Ford is looking to cash in on over a century of earned equity this year. Brand equity, that is.
It’s doing it by introducing a pair of similarly sized crossover utility vehicles that evoke two of the company’s most storied nameplates but are very different.
The Mustang Mach-E is Ford’s first purpose-designed electric vehicle and an ambitious stretch for the pony car name, but its new stablemate hasn’t strayed quite as far. It’s the Bronco Sport, which is a subcompact SUV sidekick to the Bronco truck that is scheduled to arrive this summer to take on the Jeep Wrangler. The B.S. is no bull, however, despite being based on the Ford Escape. The boxy little runabout has been buffed up to handle more than a little bit of outdoorsy adventure.
Starting prices range from $28,315 for a Bronco Sport Base to $34,315 for a Badlands, which is the most off-road-capable model and the one I tested. A loaded, limited-availability First Edition series was also offered for $39,655 but has already been sold out.
The Bronco Sport’s front end was very much inspired by the 1966 Bronco’s, right down to the grille and bulges in its tall, horizontal hood. The rest of its four-door body comes across more as an homage to the 2008-2012 Escape, before the model transformed into a generic jellybean.
The combination works well and had a lot of people looking to encroach on my personal space to check it out, some thinking it was the "real" new Bronco and others saying it reminded them of a Land Rover. Either way, sounds like a win for Ford.
The Bronco Sport comes standard with all-wheel-drive and a 181 hp 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine, but the Badlands gets a 250 hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a special rear drive unit with torque vectoring and limited-slip functionality, plus the ability to tow 2,205 pounds.
It also has skid plates, tow hooks, an upgraded suspension with heavier-duty shocks and struts and 17-inch wheels with 28.5-inch-tall, all-terrain tires that can be upgraded to a set of aluminum rims that look like old- fashioned steelies for $795. (Note to Ford: C’mon, it should be the other way around!)
Stubby ends and a shorter wheelbase than the Escape, which is already on the small side, give it good approach, breakover and departure angles but not a lot of rear seat legroom to go with them. With two 6-footers seated comfortably in front it is essentially a two-passenger vehicle, but there’s enough room for four if everyone shares.
The high, safari-style roof does provide plenty of headspace, and its racks are strong enough to support a tent with two people in it. There’s so much vertical area that Ford sells an accessory rack that allows you to fit two mountain bikes upright inside the cargo bay with their front tires removed and the rear seats folded down.
The interior design is completely different than the Escape’s and combines colorful accents with materials that have the feel of technical gear, including rubber rings on the knobs. Composite flooring instead of carpet makes it easy to keep clean, and there is a hidden compartment under the passenger side rear seat bottom plus MOLLE straps and zippered pockets on the front seatbacks in an effort to turn the Bronco Sport into an oversized backpack.
The tailgate is more of a Swiss army knife, with an opening rear window that a surfboard would look just right sticking out of, floodlights that shine down when it’s fully open and a bottle opener in the door jamb.
OK, we get it, Ford, it’s a "lifestyle" vehicle.
The Bronco Sport is saddled with Ford's older Sync 3 infotainment system, however, which can be slow to react to inputs but has all of today's expected features along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
Despite its upright profile and knobby rubber, the Bronco Sport is comfortable and quiet on the highway. There’s barely any wind or road noise and it’s available with all of the same electronic driver aids as the Escape, including adaptive cruise control, active lane centering and automatic emergency brakes.
Unfortunately, the square hole it punches through the air means the fuel economy rating takes a hit compared to its sibling, dropping from 28 to 26 mpg with the three-cylinder and from 26 to 23 mpg with the four-cylinder. It’s worth it for what you get in return.
The Bronco Sport’s closest competitors in size, price and spirit are the Jeep Compass Trailhawk and Subaru Crosstrek, but in the wilderness you’ll find them somewhere in its dust. It’s smoother on gravel than some vehicles are on pavement, and its unpainted plastic bumpers and rocker panel covers won’t have you too worried about scratching it up when things get rough.
The Badlands adds Mud/Rut and Rock settings to the Bronco Sport’s standard five G.O.A.T. modes that adjust the steering feel, throttle, transmission and take the slack out of the all-wheel-drive system’s response on slippery surfaces. It may not actually be able to Go Over Any Terrain, as the name implies, but with 8.8 inches of ground clearance and the ability to ford 23.6 inches of water, a good portion of the Earth is accounted for.
Trail Control, which works like a low-speed cruise control from 1-20 mph in drive and 6 mph in reverse, allows for foot-free trail riding, while a front-mounted camera supplies a clear view of what’s in front of that upright hood and comes in handy for parallel parking, too.
I’m sure a lot of people will dismiss the Bronco Sport as another 4x4 cosplayer that will mostly be doing that, but they’d be wrong. It’s a trusty little steed with plenty of chops and a lot of charm that more than lives up to its equine name.
2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands
Base price: $34,315
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door all-wheel-drive SUV
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 250 hp, 277 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
MPG: 21 city/26 hwy