FRAZIER PARK, California — Fun is often poked at buyers of rugged SUVs like the Mercedes G-Wagon or the Range Rover because they never seem to leave the safety of the pavement at their local Whole Foods. And often, this fun is justified by the fact that these SUVs never see anything more hazardous than a road that has some leaves on it.
The folks buying a Range Rover or G-Wagon want to have the potential to tackle whatever mountain or ford any river that might be in their way, and that's fine. They are exceptionally capable machines and their price reflects same — for $100,000-plus, you can get ultimate luxury and ultimate off-road capabilities, while still remaining excellent for on-road pursuits as well.
But if you want to buy an SUV in the $30-thousand dollar range, Ford thinks you might want to make a choice: on-road or off?
The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is a compact crossover SUV (we'll leave the debate for what makes something a crossover vs an SUV for another time) that's the baby brother to the new Bronco. The full-sized Bronco is akin to the Jeep Wrangler, while the Bronco Sport is a relative of the Ford Escape and is a bit of a competitor for the Jeep Cherokee. Much confusion has reigned regarding the differences between the Bronco and the Bronco Sport, but just think of the Sport as the scrappy little brother.
I drove the new Bronco Sport at an off-highway state park northeast of Los Angeles last week, and came away hugely impressed. The Sport is extraordinarily capable and was able to climb steep rock faces and, more importantly, to safely descend them as well. I got some time to try the Bronco Sport on-road too, and it's just as excellent there.
But, Bronco Sport buyers have a choice to make. Ford, knowing that there are folks who want to go explore the wilderness and also folks who just want a car that looks like it could go explore the wilderness, has several different flavors on offer depending on what you might want.
There's the Base and Big Bend models, which keep the price down a bit (the truck starts at just over $28,000 and rises another $10,000 if you max it out) in exchange for fewer luxury and off-road capable features. That's the base model, and they're fine.
But the real choice is between the top two trims, the Badlands and Outer Banks editions. The rugged Badlands, which includes a 2-liter four-cylinder turbocharged "EcoBoost" engine as well as a whole host of off-road gizmos like an upgraded suspension, larger all-terrain tires, a trick 4x4 system with three clutches to make the rear-drive system particularly adaptable to slippery conditions, a 4x4-lock function, metal bash plates, tow hooks, and a bunch more.
That engine in particular, which produces 250 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, is worthy of praise. Also, it has two additional "G.O.A.T. Modes" — it stands for "Goes Over Any Type of Terrain" — which are adjustable drive modes to help the various computer systems navigate the world: Normal, ECO, Sport, Slippery, Sand, Mud/Ruts, and Rock Crawl. The last two are exclusive to the Badlands and the limited-run, sold-out First Edition. So, in the Badlands you get a bigger engine and all kinds of off-road toys.
Then there’s the Outer Banks edition, which forgoes the off-road performance in favor of a more luxurious, feature-heavy approach. This is the one to buy if that leaf-strewn side-street is as far as you get off the beaten path. It has power seats and a heated steering wheel, and rain-sensing windshield wipers and remote start and, crucially, all-season tires.
It also has a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged engine that makes "only" 181 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque. That might seem like an itty-bitty engine, and it is — but it also creates plenty of power for this vehicle and shows how far Ford has come in the development of its small-displacement, turbocharged engines. It's terrific and I would recommend it to anyone.
I drove both variants on our off-road expedition and was impressed with both, especially the Outer Banks considering how ill-suited its all-season tires were to the terrain we were exploring. I see why Ford offers them both — though they share the Bronco Sport badge, the Outer Banks and Badlands editions are very different vehicles.
So, the only question to ask is... which would you like?