2021 Ford Bronco Sport

MIAMI — Ford put the Bronco on what would become a 25-year production hiatus after the 1996 model year even though just two years earlier it had been the most widely viewed SUV in the country. That was, of course, on June 17, 1994, when television cameras focused on Los Angeles freeways as A.J. Cowlings led LAPD and California Highway Patrol  officers on a slow-speed chase with his former Buffalo Bills teammate, O.J. Simpson, in the back holding a pistol and allegedly threatening suicide rather than face murder charges over the stabbing death of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Brown.

(Spoiler alert: He never followed through on his threat.)

CNN carried the entire incident live, and the main networks even broke into regular programming to give it coverage. According to accounts of  the evening, NBC gave it split-screen exposure with an NBA playoff game occupying the other half of the screen.

Saying that the decision to end production of the iconic 2-door SUV was unrelated to the notoriety from the chase, Ford replaced it with the full-size 4-door Expedition to compete with similar larger SUVs from Chevrolet and GMC.

The Bronco was relegated to used car lots until Ford resurrected the Bronco nameplate last year with a 2- and 4-door midsize version and a smaller, 4-door ute dubbed Bronco Sport. Both offer off-roading capability in an attractive package equally at home on pavement. This review is based on the Badlands edition of the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport. The bigger Bronco has been beset with production problems including pandemic issues and the chip shortage and is just reaching showrooms.

Built on the same platform as the Ford Escape, the Bronco Sport comes in five trim levels including a limited production First Edition model. Though all Bronco Sports feature 4X4 drive, the Badlands is fitted with more off-roading capability than the less expensive Base, Big Bend, and Outer Banks models.

Along with the First Edition, the Badlands gets the larger of the two engines offered in the Bronco Sport lineup. A 2.0-liter Ecoboost 4-cylinder engine puts out 250 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque for the Bronco Sport Badlands over the 181/190 available in the 1.5-liter 3-cylinder in the lower trims.

That engine is paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission that features various driving modes (Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand, Mud/Ruts and Rock) and paddle shifters. Slipping into 4-wheel mode is as easy as turning a knob on the console.

The larger engine earns fuel ratings of 23 miles-per-gallon city, 28 highway and 26 combined using regular fuel,  which is pretty much the figures that I obtained in a stretch that leaned heavily to highway driving.

The Bronco Sport seems a little more refined version of Jeep’s popular Wrangler, though that probably is unfair to both vehicles. The Bronco Sport handles more smoothly on the highway than the Wranglers I have driven, but the Wrangler may be up to more challenging off-roading extremes like the Rubicon Trail.

The Bronco Sport’s cabin features a lot of plastic finishes, but it has a clean, functional look and is roomy enough (at least up front). It has a very user-friendly infotainment system.

Standard features in the Badlands include an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, rubberized cargo floor and rear seat backs, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, liftgate with liftglass, roof rack, tow hooks, velour floor mats, heated front seats, remote keyless sentry, off-road suspension, and LED headlights, taillights, and fog lights.

Pricing was not included on the spec sheet for my test vehicle, which also included Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 Assist system and the Equipment Group 400a package, but the Bronco Sport Badlands carries a starting MSRP of $32,660. The Base and Big Bend models start under $30,000. The Outer Banks trim starts at $500 less than the Badlands, but you have to live with the less powerful 3-cylinder engine.

What I liked about the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport: It cruises well on the highway and delivers good gas mileage while still packing a punch. Adaptive cruise control works well. The Sync 3 infotainment system is very user friendly except for an issue noted below. You can use small knobs to tune the radio and other larger knobs to manually adjust the A/Cl. The cargo area is spacious (32.5 cubic feet with seats in place, 65.2 with the second row folded) and features nooks on either side where you can put smaller bottles to keep them from rolling around, though I would appreciate at least one big enough to accommodate a gallon milk container.

What I didn’t like about the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport: The map for the navigation screen kind of “whites out” and it can be difficult to see the lines denoting some of the neighborhood streets (not the main roads). I also had an issue trying to enter an address via the voice command, but inputting it on the touchscreen was a snap. Not much legroom for passengers in the second row.

— Paul Borden