2021 Ford Bronco comes out kicking with impressive specs and innovative design

We knew the 2021 Ford Bronco was going to be a big deal, but we’re not sure anyone was fully expecting this return of the legendary nameplate to be as thoroughly comprehensive and impressive. From the SUV’s specs to the innovative methods used in its design and the wide-ranging marketing approach, the new Bronco demonstrates Ford took the task most seriously. This isn’t just another Ford SUV or a haphazard, me-too answer to a Jeep Wrangler.

While we weren’t able to check out the 2021 Bronco Two- and Four-Doors in person as we would at a typical reveal event or auto show, we received extensive information and sat in on live product presentations. We’re still left with plenty of questions that can only be answered with eventual hands-on experience, but for now, this is what we know.  

Frame, suspension and clearances

The new Bronco rides on a fully boxed, high-strength steel frame that will be shared with and adapted for the next-generation Ford Ranger. It has an independent front suspension with twin alloy A-arms and coil-over springs, while the rear is a solid axle with five links and coil-overs. This is the key mechanical difference between the Bronco and Wrangler, as the Jeep has a live axle in the front and rear.

Despite the independent front end, Ford insists the Bronco can have 17% more suspension travel than the Wrangler (sorry, its “closest competitor”) and the top Badlands trim has a hydraulically controlled stabilizer bar that can distinctively be disconnected when on an angle and under load. There are also Bilstein position-sensitive dampers, intended for higher-speed, desert-running use, available with the “High Performance Off-Road Stability Suspension” or HOSS.

Clearances depend on trim level, number of doors and, crucially, whether you outfit the Bronco in question with the segment-exclusive 35-inch tire option. There’s at least 8.3 inches (Four-Door) or 8.4 inches (Two-Door) to start, but the big wheels bump it up to 11.5 and 11.6, respectively. The Jeep Wrangler starts off higher at 9.7, but tops out at 10.8 for the Rubicon.

The approach angle is 35.5 degrees for both body styles (43.2 with the big tires). The breakover angles are 21.1 degrees (29.0 with big tires) for the Two-Door and 20.0 (26.3) for the Four-Door. The departure angles are 29.8 degrees (37.2) for the Two-Door and 29.7 (37.0) for the Four-Door. In short, the base numbers are broadly less than what a base Wrangler can accomplish, but with the big tires, the Bronco can not only surpass a base Wrangler but effectively match the most capable Wrangler Rubicon.

2021 Ford Bronco

Powertrains

There are two available engines, both of which put up impressive numbers. The standard 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-four, shared with the Ford Ranger, produces a stout 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. Then there’s the heavy artillery: a 2.7-liter turbo V6 good for 310 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, which betters the 2.7 offered in the Ford F-150 and just about blows away every Wrangler engine. The only exception is the Wrangler’s diesel V6 that makes 442 pound-feet of torque, but its 260 horsepower is shy of both Ford engines.

Standard on the 2.3-liter is technically a seven-speed manual transmission, but it’s not like the one you’d find in a Porsche 911 or C7 Corvette. Instead, it’s effectively a six-speed manual with a crawler gear that, when equipped with the upgrade 4×4 system and its electromechanical transfer case, can achieve a crawl ratio of 94.75:1. For some comparison, the base 4×4 system with the automatic can best achieve a ratio of 57.19:1. 

Speaking of the automatic, its Ford’s now-familiar 10-speed that’s optional on the 2.3-liter and standard with the 2.7 liter. So no, you can’t get the big motor with the manual. Commence complaints. The automatic’s best crawl ratio is 67.8:1.

Four-wheel drive is standard on every Bronco, but there are two systems. The standard system features a two-speed, electronic, shift-on-the-fly transfer case with a 2.71:1 low ratio, while the optional system has a a 3:06:1 low ratio and adds a 4A mode that automatically goes between 2H and 4H when needed. This has been seen previously on other Ford trucks and SUVs.

The differentials are produced by Dana, with the rear being a Dana 44, with standard AdvanTEK units and available Spicer Performa-TraK electronic locking units.

2021 Ford Bronco

Off-road tech

All of the above was tested to a higher standard than the usual “Built Ford Tough” regimen applied to the company’s truck offerings. Dubbed “Built Wild Extreme Durability Testing,” it included extensive off-roading on King of the Hammers trails and was done to make sure the new Bronco satisfied the revived “Go Over Any Terrain” or GOAT mantra originally concocted for the original Bronco back in the 1960s.

We largely mention that to explain why the Bronco has something called GOAT modes. Like other terrain-specific vehicle modes offered by Jeep, Land Rover and others, these alter various mechanical components and vehicle settings based on the driver’s selection. Depending on trim level there can be seven in total: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand, plus Baja, Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl.

Also offered is Trail One-Pedal Drive intended to improve precision and increase confidence while rock crawling, as well as Trail Control, the low-speed off-roading cruise control system that we found works well in the Ford Ranger. More intriguing is the Trail Turn Assist that effectively uses 4×4 torque-vectoring to tighten turning radii.

To make things even easier when venturing off the beaten path, an available 360-degree camera system is enhanced with cameras at each front wheel to help you spot yourself. There are also more than 1,000 curated topographic trail maps available with either the standard 8-inch or optional 12-inch touchscreens that can work with or without internet access.

And finally, those touchscreens operate using the latest Sync 4 software/interface. It’s a substantially quicker system, and among its feature upgrades are wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It can also be updated over the air, albeit only when the owner chooses.

2021 Ford Bronco

Roofs and doors

When Ford was doing market research for the new Bronco, it was clear that potential buyers wanted the ability to remove the roof and doors. You know, like a Wrangler.

