The Ford Bronco is legendary. On pavement, every so often a car comes along that advances the automotive world and sets a benchmark for all who come after it. Off-road, those benchmarks are few and far between. The Bronco? A benchmark for both.
In the 1960s, frivolity reigned supreme. The Mustang ruled the main drag of every city, packing parlors and wooing women. Off-road, Jeeps, repurposed from WWII, bounced giddy gals and their maverick men across the romantic, desolate wilderness. Ford wanted in on the budding pastime and knew they could use their existing expertise to bring together the best of both worlds. And so, the world’s first “off-road sportscar,” made to be comfortable both on and off-road, the Ford Bronco was born.
Prior to production, Ford internally stamped the Bronco project with the acronym G.O.A.T. - Goes Over All Terrain. Little did they know that this driving ethos would turn the Bronco into a vehicle that many consider another kind of GOAT.
Take off the doors, put on that seatbelt, and let’s head off-road to discover what made the Bronco so legendary and why for many “Greatest Of All Time” is a fitting title.
Development & History
Ford and legendary leader Lee Iacocca launched the 1966 Bronco ready to conquer a gap in the market for a vehicle that was comfortable in suburbia and in Moab. The first generation stunned with its off-road capability thanks to a body on frame chassis and 4WD. Up front, coil springs replaced leaf springs for increased travel off-road (read: can go over bigger rocks) , and a smoother ride on the road. This, of course, was the Broncos claim to fame. Some called it an MPV - multi purpose vehicle, while others the first SUV - Sport Utility Vehicle in case you forgot. Whatever the name, it nailed it. Offered initially as either a roadster, half-cab, or wagon, Broncos were soon flying down the streets of the 60s. While the iconic design was simplistic for a reason - to keep costs down - Ford offered compelling optional upgrades including swapping the 105 hp inline-6 for a 200 hp V-8.
An entirely different article could be written about the impact of this first generation (search Ford Bronco 60s racing) but we must conquer the path ahead.
The second generation, released in 1978, had initially been designed to take back the ground lost to the SUVs of the other Big Three manufacturers. The biggest change of this generation was the loss of a standalone Bronco platform with the SUV being now built on the longer F-series chassis. It also now was only offered with two different V-8 engines, which, thanks to the 1973 oil crisis, meant the 2nd generation was delayed from its intended 1974 release.
Not that we want to gloss over any part of this iconic vehicle’s history, but the third generation does not provide much to be inspired about. Cost saving efforts meant that the 1980 Bronco was new, but quite familiar thanks to parts sharing with Ford’s pickup trucks. The return of a standard inline 6 was said to be for economical reasons, but it was hard not to get that gut feeling that the G.O.A.T. moniker was collecting dust in a broom closet at Ford’s headquarters.
Though Bronco sales were increasing, it was likely only due to population increase and the demand for 4WD vehicles. The less-than-impressive fourth generation caught the tail end of the 80s and is notable only for introducing anti-lock brakes and standard skid plates for the transfer case (because it’s still an SUV that should go off-road, remember).
Released in 1992, the fifth generation received updated 90s styling, a few more safety upgrades, and most annoyingly the inability to remove the hardtop for legal safety reasons. This was a big dent in the versatility of the Bronco. These factors, combined with one iconic drive across an LA highway by OJ Simpson, meant 1996 would be the Bronco’s last. Despite being watered down like childhood Kool-Aid since its inception, the Bronco had cemented itself as an icon, its discontinuation only fueling its popularity. A 2004 teased concept stoked the fire until in 2017, Ford confirmed the return of the GOAT. The new, 6th generation Ford Bronco is undeniably the magnificent flight of a phoenix, rising from the ashes of the 5th generation’s mediocrity.
Unveiled in July of 2020, the 2021 Bronco did what the original had done. It turned heads, caused a stir, and filled a hole in the automotive world’s heart that had been empty since the original Bronco had been discontinued. Ford again offered different options with the two-door and four-door variants, as well as a unibody sport option for all the urban enthusiasts whose pandemic-induced reflection kindled a desire for adventure (yes, it’s in italics for a reason, but we digress).
Countless details like removable doors, removable roof panels that can be stowed in the trunk, the modern take on the iconic round headlights, and of course the overall retro styling make this phoenix a beautiful sight. The Bronco is back and if pre-orders stretching years into the future are an indication, it is here to stay.
While we could spend all day geeking out at all the little details that Ford packed in to make the Bronco a hit, we first have to pop the hood and take a look at the beating heart of this stallion. For the first model year, Ford is offering a choice of two of their famed EcoBoost engines. Talk to any F150, Mustang, or Focus RS owner and they’ll tell you that these EcoBoost engines punch well above their pay grade.
