First Ride

First ride: 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport go off-roading, show Jeep-fighter credentials

The Ford Bronco got its first test in front of the media during an off-roading day last week.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Sculptor Frederic Remington captured the Wild West like no other. His 1895 bronze sculpture “The Bronco Buster" features a cowboy fighting to stay aboard a rearing bronco, with a stirrup swinging free, holding on by the reins for dear life. It looks like a heck of a ride and so is the new family of Ford Broncos.

The 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport are on the way and one of the things the company is trying to emphasize is that it's nicer to drive than the competition while being just as – if not more – capable. They've tamed the Bronco to be more approachable, or at least that's the theory. With the new trucks going on sale soon and reservations pouring in, the question is this: Did they succeed?

2021 Ford BroncoThe Bronco was driven across a variety of terrain.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

While the public hasn't had a chance to drive them yet, Ford did invite some journalists to the Holly Oaks ORV Park in Michigan to ride in the new four-door Bronco, two-door Bronco, and Bronco Sport. However, they assigned seats so only experiencing two of the three was how it shook out. The complicated courses featured dirt, sand, rocks, and even a water crossing - experiences true off-roading enthusiasts can appreciate.

Here's what I learned.

2021 Ford Bronco

The two-door Bronco feels bigger on the inside than the similarly-proportioned Jeep Wrangler. You don't sit as close shoulder-to-shoulder to the passenger as you do in the Jeep. This proved especially beneficial when I was being bounced around the cabin along the high-speed sections of the course.

The 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine feels plenty potent – this author likes this motor in nearly everything he's driven with it – and the seven-speed manual transmission seems to be geared for the best performance off the tarmac. The Ford employee driver briefly demonstrated the crawler gear on some rough terrain, and it's pretty cool. Most people still would likely prefer the automatic, but the manual does seem to offer quite a bit of control (and the best crawl ratio of the Bronco lineup).

2021 Ford BroncoBronco offers an impressive amount of water fording capability and most models offer a floor with drains.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The independent front suspension of the Bronco handles the bumps better than the Wrangler's solid front axle. Granted, Ford designed this course, but there was nothing that seemed to flummox the capability of the Bronco and the course seemed reasonably challenging. We didn't ride on the road, but the improved off-road ride quality will surely equate to a better on-road experience.

The other impressive demo showcased during the event was the SUV's disconnecting front sway bar. It's hydraulically controlled, meaning that it can work under load. So, if you're up on an obstacle and realize you should've disconnected the sway bar, you can do it on the fly.

Until we can put it back-to-back against the Jeep Wrangler, it's hard to say which'll perform better, but under the controlled environment that Ford let us ride in, the Bronco appears to be as capable as it needs to be to directly compete.

2021 Ford BroncoThe Ford Bronco is as capable as it needs to be to compete against the Jeep Wrangler.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

The surprise delight of the day was the Bronco Sport. While it technically shares a platform with the 2020 Ford Escape, it's nearly completely different inside and out.

High speed through sand, the Bronco Sport slides around like it's a rear-drive-biased AWD system. It's difficult to feel the economy-crossover underpinnings. Power delivery felt consistent from the 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-banger and the twin-clutch rear drive unit splits power, shifting it from the rear to the wheel that needs it the most at any given moment.

While we didn't get a chance to experience it on-road, there's no reason to think the Bronco Sport wouldn't ride as nicely as the Escape does, though the off-road focused tires might be a tad bit noisier.

2021 Ford Bronco SportThe Ford Bronco Sport is surprisingly capable.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

When tackling some tough off-road trails, the Bronco Sport feels like it is more capable than a Jeep Renegade or the slightly larger Jeep Cherokee in Trailhawk trims. Ultimately, they'll also need to be tested back to back to verify, but the new Bronco Sport is not the joke many on the internet seem to think it is.

The biggest takeaway from the day is that Ford put time and effort into developing both the new Bronco and the Bronco Sport. Instead of just putting in what they think customers would want, they spent the time going where the potential customers are and seeing how they use their vehicles. It seems like, based on this initial taste, they're on the right track.

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The Ascent got updated styling and fresh tech.

Subaru

Subaru's lineup is full of useful, adventure-ready vehicles, but most are not accommodating for full-size families. The Ascent solved that issue for the automaker a few years ago, and has been a popular family option since. It got a mild update for 2023 with a facelift and new tech. The Ascent comes in five trims: Base, Premium, Onyx Edition, Limited, and Touring. It's expected to go on sale in fall 2022.

The Subaru comes with a new front fascia design that adds a new grille and aggressive styling up front. Lower air ducts help improve aerodynamics, and in higher trims the components come with chrome trim. The SUV's C-shaped taillights got a refresh as well, and now feature a sharper shape to better match the vehicle's overall styling.

2023 Subaru AscentThe new front fascia design is more aggressive than before. Subaru

The Ascent's powertrain remains in place, which is a turbocharged 2.54-liter four-cylinder making 260 horsepower. It sends power to all four wheels through a continuously variable transmission that offers a simulated eight-speed manual shifting mode. Subaru's X-Mode driving mode comes standard, which alters throttle response and other vehicle behavior to maintain traction in slippery conditions. Torque vectoring, which allows the vehicle to shift torque between wheels that need it most, also comes standard.

A new Onyx Edition trim joins the Ascent line for 2022. It brings a standard 11.6-inch touchscreen with navigation, a Harman Kardon sound system, power seats, and a panoramic sunroof. The base Ascent comes with features such as 18-inch wheels, USB inputs, tri-zone automatic climate controls, three rows of seating, and a whopping 19 cupholders. Subaru also offers an optional Cabin Connect system, which allows the driver or front passenger to communicate to people behind them through the stereo using a front-cabin-mounted microphone.

2023 Subaru AscentThe Ascent's interior is available with great tech, such as an 11.6-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Subaru

Subaru EyeSight safety equipment comes standard with every Ascent. The system is improved for 2023 with a wider field of vision and new software. A new wide-angle camera joins EyeSight's existing two-camera setup to provide better pedestrian and cyclist detection when approaching intersections. Blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, and lane change assist are available.

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The 2023 Crosstrek starts at $23,645.

Subaru

Subaru is one of the best at listening to its customers' needs, and the Crosstrek is a great example of that mindset. It's a useful vehicle with plenty of interior space and enough ground clearance to take its passengers well of the beaten path. Today, Subaru announced pricing for the 2023 Crosstrek and Crosstrek Hybrid. The duo will go on sale this summer.

Subaru CrosstrekThe Crosstrek's cabin is adventure-ready and packed with great tech. Subaru

The standard Crosstrek starts at $23,645 before destination and the Crosstrek Hybrid starts at $36,845. Five trims are available for the standard model, including Base, Premium, a new Special Edition, Sport, and Limited. The Hybrid comes in a single trim level. All Crosstrek variants get all-wheel drive with active torque vectoring and 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

The Base, Premium, and Special Edition trims come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 152 horsepower. The Sport and Limited trims get a 2.5-liter four-cylinder making 182 horsepower. Most models come with a continuously variable transmission, but the Base and Premium trims come standard with a six-speed manual gearbox. The Crosstrek Hybrid comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired with two electric motors. The plug-in system can deliver 17 miles of electric range.

Subaru CrosstrekThe Crosstrek delivers 8.7 inches of ground clearance.Subaru

True to Subaru form, the Crosstrek comes with a full suite of advanced driver aids, including automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, lane departure alerts, adaptive cruise, and more. These features are only available for CVT-equipped models. The Limited trim and the Crosstrek Hybrid add automatic high beams, reverse automatic braking, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alerts.

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