The 2021 Ford Bronco is finally here to take on the Jeep Wrangler, but don’t forget that Ford is actually attacking Jeep on a second front: small crossovers. The Blue Oval’s weapon of choice is the Ford Bronco Sport, and its aim is to steal away Jeep Compass buyers. Here’s why I think it will succeed.
(Full Disclosure: Ford invited me to an off-road park in southeast Michigan to test the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport on dirt trails, a sand “rallycross” stage, a water puddle, over some boulders and also on the streets. Ford fed me lunch.)
It makes sense that the Bronco is getting all the love, as the Bronco Sport doesn’t look nearly as cool. That’s why the very first photo I took at the Ford Bronco Sport media drive was this:
Everyone wants to drive the tough-looking Bronco, but price, fuel economy, and ride comfort will likely dissuade many, who instead of opting for the more capable body-on-frame, solid rear-axle Bronco, could seek refuge behind the wheel of a more car-like crossover.
That’s why the Bronco Sport is so important: It is there, in part, to act as a net for those who fall from the towering cloud that is Broncomania. And of course, it is there to steal sales from Jeep.
Engineers used the Ford Escape and Lincoln Corsair’s architecture as the starting point for the Bronco Sport. This means the little Jeep Compass competitor is built on a transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive-based unibody platform (though all Bronco Sports come standard with four-wheel drive, for clout) with a MacPherson strut suspension in the front and a multilink design out back.
Under the hood is one of two available EcoBoost turbocharged engines. There’s a 1.5-liter three-cylinder making 181 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque (which is the standard power on Base, Big Bend, and Outer Banks trims), and a 2.0-liter inline-four cranking out 250 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque (this is standard on the Badlands trim).
Both engines are hooked to a rotary dial-controlled eight-speed automatic transmission. A power transfer unit, or PTU, bolted to the transmission apportions torque between the front axle shafts and the rear driveshaft. That rear driveshaft connects to a rear-drive unit, or RDU, which distributes torque between the rear wheels.
In the lower three trims, a clutch in the PTU and a single clutch in the RDU let the vehicle drive in two-wheel drive for most on-road duties to maximize fuel economy, then quickly spin up the rear driveshaft and connect the rear wheels to the engine to engage four-wheel drive when requested.
The Badlands (and the low-volume First Edition) adds liquid cooling to the PTU and a second clutch to the RDU, providing a “differential lock” feature, as Ford calls it. This is different from a real mechanical locker, but the point is that the rear drive unit can keep powering both wheels even when one has little grip. The schematic below shows the basics of the Badlands’ off-road system:
The Badlands model gets skid plates, two tow hooks right on its face and all-terrain tires wrapped around 17-inch wheels. Standard tires are 28.5 inches in diameter on all Bronco Sport models including Badlands (OK, on the cushier Outer Banks trim, they’re 28.6). If you go for the Badlands’ optional 29-inch all-terrain tires, you maximize the car’s off-road geometry.
The Sport’s ground clearance reaches 8.8 inches, the approach angle reaches 33.1 degrees, departure angle hits 30.4 degrees and breakover angle comes in at 20.4 with that setup. Those numbers, aside from the breakover figure, are competitive with the Jeep Compass, whose numbers are 30.3, 33.6, and 24.4, respectively.
The Bronco Sport looks a lot cooler with 31-inch tires and a small lift kit, as shown on the concept car above, though a Ford engineer told me he would “never suggest to lift these vehicles.”
Such is the nature of unibody, transverse-engine vehicles with independent suspension; lifting them tends to throw suspension geometry and critically, CV joint angles, out of whack. Ford itself offers quite a few aftermarket mods for its new baby. The reality is that making significant mechanical changes to the Bronco Sport doesn’t look like it’ll be easy, so you’d better like the way it comes from the factory. I did. Mostly.
I drove an Outer Banks trim Bronco Sport first, the most luxurious of the four main trims. It comes standard with 18-inch wheels, heated leather-trimmed seats, a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote start and a 6.5-inch instrument cluster screen. With a price of roughly $36,000, this model was equipped with Ford Co-Pilot360 including adaptive cruise control, “evasive steering assist” and speed limit sign recognition.
I liked the functional interior, with an easy-to-use dial shifter switch and hard buttons for volume and climate control that were intuitive to use. The blue seats were cool, too.