2.3 L 4-cylinder EcoBoost
The smaller of the two engines in the Ford Bronco is the 4-cylinder EcoBoost. This 2.3 Liter engine makes a hefty 270 horsepower - or 300 if using premium fuel, which Ford points out is best in class. The 325 lb. ft. of torque will push any of the four wheels over any terrain on the way to freedom.
We have yet to compare the new Bronco to its nemesis, Jeep’s iconic Wrangler, and here is the perfect opportunity. Apart from the 3.0 L EcoDiesel, none of the Wrangler’s engine options offer 300 horsepower or torque. It’s also only on this engine option that Bronco owners can opt for a 7-speed manual. Well done by Ford on that one to win over die-hard fans.
2.7 L 6-cylinder EcoBoost
While the V-6 loses the option for a manual transmission, solely offering the 10-speed automatic, it does so to ensure all 315 horsepower - or 330 with premium fuel - can be released into all four wheels without a hitch. The turbocharged V-6 also boasts a massive 415 lb. ft. of torque. If you’re truly planning on heading into the wilderness with your Bronco, this is the one to have.
The majority of buyers will trust Ford’s 10-speed automatic to take them anywhere as it offers impressive low gears to keep you in the engine’s power band, offering needed torque as frequently as possible. For those opting for a manual in 2021, Ford’s reward is a dedicated crawler gear, which offers the best-in-class 94.7:1 crawl ratio.
The chassis is where Ford has truly gone to town and captured the essence of the original Bronco. Built once more as a body on frame chassis, the Bronco is ready to Go Over Any Terrain.
With independent front suspension and a rear five-link coil over suspension connected to a solid axle, Ford gave the people what they wanted. They call both systems HOSS - High-Performance, Off-Road, Stability, Suspension (the hyphens really save that acronym, HPORSS is less cool-sounding than HOSS). Upgrade to the Sasquatch Package and you get Bilstein Position-Sensitive Dampers for added capability.
To keep you in full control, the Bronco includes 16-inch disc brakes with single-piston calipers, ABS, and electric park functionality, with the front rotors being vented. Traction assist with Roll Stability Control will ensure novices and experts alike don’t make headlines after an embarrassing error in judgment.
Every Bronco comes standard with a two-speed electronic transfer case, controlled via the infamous G.O.A.T. Mode selector protruding from the middle of the dash with pride. While it looks cooler on the Bronco than on most vehicles, the modes are fairly standard. The 4H (four-high) and 4L (four-low) modes mechanically lock the differential for increased torque, 2H enables non-trail comfort and simplicity, while neutral allows for flat towing. In the upgraded Sasquatch package, an electromechanical transfer case offers on-demand engagement to select between modes as well as 4A mode where power is continuously varied to the front wheels to increase performance on the road.
Built to go off-road, the Bronco boasts an entire 11.5 inches of ground clearance when on 35-inch tires (again, the Sasquatch package). It offers a 43.2 degree entry angle, 29 degree break-over angle, and 37 degree departure angle.
If you were wondering, that’s right on par with the Jeep Wrangler both in two and four-door configurations; the Bronco edges out the Wrangler on ground clearance.
Impact On The Modern SUV
Most vehicles become legends after being discontinued, their allure adding to the legend. Already a legend, the Bronco returns a hero before it has even hit showrooms, sold out for years to come. It has touched on the nostalgia for a time heralded for peace and prosperity, captured a yearning for adventure when many are looking for escape, and thrown down a new benchmark for all SUVs to come.
Modern SUVs have watered down the meaning of Sport Utility Vehicle, reducing sport to the occasional drive across unlevel grass on the way to a picnic and minimizing utility to more about the number of golf clubs or bottles of champagne and party balloons that can fit in the back (…but with the seat up. Yay utility!). Long gone is the idea that the design behind these vehicles is actually built to go off-road. The Bronco is not here to play that game.
Ford, as they did in the 60s, created an SUV that is truly ready to go over any terrain. Can it and will it often be relegated to suburban parking lots, wide driveways, and posturing middle-aged men? Probably. However, like in 1966, the Bronco is purpose-built to handle those mundane, unchallenging tasks with style while also taking on some of the toughest terrain on the planet. It’s a bold statement in the midst of the drab uniformity of today’s SUV lineup.
So where do we go from here? The Bronco has laid down a challenge and it’s worked. The world has noticed. The last time that happened, it meant Chevrolet, Dodge, and others couldn’t resist building competitors, leading to an off-road revolution. Fingers crossed it happens again.
Leading the charge, the Bronco reminds us that freedom is out there and it’s our choice as to whether we watch others take hold of it or if we join in, it’s up to us whether we go anywhere. The Bronco is ready and waiting - Long Live The GOAT.