Fun Stuff

The Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Is Actually a Gremlin

Photos Brendan McAleer, AMC, Christopher Ziemnowicz

With its white roof, white grille with red lettering, and white 17-inch wheels, the Heritage Edition of the Ford Bronco Sport is all about hearkening back to its original 1966 ancestor. Which, it needs to be said, it’s not really related to. Instead, and possibly to the chagrin of Ford’s marketing department, I’d like to suggest that this cute little crossover has inherited the spirit of a misremembered icon of the 1970s: the AMC Gremlin.

First, let’s take a closer look at the Bronco Sport’s birth certificate. In a happy coincidence, I was able to park this Sport next to a full-size Bronco, and any family resemblance was faint. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito from the 1988 movie Twins – and the Bronco Sport is most definitely Danny.

Underneath the rough-and-tumble looks, the Bronco Sport is actually a Ford Escape wearing cargo shorts and hiking shoes. It shares its unibody chassis with the Maverick and the Escape, and it has the same 1.5L turbocharged three-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission as the entry-level Escape.

This is no bad thing: both the Bronco Sport and Maverick are great vehicles because they take the refinement of a mainstream crossover and sprinkle it with a little personality. Here, with the Heritage Edition, it’s a chunky little trucklet that drives with perfect competence on tarmac, while giving off the impression that it would be perfectly happy driving up the side of the mountain. It’s the offroader version of athleisure wear, and people love it.

A lot of the appeal here comes down to the Robin’s Egg Blue paintwork, and how it contrasts with the white Heritage accents. Complete with the looping “Bronco” script pinstripe down the side, this crossover looks like it just drove off the set of the new Barbie movie. Kids love it – it’s unrepentantly cutesy, fun, and functional in a way few off-road-oriented vehicles are. The Bronco Sport is no bro-dozer, it’s a Ken accessory.

Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz

Before we open the Sport’s doors and get a look at the interior, it’s time for a little historical revisionism. Or rather, to set the record straight about a car everyone loves to hate on. Any time there’s a list of the “50 Worst Cars Ever,” there are always a few pot-shots taken at the homely little AMC Gremlin. I mean, they called it the Gremlin and it was launched on April 1st. Doesn’t it deserve the derision?

Nope. Picture the average car on the road in the early 1970s when the Gremlin first arrived on the scene. What, were people praising the Pinto? Venerating the Vega? Small cars at the time were functional but hardly exciting, just waiting for Honda to show up with the Civic and eat everyone’s lunch.

But over at AMC, with its bring-a-sack-lunch-from-home R&D budgets, some clever corner cutting was on the way. What if we took the perfectly competent Hornet, cut off the trunk to make a hatchback, and marketed it as “America’s first subcompact?” (Note: There were smaller cars at the time, chiefly British fare, but the marketing department wasn’t about to let facts get in the way of catchy advertising.)

The Gremlin was two inches shorter than the VW Beetle. It had a cute mascot, was praised for its highway stability, and had an inline-six that didn’t make huge power but was happy to loaf along at highway speeds. At least among cars produced domestically, it was one of the most fuel-efficient offerings on the market, and had an option list as long as that of a mid-sized car. Starting in the second year of production, customers could order all sorts of decals and accessories packages.

The most fun of these, introduced in 1973, was the Levi’s package. The ads boasted: “Levi’s Gremlin, with seats of the pants,” and featured beaming folks with oh-so-’70s haircuts. What did you want to do, wear polyester pants and drive an Oldsmobile to work? No, you wanted to throw on your blue jeans and crank up Three Dog Night in your Gremlin.

It was a time when auto manufacturers seemed more willing to take risks. The Gremlin, especially the Levi’s version, was lighthearted and fun and obviously didn’t take itself too seriously. And it was also a massive sales success, with more than 600,000 sold over its production run. The trouble came later in the 1980s, when it was the butt of jokes as a used car turkey of poorly-aging rear-wheel-drive architecture.

Go ahead, now, open the door of the Bronco Sport Heritage, and tell me this crossover isn’t the Levi’s Gremlin of its day. It doesn’t have the copper rivets and buttons of the 1970’s version, but this plaid-patterned blue fabric has a similar feel. It’s a place where you wear blue jeans or hiking pants, not business casual.

Now obviously, the driving dynamics of the two machines can’t really be compared. The Bronco Sport is not just “good enough” in the way the Gremlin was compared to its 1970’s peers. It’s genuinely fun to drive, with the 2.0L turbo variant being really quite quick. This one, with the 1.5L three-cylinder is the ideal machine for an excursion up the Sea-to-Sky highway to hike to a few waterfalls and go tramping around on some forest service roads.

A full-size Bronco would be capable of handling much gnarlier terrain, as would a Jeep Wrangler. However, part of the reason a shopper might choose the Bronco Sport over an Escape (or a Honda CR-V, etc) is not so much that it is capable of bridging the gap between a proper off-roader and a more street-oriented crossover.

You might want a Bronco Sport Heritage because you can look at its friendly face, quirky styling, and throwback accents, and immediately clock its personality. This is a vehicle that is both entirely practical and yet filled with whimsical character, just like the Gremlin was. Time to open up iTunes, download a few Three Dog Night tracks, and hit the open road.