2021 Ford Bronco Sport is a small but mighty off-road SUV
While the so-called "Baby Bronco" shares a lot with Ford's Escape, you'd never know it. The Sport promises legit off-road chops for outdoor adventurers.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Today, there's no more overcrowded a new-vehicle segment than today's small crossover SUV marketplace. These things are all but compulsory with new driver's licenses. These soft-roader models are actually quite adept at the daily grind, but very few stand out, and precious fewer still bring a speck of emotion or fun to the table. Ford's product planners seem to understand this. As proof, you're looking at the second part of the company's two-model strategy to stand out in this sea of sameness. This is the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport, the unibody kid brother to the square-jawed big Bronco, which also debuted on Monday.
Regardless of this model's nameplate ties to Ford's new 4x4 bruiser, the new Bronco Sport actually shares most of its DNA with the latest Escape. The latter is part one of the Dearborn company's two-pronged attack on the small SUV segment. While the Escape features a streamlined, city-slicker vibe, this Bronco Sport pays significantly more than lip service to weekend adventuring off the beaten path, and in doing so, it endeavors to make a claim to Ford's legendary Bronco name.
This SUV's inner off-road spirit is ably conveyed by the model's purposeful looks. Like its brawnier big sibling, the Bronco Sport features a simple, historically aware front graphic with one-piece grille, round headlamps, peaked fenders and clean bodysides that use a modest swage line to break up the surfacing. A stepped roofline not only helps provide better rear-seat headroom (while giving off '90s Land Rover Freelander vibes), it also allows for two mountain bikes to fit inside with the rear seats flopped down. You'll need to take off the front wheel, but an available factory-authorized Yakima rack will let you lock your pricy two-wheelers away safely in the cargo hold instead of lashing them to the roof.
Watch this: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is an awesome basecamp
Bronco Sport is basecamp ready
In fact, the cargo area seems like one of the Bronco Sport's most creative and unique spaces. There are available LED spotlights in the liftgate (which itself includes flip-out glass), along with towel-bar-like handles for drying gear. There's a 400-watt power inverter available and a bottle opener, making Bronco Sport a perfect hub for camping. The pièce de résistance? An adjustable, multilevel load floor with a slide-out table provision. It's clever stuff.
What's more, Ford worked with the aftermarket to launch the 2021 Bronco Sport with upward of 100 accessories, and the automaker itself will offer bundled accessory packages centered around four outdoorsy themes, including Biking, Snow, Water and Camping.
As for the rest of the cabin, it's pretty typical stuff, although the dashboard is nicely differentiated from the sleeker Escape, with its own form. Other thoughtful touches include rear under-seat storage and an available Molle strap system on the front seatbacks for securing things like flashlights and pouches.
Given its shared roots with the resolutely street-minded Escape, it'd be easy to be cynical about the Bronco Sport's potential chops in the rough stuff, but this model's spec sheet provides ample reason for encouragement. Plus, there are loads of clever features geared toward the actively lifestyled buyers every automaker eyes as their target market.
Make no mistake -- just as the new big Bronco has its sights set squarely on the Wrangler, this Bronco Sport is staring down others in the Jeep family. Measuring 172.7 inches long and riding on a 105.7-inch wheelbase, the Sport is most similar in size to the Compass, but it'll also likely be cross-shopped against the larger Cherokee and even the diminutive Renegade. Other models like the popular Subaru Crosstrek will also likely figure into the conversation.
2021 Ford Bronco Sport Specs
Ford Bronco Sport
1.5-liter turbo I3
2.0-liter turbo I4
2,200 pounds (max)
AWD and turbos come standard on Sport
The first reason for optimism? Mandatory all-wheel drive. (Admittedly, Ford is marketing the Sport as four-wheel drive, but the hardware isn't quite that hardcore.) The second? Powertrain strength. The base, turbocharged 1.5-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder brings a class-competitive but unremarkable 181 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque to the table. But it's the uplevel 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo that's more interesting, providing an estimated 245 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. In the Escape, that engine is good for a quick 0-to-60-mph time of under 6 seconds, and the Bronco Sport figures to be similar, albeit potentially a smidge slower owing to its more off-road-oriented tires, blockier aerodynamics and presumably heavier curb weight.
