Best Reviews 2021: The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Is A Normal SUV With A Healthy Imagination

Most of these will never drive over anything rougher than a speed bump, but it's still fun to pretend

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Photo: Jason Torchinsky

We drove a lot of cars in 2021, we’re reposting a few of our favorites here.

I was a bit surprised to read all the blowback I got in the comments of my last review, for the Volkswagen Taos, about my suggestion that the Taos, while competent, was, you know, kinda boring. I mean, it was, but I understand that’s what many people actually want. Now, if you don’t want that, there’s some options, like this SUV, the Ford Bronco Sport. Technically, it’s not really all that different than the Taos. What is different is that this machine has a bit of a story to tell, even if that story is mostly fiction.

I think what I’m getting at here is that the Bronco Sport, thanks to the name it partially shares with both the new “real” Bronco and all of that old Bronco heritage, comes equipped with something that SUVs like the Taos or RAV4 or CR-V do not.

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Don’t get me wrong: under the skin, the Bronco Sport is not the same as the new, very off-road focused Bronco. The Bronco Sport is essentially a re-bodied Ford Escape, a transverse-engined, unibody, FWD-biased (but 4WD capable) SUV that’s primarily designed to drive on highways and park in Target parking lots and go on road trips and maybe do a bit of mild off-roading over dirt paths or grass or whatever is surrounded by just enough nature to make you feel all outdoorsy and shit.

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In short, it’s designed for the actual needs and lives of most of the people who will buy these.

So, in this sense, yes, it’s kind of a normal, boring, everyday SUV wearing a tough off-roader costume, complete with lots of little fun and silly details and accessories. It’s doing some cosplay.

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But you know what? People do cosplay because it’s fun. Because they have fun doing it, and if dressing up like something that’s not exactly you but makes you feel good to do it, who am I to say that’s wrong? It’s not. It’s fun, and not everything in life has to be rational.

The Bronco Sport is an SUV in costume, but that doesn’t mean it won’t do all the things you’d want and need a unibody FWD-biased SUV to do. It just means you might have more fun doing it.

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Since we’re talking about the costume aspect now, let’s dig into the look of it more.

The Look Of It

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I think Ford did a really good job on the Bronco Sport, visually. It’s not all that big in person, but the proportions and shapes make it feel like a more substantial machine. It’s blocky and chunky, with slabby sides, a big flat hood, and that interesting little kick-up in the beltline just aft of the C-pillar.

That C-pillar forms an interesting little wedge, too that often gets lost in that sea of black, though:

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Even for ones that don’t have contrasting-color roofs, the greenhouse is still broken up from the body visually with the all-black pillars, which ties into the black cladding on the bumpers and wheelarches.

It looks rugged, the face shares enough stylistic details with the Big Bronco to make the family ties clear (round headlights with those hyphen-like DRLs, the blacked-out grille, etc), and there are enough details like obvious tow hooks and big roof rails to really sell the adventurer schtick.

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When you compare it to two cars it shares a platform with, the Ford Escape and Lincoln Corsair, you can really see how skilled Ford’s designers are at making three very radically different looking vehicles on this common core:

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That’s a pretty good spread of looks and character there. Also, I’m noticing that especially in white the Bronco Sport reminds me a bit of a late ‘90s Land Rover Discovery:

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Is it just me? I don’t know, it definitely has a similar sort of feel, and I think that’s in line with what Ford hopes those associations are.

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I was actually lucky enough to have my press loan divided between two Bronco Sports, like a freaking millionaire, one of which was this red-and-black First Edition one with a fun stripe kit that you see above. The other was this sort of metallic eggplant-colored Outer Banks edition one:

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Of the two, while the more monochrome Outer Banks one may be classier, I really prefer the bolder color and two-tone look of the red/black car. For the, again, story this car is trying to tell, it’s not about subtlety or classiness, it’s showier.

It’s good Ford gives options and that it can be sort of dressed up or down, but I think in a dark color like this, a lot of details get lost, and it ends up looking more anonymous.

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The front end of the Bronco Sport is defined by that grille-face, which is differentiated between trim types and provides some nice variety among the various Bronco Sport editions. I think I’m still more in the more rough First Edition camp here, with the tighter grille mesh (only the lower half of each is actually open for air intake, by the way) and the matte finish, but I do like the bold white B R O N C O badging on the Outer Banks one.

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Overall, as costumes go, I think the Bronco Sport is wearing a pretty good one, as it’s enough to stand out, get some attention, and convey a very specific image. You know, like a good costume would.

