2021 Ford Bronco Sport first drive review: The little Bronco has big off-road chops

You might be patiently waiting for the new Ford Bronco to hit dealerships, but don’t discount the smaller Bronco Sport. It might not have the same rock-crawling, whoop-bashing, dune-conquering abilities the larger Bronco purportedly has, but it’s far and away the most dirt-worthy crossover in its class. Sorry, Jeep.

Some might pooh-pooh the notion of a small, unibody Bronco, but for starters, it looks the part. The front end is a scaled-down version of its larger sibling, complete with round headlights and the name “Bronco” splitting the grille in half horizontally. It’s upright, boxy, and pretty stinkin’ cute. But I can’t say I love the rear end. The C-pillar is wider at the bottom, creating an awkwardly shaped window when viewed directly from behind. Plus, the body flares out in such a way as to make the greenhouse look too tall and narrow.

A lot of the look is color-dependent. I like the boldness of Cyber Orange the best, but it’s not available on every trim. The base model has four choices, while the Big Bend and Outer Banks models have eight. Cyber Orange is one of nine color choices on the Badlands trim or one of four on the already-sold-out First Edition.

The Bronco Sport rides on the same platform that underpins the Ford Escape crossover. But don’t let that scare you off, trail-blazing and off-road enthusiast friends. For starters, unlike the Escape, every version of the Bronco Sport uses all-wheel drive. The base powertrain is a turbocharged, 1.5-liter, 3-cylinder engine with 181 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque. Today, I’m testing the upgraded 2.0-liter turbo I4 engine, with 245 hp and 275 lb-ft. Regardless of engine, the Bronco Sport gets its power to the wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Despite its off-road intentions, most people will buy the Bronco Sport for on-road duty. It’s just fine here — there’s plenty of power, the transmission works seamlessly in the background, the steering is light and the chassis is relatively compliant. Normal, Eco, Sport and Slippery drive modes will change up some powertrain characteristics on the pavement, but honestly, Normal is perfectly fine. With the smaller, 1.5-liter engine, the EPA rates the Bronco Sport at 25 miles per gallon in the city, 28 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg combined. Step up to the 2.0-liter engine and those numbers drop to 21 city, 26 highway and 23 combined, which isn’t too great for a small SUV like this. To be fair, however, the 2.0T is more powerful than most engines in its class, and the Sport’s unusual off-road robustness adds efficiency-sapping weight.

James Lipman/Ford

No compact crossover can touch the Bronco Sport when it comes to off-road cred.

But again, no compact crossover can touch the Bronco Sport when it comes to off-road cred. To properly test this little guy out, I head to the soft sand of California’s Olancha Off-Highway Vehicle park. The dunes here are small, rising to a maximum of 75 feet off the plain, but soft sand can be a real challenge for unmodified vehicles. To give the Bronco a bit of an advantage, I air down the 29-inch Falken Wildpeak 235/65R17 tires to give them a larger contact patch. Then I set the GOAT mode — that’s Goes Over Any Type of Terrain (which I guess would technically be GOATT) — to the Sand setting and take off, throwing up rooster tails in my wake.

Sand mode locks the all-wheel-drive system into a 50:50 power split and turns the traction control off. Here, the engine’s 250 hp keeps the Bronco Sport blasting through the sand and having 277 lb-ft of torque means this SUV conquers these small dunes with ease. In Sand mode, the eight-speed transmission is programmed to keep the revs high, helping to keep the 3,700-pound crossover floating across the soft stuff.

The Sport has an available twin-clutch rear drive unit derived from the one in the Focus RS hot hatch. This can not only torque-vector power between the rear wheels, sending as much as 100% of the thrust to the side with the traction, but it can also lock the rear differential completely. 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.

It’s not a proper Baja blaster, but Sand mode certainly works wonders.

James Lipman/Ford

The next day, my off-road excursion takes me to the Swansea-Cerro Gordo Road. This 31-mile trail takes me up to 9,300 feet of elevation. It’s pretty easy to traverse in a solid-axle off-roader, like a Jeep Wrangler or the big Bronco, but the Sport has an independent suspension at all four corners and a unibody construction. It’s at a serious disadvantage, yet it handles the road with aplomb.