The ride was OK and the steering was light; engine noise while cruising was subdued. There’s a high seating position to help you see over the rather flat hood, and the upright pillars and large windows give the cabin an airy feel. It was comfortable on gravel and asphalt surfaces, but overall the driving experience was unexciting. It’s not more unexciting than the typical crossover or SUV in this segment — just don’t read too much into the Sport part of this crossover’s name. The Bronco Sport isn’t as edgy or characterful as a big Bronco or Wrangler, but part of that is a trade-off for practicality.
Working against a 3,500 pound curb weight, the 181 horsepower 1.5-liter engine was only just adequate under my foot. Not lethargic like the Jeep Compass I drove, but still far from thrilling. The eight-speed transmission shifted well enough (even if it got noticeably confused at low speeds), but there was never enough spirit to give the car a “sporty” feel.
Even the 250-horsepower 2.0-liter motor, which probably scoots the car from 0 to 60 mph in the six-second range if the Escape is any indication, didn’t exactly stir my soul. Here’s a look at an acceleration run in the Badlands model. “Alright. That’s alright,” you’ll hear me say:
There’s also a good amount of space. I wish the rear seats folded truly flat (see the bump below), but throw a little platform in the cargo area and there’s probably enough room to camp in this machine.
I’m also a fan of the pop-up glass liftgate. You can fill the rear to the brim with stuff and not have it all fall out every time you want to access something. The rubberized cargo area should be easy to clean, and Badlands models get rubberized flooring to help on this front as well.
Immediately upon sitting in the car, you know you’re not driving something expensive. The interior is perfectly functional, but the cabin feels simplistic. (To be fair, the Jeep Renegade gives off a similar vibe.)
The square screen jutting up from the center of the stack, the small audio control panel and the overall shape of the dash — especially when you consider some of the hard interior plastics — felt inelegant and a bit cheap. Road noise and harshness weren’t bad, but they were still there and served as reminders that this is a fairly inexpensive SUV.
The slightly bigger Ford Escape that shares the same platform and engines scores better fuel economy than the Bronco Sport, despite the latter’s shorter overall length. In the all-wheel drive Escape, the 1.5-liter scores 26 mpg city, 31 highway, 28 combined. The 1.5 Bronco Sport is rated at 25 mpg city, 28 highway and 26 combined.
It’s a similar story with the 2.0-liter. The all-wheel drive Escape scores 23/31/ 26 city/highway/combined; the Bronco Sport manages 21/26/23. That’s a huge drop, and if you’re not going to use the Bronco Sport’s off-road chops, I don’t see how that could possibly be worth it.
But of course, people don’t buy cars for logical reasons. I’ll guess that many will be willing to spend more on fuel solely to get the Bronco Sport’s more rugged looks. I’ll admit that it does have more character than an Escape.
The Ford Bronco Sport Badlands is as good off-road as its competitor from Jeep, the Compass Trailhawk, but the Ford’s more squared-off profile makes it the cooler of the two machines to be seen in.
Nearly nine inches of ground clearance allowed the baby Bronco to step onto sizable rocks without too many crunches from its underbody, and the limited-slip rear differential kept power going to wheels on the ground.
The rear-drive unit was especially helpful during hillclimbs, where load shifted off the nose and toward the rear tires, which did a good job at pushing the machine over this hump:
Decent approach and departure angles meant the Ford could traverse uneven terrain without bashing its bumpers:
A peek at the Bronco Sport’s underbody reveals skid plates that should protect most of the vehicle’s crucial bits. The cooling module in the lower grille opening, shown in the photo below, looks a little close to the upper plane of the vehicle’s approach angle. I could see that intercooler taking a hit if you ran into a change in slope that’s greater than 30 degrees, or if you tried to straddle a big rock.
That said, the rest of the car’s critical bits looks fairly well protected, with steel skid plates under the engine and PTU.
The fuel tank, which straddles the rear driveshaft, is also protected with steel:
Here’s another shot showing the rear lower control arms (the rear suspension is quite similar to that of an Escape or even a Focus). You’ll notice no skid plate under the aluminum rear drive unit, though it appears to be tucked fairly high up in the subframe:
Where the Bronco Sport really thrived was in the woods, on tight trails with trees threatening to add wrinkles to the sheetmetal from all angles. The crossover’s modest dimensions and small turning circle made it easy to precisely position the little one and to navigate sharp turns without stress:
Off-road, there isn’t much suspension articulation, meaning the vehicle lifts tires all too frequently, giving the car a tippy feeling. That often occurs with vehicles that have fully independent suspension, and it’s what you’ll get here.
