When it comes to off-roading, Jeep sets the standard, especially at reasonable price levels. Other brands offer all-wheel drive, and a few of them build a seriously capable off-roader or two if you’re willing to pay, but no one builds a trail-ready model in every SUV segment like Jeep does. And if you want to keep the price less than $40,000 and still get serious off-road performance, Jeep’s the only game in town.
Or was. The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands is finally here to crash the trail party, and in the battle for budget off-road supremacy it most directly challenges the 2021 Jeep Compass Trailhawk.
Jeep’s insistence on covering every bit of SUV-market white space made us think hard about which model to invite to this comparison. The Renegade is, dimensionally, only slightly smaller than the Compass, which is only slightly smaller in turn than the Cherokee. When you drill down on it, though, the Compass is the best match against the Bronco Sport. In nearly every measure, the Ford is practically a photocopy of the Jeep.
Check it: The Jeep has 8.5 inches of ground clearance; the Ford has 8.8. The Jeep has a 30.3-degree approach angle, 24.4-degree breakover angle, and 33.6-degree departure angle. The Ford’s comparable measurements are 30.4, 20.4, and 33.1 degrees. The Jeep rides on a 103.8-inch wheelbase to the Ford’s 105.1. The Jeep is slightly longer overall and narrower in width, but only by tenths of an inch.
The two even cost about the same. The Ford starts at $34,315 for the Badlands trim to the Jeep’s $32,310 for the Trailhawk trim, but as tested, the Jeep is more expensive at $38,335 to the Ford’s $35,905.
There’s one set of numbers that doesn’t match, though. Jeep only offers the Compass with its old 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. It makes 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque, which is adequate but not impressive output for a motor of this size. This engine has to propel an SUV that weighs 3,803 pounds as tested. The Ford, meanwhile, upgrades the Bronco Sport Badlands trim from a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder to a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 250 hp and 277 lb-ft, and all that power only has to move 3,677 pounds. The only way you get more power in a Jeep of somewhat comparable size is to buy the larger, more expensive Cherokee Trailhawk, which boasts a V-6 engine with 271 hp and 239 lb-ft. But that Cherokee trips the register at $4,735 more to start than a Compass Trailhawk and has a final price above $40,000 when similarly specced.
On the Trail
Let’s cut to the chase: The name “Trailhawk” is no longer the standard by which compact SUV off-road packages will be measured. That honor now belongs to “Badlands.” The Bronco Sport so thoroughly outperformed the Compass off-road, there’s no saying it any other way. Other Jeep Trailhawks should take notice.
“I’d like to know what trail this was rated on,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said, pointing to the Trail Rated badge on the Jeep’s side. “Sure wasn’t the Rubicon, as the Compass struggled to make it up the not-so-tough Swansea-Cerro Gordo Road. Whereas I can’t remember the Bronco Sport’s forward progress ever being stopped, off-roading with the Jeep was an exercise in frustration.”
The Jeep’s problems came down to the three T’s: tires, torque, and to a lesser extent, tank. The tires weren’t good enough, the torque didn’t exist, and the gas tank was way too small.
Let’s go down the list. First, the Compass Trailhawk’s Falken Wildpeak H/T tires look about half as aggressive as the Bronco Sport Badlands’ Falken Wildpeak A/T3W tires, and they performed half as well. Don’t take it from us, though: Falken on its own website rates the H/T’s off-road capability as a 2.5 out of 5 and the Bronco’s A/T3W’s as a 4.0. The H/T is an all-season tire with a Mud and Snow rating that scores higher, per Falken, in things like quietness, tread life, and fuel efficiency. Jeep chose this as its Trailhawk tire option. Ford, to its credit, chose a Pirelli Scorpion all-terrain tire as the standard Badlands tire but also gives you this even more aggressive all-terrain tire option. The Ford’s tires are also substantially wider, giving them a larger footprint on loose surfaces. Too often we faced situations where the Jeep’s tires spun from lack of grip, were too narrow to place on a better surface, or both.
You could drop hundreds on a better set of tires for the Jeep, which is already $2,590 more expensive as tested, but you’d still be stuck with low torque. It used to be the 2.4 only showed up as the rental-grade base engine in a lot of FCA products, but for some reason, it’s the only engine you can get in a Compass at any price. For perspective, compact cars weighing 800 pounds less than a Compass make more torque from their newer, similarly sized, naturally aspirated four-cylinders.
