I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco

When Ford revealed its retro-inspired off-roader, I was skeptical. But an impromptu trip to an off-road park made me love the Bronco.

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Photo: Zach Bowman

I’ve been giving the new Ford Bronco the side-eye since the thing debuted, and if I’m honest, I don’t exactly know why. Something about Ford suddenly deciding it wanted a bite out of the pie Jeep has been baking for nearly 80 years struck me the wrong way, made worse by the fact that the Bronco name hadn’t been attached to a true billy-goat off-roader since the first generation rode into the sunset in ‘77. Ford pretending the Bronco had always been a CJ/Wrangler competitor, instead of a full-size luxury brute or a malaise-era econobox felt, well, gross. Another part of the company’s (and the industry’s) recent pattern of revisionism where the Lightning is not a Lightning and the Mustang is not a Mustang. The debut of the Escape-based Bronco Sport a year before the actual Bronco only made things worse.

I rolled my eyes as one friend, then another, waded through a series of production delays to bring home Broncos of their own. I chalked up their exuberance to the reality-altering euphoria that goes along with any new car purchase. And when the reviews rolled in, I took them all with a Bronco-sized grain of salt because few reviewers used the machine for more than splashing through a mud puddle or commuting through midtown Manhattan. Not the kind of stuff that makes or breaks a true off-roader.

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Then I spent two weeks in a four-door Wildtrack with the Sasquatch package. I’ve never been happier to admit I was wrong.

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Photo: Zach Bowman
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The Bronco’s real strength is that it doesn’t try to excel at everything. The great folly of modern automotive journalism is the belief that every vehicle on the road should be Countach quick, church quiet, and couch soft. That’s a lie, and it’s how we’ve wound up in a world with increasingly homogenous vehicles, all more or less interchangeable in design and specification. The Bronco is comfortable, but it makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s a body-on-frame SUV available from the factory on 35-inch tires. There’s wind noise, tire noise, squeaks and rattles. But it also tends towards civility in a way that even the reasonably well-sorted JL-generation Jeep Wrangler can’t match.

The Bronco drives great, handling better than it has any right to. The back seat is massive. The cargo area is similarly capacious. Most of the roof comes off in seconds, the rest in a matter of minutes. It’s quick and reasonably efficient. And because of that, I found myself driving it more than anything else, looking for excuses to go here and there, basking in the rare vehicle that invites the outside world in rather than banishing it to the far side of acoustic laminated glass.

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Image for article titled I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco
Photo: Zach Bowman

Even so, I didn’t fully fall for the Bronco until one particular afternoon. I was headed home from a work function north of Knoxville, Tennessee. The direct route was a quick shot down I-75, through downtown Knoxville, then on to my neighborhood south of town. An hour with some traffic. But as I rolled south, I realized I’d be passing Caryville, the back door to Windrock OHV Park. It’s an expanse, with more than 300 miles of trail, and the north end is the seldom-visited portion, dominated by a disused World War II-era dirt airstrip that’s now home to a herd of elk and one of the best views in the area.

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I had no map. No recovery gear. No axe or saw. Just some jerky, water, an inReach GPS locator, and the Bronco. Running through the park could take six hours or more. If everything went perfectly, I’d be home after dark.

But that’s the thing about a good off-roader. It sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear. Says, “fuck it. Give it a shot.”

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Photo: Zach Bowman

The back entrance to the park isn’t marked, and it had been better than 10 years since I came in from that side. Most people don’t realize that Appalachia is a deciduous rainforest, and what was a clear trail one year can be overgrown and impassable the next. Same as my memory these days, I guess. I ducked off the goat path that serves as the main road up the mountain and quickly found myself on the wrong trail. I edged my way down a narrow two-track punctuated by steep water bars, the occasional downed tree threatening to graze the Bronco’s hardtop.

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This is when off-roading is its most terrifying and brilliant. Choose the wrong line, and I could window the quarter-panel on someone else’s brand-new SUV, or high-center the bastard on a stump or stone. Pick correctly, though, and the right machine can amble its way over terrain with the grace of a long-limbed cat. It’s not so different from grabbing a sports car by the scruff and throwing it down some winding canyon road, the split between excellence and failure held in the width of your choices.

I fully expected the Ford to beach itself on that first obstacle, to sit there high-centered like a beetle on a pin. It didn’t. It just went up and over without so much as touching its belly. And when the trail came to a dead-end in a mire, with the only reasonable line blocked by a stone the size of a mini-fridge, I dropped the Bronco into four low, clicked on the front and rear lockers, and inched my way over the thing without so much as a scrape.

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Oh, sweetheart.

Disused WWII-era military structures have been steadily consumed by nature at Windrock.
Disused WWII-era military structures have been steadily consumed by nature at Windrock.
Photo: Zach Bowman
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The surprise is how well the Bronco works with you. If you’ve spent any amount of time in a modern Ford, that’s something of a shock. The company builds amazing products, but most of them are convinced they’re smarter than you, bashing you with alert after alert, reminding you not to pick your nose or chew with your mouth open. Mothering you right out of any desire to be behind the wheel. The Bronco is not that. It doesn’t try to select a terrain mode based on your driving. It doesn’t re-engage traction control halfway through an obstacle. It trusts you to know what you’re doing.

It lets you enjoy what you’re doing, too. Lets you shake the day from your skull and inch out into the wide wilderness, even if that feral land is less than an hour from one of the largest cities in the state. When I finally pointed myself the right direction, the Bronco ambled its way up and onto that airstrip, then picked through a boulder field to the main trail. This time of year, the routes through Windrock are all tree tunnels, lined here and there with Tennessee wildflowers. Everything’s so green, the air is like looking through a river. Then you round a bend, there’s a break in the trees, and all of East Tennessee splays out beneath you, the soft blue lines of the Smoky Mountains in the far distance.

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Image for article titled I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco
Photo: Zach Bowman

Up there, everything seems faraway. The news. The world. All the worries that both of them carry. That’s the gift of every good vehicle, whether it’s a sharp and lithe sports car or a wickedly capable off-roader. When the minutes seem few, the right machine can urge you off the highway and towards the long way home, no matter how crooked the route. To places and moments far past the grasp of every muddling driver with their eyes on their phones.

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That’s what the Bronco gives you.

The truck ate up Windrock. Blitzed down off the mountain and onto the main gravel roads. Dipped its toes in what remained of the water up there and dropped me back at my driveway well before sunset, fenders spattered from the day’s adventure. The Bronco’s blue paint was dulled, filtered under a layer of fine dust. My mind was clearer for it.

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Zach Bowman is Editor-in-Chief of UTV Driver, a former Senior Editor at Road & Track Magazine, a contributor to Motorcyclist, and a purveyor of all sorts of punishing off-road trucks that shun modernity. Find him on Instagram.