drive.” Ford designed a look that is as boxy as the original Bronco – rather, the old Ranger-based Bronco II from the 1980s – but is more down-to-Earth to attract adventure-loving small SUV customers.
What I have is a teaser. The first Bronco badged vehicle to arrive at showrooms before the more imposing bigger sibling.
This smaller vehicle brings up a lot of questions. Is this the Bronco you want if you couldn’t wait for the bigger one to arrive? Rather, could we see it from another lens to understand whether it can stand on its own in a highly competitive marketplace?
Of the two questions above, I choose to pursue the latter. I’ll get back to the other one later on in this review.
One cannot ignore that Ford wanted to shape its smaller Bronco Sport along the lines of the original Bronco. There are some elements that stand out more away from a completely boxy shape. The front end just out from the headlamp units with the sub-brand’s signature across the grille. Those lighting units have circular main bulbs and lenses, but they extend onto the grille area for the LED turn signals and driving lamps.
The rest of the Bronco Sport follow a boxy convention, except for the C-pillar area. It throws in an angle for good measure, breaking up the side glasshouse. Access to the cargo area can be achieved by opening up the entire liftgate, or just opening up the rear glass.
My tester is the more off-road ready version of the Bronco Sport – the Badlands edition. It came with a contrasting roof color – black on top of Rapid Red. My tester had the optional aluminum 17-inch wheels, which look like steelies made for a rock-hopping rig.
The look is undeniably “Bronco.” Yet, it is confusing for people who are unaware of this model and the entire resurrection of the Bronco nameplate. It looks better than the current Escape it was developed from – more, ahem, masculine, if you will.
When you are stepping inside the Bronco Sport Badlands, you are greeted by a ready-to-go interior motif. Do not expect luxury touches inside this SUV. Materials may be on the harder side, but they exhibit usefulness and utility. With that said, you do get a digital information screen an awesome start-up sequence. That is set in-between two analog dials and bar-graph gauges. Switches work well and are logical to use.
A tablet-like screen sits on top of the center stack, operated by the SYNC 3 infotainment system. Six speakers emit good sound throughout the cabin. There is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, but it is through a USB cord. There is the option of plugging in standard USB or a USB-C cord underneath the center stack. Wireless charging is also available, as well.
On the center console, Ford chose to use their rotary transmission dial instead of a shifter for their Bronco Sport. However, you also get the G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Terrain) Mode knob that operates the Terrain Management System and its seven settings. That along with additional controls for the four-wheel-drive system.
There is seating for four average-sized adults, or two adults and up to three children inside the Bronco Sport. The Badlands edition is upholstered in a durable-looking cloth mix. They were a bit firm, but the driver’s seats offer power adjustments for rake, recline, height, and lumbar. The second row seats were fine, as well. You do get plenty of storage and cubby places for rear seat passengers, some of which will remind you of your backpack. There’s mobile phone pockets and zippered pouches for tablets.
The cargo area itself is covered with a rubberized floor. You can load up to 29.4 cubic feet of gear behind the second-row seats. If you need more space, fold down the second row for up to 60.6 cubic feet of space for longer journeys in the great outdoors.
Because the Bronco Sport is based off of the Escape, you get two of the engine choices from its softroading sibling. Standard is a 181-horsepower 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine on most models. My Badlands tester came with the 250-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The fact that it also throws down 277 pound-feet of torque helps make this larger engine the choice of the range.
Connected to this engine is an eight-speed automatic transmission sending power to all four wheels through an advanced system using a twin-clutch rear axle unit. In theory, this four-wheel-drive system has a second lower ratio for managing tougher terrain and harsher conditions. You can control this system either through the Terrain Management System and its seven G.O.A.T. Modes, or you can push a button to lock the rear axle or do a full four-wheel-drive lock.
If you heading to your favorite off-road park, such as Spider Lake or Appleton, Minnesota, the Bronco Sport Badlands perform very well on the highway. There is a bit of a lag on passing maneuvers and going up on-ramps, but it settles in very well at highway speeds. As for fuel consumption, I averaged 26.3 MPG.
At first, I thought the ride quality was a bit off. There was some bouncing and some rocking motion. However, once I drove my tester further, things started to settle down. Rather, I understood why the ride was very soft. It had to be, since the Bronco Sport was engineered to go off road and you need to have the suspension soft enough to cushion you from what’s out there – that is, if there’s anything out there.
The Bronco Sport handles with greater control when served through evasive maneuvers on the highway. Part of that comes from a pretty good steering system with a tight turning radius. On-center feel was on the softer side of things. Not even Sport mode would weight it down even a tad. The system should be good in tight situations away from the highway, even with the four-wheel-drive system locked down.
As for stopping power, the pedal was also on the softer side. When it does send power to the wheels, I experienced decent stops in normal and panic braking situations.
One last thing to keep in mind about the Bronco Sport Badlands is that it stands with 8.8 inches of ground clearance, along with a wading depth of 23.6 inches. Not to mention that there are skid plates protecting the underbelly of this small SUV.
How much does this 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands model cost? My tester came with a sticker price of $36,140.
Before I even conclude this review, let me reiterate one more time that this smaller SUV is NOT the all-new Bronco you have been teased about mercifully for years. It is coming and it looks and feels damn good. I’ll leave you with that for now…
Another thing you should never mistake the Bronco Sport for is a spiritual replacement for the old Bronco II or the original Bronco. This vehicle is more down to Earth than either purpose-built classic (or, classic by association) and is made for a modern consumer that is used to SUVs as a primary vehicle to own.
However, do not consider this Bronco Sport a “filler” or a “teaser” for the bigger, Ranger-based Bronco. It can stand on its own, considering the competition it now faces in its size class. However, if you want something that aspires to play as wild as the bigger Bronco, but you want it relatively affordable and smaller for your semi-urban and active lifestyle, skip all of the other Bronco Sports and get yourself a Badlands model.
I hope that clears everything up about the Ford Bronco Sport.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by the Ford Motor Company
All photos by Randy Stern