Road Trip

High-tech tuning makes the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport more off-road competent than expected

The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands is one of the most capable compact SUVs you can buy.

Photo by Sue Mead

Comfortable, capable, and composed. Inspired confidence. Loves to play in the dirt! Either you're reading my report card from elementary school or a tale of more than 500 miles behind the wheel of the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands. The journey took a small group of journalists from Los Angeles, California to Lone Pine and back to L.A. via a sand dunes playground and along a 40-mile-long challenging off-road trail on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park.

Once outside the L.A. metro, it became clear that this all-new sport ute's breadth of competences was impressive, though somewhat expected. Ford wasn't just going to slap the Bronco name on a traditional crossover and call it a day. The company put this smaller four-door SUV through durability testing parallel to its bigger, more-off-road-skilled sibling, the 2021 Ford Bronco, evaluating it over almost all of the same low-speed crawling and high-speed thrashing exercises in Johnson Valley and the Anza-Borrego desert.

The point is this: the Bronco Sport has 'real-world' toughness and a collection of segment-best off-road talents, despite its junior role in the stable. The 'Built Wild' test steed was the Badlands model (one of five model choices) bolstered by specialized engineering and off-road proficiencies to enhance the standard four-wheel drive that comes on all Bronco Sport trims that carry forward the heritage G.O.A.T. (goes over any terrain) moniker.

Driving northward from L.A., I had the opportunity to check the boxes for comfort, technology and driving dynamics. The Sports' brick-like exterior styling is smartly-executed and carries forward Bronco's design DNA and gives an immediate impression of its off-the-pavement mission, penned with a high stance and chiseled angles of approach and departure, as well as the hint of its four underbelly skid plates.

For its price-point (this model starts at $32,600), I was impressed with the collection of infotainment and navigational technologies, safety features, and ergonomics. Elbow room abounds in the five-seater that wears interior cues that speak more to rough and rugged than premium accoutrements while the high safari-style roof sets the stage for an open and airy feel to the cockpit.

Traveling a highway speeds, I was impressed with the ample and on-demand power derived from the Bronco Sport's 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine that motivates with 245 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque and the integration of the eight-speed transmission that brings seamless up-and-down shifts. I also appreciated the fully-independent suspension that provided just the right balance of supple ride and responsive handling as I sliced with ease through bustling traffic putting the Bronco's Sport's electric power steering to the test. My only complaint was wanting a tad more braking power at the top of the pedal to slow the nearly two-ton SUV.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands The Bronco Sport rose to the challenge of desert dunes.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Along our journey, a highway closure south of Lone Pine, due to the crash of an Air Force jet near the main roadway, forced our group to deviate on a dirt-road bypass. The group traveled along the track with corrugated washboard, with divots and holes that dotted the road for a significant swath. For us, it was the perfect first test to check out the Bronco Sport's manners and ride comfort in an everyday, unplanned experience. The SUV soaked up the bumps and didn't stray from its intended path, even on loose dirt with pebbles.

Our first authentic off-road experience took us to the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, where we were able to motor up and over tall dunes, drive in deep sand, and perform high-speed maneuvers on a test track that Ford carved out in this desert area. As an experienced off-road racer that has navigated thousands of miles of dunes fields around the world, I was enamored with the Bronco Sport's traction capabilities. Its talents are derived from an advanced 4x4 system with a class-exclusive twin-clutch rear-drive unit that has a differential lock feature. This pairs with the SUV's Terrain Management System, which features up to seven G.O.A.T. Modes: standard modes include Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand; Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl are available on Badlands and First Edition versions.

Next up was a full-day of off-roading to check out more of the Sport's talents. The Swansea-Cerro Gordo OHV Route is a 34.7-mile loop trail located near Lone Pine that offers moderate off-road tracks and travels to an elevation of more than 8,000 ft., with views of Mt. Whitney and Death Valley. Our route along the Cerro Gordo Trail included a rugged backway to the Salt Tram Station and Cerro Gordo Ghost Town. On it, the road climbs rapidly through a corridor into the Inyo Mountains Wilderness and runs along the ridge atop the Inyo Mountains, with great views, wildflowers and historical mining structures.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands The Bronco Sport ventured far off the beaten path.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

This was the perfect venue to try out the Bronco Sport's hardware along a collection of steep, rocky and narrow tracks. Schooled by Eddie Khan, Bronco Sport Engineering Manager, I used different settings on the terrain management system with the locking differential in off and on settings, when the vehicle needed a more aggressive aid to climb up or over an obstacle.