I start off in the GOAT Mud and Ruts mode, and here, tire placement is crucial, meaning you need a good view out the front. I’m pretty tall and I have my seat set pretty high, but I still feel like I can’t quite see over the hood. Thankfully, the Bronco Sport has a forward-facing camera that turns on automatically in this drive mode (as well as the more hardcore Rock Crawl setting), so I know exactly where my tires are at all times. Oh, and when I use my wipers to clean off the dust on the windshield, a little nozzle sprays the camera, too. Pretty cool.

Each driving mode has specially tuned throttle, shift and — most importantly — traction control parameters. A rocky, 10-degree upslope proves to be a bit much for Mud and Ruts mode, but the algorithms in Rock Crawl make short work of this pass. I’ll also be honest, the off-roader in me can get a little Grumpy Old Lady about this kind of stuff — I don’t need no stinkin’ drive modes! — but I have to admit, Ford’s really done a good job here.

James Lipman/Ford

A rocky, 10-degree upslope proves to be a bit much for Mud and Ruts mode, but the algorithms in Rock Crawl make short work of this pass.

Of course, good off-road geometry doesn’t hurt, either. The Bronco Sport First Edition I’m driving has a healthy 8.8 inches of ground clearance — more than a Jeep Compass or Cherokee — and the approach and breakover angles are 30.4 degrees and 20.4 degrees, respectively. The departure angle is 27.5 degrees in the First Edition, but the less expensive Badlands trim does a little bit better, at 33.1 degrees. Those numbers handily beat rugged models like the Subaru Crosstrek and compare favorably against the aforementioned Jeeps.

Off-road newbies will really like the Bronco Sport’s hill-descent control. It’s a little noisy, automatically applying the brakes to keep the Sport creeping down a rocky, slippery, 12-degree grade, but most importantly, it keeps the Bronco slow and steady. The Trail Control mode is a bit different, acting like an off-road cruise control when you’re on flat ground or going uphill, so noobs can leave the throttle to the Bronco Sport and just concentrate on wheel placement.

Ford says the Bronco Sport can wade through 23.5 inches of water, but we haven’t had that much rain in California yet this season, so I’ll have to report back on that spec later.

Durable materials and Sync 3 tech make this small SUV’s cabin easy to live with.

James Lipman/Ford

After the long trip, I’m no worse for the wear. Driving off-road in a solid-axle vehicle for extended amounts of time can really beat you up, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. The hydraulic rebound stops on the Bronco Sport’s front shocks combined with its softly tuned suspension and super-comfy seats mean less head jostling and a much more pleasant ride overall.

The Bronco Sport’s interior materials are rugged, if a little cheap looking. I love the small storage cubby under the infotainment screen — it’s nothing major, just an extra place for sunglasses, a pack of gum or the like. My First Edition tester also has wireless charging and a smattering of USB-A and USB-C ports scattered about the cabin. There’s also an available 110-volt, 400-watt AC power outlet in the cargo area, which is especially great for a vehicle that is meant to go off road. After all, who doesn’t want to plug in their blender for a freshly made margarita once you’ve reached the campsite?

I really like all the thoughtful features incorporated into the Bronco Sport, like LED lamps on the liftgate and the flip-glass rear window so you can easily throw things in the back. The pockets on the seatbacks are zippered to keep the dust out and a Molle strap system is available to help hold gear like flashlights or pocket knives. There’s plenty of room in the cargo area — 62.5 cubic feet to be exact — and it’s configured in such a way that you transport two mountain bikes upright with their front wheels removed. The roof rack can carry 150 pounds, too, and can support a rooftop tent for overnight adventures.

Emme-approved fun.

James Lipman/Ford

Up front, an 8-inch touchscreen runs Ford’s Sync 3 software, which is one of Roadshow’s favorite infotainment systems thanks to its ease of use and simple, clean interface. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, as is Co-Pilot 360, Ford’s suite of driving aids that includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and more. However, adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech and traffic-sign recognition all cost extra.

The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport starts at $28,155 for the base model, including $1,495 for destination. Reservations for the First Edition are full, so if you want all this off-road capability, you should look at the Badlands trim, which starts at $34,800.

Honestly, the new Bronco Sport probably has too much off-road capability for most folks. I’m not sure the target customers will regularly attack trails, and I anticipate most drivers will stick to easy dirt trails or snowy passes. But if it’s got “Bronco” on the nose, it’s got to be a champ when the going gets tough. And trust me, the Bronco Sport is no weakling.


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