2021 Ford Bronco Sport first drive review: The little Bronco has big off-road chops
You may be waiting patiently for the new Ford Bronco to hit dealerships, but don’t underestimate the smaller Bronco Sport. It may not have the same rock crawling, dune-hitting, and dune-conquering abilities as the larger Bronco supposedly, but it’s by far the dirtiest crossover in its class. Sorry, Jeep.
Some might fool the idea of a small, unibody Bronco, but for starters, it looks the part. The front is a scaled-down version of its big sister, complete with round headlights and the name “Bronco” dividing the grille in half horizontally. It’s vertical, boxy, and quite pretty. But I can’t say I love the back. The C-pillar is wider at the bottom, creating an awkwardly shaped window when viewed directly from behind. In addition, the body widens in such a way that the greenhouse looks too tall and narrow.
Much of the appearance depends on the color. I like the boldness of Cyber Orange, but it’s not available on all finishes. The base model has four choices, while the Big Bend and Outer Banks models have eight. Cyber Orange is one of nine color choices for Badlands finishes or one of four for the sold out first edition.
The Bronco Sport travels on the same platform that underpins the Ford Escape crossover. But don’t let this scare you, pioneer friends and off-road enthusiasts. For starters, unlike the Escape, each version of the Bronco Sport uses all-wheel drive. The base powertrain is a 1.5-liter 3-cylinder turbo engine with 181 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque. Today I’m testing the updated 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine, with 245 hp and 275 lb-ft. Regardless of the engine, Bronco Sport transmits its power to the wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Despite its off-road intentions, most people will purchase the Bronco Sport for on-road service. That’s great here: there’s a lot of power, the transmission works perfectly in the background, the steering is light, and the chassis is relatively compliant. Drive modes Normal, Eco, Sport and Slippery will change some characteristics of the powertrain on the pavement, but honestly, Normal is fine. With the smallest 1.5-liter engine, the EPA rates the Bronco Sport at 25 miles per gallon in city, 28 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg combined. Upgrade to the 2.0-liter engine and those numbers drop to 21 cities, 26 highway and 23 combined, which isn’t too big 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 ruggedness adds efficiency-reducing weight.
But again, no compact crossover can touch the Bronco Sport when it comes to off-road credibility. To properly test this little guy, I head to the soft sands of Olancha’s off-road vehicle fleet in California. The dunes here are small, rising to a maximum of 75 feet from the lowlands, but the soft sand can be a real challenge for unmodified vehicles. To give the Bronco a bit of a head start, I vented the 29-inch Falken Wildpeak 235 / 65R17 tires to give them a larger contact patch. Then I set GOAT mode – which goes over any type of terrain (which I imagine would technically be GOATT) – to the Sand and Takeoff setting, throwing rooster tails in my wake.
Sand mode locks the all-wheel drive system into a 50:50 power split and disables traction control. Here, the 250-horsepower engine keeps the Bronco Sport zipping through the sand and with 277 lb-ft of torque it means this SUV conquers these little 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 through soft things.
The Sport features a dual-clutch rear transmission derived from that of thehot hatch. This can not only generate torque carrier power between the rear wheels, sending up to 100% of the thrust sideways with traction, but it can also completely block the rear differential. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes of hanging around in the sand, my Bronco Sport overheats and goes into limp-home mode. I might expect it if the ambient temperature was very high, but it’s a perfect 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, the Bronco cools down quickly so I can keep playing, albeit a little less aggressively.
The next day, my off-road excursion takes me to Swansea-Cerro Gordo Road. This 31-mile trail takes me up to 9,300 feet in elevation. It’s easy enough to cross in a solid-axle off-roader, like a Jeep Wrangler or the big Bronco, but the Sport has independent suspension at all four corners and a unibody construction. He is at a serious disadvantage, but manages the road with ease.
I start in GOAT Mud and Ruts mode, and here the positioning of the tires is crucial, which means that a good view ahead is required. I’m pretty tall and have my seat high enough, but I still feel like I can’t see well past the hood. Thankfully, the Bronco Sport has a forward-facing camera that turns on automatically in this riding 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 windshield wipers to clean the dust off the windshield, a little nozzle sprays the camera too. Pretty awesome.
Each driving mode has specially adjusted throttle, shift and, most importantly, traction control parameters. A 10 degree rocky slope proves to be a bit too much for Mud and Ruts mode, but the algorithms in Rock Crawl make this step short. I’ll also be honest, the off-roader in me can have a bit of a grumpy old lady about that sort of thing – I don’t need smelly driving modes! – but I have to admit that Ford has done a really good job here.
Of course, good off-road geometry doesn’t hurt either. The Bronco Sport First Edition I’m driving has a good 8.8-inch ground clearance – more than a Jeep Compass or Cherokee – and the approach and offset angles are 30.4 degrees and 20.4 degrees, respectively. The starting angle is 27.5 degrees in the first edition, but the less expensive Badlands setup does a little better, at 33.1 degrees. Those numbers easily beat rugged models like the Subaru Crosstrek and compare favorably with the aforementioned Jeeps.
Off-road newbies will greatly appreciate the control of the hill climb of Bronco Sport. It’s a bit noisy, it automatically applies the brakes to keep the Sport creeping down a rocky, slippery, 12-degree slope, but most importantly, it keeps the Bronco slow and steady. Trail Control mode is a bit different, it acts like an off-road cruise control when you’re on flat ground or uphill, so noobs can leave the throttle at the Bronco Sport and just focus on wheel positioning.
Ford says the Bronco Sport can wade through 23.5 inches of water, but we haven’t had that much rain in California this season yet, so I’ll have to report on that specific later.
After the long journey, they are no worse for wear. Driving off-road on a solid axle vehicle for long periods 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 shock absorbers, combined with its soft suspension and super-comfortable seats, mean fewer bumps and a much more enjoyable ride overall.
The Bronco Sport’s interior materials are sturdy, if a little cheap. I love the little closet under the infotainment screen – it’s nothing important, 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 around the cabin. There is also a 110-volt 400-watt AC power outlet available in the cargo area, which is particularly useful for a vehicle destined to go off the road. After all, who wouldn’t want to plug in their blender for a freshly made margarita once they hit the campsite?
I really like all the thoughtful features built into the Bronco Sport, like the LED lamps on the tailgate and the folding glass rear window so you can easily throw things in the back. The pockets on the backs are zipped to keep dust out and a Molle strap system is available to help hold tools 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 to carry two mountain bikes upright with the front wheels removed. The roof rack can also carry 150lbs and can support a rooftop tent for nighttime adventures.
At the front, an 8-inch touchscreen runs Ford Sync 3 software, which is one of Roadshow’s favorite infotainment systems due to its ease of use and simple, clean interface.is 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 technology, and traffic sign recognition are all additional costs.
Ford Bronco Sport 2021 starts at, including $ 1,495 per destination. Reservations for the first edition are full, so if you want all that off-road capability, you should look at the Badlands upholstery, which starts at $ 34,800.
Honestly, the new Bronco Sport probably has too much off-road capability for most people. I am not sure that the target customers will attack the trails on a regular basis and I predict that most drivers will stick to easy dirt tracks or snowy passages. But if he has “Bronco” on his nose, he must be a champion when the going gets tough. And believe me, the Bronco Sport is not a weakling.