CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
This isn't the full-beans Bronco, but rather the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport, a compact unibody crossover meant as a slightly smoother-edged complement to the rough-and-tumble big boy. That might make it seem like it's rife for undesirable compromises, but nope, this blocky little thing lives up to its name, and then some.
No matter where I go, everyone knows what I'm driving. Then again, it's probably not because everybody has been clamoring for Broncos since the 2017 Detroit Auto Show, but rather because the thing says "BRONCO" in big-ass bold typeface across the grille and again on the trunk. Yes, there are some physical similarities between the Sport and the big-boy Bronco, largely around the grille area and in its rectilinear silhouette, but the Bronco Sport does an excellent job as a standalone vehicle. You'll never know it shares some of its underpinnings with the equally compact Escape.
This specific Bronco Sport is the Badlands model, the second-most expensive trim under the First Edition. It's also the one meant to best express the Bronco Sport's off-road aspirations, thanks to extraneous bits like metal bash plates, unique 17-inch alloy wheels and slightly knobby Pirelli Scorpion ATR all-terrain tires. Throw in an extra inch or so of ground clearance -- also part of the Badlands upgrade -- and you've got a crossover that's about the size of a Jeep Compass, except a bit taller and way cooler looking.
The Bronco Sport Badlands' whole, "Yep, you can really do whatever you want with this thing" attitude continues inside. The overall design mimics the exterior's style through a whole bunch of straight lines and blocky outcroppings, in addition to some cowboy-cosplay brown elements that make their way from the dashboard to the two-tone leather seats. Hell, even the steering wheel eschews the big Blue Oval in favor of the Bronco badge; you could teach an entire semester of Marketing 201 using just this car. The only thing that feels out of place is the dial-style shifter, which doesn't really scream ruggedness compared to a big, bulky shift lever. The Badlands trim, dirt-friendly as it is, also sports a rubberized floor covering that will be much easier to clean than the traditional carpet, even if it looks a little GM-in-the-opposite-of-its-prime cheap. It's hard to zhush up rubber, I get it.
As you might expect, there's a lot of function to be found alongside the Bronco Sport's form. The upright body means front-row visibility is excellent, as is rear-seat headroom. Legroom for my lanky 6-foot self is ample for a compact crossover, too. The door-card pockets are surprisingly small, but there's a useful shelf under the infotainment screen, with a cubby underneath containing an optional wireless device charger and enough space for a wallet and a mask. Additional hidey-holes under the armrest and the back seats offer even more storage. Heck, even the cargo hold gets in on the function action with about 30 cubic feet of storage space that can fit a 400-watt power inverter and a slide-out table. The rear hatch's glass can open on its own, too. Fold down the rear seats and you should be able to fit two mountain bikes in the back, easy peasy.
The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is just as happy on a suburban driveway as it is in the dirt, although the Badlands trim does bump the needle a little toward the latter. The suspension is a bit stiffer in this spec, in part to make up for a slightly heftier engine, leading to a ride that's firmer in normal use, although I don't think it's such a wild departure that owners will find it makes that much of a difference; it just means some of the sharper freeway expansion joints make their presence known in the cabin, that's all. By and large, the Bronco Sport Badlands is still properly composed in daily driving.
While most Bronco Sport trims make do with a 1.5-liter turbochargedinline-3, the Badlands ramps it up with a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 producing a meaty 250 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. Coursing through an eight-speed automatic to all four wheels, I never have a shortage of motive force under my right foot. Nobody's going to carve corners in this thing, but the acceleration is exciting for a vehicle of its size, and the powertrain is happy to dole it out all the time, and smoothly. Combined with standard all-wheel drive, though, the crossover can get a little thirsty, with an EPA-estimated fuel economy of just 21 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway. If you want a little more thrift, the less powerful 1.5-liter reaches 25 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
Last year, I had the opportunity to ride shotgun in a Bronco Sport through southeast Michigan's Holly Oaks ORV Park, and I walked away impressed. Wearing optional Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires, which are better in the dirt than the standard Scorpions, the Bronco Sport cruised up and over sandy includes and through muddy ruts with nary a peep from the suspension or underbody. You're not going to traverse the whole of Moab in this thing, but for folks who appreciate a weekend trip into the rough stuff, the Bronco Sport Badlands provides more than enough capability for it.
For a crossover that starts at about $34,000 including destination, the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands packs a solid amount of technology, whether it's for comfort or capability. In addition to function-forward stuff like a front-facing camera, four USB ports (one Type-A and one Type-C per row) and a heated power driver's seat, my tester sports the $2,595 Badlands Package, which adds a power passenger seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, remote start, backup sensors, a heated steering wheel and a 10-speaker B&O sound system.
But even the Bronco Sport's $28,000-ish base trim packs an 8-inch touchscreen running Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system. It's a solid, straightforward interface that is responsive and includes standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Its complement of safety systems is equally impressive, with all trims receiving blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist. Throwing down another $795 bestows my tester with adaptive cruise control, embedded navigation and traffic sign recognition. Combine the two aforementioned packages together and you get a well-equipped Bronco Badlands for $37,545 including destination -- not a bad shake, and it slides under the average price paid for a new car in the past year.
When it comes to the Bronco Sport's competition, there's a whole bunch of it, and the Ford isn't always the clear champion. While adventure gear aplenty may fit behind the second row, the Bronco Sport Badlands lags behind several cars in terms of net cargo capacity, including the Subaru Forester, Nissan Rogue and even its platform-sibling Ford Escape. Many of its competitors are able to break the 30-mpg-highway barrier, too, which the Bronco Sport barely musters with the smaller three-cylinder engine. And while the 2.0-liter Bronco Sport can tow a decent 2,200 pounds, it comes up 1,300 pounds short against the Chevy Equinox, Toyota RAV4 and, again, the Ford Escape.
But numbers on paper rarely tell the whole story. When you consider everything from dual-purpose capability to aesthetics, it's clear that the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport has carved out a hell of a niche for itself, one that I believe will resonate with buyers who want some Bronco-based street cred without going HAM on the truck-based big-boy model. This small SUV has been a long time coming, and it absolutely feels like it was worth the wait.