AUSTIN, Texas — It didn't take long in the brand new Ford Bronco before people started pointing and pulling out their smartphones to take pictures.
The first one happened within 30 seconds of turning onto the streets of downtown Austin, and it continued for the next couple of hours. Every time I stopped, folks would come up and ask questions — how much is it? When can I buy one? I ordered this trim. Do you think that was the right choice?
It's safe to say that folks are really excited about this new Bronco. And who can blame them? Ford literally invented the SUV segment back in the '60s: the original Bronco was the first "sport utility vehicle."
And they should be excited because the new Bronco is deeply impressive, both off-road and on. But it's the latter that's more interesting to me, considering that even the hardcore off-roader will spend the vast majority of their time on hard pavement.
Still, let's start off-road because that's the most exciting part of the new Bronco — and buyers want to know that their new truck can go anywhere, even if they never will.
The Bronco has a litany of new toys meant to help new off-roaders along. There are as many as seven different "G.O.A.T Modes," named after the original G.O.A.T. code name for the Bronco back in the '60s.
It stands for Goes Over Any Type of Terrain and switching to one — say, Rock Crawl — tweaks the onboard equipment to make it happen. Everything from the electronic front- and rear-differential lockers, 4x4 modes, steering gear, throttle control, and more. Anything that can be electronically controlled is adjusted, and it makes life much easier for the driver. Going through mud? Switch to Mud/Ruts and get on with your day.
There are also a couple fancy tricks that old-school off-roaders will probably find anathema but which are actually supremely clever. Trail Control is low-speed cruise control for off-roading that allows you to set the speed in half-MPH increments. Once it's set, you don't need to work the pedals at all, and the car maintains speed while modulating the brake and throttle, so all the driver needs to do is steer.
Trail One-Pedal Drive is an offshoot of that, combining brake and throttle into a single pedal like an electric car might have. Press the throttle to accelerate, release it to brake. It's an alternative to complicated two-pedal driving (pressing the gas and brake simultaneously) common in some off-road situations.
Trail Turn Assist is a very clever new feature. Turn that on and turn the wheel all the way, and the Bronco will apply a hard brake to the inside rear wheel, helping turn the truck in tight confines. It is wild and weird and a lot of fun.
Old-school off-roaders will bemoan the technologification of four-wheelin'. But features like push-button 4x4 mode shifting (rather than a clunky and complicated physical lever) and drive mode selection will allow drivers to take advantage of the Bronco's impressive capabilities more easily. And anything that makes off-roading more accessible is excellent news in my book.
And while the off-road prowess of the Bronco is impressive, the on-road experience is at least as important. After all, it's likely that Broncos will spend at least 99 percent of their lives on pavement, trucking folks to soccer practice or Walmart or the mall or wherever.
And the Bronco is surprisingly good on-road. I've driven a lot of Jeep Wranglers (the closest competitor to the Bronco) and they're adequate on the pavement, particularly the newer JL model. I found the Bronco to be at least equivalent, if not a little superior to its competition.
Even with 35-inch tires and off-road suspension, the Bronco exhibited barely any body roll in the corners. The nose dipped a bit under braking, but it was much less bothersome than in some of the other off-road spec vehicles I've driven.
I wish the seats were a touch more comfortable and the start/stop button is a little hard to reach, but the interior layout and infotainment stack are easy to use and there's plenty of storage for all your gear. Ford did a great job on this truck, inside and out.
I picked a Lightning Blue Metallic Bronco four-door spec'd with Ford's First Edition trim package for on-road testing. That's a sold-out limited edition that includes every single option available on the Bronco, all for $63,210.
There are a lot of options, too. The base Bronco starts at just $29,995 and more than doubles in price from there, so there's quite a range of things to equip.
Among other things, the First Edition includes the off-road-focused Sasquatch package, which (unlike on the Jeep Wrangler, at which the Bronco is squarely aimed) is available on every trim level.
The brilliantly named Sasquatch includes 35-inch mud-terrain tires, electronic-locking front and rear axles, upgraded suspension and Bilstein shock absorbers, and more. That means what I'm calling the "enthusiast edition" — the base two-door Bronco plus the $7,385 Sasquatch Package (including a mandatory Advanced 4x4 option) and nothing else — is a competent off-roader for just $38,025 out the door.
To get similar capabilities in a Wrangler, you'll be spending at least $41,000, and that doesn't include 35-inch tires (which aren't even available on a Wrangler from the factory).
Jeep is responding with a new Xtreme Recon package for the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon that will include 35-inch tires and some other tricks, but it will still end up far more expensive than the base 'quatch Bronco. All this competition is great news for off-road truck buyers, though.
Ford will push Jeep, and Jeep will drive Ford, and the biggest winners will be buyers of both. During a Bronco briefing last week, a Ford rep asserted that "our competitors haven't done shit in the past two decades."
That's not entirely fair, but it's true that Jeep hasn't faced this level of competition in a very long time.
It's also worth noting that the new Bronco is not the same vehicle as the smaller, Ford Escape-based Bronco Sport. Ford really messed up by launching the Bronco Sport far earlier than this one.
I can't tell you how many people have said to me, "oh, the new Bronco? That thing is tiny and a disgrace to the Bronco name." And then I explain how the Bronco Sport is an entirely different vehicle, and they'll understand once the big boy Bronco comes out.
And now it's here, kind of. Production began earlier this month, and new Broncos will hit dealers soon. However, it may be a while before you can buy one. The reservation list now stretches well into 2022. However, I was told that orders for lower-trim models might arrive sooner than the ultra-lux top tier editions (likely thanks to semiconductor shortages related to the fancier tech features).
It's been 25 years since Ford ended production of the old Bronco, but after two days of testing, I promise you the new one was worth the wait.