The Bronco Two-Door, which is expected to sell in far fewer numbers, is available only with a hardtop. However, there is still a choice. The standard roof has three removable sections: two over the front occupants that can be safely stored in the trunk and a large rear section that’ll have to stay behind. The premium painted option gains a fourth section, a removable panel that spans the rear seats and cargo area. It’s also big to fit in the cargo area.

The Bronco Four-Door comes standard with a cloth soft top, but you don’t have to choose between it and the optional four-section hardtop — owners can keep both. It should also be noted that there is no cross brace between the B pillars as in the Wrangler (it’s behind the back seat instead), allowing for an uninterrupted view of the heavens with the roof panels removed.

The doors can be removed as in the Wrangler, but there are innovations. While developing the Bronco, Ford’s designers noticed Jeep doors chained to trees or just lying about trails. They also wondered “what if the owner doesn’t have a garage?” Their answer to the problem: the Bronco’s doors have frameless windows and are therefore smaller, making it possible to stow them in the Four-Door’s cargo area complete with storage bags. (We assume this is not possible in the Two-Door as Ford specifically called out the Four-Door). The smaller size should also make them lighter and less cumbersome to remove, although by how much we’ll have to wait and see. 

There’s also the matter of mirrors. On the Wrangler, when you take off the doors you’re also getting rid of the side mirrors. The Bronco’s are mounted to the body.

There will also be different door designs available as accessories, which are just some of the hundreds of customization opportunities that will be possible with the 2021 Bronco. According to head designer Paul Wraith, “With one hour and a wrench, you can strip this truck down,” referring to the body panels that can easily be removed. He specifically noted that the fender flares come off in seconds, while the bumper end caps can be removed for greater wheel clearance. Basically, the Bronco is modular.

We received some mixed information about how much of this capability is intended for customization and how much is simply to make repairs easier. It’s something we’ll be investigating for future posts.

A new kind of design process

Designer Paul Wraith’s team literally started by scanning the original-generation Bronco owned by Ford’s VP of Design Moray Callum in order to properly study the classic SUV’s packaging. It would also use that original Bronco to establish the key basic design elements of both the 2021 Bronco and the Bronco Sport crossover: a simple grille with two round headlights intersected by a Bronco-branded trim strip, an arrow-straight line down the sides, and a horizontal trim piece at the rear bookended by simple vertical taillights. The result is unquestionably clean, purposeful, and as the original, likely to age very well.

Beyond the looks, however, Wraith decided to do things differently in designing the Bronco.

“It’s not the normal approach,” he said. “But we haven’t done something weird in ages.”

The team used working, useable scale models they could climb into, take apart and swap on new pieces. There were many comparisons to building with Lego during the press briefings. Those working models were then used in conjunction with extensive VR testing and were even mounted on inclines to see how various functions might behave when off-roading. This led to the design of grab handles located on the center console and at the ends of the dash that are removable and replaceable on most trim levels. It was also where the available dash-top device rack was devised and designed. Pictured below right, it provides a place to securely mount smartphones, GoPros or whatever without suction cups. 

Besides the working models, the designers also mixed things up by using story-board-like drawings to identify how people might actually use the Bronco. This led to things like a bottle opener in the cargo area and an available slide-out panel in the cargo floor that effectively turns into an open tailgate (pictured above left).

Indeed, real-world functionality was the driving force behind the entire design.

“There’s nothing on this truck that’s superfluous,” Wraith said. “Function not fashion. Everything is exactly where you would need it.”

Take the “trail sights” as one example. They’re obviously a nifty styling flourish, but they serve real purposes by helping the driver ID the SUV’s corners while maneuvering off-road and as tie-down points for securing things to the roof without damaging the paint or lights.

2021 Ford Bronco

Seven series

You may consider them trim levels if you wish, but Ford prefers “all-new experiential-based equipment series.” Whatever. There are seven of them with all but the “Base Bronco” having outdoorsy trademarked names that go far beyond the usual XLT and Limited variety. And no, one isn’t Eddie Bauer.

The Base is described as the one for purists who’d buy a new ’66 Bronco if they could. It’ll start at $29,995, including destination, for a Two-Door model. Note that’s the only price available at this time.

We’ll have a complete post breaking down the series’ content, but in short, Big Bend adds greater off-road capability and more creature comforts. Black Diamond basically adds more rugged attire: heavy-duty bumpers, skid plates, a wash-out and drainable rubber floor, and marine-grade vinyl upholstery that resists water and mold. The Outer Banks is the fancy one with high-gloss trim, a B&O sound system, the 12-inch touchscreen standard, etc.

There are then two harder-core offerings that fork in two off-roading directions. The Bronco Wildtrak is intended for high-speed desert running (not unlike the Gladiator Mojave), and includes the Bilstein dampers and 2.7-liter engine as standard. The Bronco Badlands, meanwhile, gets the full rock-crawling menu of mechanical upgrades, the Black Diamond’s tough stuff and the Outer Banks’ fancy stuff. Basically, it’s the answer to Jeep’s Rubicon.

However, you don’t have to get one of the pricy Bronco trim levels to get their extra off-roading equipment. The Sasquatch Package (yes it’s really called that) adds the more advanced 4×4 system, upgraded tires, HOSS suspension and locking diffs. Only the disconnecting stabilizer bar is missing.

All trims also come standard with a pass to one of the four Bronco Off-Roadeo experience sites that provide owners with hands-on instruction to match their level of off-roading experience.

2021 Ford Bronco

On-sale date

You can order a 2021 Ford Bronco right now, as reservations can be made by putting down $100. Production will begin at the Wayne Township factory in Michigan in early 2021 with deliveries beginning in the spring. So, basically, you’ll be waiting awhile, especially since everything we’ve seen would suggest that demand is going to be quite high.

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