The Jeep Wrangler is a very unique vehicle, in that it somehow manages to convince nearly 200,000 buyers a year to drop serious coin on a car built on 1950s tech. And really, it’s got no rivals. The question now, with a new Ford Bronco finally official, is what does that have to do to compete with Jeep’s off-roading juggernaut?
To be clear, we don’t know exactly what the next Bronco will look like, but the latest news from Ford is it won’t be rebadge of the lame crossover-looking Ford Everest, even if shares a platform with that SUV. If Ford is smart it will give us something like the big, tough off-roader seen in those renders that spread like wildfire across the internet.
Besides, the Jeep Wrangler currently doesn’t have a single rival in the U.S., and many would argue it hasn’t had one in decades. It’s an unrefined and uncouth topless off-roader, and competing with it seems like it should be a cakewalk, yet no one yet has ever truly managed to be successful doing it. That’s because it’s not as easy as it seems.
The Bronco has traditionally gone toe to toe with the Wrangler and its CJ ancestors, and if Ford genuinely wants the new one to once again compete with the Jeep, it’ll have to mount a higher bar than you’d think.
The Jeep Wrangler’s background includes things like that legendary quote from General Eisenhower mentioning how the Jeep helped the U.S. win World War II. Plus, the little Jeep helped get America back on its feet after the war, serving as, essentially, a tractor. Now that’s a legacy.
But the Bronco has a solid heritage, too. It goes back to the early 1960s, and contrary to internet memes, when some people think about Ford’s old SUV, they think about things other than an ex-football player who may or may not have gotten away with murder.
In a way, the Bronco is an embodiment of a classic American dream—an open road in the American southwest, a cigar hanging out of your mouth, a four-speed on the floor, and a Mexican-style woven blanket tossed over the bench. There’s a reason you see Broncos all over Hollywood films and in all sorts of music videos (especially country). They’ve got soul.
The name “Bronco” has been around longer than “Wrangler,” and the Bronco is truly embedded into American popular culture, even if the car hasn’t been around in decades.
It may not quite have the “pedigree” that the Jeep has, but I don’t think Ford’s new Bronco is at too much of a disadvantage on the “heritage” front, nor am I sure how much buyers actually care.
Another thing Jeep has going for it are those classic vertical grille slots flanked by round headlights. Aside from the Jeep Wrangler YJ (with its square headlights), that front-end design formula has remained steady since 1941, and when people look at a modern Wrangler, they can’t help but think back upon the little World War II hero.
Will Ford’s design team snag some styling features from their vehicle’s history to try to conjure up thoughts of your grandpa’s trusty old weekend off-roader? I’m not sure. I think it’s the Bronco’s short and stubby profile that really made it what it was (versus the Jeep, which I’d argue is defined mostly by its grille), and that could be hard to replicate, as very few customers are going to want to buy a tiny little two-door.
If a recent (and disputed by Ford) Reddit AMA from a person claiming to be a Ford designer is true, we heard that Ford might ditch the Bronco’s roots and go with a design that looks very similar to the Everest. For reverence, here’s how that looks:
But then, in an interview with Ford, Autoline learned that the new Bronco will be “completely unique” from the Everest, which is a good thing, because the boring, pedestrian Everest just isn’t going to cut it from a styling standpoint.
Styling is a huge reason why people buy the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. That boxy profile, those round headlights, and that very Jeep-ish grille are distinctive and unique from the rest of the segment. If Ford wants to compete, the Bronco is going to have to look rugged, and stand out from the rest of the segment just like the Wrangler does.
I don’t think the Bronco has to look retro to compete, though. The Troller T4, for example, is built on a similar platform as the next generation Bronco, and that thing arguably looks equally as cool as a Wrangler.
Over 75 percent of all Wrangler sales are four-doors, so if the Bronco is going to compete, it will need a four-door model. That’s just a fact.
Based on the claimed Ford designer from the Reddit AMA, the Bronco will be exclusively four-door, and while I still can’t confirm the legitimacy of that Redditor (and indeed, based on the Autoline interview, the Redditor’s legitimacy is now questionable at best), I can say that four-door-only makes a ton of sense from a financial standpoint. Two-door SUVs are dead.
The Ford Bronco, historically, could be had with a hard or soft-top, and to compete with the Wrangler, both of these options need to be available, and they need to not suck.