Another concern is driver visibility. I mentioned that the cabin feels airy, but the high, flat hood killed my confidence when guiding the Sport’s nose through trails, especially over crests. Luckily, the Badlands model comes standard with a front camera, which was extremely clutch off-road (and, I imagine, would be in a parking situation.)
Rear visibility is generally acceptable for a modern compact vehicle, but it is hampered by a giant bump in the rear trim — one that presumably hides the rear wiper motor and latch for the pop-up rear glass. As much as I like that pop-up rear glass, I’d rather ditch it and throw the wiper motor above the glass to get better visibility in the back.
The lack of low-range gearing will be a problem if you want to do any serious off-roading. The short 4.69 first gear and fairly short 3.81 final drive do their best to make up for this dearth of a low-range, but the reality is that an 18:1 crawl ratio isn’t going to be great for low-speed crawling. Despite the Bronco Sport featuring Ford’s Trail Control off-road “cruise control” feature, I found myself doing a lot of left-foot braking.
I also took the Bronco Sport on a sand “rallycross” course. This demonstrated two things: That the Bronco is incredibly nimble and that the stability control seems to make it difficult to actually kick the tail out and have some real fun on a loose surface. This might be fixable by pulling a fuse, though I didn’t test it in front of the Ford folks that day.
While on the trail ride in a group, the driver of an Outer Banks model attempted to ascend a hill. After just a couple of failed attempts to climb the rather modest incline, she said over the radio that her vehicle indicated Four-Wheel Drive Temporarily Disabled.
The Ford rep pointed out that the Outer Banks model does not have the Badlands’ liquid-cooled Power Transfer Unit (a Ford engineer told me that this is cooled via coolant in the engine’s cooling loop), but CNET’s review indicates thermal concerns with even the Badlands model. From CNET:
Unfortunately, after 15 minutes of hooning around in the sand, my Bronco Sport overheats and goes into limp-home mode. I might expect this if ambient temperatures were very high, but it’s a perfect 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, the Bronco cools back down quickly so I can keep on playing — albeit a bit less aggressively.
Driving on loose terrain is extremely taxing on vehicle thermal systems. The slippage leads to a lot of fluid churning. When there are clutches involved, those can get hot, and their function can degrade, causing slip. There’s also quite a bit of engine load and engine speed, which means the potential for a lot of heat rejection in a sandy dune environment. Since the tires are slipping, these conditions tend to correspond to low vehicle speeds, which also means there’s low incoming air velocity and reduced cooling capability.
Still, overheating after just a couple of attempts on a freezing cold Michigan day? Overheating after just 15 minutes of sand driving with 82 degree ambient temperatures? I’m not going to harp on about this since I didn’t experience a failure in my vehicle, but as a former off-road cooling system engineer, I’ll just say: That would be pretty wack if it turned out to be a common issue.
As you can see in the clip above, the Outer Banks in question eventually cooled off and climbed the modest grade. I respect Ford for making the non-Badlands trim Bronco Sport available for off-roading on a press event; when Jeep does press events, it usually makes journalists drive Trailhawk or Rubicon models on the off-road course.
On the road, the engines aren’t exciting. Off-road, the vehicle doesn’t let you drift, and it could potentially struggle with thermal issues. Plus, it suffers from a number of ailments that car-based off-roaders typically suffer from: The Bronco Sport will be hard to modify with a lift kit, it doesn’t offer great articulation, and it doesn’t have a low-range transfer case for stress-free, low-speed rock crawling.
But for small adventures, the Bronco Sport is plenty capable. Available Trail Control acts as off-road cruise control, which works well in most conditions to keep the vehicle moving steadily under guidance. The Badlands’ four-wheel- drive system gets power to the ground, the 2.0-liter has plenty of torque to climb grades, and the vehicle’s overall geometry is good enough to allow for some fun, light-to-medium difficulty off-roading, depending on your bravery.
The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is designed for those heading out to cool hiking or camping spots on beat-up old dirt roads. It’s not just another Jeep or Subaru and critically, it’s more affordable than the big Bronco. I think it will compete quite well in the segment.