Brilliant Bronco Ford-ifies the Wrangler

The 2021 Ford Bronco. (Ford/TNS)
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Henry Payne The Detroit News (TNS)

Austin, Texas — Oh, it’s on.

The 2021 Bronco is a rockin, sockin’ instant archrival to off-road’s King Jeep Wrangler. After years atop the hill, our hero Wrangler has an equal for the throne. It’s Superman vs. Batman. Wonder Woman vs. Captain Marvel. Captain America vs. Spider Man. They’re both the good guys.

The Wrangler will put you on its back and take you anywhere. So will Bronco. Anywhere like Austin where I flogged Ford’s off-road beast over impossible terrain in the Texas foothills: streams, rocks, bigger rocks, craggy inclines, hair-raising declines. Built like Wrangler with two-or-four removable doors atop a rugged truck frame, Bronco boldly follows the trail the Jeep blazed.

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The rivalry is refreshing in this age of kumbaya, let’s-all-hold-hands-to-the-EV-future bonhomie. Booooring. Bronco vs. Wrangler is the kind of gloves-off rivalry Detroit relishes. Like the truck and muscle-car wars, it will bring new customers to new frontiers.

I’ve lived and loved the track rivalry between Mustang-Camaro-Challenger — similar ponies, different personalities. So it is with Bronco-Wrangler.

Rivalries breed respect, and there is no bigger admirer of Wrangler than Bronco. Ford has embraced the Wrangler’s free spirit — fishnet door storage, detachable swaybars, roll bar, drain plugs, etc. — then mated it with the Blue Oval’s signature tech ‘n’ performance DNA.

“We saw the opportunity to build a more modern off-road SUV that Wrangler is not taking advantage of,” said Bronco marketing guru Mark Gruber, taunting his rival at the weigh-in ahead of the heavyweight fight.

From stem to stern, Bronco asks the questions: can we simplify it? Modernize it?

Start with the front end, a 2020s interpretation of the ’60s Bronco’s iconic face. Simplify? Modernize? Yup. The hood pops open like a normal hood — no struggling with the Wrangler’s signature straps.

Climb into the Wrangler and tall guys like me might bang their noggin’ on the fat rollbar. Go high-speed off-roading and I’ll have lumps the size of goat horns. Bronco integrates the bar into the ceiling, allowing for easier access and headroom.

Bronco’s smartly conceived, modular tech is everywhere.

In an off-road world spoiled by Wrangler customization, every Bronco panel can be removed (the term “Legos” was liberally used by engineers). Just locate the “Bronco Bolts” with BRONCO stamped on their heads. Even the grille can be swapped out if you wanna’ different look.

Removing 50-pound aluminum doors is never easy. Bronco simplifies the task with frameless, mirrorless doors (now you know why the wing-like mirrors are attached to the hood). Remove three bolts. Cap the electric wire harness. Wrap the doors in bags. If you have a four-door Bronco, you can stow them upright in the trunk. Fold back your soft-top roof (a removable hard top is also available) and you are at one with nature.

Want to take off my Outer Banks tester’s painted fenders for scratch-resistant plastic ones? Have at it with five easy clips. Want to take off the whole @&!** fender? Wrench some Bronco Bolts.

The drivetrain is simple, too, for the inevitable off-road temptation. It’s not, ahem, electric.

Ford suits say the automaker’s future is battery-powered, but their brand halo SUV says it’s gas-powered. Good luck crossing the Outback in anything else. Motivating all four wheels are a choice of great engines familiar to Ford fans: the 330-horsepower, 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 from the F-150 and 300-horse, 2.3-liter turbo-4 from the Ford Focus RS/Mustang Hi Po.

Okay, a brief detour off Simplification Trail into Trim Swamp.

The Bronco comes in a dizzying array of trims, including the Outer Banks, Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Wildtrak, Badlands and Skull Island (not sure about that last one). Just pick one depending on your budget and taste. They’re all good. Then lemme recommend the Sasquatch package with ginormous, 35-inch tires and Bilstein shocks. Add 360-degree camera. And vinyl interior with drain plugs so you can wash out the mud.

Now we’re cookin’ with hot sauce.