The hard-top Wrangler has removable panels, which is great, because sometimes you don’t want to have to gather your local heavyweight champs to take your entire roof off to get a bit of wind in your hair. Ford should offer a feature like this, too, because it is very good.
The soft top on the Wrangler can be a bit of a pain in the ass to put up and down with all of its sticky zippers, so there’s some low-hanging fruit for Ford to improve upon.
The AMA says that the new Bronco will get a panoramic sunroof, and no removable top. Our friends at The Truth About Cars think the roof will consist of six removable panels, saying it will have likely have “fixed roof rails” and that:
According to two well-placed sources, the next Bronco won’t feature a canvas top or fiberglass cap. Instead, it will look to the Wrangler’s little brother, the Jeep Renegade, for inspiration.
If the roof really is just a few removable panels like the Renegade, then I don’t think the Ford will have a chance to truly complete with the Wrangler—that fully removable top is just too huge part of what makes the Wrangler so attractive to its buyers.
A hard top Bronco with removable panels would compete more with the 4Runner, which doesn’t sell as well as the Wrangler in the U.S., but is still an excellent, well-engineered off-roader with a cult following. Many have tried to occupy a similar space as the 4Runner (the Xterra, Pathfinder), and many have failed (the Xterra is gone, and the Pathfinder has changed into a crossover).
But who knows, maybe the Blue Oval will surprise us with the most badass removable-panel top we’ve ever seen. Whatever it is, it needs to really open up that top and give that airy feeling that Jeepers have loved for the past seven decades.
Ford has already confirmed that the new Bronco will be body-on-frame. That’s already a step in the right direction in the mod-ability, durability and off-road capability categories.
In the latter category, Ford shouldn’t have too much of a hard time, because the reality is, designing a vehicle to be good off-road isn’t that hard. Just slap torquey engine into vehicle with lots of ground clearance and small overhangs, design a decent four-wheel drive system, armor the underbody, give the suspension some flex, make sure you’ve got low enough gearing and provisions for big enough tires, and you’re set.
But that’s the thing; The Wrangler isn’t just good off-road, it’s excellent; especially after it’s modified. And though many don’t need its full capabilities, the Wrangler’s astronomically high limits— as seen in all sorts of pictures and videos— are what help give the vehicle the “look” that so many people buy into.
And arguably, the single feature that takes the Wrangler from good to great off-road is its solid front axle. I truly believe that, if anyone wants to really compete with Wrangler on the boulders of the Rubicon or Moab, there had better be a big steel tube between those two front wheels.
Independent suspension—which is likely to be found on the Bronco, since it will be based on the Ranger platform— offers much better on-road ride quality and handling, but when it comes to articulation, durability and aftermarket support, nothing will beat a solid axle.
Still, many people who want a convertible off-roader, but who don’t want to deal with terrible ride quality might finally have a decent option. So a Bronco with independent suspension could actually be enticing to some, but that design could result in the Bronco never truly having quite as “tough” of a look as those Wranglers conquering the Rubicon. How much that actually matters is hard to quantify.
You can buy a Wrangler for under $24,000. It’s a low price point for any car people actually want. It’s no surprise Jeep can’t build them fast enough.
Ford might have a tough time beating this price, especially if they go with independent suspension (and I think they will, as putting an axle up front would be ballsy).
Does the pricing at the bottom end really matter, though? Maybe not, since a good percentage of Wranglers actually cost well over $30 grand, with only a few being base manual Sports. So, on the pricing front, the relatively simple body-on-frame Bronco might be able to compete.
If it can manage to deliver on all those fronts, even if it doesn’t quite match the Wrangler’s Moab-crawling capability at the limits (in exchange for better ride and handling), and even if it doesn’t quite have the recognizable retro-styling that the Wrangler has, I think the Bronco can steal some Wrangler sales.
Will it be able to steal lots of Wrangler sales and truly go head-to-head with the king without a solid front axle, without the Jeep’s World War II heritage, without the Jeep’s lovable styling, and perhaps without the Jeep’s fully convertible/removable top? That’s hard to say.
But some sales are definitely there for the taking. A significant portion of current four-door Wrangler owners recently came over from the pickup truck segment, a segment where brand loyalty is king. If Jeep can steal truck buyers, maybe Ford can steal these recent Jeep converts over to the blue oval.