Climbing the Inyo Mountains, the Jeep wheezed worse than a resolution chaser on their first jog of the new year. As we approached the top of the 9,400-foot ridge, the Compass got hung up on 4-inch-tall rocks in steeper parts of the trail, engine moaning away at 2,000 rpm, torque converter slipping, transmission temperature rising, and zero forward progress achieved. If you sat there and cooked the transmission long enough, it would sometimes eventually stumble over the obstacle, but more often than not, the only strategy was to back up and hit it with some speed and hope it didn’t bust a tire, or worse. And that’s with every off-road feature—4WD Lock and 4WD Low and Rock mode—engaged. The Bronco Sport ran up nearly the entire trail in its Mud and Ruts mode, not Rock Crawl.
Let’s take a second here to talk about the misleading “4WD Low” button. You can skip this part if you don’t care about technical stuff, but it’s important to know what the vehicle can and can’t do.
The Compass Trailhawk is not four-wheel drive; it’s all-wheel drive. It does not have a low-range gear like a Wrangler. It doesn’t even have a transfer case. It’s the same transverse, front-drive-based nine-speed automatic transmission with a power take-off and open front and rear differentials as every other Compass. “4WD Low” is actually first gear. Normally, the Trailhawk just starts in second and takes advantage of an exclusive shorter final drive ratio to compensate. When you press that button, all it does is start in first.
Of course, you can only engage “4WD Low” (first gear) if you’re in Rock Crawl mode with 4WD Lock engaged. That’s a lot of settings, but all it really does is move some ones and zeroes around, telling the transmission and brakes to do different things. Unlike the Bronco Sport Badlands, it has no locking rear differential. Jeep relies entirely on the brakes to lock up a spinning wheel and force power to the opposite side of the car, front and rear. You, as the driver, have very little control over it. And because so much of the Jeep’s off-road capability is wrapped up in electronic workarounds, you can’t truly turn off the traction and stability control, even if the light saying you did goes on when you push the button.
Back to the T’s. The last one doesn’t help with traction, but it does limit how many rocks you can climb over. The Compass has a small 13.5-gallon fuel tank that, despite the Jeep’s superior EPA ratings, was half empty by the end of the 36-mile trail when the Bronco Sport was still three-quarters full. Last thing you want to worry about off-road is running out of gas.
Fine, so the Jeep has limitations, but its relative shortcomings don’t necessarily make the Ford the winner, or even good. But the Ford is good. In fact, it’s great.
With actual off-road tires, a turbocharger that not only makes way more torque but also negates the effects of altitude, and a locking rear differential, the Bronco Sport was right at home off-road. (The locking diff works by way of fully closing clutches on the rear axle half-shafts, which limits how long you can use it before it overheats, but at least it’s there and it works.) And don’t think doing this test at sea level would’ve done the Jeep any favors. During our photo shoot at a much lower altitude, the Trailhawk still struggled with easy obstacles.
A big part of the Ford’s trail confidence is evident in how well it takes a hit. Hydraulic bump stops in the front shock absorbers and lots of suspension travel all around let the Badlands absorb every impact on every obstacle, rock, or hole, much like a Jeep Wrangler. The Compass, meanwhile, doesn’t take a hit nearly as well, and the loud bangs from the suspension every time it reaches the top or bottom of its travel are cringey enough to make off-road amateurs think they’ve seriously damaged their vehicle.
When it comes to taking a hit on the chin, though, the Jeep claws back some points. Both vehicles have black plastic covers extending below the front bumper and back to the frame for aerodynamic and cooling purposes. Only Jeep, though, had the good sense to secure that piece ahead and slightly above the front crossmember. Ford wrapped it underneath the crossmember, making it far more susceptible to impacts. Although the leading edge of the Jeep’s frame and skidplate got beat up, the Ford ended up with a hole punched in its plastic cover, plus the frame underneath got beat up.
The Jeep also gets a point for its sloping hood, which gives the driver an unobstructed view of the trail ahead. The Ford’s flat, blocky hood gets in the way when you’re trying to position the vehicle carefully on an obstacle. Ford rectifies this with a forward-facing camera, but with no context on screen, it’s difficult to figure out exactly where the front wheels are going. Overlaying guidelines for the tires on the screen, like Jeep does on the Wrangler, would go a long way.