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What’s Inside

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I was able to take the Bronco Sport on a little overnight trip with the kid and some dogs and friends, so I got a good opportunity to fill it full of luggage and people to see how it did. As I mentioned before, it seems like it would be bigger from the outside than it actually is, but that’s not to say it’s cramped, it’s just that your expectations may be a bit overstated compared to the reality.

That said, it’s got decent cargo room for four people and three dogs’ worth of stuff:

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Dogs tend to pack pretty light, but even so, it’ll hold a good amount of crap. Plus, the boxy design means the cargo area is pretty close to a box, so that makes loading bulky, odd-shaped items in there easier.

The cargo area is lined with tough rubber mats instead of carpet, which I think is great, since I think carpet in cars really isn’t the best idea, anyway, and the First Edition one I tested went even further, and used padded rubber mats throughout the passenger compartment, which is a great choice:

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So easy to clean! So hard-wearing! I love it! The Outer Banks edition one didn’t have the guts to go carpet-less, and did have carpet, so boo.

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The rear seatback does a 60/40 fold, and when you fold it flat you can choose to raise the rear floor panel (there’s a bit of storage underneath, to the sides of the spare tire) so that you can have a relatively unbroken, flat area in the back, which is plenty big for all kinds of cargo and, importantly, you should be able to sleep back there pretty comfortably.

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The rear has some other nice details, including a 12V outlet, a little directional light, and an easter egg of a mountainscape, but this is the best part of the rear cargo situation:

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The opening rear glass. I’ve been driving a car with a similar rear glass setup for a while, and it’s one of those little features I really have grown to love. It gives you an easy way to throw in smaller items without opening the whole tailgate, and it lets you carry much longer, odder-shaped things than you’d normally be able to, like ladders and lawnmowers and taxidermied llamas or whatever.

I’ll admit I kind of wish Ford had gone for a lifting glass/drop-down tailgate combo, but I’ll take what I can get.

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The dash and materials overall continue the rugged, chunky feel of the car, so don’t expect anything that looks or feels overly luxurious. They feel sturdy enough, and are unashamedly plastic, which I respect.

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The Outer Banks edition one was more upmarket, with brown leather detailing in the seats and embossed rearing horses in the headrest:

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Man, what a fine horse! What is that, a Pinto? A mustang? Appaloosa? Something like that.

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The seats are comfortable, and have handy little side pockets and even a zippered pouch on the backs of the front seats for laptops or tablets. Also, there’s a 110V wall-type power outlet in the rear under the rear HVAC vents so you never have to go on a road trip without a working Vegimix ever again.

Electronic Whatevers And Stuff

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Well, since I mentioned that 110V outlet, we may as well keep going and talk about the other electronics. The Bronco Sport has all of the usual electronics you’d expect out of a car from 2021: dynamic cruise control, basic lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, Ford Co-Pilot 360 semi-automated Level 2-ish driver assist (on some trims), a big center touch display, all that.

But there was one annoying omission: while it came with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, this was the first press car in about two years that still required a physical, USB-plug connection to use Apple CarPlay.

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Everything I’ve been testing recently has been able to handle CarPlay over Bluetooth—why won’t this? It’s especially annoying because the Bronco Sport does have a wireless charging pad right in the center console:

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Because it can charge your phone wirelessly, anyone would reasonably think that should negate the need to have to deal with any cords in the car, right? But, while that may be the case for basic Bluetooth audio, I could only get CarPlay to work when physically plugged in.

This may not sound like a huge deal, but it’s annoying, especially when every other car I’ve had recently has not had this issue. It’s possible there’s some arcane setting or feature for it that I didn’t activate, but I couldn’t find it on either Bronco Sport I tested, and had to use an actual cable for both. A cable to my phone that was in that charging pad, which just feels wasteful and absurd.

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Hopefully, Ford can upgrade this to wireless CarPlay/Android Auto because, come on.

What Ford did seem to make sure the Bronco Sport does do well is again related to its off-roader-tough-beast fursona, as they spent some time making this fun little video that plays every time you get in the car:

The rock-horse did kind of remind me of some movie rock-monsters, but I like that Ford is having fun with this.

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Another nice feature for a vehicle like this, and one mostly exclusive to Ford are those little light-up numbers on the doorframe: the Securicode. Essentially a customized combination lock for your car, this is great if you actually use it to, say, go canoeing, and don’t want to risk losing your keys in a lake or something. It’s genuinely handy.

