Expert Reviews

2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Drive Review

The Ford Bronco might be one of the most highly anticipated new vehicles of this year, and although the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport isn’t the full Jeep Wrangler competitor off-road enthusiasts are excited for, this opening act doesn’t disappoint.

While I’ve been to concerts where the opener is a dud that no one cares about, this is more like a show I went to – at a time when huge indoor crowds weren’t a cause for concern – where Mariah Carey opened for Lionel Ritchie. While most of the audience was there to see the Commodore, it’s tough to be disappointed by the Songbird Supreme herself.

Not a One-Trick Pony

At that concert, which took place during summer, I kept shouting “SING THE CHRISTMAS SONG! SING ITTTTTT!” Although Mariah Carey clearly didn’t hear me, the person sitting next to me said “She’s a one-trick pony with that Christmas song!” Well, that person was wrong, and Mariah has many hits that I was more than happy to sing along with.

Similarly, the Bronco Sport isn’t as purpose-built as the more hardcore Bronco, but it has a lot to get excited about. Not only does it look cooler than almost anything else in its segment, but it also comes in a variety of trims that tailor the small SUV to different uses.

My brief drive was with most expensive and capable Badlands model, which comes with a front-view camera, all-terrain tires, skid plates, tow hooks, a twin-clutch lockable all-wheel-drive system, an increased 224 mm (8.8 in) of ground clearance, off-road-tuned suspension, and a drive mode select system dubbed Goes Over Any Type of Terrain (GOAT).

Every Bronco Sport sold in Canada comes standard with all-wheel drive and five GOAT modes: sand, slippery, sport, Eco, and normal. With the Badlands trim, rock and mud/ruts settings are added to the repertoire. Admittedly, my brief time with the crossover didn’t include any off-roading, but it would be interesting to see how it would fare against, say, a Subaru Outback or a Jeep Cherokee or Compass. (I doubt many Bronco Sport drivers will be as adventurous as Ford hopes, though it should give them the added confidence they might be seeking.)

First Driving Impressions

Base, Big Bend, and Outer Banks models are powered by a 1.5L turbocharged three-cylinder engine with 181 hp and 190 lb-ft of torque, while the Bronco Sport Badlands gets a 2.0L turbo four-cylinder with 250 hp and 280 lb-ft. On paper, those figures look pretty good, but in practice the Bronco Sport doesn’t feel as robust as the numbers might suggest. Both engines are hooked up to an eight-speed automatic transmission.

With the bigger engine, the Bronco Sport has enough output for most drivers, and there’s enough giddy-up to get to highway speeds in decent time. Throttle response is a bit delayed, however, and a quick passing manoeuvre wasn’t very convincing, which doesn’t bode well for the weaker three-cylinder. Under full throttle, the engine sounded like it was under a lot of stress. A lot of wind noise could also be heard on the highway, but keep in mind that this SUV is shaped a bit like a brick. The knobbier off-road tires on this Badlands model also don’t help with noise levels.

There was one instance in my brief drive where the transmission had a hiccup and felt like it was slipping, but it worked smoothly otherwise. It takes a bit longer than expected to gear down to make a pass, but it feels smooth. The engine stop/start system also works imperceptibly. Then there’s the steering that feels quite loose and provides very little feedback, though that’s a common trait in off-road-focused vehicles.

While I seem to have many complaints about the Bronco Sport’s powertrain, these shortfalls are pretty standard fare for the segment, and this small SUV is perfectly fine to drive because none of those minor issues are deal-breakers. It feels compact, and easy to park and manoeuvre. Visibility is great, and it’s easy to place all four corners of the car, even without a surround-view camera. Where other similar SUVs are offered with top-down parking cameras, the Bronco Sport has a government-mandated reverse camera, and the display looks washed out and low-resolution. All come with a washer for the reverse camera, however – a useful feature in the winter.

Power in Practicality

Where the Bronco Sport shines is with its practical interior, which makes the SUV very easy to live with on a daily basis. Not only is the infotainment system user-friendly and responsive, but the dashboard layout makes sense and is intuitive. There are a ton of places and cubbies to stash your stuff, like hidden storage under the rear seats in the Badlands model, zippered compartments on the seatbacks, a big centre console bin, pockets on the side of each front seat that can fit a phone, and straps and loops on the seatbacks that can be used to secure items while off-roading. The door pockets seem a bit shallow, but they should be able to hold a small water bottle.

While Ford uses a lot of cheap-feeling hard plastics, at least they’ll be easy to clean. Some parts just don’t feel robust, however; like the centre console lid, for example, which feels like it could snap off. I do like Ford’s use of different textures and materials to keep the cabin looking interesting and rugged. In some places where hard plastic is used, it’s textured differently so at least it doesn’t look as cheap, and there are a lot of rubberized touchpoints. The seating surfaces are soft and have an appealing mix of textures and tones to keep things interesting.

Other practical features in this Badlands model include three-prong household electrical outlets in the trunk and second row, a capless fuel filler, an optional table that comes out of the trunk with legs that fold out to sit on the bumper, four grocery bag hooks in the trunk, and the rear glass hatch that opens independently of the trunk. The table’s edge even has a ruler embossed on it, which could come in handy in a variety of situations like fishing. Even though it feels a bit flimsy, I love the fold-out table, mostly because tailgating is how we enjoy most of our meals now, a reality of the pandemic where we can’t eat indoors, but it should also prove useful during camping trips or can even be used as a sort of makeshift workbench, a convenient place to lay out tools while tuning your bike, for example. The table also acts like a cargo management system that you can use to create shelves in the trunk.

It might be a stretch to cram four adults into the Bronco Sport for a day out on the trails. Although there is plenty of headroom for rear passengers carved into the headliner, there isn’t a lot of legroom if there are taller passengers in front. Cargo space clocks in at 1,846 L with the second row folded flat and 906 L in the trunk.

Tech and Features

Base and Big Bend models get a traditional 4.2-inch instrument cluster, but Outer Banks and Badlands models get an upgraded 6.5-inch digital dashboard. All have an eight-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a Wi-Fi hotspot. The Base model is not very well equipped, and doesn’t even come with heated seats or a push-button start, for example.

All Bronco Sport trims come standard with automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping system, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, and automatic high-beams. The upgraded safety and driver assistance package adds adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability and lane-centring, evasive steering assist, and traffic sign recognition. The adaptive cruise control system works really well, feeling natural and progressive, while graphics in the instrument cluster make it very clear to the driver exactly what systems are being used.

Ford is also making a big deal about all the accessories that are available for the Bronco Sport to cater to outdoorsy types like roof tents, awnings, ski/snowboard racks, bike racks, paddleboard carriers, roof baskets, canoe carriers, etc.

Final Thoughts

Cooler than the dorky EcoSport, smaller than the Escape, and more stylish and capable than both, the Ford Bronco Sport seems like a home run for the brand, occupying a sweet spot both in the Ford lineup and the small SUV segment as a whole. Although the powertrain seems a bit unrefined and some of the interior materials feel cheap, the Bronco Sport has more than enough style, personality, and practicality to make up for it. Like Mariah, the Bronco Sport hits those high notes masterfully.

Pricing for the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport starts at $32,199 for the base model, $34,199 for the Big bend, $37,499 for the Outer Banks and $40,199 for the Badlands model. The SUV arrives in early 2021.