I appreciated the Bronco Sport's 8.8 inches of ground clearance, 30.4-inch approach angle, 33.1-inch departure angle, 18:1 crawl ratio, and trail cameras when climbing up and over patches of steep rock and while navigating along a lengthy section of narrow shale shelf road with life-ending drop-offs on the side. On this trail in particular, precise driving is critical, as this last part of the road is prone to washouts and rock slides. If you research the trail, you'll see that it is deemed "suitable for aggressive stock SUVs with high clearance, low range, and skid plates" and, although we lacked traditional low range, the Bronco Sport's 105-inch wheelbase, with its slightly wider track in front than in the rear, and suspension, made the vehicle feel planted at all times.

Heading back to L.A. and seeing just how much dirt had accumulated on the Bronco Sport from the journey, I was thankful that the cleaning team could take advantage of the rubber flooring throughout the cabin and cargo area, easy-to-clean cloth seating surfaces, and silicone-sealed control switches to make their detailing job easier.

The Bronco Sport's technology and engineering made trail life easier. Though I've piloted thousands of vehicles in countries all over the world, the model and this journey will stand out because of how surprisingly well the compact SUV performed. Now I'm even more excited to get my hands on the four-door Bronco.

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Biden will target 50 percent of all vehicle sales for EVs by 2030.

Ford

In the last several months, we've seen automakers from all corners of the globe commit to some degree of electrification by the end of the decade and beyond. That includes the American Big Three: Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Stellantis (Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, others). Today, President Joe Biden plans to throw his weight behind these efforts by signing an executive order that sets a goal of pushing the sales of zero-emissions vehicles to half of all vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2030.

Biden's target is not legally binding, but the industry is already jumping on board. In a joint statement, Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis confirmed that they aim to hit an EV sales volume of 40-50 percent annually. It's worth noting that the President's 50 percent goal and the automakers' sales targets also include plug-in hybrid vehicles, which still use a traditional gasoline engine.


Jeep PHEV The target also includes plug-in hybrid vehicles, which still use gas engines.Jeep


Auto unions and dealers are not opposed to the ambitious roadmaps laid out by the Big Three, but both have differing views on what is essential and how things will ultimately play out. While aware of the goals, the UAW is focused on wage growth and the preservation of jobs and benefits. It feels that an increase in EV production volume must happen here in the U.S. to include good-paying American union jobs.

Dealers, to a degree, are supportive of the goals but skeptical of their ultimate success. Some feel that electric vehicles do not present the earth-shattering shift in functionality and usability that other new products, such as smartphones, did in different industries. Regardless of concerns and skepticism, it appears that automakers are going all-in on the shift to electrification, so we're bound to see a wealth of new battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in the next few years.


GM battery facility rendering Automakers are pledging billions to increase EV and PHEV production volume.GM

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Research and development

Ford names site for battery development facility

Ford's new facility will house battery research and development.

Ford

Ford is in the news again for its electrification efforts, this time with the confirmation of a Michigan location for a new battery research and development facility in Romulus, Michigan. The facility may eventually help Ford in-source much of its EV supply chain, a shift that could prevent or mitigate the challenges presented by parts and technology shortages.

As part of its electrification initiative, the automaker plans to build a new research and development facility, called Ford Ion Park. The facility will house new tech research, pilot programs for new manufacturing techniques, and will help give Ford more control over its supply chain.


Ford Ion Park Once complete, the facility will initially house 200 engineers.Ford


The price tag for the new facility and related efforts lands at $185 million, which sounds like chump change for a global automaker until we consider that Ford has committed $30 billion to electrification by 2025. The automaker says that its new facility renews its dedication to Michigan as its home base for EV development, a promise it originally made back in 2010. The company's new electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck will be built in Dearborn, which will add 500 jobs. An additional 225 jobs will be retained at Ford's Dyke Electric Powertrain Center.

As part of Phase One of the project, Ford plans to hire 200 engineers within 18 months of the 270,000-square-foot facility's opening. Ironically, the site was previously owned by A123 Systems, a battery manufacturer that closed the facility in 2017 due to low demand for batteries.


Ford Ion Park Ford has committed $185 million to the new facility and related efforts.Ford

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