“If it were me out here wheeling with our crew,” I said to the Ford employees perched on the hillside beside me, “I wouldn’t have even tried that with a stock crossover.”
I wasn’t stroking any egos; I meant it. I’ve brought enough trucks and SUVs back with body damage (or worse) to know which obstacles are asking for trouble. Two hours into wheeling the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport up a reasonably tough trail and already seriously impressed with what the little rig could do, I still wouldn’t have bothered with that obstacle. The initial approach was steep enough to effectively be a stair step. The gully it was in was narrow enough that the only driving line was to take it head-on, straddling the deep, V-shaped ditch running down the middle. Eyeballing it, I figured you’d run the bumper into the step before you got the tires up to the obstacle. I was wrong.
The Bronco Sport inched up to the hillside, the tires dug in, the nose rose, and the little SUV rose to the challenge. Oh, and did I mention this was the only vehicle in the entire group on the standard Pirelli Scorpion ATR tires? Everything else had the optional Falken Wildpeak A/Ts with a much more aggressive tread pattern.
It was, however, still a Bronco Sport Badlands like the rest, and that matters. The Bronco Sport Badlands (and the First Edition, which is limited-run and based on the Badlands) is endowed with the serious off-roading hardware. Right up front, it’s the only trim to get a much more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 with 250 hp and 277 lb-ft compared to the 1.5-liter turbo I-3’s 181 hp and 190 lb-ft. Around back, it’s connected to an upgraded rear axle with clutch packs on each halfshaft. These allow the all-wheel-drive system to send power to the wheel or wheels that have the most grip. It can also function as a rear axle locker and bias torque to the outside wheel to make the vehicle more nimble.
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You can control how the computer apportions engine power via a knob on the center console behind the rotary shifter. Labeled G.O.A.T. Modes (Goes Over Any Terrain, a callback to the original Bronco), the Bronco Sport Badlands has seven different programs for the street and the dirt. The Badlands model gets Rock Crawl and Mud and Ruts modes, which take advantage of that trick rear axle, while all the other Bronco Sports make do with five modes. In addition to the modes, you can manually lock the four-wheel-drive system on, manually “lock” (via clever software programing) the rear axle, or engage the off-road cruise control with hard buttons next to the mode knob.
The Badlands also gets a standard nose camera that comes on automatically under 15 mph in all off-road modes and can be turned on from a button below the infotainment screen in other modes. It could be improved with overlays showing the path of the tires like Jeep does, the same way a backup camera shows where the rear is going.
All the trick software in the world won’t help you with bad ground clearance, long overhangs, and bad approach and departure angles, but the Bronco Sport doesn’t have those, either. The Badlands both rides higher and has unique bodywork designed to give it better clearance off-road than standard Bronco Sports, and we put it to use. With 8.8 inches of ground clearance on the optional tires, a 30.4-degree approach angle, 32.8-degree departure angle, and 20.4-degree breakover angle, it’s very nearly a photocopy of the Jeep Compass Trailhawk, only with way more power.
Making said power with a turbocharger meant the Bronco Sport never suffered the effects of altitude as we climbed the arid Inyo Mountains to an old mining cabin perched on a windswept ridge overlooking Death Valley to the east and Mt. Whitney to the west, the highest and lowest points in the lower 48. It clambered over rocks, straddled deep ruts, climbed into and out of washes, gullies, and ditches, and scrambled up loose hillsides. We made occasional use of the steel plate protecting the engine and transmission and another protecting the fuel tank, but not nearly as often as I’d expected.
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The hardcore Rock Crawl mode was employed only as needed; same with the rear locker. As it’s not a true mechanical locking differential, the latter will overheat if you leave it on constantly and the computer will reduce engine power to cool it, but you don’t need it most of the time, anyway. Even Normal mode will get you through most things, with Mud and Ruts handling all but the toughest stuff.
Rarely did we need the rear locker, and credit goes both to the software and the suspension. Yes, the Bronco Sport is built on the same platform as the now far more roadgoing Escape (the platform was designed with both in mind), but you wouldn’t know it from looking at it or driving it. Long suspension links allow for lots of wheel travel and keep the tires on the ground in off-kilter situations. Extra-large rear shocks and front shocks with integrated hydraulic jounce bumpers allow the Bronco Sport to take far more abuse than the average owner will throw at it. The dampers are stiff to keep the wheels under control, but the springs are soft for maximum extension. Many long debates between engineers argued articulation versus on-road handling, and articulation won the battle.
We didn’t just climb a mountain, either. Not far from the base of the Inyo Mountains are the Olancha Dunes. Ripping around the beach, the shore, the desert, and the dunes was a top engineering priority for Ford, so much so that all Bronco Sports have a Sand mode. Sending power rearward and prioritizing torque to the outside wheel lets the little all-wheel-drive SUV slide around like a four-wheel-drive truck as you carve up the dunes. We dropped the air pressure to the mid-20s, but the Ford people tell us you can go down into the teens for maximum traction.
Aired up and back on pavement, what truly impresses about the Bronco Sport is how nicely it drives when you’re not doing things you see in car commercials. Thanks to a layer of carpetlike sound deadening under the vehicle, it’s surprisingly quiet inside despite the off-road tires. Whatever handling trade-off Ford made in the name of off-road capability was a good one because the Bronco Sport handles just fine for a crossover SUV. The bigger 2.0-liter engine feels strong and responsive, the eight-speed transmission clever and unobtrusive. The throttle and brake pedals, both of which felt a bit too aggressive for off-road work, respond nicely in everyday driving.
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Ford’s standard Co-Pilot360 system packages a roster of passive and active driver aids to alert you to obstacles, help keep you in your lane, and help you avoid hitting things. The real showstopper, though, is the optional Co-Pilot360 Assist+ system, which adds adaptive cruise control and lane-centering features that are almost good enough to let you take your hands off the wheel on the highway.
The tall roof and big windows give the cabin an open and airy feel, with enough headroom to drive wearing a Stetson. Cubbies below the infotainment screen and below the climate controls easily swallow phones, wallets, and whatever else you have on you. Charging ports for the phones are in easy reach, though a wireless charger option would be nice as it would allow the phone to lie flat. Whatever doesn’t fit in those spaces can go in the pockets on the sides of the front seats or in the zippered pockets on the backs of them. The rear seat feels a little claustrophobic and relies on carve-outs in the front seat backs to provide adequate legroom. The cargo space is just deep enough to put a cooler in lengthwise, and it’s squared-off to maximize volume. Being able to access it by popping open just the rear window like in an old-school SUV is an added bonus.
If there’s one real knock against the Bronco Sport, it’s the industrial-grade plastic that makes up most of the cabin. It’s something we’ve dinged Ford for on other vehicles, and it’s true here, too. At $36,140 out the door for our Badlands test vehicle, this stuff looks cheap. The only saving grace here is, unlike other Fords and most of the non-Jeep competition, the Bronco Sport is a serious off-roader you fully expect to get dirty and beat-up. This plastic looks like it’ll stand up to some abuse, so just remind yourself of that when you cross-shop a Toyota or other vehicle.
Otherwise, the Bronco Sport over-delivers on off-road capability and style while still being pleasant and comfortable on the six days a week you aren’t wheeling. Far from an imposter or a poseur, it’s every bit a worthy member of the Bronco family and a darn good little SUV, too.
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