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The instrument cluster’s LCD screen lets you choose from several layouts, including a “calm” layout that has minimal information, but I found they all were clear and provided all the crucial information you’d need at a glance.

Also, note that the basic speedo layout shows you your speed in two places, and the current speed limit right there in the dash. This will be relevant in the next section.

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How Is It To Drive?

Since our own rust-junkie David Tracy already put one of these through its paces off-road, I was free to drive this like 99 percent of the people who actually buy this will: uneventfully, on paved roads.

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And, on these magically-smooth asphalt ribbons, the Bronco Sport drives...just fine. Despite all the posturing as a burly rock-scrabbling brute, from the inside you don’t have to keep pretending, as it’s plenty smooth and quiet and comfortable in there.

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I got more driving time with the 181 horsepower, turbocharged 1.5-liter EcoSport engine which is a really unexpected engine for a car that looks like this because it’s an inline-three. 

That’s right, it’s a three-cylinder! A triple! Like a Geo Metro, or a Beetle missing a cylinder. This is just not the sort of vehicle you look at and think “three-banger.” But I kind of like that about it.

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And, 181 hp from that three is pretty impressive! It’s not lightning-quick (it hits 60 in around eight and a half seconds or so) but when you turn the driving mode knob to Sport, you actually can feel a difference, as it holds gears longer (up to about 6,000 RPM) and actually feels a bit fun.

Sure, there’s a 250 hp 2-liter EcoBoost option for the Badlands and First Edition packages that shave a solid two seconds of the 0-60 time, but I know the three can be quick enough as I demonstrated during a drive:

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Crap. That’s what I get for normally driving a 997cc/53 hp car and then letting myself get intoxicated by the raw, unbridled power of 1500cc divided between three cylinders. I’m such an idiot.

Even driven fairly hard (see above) I still managed an average mpg of around 27 combined, which is decent if not especially impressive, and fits right in with the EPA ratings of 25 city/28 highway/26 combined.

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Handling-wise, it is tall, so it’s not an ideal autocrosser, but it always felt stable, and even when I whipped it around a bit on gravel it always felt planted and controllable.

All told, the Bronco Sport isn’t going to wow you with its acceleration or handling, but it’s not going to irritate you, either. The vehicle is true to its Escape roots in that regard: on road it’s almost ignorably easy to drive, which I think fits with what most of this target market usually wants.

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Value and Verdict

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Overall, I liked the Bronco Sport. Its bones are just mainstream SUV, sure, maybe with some enhancements to make it more capable off-road, but it does commit to the part of the rugged off-roader, and that gives it a certain character that helps save it from SUV anonymity.

It’s got an angle, and it plays that angle up, and if that’s an angle you’re interested in, you can play along too, and have a good time without really sacrificing anything compared to most mainstream SUVs or crossovers.

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If you like the look, the handy little details, the rubber mats, the rock-horse animations, the generous cargo room, and the little easter eggs like this catcus-scene stamped on the back of one of the cubbyhole mats:

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...then by all means, have at it! Life should be fun, and Ford is working to make a mass-market SUV a little more fun, which I applaud.

The one downside is that it seems that extra bit of fun isn’t cheap. While the base Bronco Sport price isn’t bad at $27,215, the prices climb pretty steadily throughout the ranges, one of and the ones I tested had MSRPs of over $50,000, which strikes me as too damn much.

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(That was on the Monroney in the glove box, but in hindsight, I’m wondering if there was an issue there, since duplicating the approximate spec online comes closer to around $42-$45,000. The other one was $36,000.)

These make sense from the start price up to the mid-$30s or so, but beyond that I really don’t get it.

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The good news is that all of the features I actually like about the car are the ones that you’d find on the Base trim: rubber mats, opening rear window, general look, and so on. I don’t really think the higher trim levels are worth the money, and I definitely don’t think the Bronco Sport makes sense at $50,000.

But $30,000? Sure!

Ford’s got a decent mainstream SUV here, and it’s got that extra element of a personality. Sure, it’s a manufactured, slightly forced personality, but it’s still fun, and a car that makes you smile, even if you can’t completely rationalize why, is a good thing.

2021 Ford Bronco Base 2 Door 4x4 Specs
Price starting at
$28,073
Horsepower
275 @ 5700
Torque
315 @ 3400
Displacement
2.3 L/140
Engine type
Intercooled Turbo Regular Unleaded I-4
Transmission/Drive
Manual w/OD
Curb weight
4286 lbs