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2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Ride Along: Car-Based? Really?

Sharing bones with the Escape, Ford's littlest Bronco is nonetheless capable off-road.

Bronco love so far is proving to be unconditional. But expanding the family and attaching the Bronco name to a crossover cousin of the Ford Escape raised hackles from the start. The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport compact SUV has a lot more to prove and a lot of hearts to win over.

The Bronco Sport is the mainstream SUV that Ford believes will sell the best in the Bronco family—and help finance the lower-volume 2021 Ford Bronco that marks the return of a rugged, body-on-frame, off-road capable, two- and four-door SUV.

But Ford planned for the Bronco Sport to be a more rugged, squared-off counterpart to the more car-like Escape, with the latter's sculpted sides and tapered roofline designed to appeal to the city driver. And while the Escape and Bronco Sport share the same new car-based, front-wheel-drive architecture and about 80 percent of their parts, engineers gave the Bronco Sport standard all-wheel drive and added serious off-road features to further differentiate the two SUVs.

It was with deep curiosity that I climbed into the passenger seat of an early-build 2021 Bronco Sport at an off-road park in Holly, Michigan, outside of Detroit. Ford allowed a small group of media to experience the vehicle, which goes on sale this fall. The vehicles on hand were prototypes, and we were not allowed to drive them. Ford put its own people behind the wheel, the product developers and engineers who have spent years working on the vehicles. We were also not allowed to review the interiors, as they were pre-production spec and therefore not final representations of what customers will see.

All of this means we have to wait a bit longer for a full drive review, but for now, we can provide initial impressions from the passenger seat of the Bronco Sport in a new state park with a wide variety of trails to test its hardiness. This is what we learned:

The Bronco Sport Badlands Lives Up To Its Name

The Bronco Sport I rode in was a Badlands, one of five trim levels (the same series names largely mirror those used for the Bronco). Badlands is the top trim, excluding the 2021 First Edition, which is a one-time limited run to celebrate the relaunch of the iconic nameplate and is loaded with just about everything from the other trims as standard equipment. The Badlands takes the features offered in the mid-level Big Bend trim and adds parts to make it more off-road capable.

Badlands also replaces the 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission with the more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 EcoBoost engine and a 10-speed automatic transmission. You cannot get a manual transmission on the Bronco Sport.

Upgraded AWD System

There are other key upgrades. Although all-wheel drive is standard on all Bronco Sport models, the Badlands has a unique system with a twin-clutch rear axle for torque vectoring. It also has a unique off-road suspension and rides on 28.5-inch all-terrain tires on the 17-inch wheels.

Other differentiating mechanical bits include metal bash plates, front tow hooks, and a camera to see what is ahead on the trail as the vehicle crests the top of a hill and the driver can't see the trail.

Cruise Control for the Trail

Many buyers are familiar with Hill Descent Control, software designed to slowly ease down a hill at a controlled speed. The Bronco Sport has Trail Control that acts as a low-speed off-road cruise control and works going up a hill, down a hill, or on the flats. My driver set it to 4 mph and took his feet off the pedals. The Sport maintained a constant speed up and over a 25-degree slope, according to the data on the off-road information cluster.

The new state off-road park in Holly, Michigan, offered a variety of trails with rock, sand and water obstacles. There were many loose surfaces and rutted hills with up to a 19-degree slope. The center differential lock comes on automatically in off-road modes to split power evenly between the front and rear (the Badlands has seven different terrain modes). The driver hit a button to lock the rear axle clutches as well, and the SUV never flinched as it navigated the terrain. Rear locking can be activated on the fly in any mode.

From our MotorTrend SUV of the Year testing, I have seen many a crossover struggle in fine, silty sand, and many have had to back down a hill for a second try or be winched out of the deep, slippery granules. But the Bronco Sport had no difficulty and passed the test where you stop halfway up the hill, let it settle into the sand, and then resume the climb. Equipped with Hill Hold, the Bronco stays in place on hills automatically—no need for two-foot driving.

Bronco Sport Takes a Dip

My driver took the Sport through a smaller water hole than the one that the body-on-frame Bronco was charging through at a quick pace. But that was okay; the two vehicles are complementary, not competitors, and were meant to offer different degrees of capability. The Sport isn't designed to go snorkeling in deep water quite like the full-blown Bronco.

The ride in the Bronco Sport was somewhat brief, but it did impress. This is not the Escape-based poseur SUV some feared. The urban-based warrior who wants to break loose on the weekend will likely find it can handle more than will be asked of it. We look forward to getting behind the wheel to put it through its paces properly, on the road and off, for a more complete assessment.

Yes, there are haters who refuse to accept that a unibody SUV bears the Bronco name, but having spent some time in it, we can appreciate the strategy behind the moves to create a larger Bronco family. And we can see buyers entering Ford showrooms like moths drawn to the Bronco light but leaving with the Bronco Sport if it better meets their needs.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport
PRICE $28,155-$39,995
LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINES 1.5L/181-hp/190-lb-ft turbo DOHC 12-valve I-3; 2.0L/245-hp/275-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 8-speed auto
CURB WEIGHT 3,500-3,650 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 105.1 in
L x W x H 172.7 x 74.3 x 67.9-69.1 in
0-60 MPH 7.0-8.5 sec (MT est)
EPA FUEL ECON Not yet tested
ON SALE December 2020