A point here or there doesn’t change the fact that despite having nearly identical clearance and approach/breakover/departure angles, the Compass Trailhawk felt like it was at its mechanical limit while the Bronco Sport Badlands felt like it was simply at the limit of its ground clearance. Give the Ford a 2-inch lift, and it wouldn’t have broken a sweat.
On the Way Home
The Bronco Sport dominated off-road, and it ain’t too shabby on the road, either. The seven-hour round trip to the trailhead gave us plenty of time to experience both crossovers as the average driver will. In this context, it’s a much closer comparison.
Cruising down the freeway and cutting through small towns, the two models drive similarly. There aren’t really any meaningful differences in how they handle, how they ride, or how loud they are inside. One obvious difference: The Jeep’s leather-wrapped steering wheel is much nicer to hold than Ford’s cheap-feeling rubber wheel.
Of course, the Jeep is still held back by its underwhelming engine when it comes time to get up to freeway speed and past slow-moving vehicles. Even closer to sea level, making a pass requires dropping the hammer, the transmission dropping four or five gears, the engine racing at 4,000 rpm, generating more noise than acceleration. It’s almost hard to believe this engine is built by the Hellcat company, but at least Jeep finally got this transmission behaving properly, and per the EPA, the Compass gets significantly better fuel economy. But you’ll still stop more often to fill that little tank, especially if you’re passing a lot of people.
Passengers given the option of which crossover to ride in will choose the Ford if they can ride up front. There’s just nowhere to put your stuff in the Jeep except the cupholders (one of which is under the extendable armrest and awkward to reach) or the door bins. Forget about phones, keys, masks, Chapstick, or anything else. The Ford has a pair of bins right in the center of the dash in addition to the cupholders and door bins, not to mention pockets incorporated into the sides and backs of the front seats. A coming interior update later this year will significantly improve the Jeep’s competitiveness.
Passengers who must ride in back will prefer the extra 1.4 inches of legroom in the rear of the Jeep. The Ford’s back seat is at the lower limit of spacious for adults, while the Jeep’s is just a little larger. Other than that and a lot more headroom in the much taller Ford, the passenger space measurements are, like the exterior, nearly the same. If you’re bringing a lot of gear, though, it’s worth noting the Ford has 2.2 extra cubic feet of free space behind the back seats, but the two SUVs are again basically the same if you drop those seats.
At the Test Track
Lest you think we’re exaggerating about the Jeep’s slowness, take a gander at the spec chart. It needs 3.9 seconds longer than the Ford to get up to 60 mph, taking more than 10 seconds to get there. Otherwise, the two are again similarly matched. If you thought the Jeep’s less off-road-capable all-season tires would give it an advantage in dry-pavement cornering grip and stopping, you’ll be disappointed, because it actually performed slightly worse in both. And that’s despite the Ford’s stability-control program being much more aggressive than Jeep’s, seriously slowing the Bronco Sport in the corners.
That said, “The whole experience in the Compass was much more cohesive and sportier than in the Bronco Sport, despite lapping slower,” road test editor Chris Walton wrote of the Jeep after the test.
Ford or Jeep?
“The Jeep lacked the gumption needed to conquest a frankly pretty junior-varsity trail,” Lieberman said. “Yes, it made it up and then down. But as my high school football coach told the team when we technically went undefeated at 9-0-1, ‘You did it. You did it ugly, but you did it.’ Again, the Bronco Sport Badlands did it much prettier, and for $2,430 less. A big loss for the Trailhawk. A back-to-the-drawing-board type of defeat.”
Maybe if we drove different trim levels and not the hardcore off-road models, we could find reasons to recommend the Jeep, but the lesser Bronco Sports are still faster and achieve better city and combined fuel economy than any Compass If you’re paying top dollar for off-road models, how well they perform off-road matters, a lot. The Ford Bronco Sport Badlands plainly schooled the Jeep Compass Trailhawk on the trail, no two ways about it. If you absolutely have to have a Jeep in this price range, demand a deep discount on a Cherokee Trailhawk or consider a Wrangler with zero options. Otherwise, buy the Ford.
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