After a torrential overnight rain in Austin, I tackled the slippery, rocky terrain of Ford’s Austin Off-Roadeo Park in a two-door, Sasquatch-equipped Wildtrak. Where Wrangler offers a second stick shifter that has to be muscled to operate its HIGH/LOW gear transfer case, Bronco simplifies with a rotary dial. Ford calls it the GOAT (Goes Over Any Type of Terrain) dial.

I spun it to MUD/RUTS mode, which prepped the 10-speed transmission and engine for serious, low-speed rock crawling. When the 4WD system encountered slip, I reached for a row of buttons at the top of the dash (so I didn’t take my eyes off trail). Buttons like front-and-rear locking differentials or detachable swaybars that adjust on the fly (no stopping to shift into NEUTRAL. I see Wrangler nation drooling.).

We on-track speed junkies love torque-vectoring Subaru STIs and VW Golf Rs, and Ford makes sure off-roaders benefit from this tech, too. I fingered the Trail Turn Assist button and brakes retarded the inside rear wheel, slinging Bronco’s arse through tight turns. Treat your Dodge Hellcat buddies with off-road donuts.

Bronco left some Wrangler-inspired features alone — like the tailgate-mounted tire with integrated rear camera. Which is a good thing, because the spare is an off-roader’s best friend. You might even give it a nickname. Like St. Bernard. Or Lassie.

My Lassie saved me after an off-road adventure in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas.

I’d been traveling along twisty Lime Creek Road, well-known to Austin motorheads as a road to exercise their sports cars. Bronco offers no such temptation, though the independent front suspension makes for a smooth ride.

Sitting on a truck frame 10 inches off the ground on big, pillowy 32-inch tires, my Bronco Outer Banks chugged along. Until it heard the siren call of, well, the outer banks of the Colorado River. I detoured to its rocky shore, splashed in the water. Bronco stuff.

Then the digital instrument display signaled trouble. We were losing air in the left front, captain. And fast! I pulled into a parking lot, the front left punctured. I removed the jack from the trunk. Unscrewed the tailgate spare from its post. Replaced the front tire. Screwed the flat on the tailgate.

Quick, easy, and I only suffered third-degree burns (I kid) from sitting on asphalt on a 105-degree Texas afternoon.

The spare is the same as the tire it replaced so, if you’re in the wild, you can get right back to wildin’. Like when Bronco engineer Jamie Groves and his crew took a production Bronco Badlands (the most extreme Bronco trim, like a Wrangler Rubicon) to the bruising NORRA Mexican 1000 race on the Baja Peninsula.

They finished third (the first production-based car across the line) without a mechanical glitch — except for two flats they had to change in the desert.

That’s Ford for you. Not content to just go off-road, they gotta go fast. The need for speed goes back to founding father Henry at the 1901 Sweepstakes. And the GT40 at Le Mans. Heck, Bronco was the first production vehicle to win Baja waaaay back in ’69.

I preferred the lighter, 2.3-liter turbo-4 up front for its superior maneuverability. Think the Sandbox section at Holly Oaks ORV Park, where Bronco Nation will soon be locking horns with Wrangler Nation. Broncos are on sale now.

Don’t think Wrangler is waiting? Jeep introduced its Xtreme Recon package this summer with Sasquatch-fighting, 35-inch tires.

Oh, it’s on.

2021 Ford Bronco

Vehicle type: Front engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger, compact SUV

Price: $31,490 (2-door) and $36,190 (4-door), including $1,495 destination fee ($56,795 2-door Wildtrak, $53,150 4-door Outer Banks as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder; 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 300 horsepower, 325 pound-feet torque (turbo-4): 330 horsepower, 415 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 7-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, (NA); towing capacity, 3,500 pounds

Weight: 4,286 to 5,117 pounds

Fuel economy: 20 city/22 highway/21 combined (turbo-4, manual Base trim); EPA est. mpg 18 city/18 highway/18 combined (turbo-4 Wildtrak trim as tested); 17 city/17 highway/17 combined (V-6 Black Diamond as tested)

Report card

Highs: High-tech interior; turbo-4 base engine

Lows: Doors only stow in the 4-door version; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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