While all Sport models come paired exclusively with an eight-speed automatic, the larger engine is offered with auxiliary transmission and rear-drive coolers for heavier-duty work, plus a set of paddle shifters. Speaking of that rear drive hardware, Ford is offering a twin-clutch unit derived from its rally-ready Focus RS that offers torque vectoring and full lockup capability.
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Bronco Sport has optional G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Terrain) Modes
The Bronco Sport range's wheels, tires and suspension are no less auspicious. Yes, there are a predictable range of trims geared toward little more than the occasional gravel road or muddy music-festival parking lot. But more focused models like the Badlands series wear large-for-the-class 28.5-inch all-terrain rubber, and the limited-production First Edition rolls with 29-inch off-road tires.
The Bronco Sport also features substantial ground clearance -- up to 8.8 inches -- a figure that eclipses the segment's current roughneck, the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, by an I'm-sure-it's-just-coincidence 0.1 inch. Max suspension travel is listed at 7.4 inches up front and 8.1 out back, and Ford says the Sport can wade through nearly 2 feet of water, another class-leading figure.
Like the new body-on-frame Bronco, the Sport also receives the Blue Oval's latest Terrain Management System with up to seven different G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Terrain) Modes, software settings that gird the driveline and steering for different surfaces and situations. Those usage cases include Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, Sand, Mud and Ruts and Rock Crawl (the latter two are reserved for the Badlands and First Edition trims). Trail Control is also available, essentially low-speed, off-road cruise control.
All-in, the Bronco Sport appears to be far more capable than what you'd expect out of a typical crossover SUV.
Ford Escape beats Bronco Sport on towing
One area where the Bronco Sport disappoints somewhat? Towing capacity. It's limited to between 2,000 and 2,200 pounds, depending on trim. That's class-competitive, but it's also a significant haircut from the Escape, which can be configured to tow up to 3,500 pounds.
Max payload is limited to a modest 1,000 pounds (estimated).
Sport gets Sync 3 infotainment, not Sync 4
The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport comes with Sync 3 infotainment running on an 8-inch touchscreen. The system features standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, along with a 4G-LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, Alexa voice control and SiriusXM satellite radio.
It's somewhat unfortunate that the Sport doesn't get the newer, much-more-powerful Sync 4 hardware found on the big Bronco. The latter adds a slew of game-changing features including bumper-to-bumper over-the-air updates and wireless smartphone mirroring, all useful stuff.
Co-Pilot 360 safety tech comes standard with optional Assist Plus
In terms of advanced driver assist systems (ADAS), the Bronco Sport's Co-Pilot 360 suite packs standard automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection along with forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist and auto high-beam headlamps. The optional Co-Pilot 360 Assist Plus pack adds full-on adaptive cruise control with lane centering bundled with built-in navigation.
Said another way, there's loads of safety gear both standard and on offer, too.
Will enough car buyers want the Bronco Sport?
Thanks to Ford's move to quarterly sales reporting and COVID-19, it's far too early to tell how successful this strategy is working out, even just for the Escape, but after crawling around this 2021 Bronco Sport in person, I'm newly optimistic. The Sport seems to have the attitude, the cleverness and the substance to not only go fender-to-fender with offerings from Jeep and Subaru, it looks like it has the goods to stand out in that crowd, too.
This is all great news, because for me, the Sport's allure was hardly a foregone conclusion, especially given some of Ford's recent SUV efforts. The company's sixth-generation Explorer suffered a glitch-prone launch and the vehicle itself has proven to be rather forgettable. (And frankly, the less said about the charmless and spectacularly misnamed EcoSport the better.)
Slated to be build in Hermosillo, Mexico, the 2021 Bronco Sport is due later this year. Ford has opened up its reservation books for the model, right alongside its body-on-frame sibling. While this "baby Bronco" will undoubtedly live in the shadow of its showstopping, burly brother, this ruggedized and practical funster looks like it'll earn its own share of the spotlight, too.