Mountain Wheels: Ford’s smaller Bronco Sport sets the stage for retro-styled 4x4s
With news this week that the Wayne, Michigan Ford plant has finally begun the overdue production of the all-new, full-sized Bronco — they must have found computer chips somewhere — it’s a good time to discuss its equally anticipated and retro-minded companion: the 2021 Bronco Sport.
I spent last weekend running Breckenridge-area trails and cruising various passes in the sprightly, design-forward, somewhat smaller Bronco Sport. It does indeed share a platform with vehicles ranging from the Escape to the European Focus and the upcoming Maverick mini-truck, but you’ll find few obvious similarities.
It’s also surprisingly capable on actually challenging terrain. I headed almost all the way up to the Swandyke ghost town on the Middle Fork Swan River road and was only seeing side-by-side quads at that elevation. More importantly, for most real-life users, it’s absolutely car/SUV-like on the highway, holding corners flat and drama-free even at Interstate 70 speeds.
Bronco Sport is the ultimate in lifestyle-oriented cruising, and on the First Edition model I sampled, it certainly turned a few heads as a major alternative to Colorado favorites of the Jeep and Tacoma variety. Yes, the full-size model will be a real contender; while we wait for that, this is still a pretty lively and livable choice.
There are five trim levels for Bronco Sport, with the higher-end models (in the $45,000 range) getting a 250-horsepower 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine and the others a 1.5-liter making 181 horses (starting at $27,215). I found that enhanced output more than adequate for trail scrambling and surprisingly speedy and potent on the paved passes. An eight-speed automatic transmission with small, rather functional paddle shifters also helps when you are not using automatic hill descent control to scurry downhill.
As I found out on the rough stuff, Bronco Sport is going to do absolutely everything a non-lifted/widened/trail-specific off-roader is going to want to do. Its somewhat gimmicky “goes over any type of terrain” knob offers what seemed like a dozen options — no automatic suspension lift, mind you, but lots of torque and throttle and brake adjustments for rocks, mud, sand or snow. In certain modes, you can also call up the front-view camera to help you eyeball hairy stuff you should really have an out-of-car spotter helping you with.
The limited-production First Edition, which will be replicated in the highest-end Badlands Edition, also sported upgraded off-road suspension and a more robust 4×4 system. That gives you as much as 8.8 inches of clearance; I heard a bit of scraping on some of the nastier rocks, but the full-blown Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires and classy, black 17-inch wheels generally made easy work of sharp and shredding stuff. And, as mentioned, it was absolutely car-like and smooth on the highway, with no bounce and wobble like the other guys. That ride height means you step in, not climb up to get in.
The compact size — 172.7 inches overall with a 105.1-inch wheelbase — means it’s pretty handy on tight trails and short enough to do an easier 180 when you chicken out, as I did, with a 37.4-foot turning circle. (I later watched YouTube videos of the whole Middle Fork trail to the high Alpine, and think I made a wise choice.)
The Bronco Sport’s overall packaging is certainly appealing, with a truly retro-futuristic take on Broncos of the past, thankfully not in the vein of the Bronco II. Subtle badging on the blacked-out grille and a wide swath of LED headlamps give it an immediately cool look, plus the flat hood, big wheel arches, blacked-out pillars and Range Rover styled roof. It’s also toughened up with thick (and very plastic) rock rails, an array of “Charlie’s Angels”-era body graphics and a solid rear aspect, including a two-way glass/door liftgate, a super-chunky bumper and Ford’s tall pile of logos.
The gate also accesses a bunch of Bronco Sport’s Easter eggs, including a frame-mounted bottle opener, tilting overhead LED lamps, oodles of tie-downs and both 110- and 12-volt outlets. Inside, a heavy-duty cargo deck is also repeated on the seatbacks; drop those and with the right anchor, you can fit two mountain bikes inside.
The passenger compartment provides low-key but stylistic fun, with a very low and flat dash, reasonably thin A-pillars and unlimited rear visibility if you drop the rear headrests. The small A/V screen gives you super-flashy startup graphics but was missing useful actual navigation on mine. The soft-touch dash surfaces, high-output polygon air vents and a variety of storage ledges were all simple and functional — plus an off-camber phone charging tray.
My Cactus Gray First Edition sported old-school blue trim, including leather seats with what looked like synthetic horsehair inserts; the seatbacks contain hidden, zippered pockets and Molle hooks for more gear.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at email@example.com.
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