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 BadlandsThe 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 BadlandsThe 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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The ZR2 is a beefy off-road pickup.

Chevrolet

Chevrolet has added a beefed-up version of its half-ton pickup to the 2022 Silverado lineup that has more capability and comfort for towing and hauling loads, traveling to hard jobs over a variety of road surfaces and a better 4WD game for backcountry travel. I recently joined the Bow-Tie brand for a 200-mile-long evaluation of the first-ever Chevy ZR2. Our day-long test drive took us from the popular desert playground of Palm Springs, located in a verdant valley surrounded by 5,000 to 10,000-foot mountains, to swaths of nearby desert. There, we traveled along a collection of dirt trails in Joshua Tree National Forest and on a 4WD mining trail to abandoned gold mines, with rugged topography that allowed us to try out the truck’s updated hardware that has been engineered to bring an ease of operation and safety for motoring over tough and technical terrain.

2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2The ZR2 gets several exclusive touches that set it apart from a standard Silverado.Chevrolet

Chevy has made some significant changes to the 2022 Silverado lineup from outside to in and has added Super Cruise, a hands-free drive mode that we were able to try out on local highways in the Palm Springs environs, as we also checked out different trim levels and new technologies. Updates of note are new interior styling, freshened materials and premium trims; a new dashboard and digital displays with a 12.3-inch fully digital gauge cluster and a 13.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system (with Google’s Maps, Assistant and Play Store as well as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay); and an electronic shifter mounted to the center console. However, our primary task was to focus on the all-new ZR2 that has been set up with a 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8 engine, rides on 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory tires, boasts a new suspension with Multimatic spool-valve dampers, and has electronic-locking front and rear differentials. Elements of the ZR2 and this moniker have been used previously on a special edition of Chevy’s compact truck.

In addition to its functional features, the new Silverado ZR2 stands apart from its stablemates by a collection of unique design cues, including a distinctive front end with a new black hood insert; a large-sized grille with a hollowed-out ‘flow-tie’ emblem for increased air flow and integrated lighting; wheel moldings, ZR2 badges, unique 18-inch wheels and an exclusive Jet Black/Graystone leather-trimmed interior matched with an appealing dark trim. Overall, the truck looks slightly aggressive and fit. The 2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 competes with other full-sized desert-running and off-road trucks from Ford and Ram. It’s only offered with a crew-cab body style and either the short- or standard-length cargo boxes with an optional Multi-Flex Tailgate. On sale now, it starts at $67,600 (plus $1,695 destination and delivery)

Chevy’s flagship off-road pickup can tow 8,900 pounds with a conventional trailer hitch and haul up to 1,440 pounds of payload, with more comfortable ride as a result of the spool-valved dampers and specially-tuned springs that bring increased wheel travel when compared to the Trail Boss trim, for instance. This also translates to improved control and greater safety on the road, which we found impressive during our highway driving. The truck has a number of new standard safety features, as well.

2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2The off-road can tow up to 8,900 pounds and haul up to 1,440 pounds.Chevrolet

Added to Chevy’s in-house testing of the truck in everyday driving and extremes, we learned that the new pickup has been put to the test over the past three years by Chad Hall, who is a highly-respected off-roader and noted desert racer. The production truck and Hall’s prototype race truck share most of the major chassis and drivetrain components, including the robust ladder-type frame; the 420-horsepower V-8 and 10-speed automatic transmission; transfer case; front and rear differentials; plus the front and transfer case skid plates, says Chevy. (See below for more info on Hall’s racing success in this truck.)

We sampled a number of the truck’s technologies during our day-long drive, checking the boxes for both high-speed desert-running and slow-speed rock crawling. Overall, there was good power on tap with plenty of torque to move the half-ton’s 5,800-pound mass, smooth shifts from the 10-speed transmission, good brakes to slow our momentum when needed, and a comfortable ride- even over rugged roads and washboard.

I was excited to experience the ZR2’s talents on some isolated backcountry roads including the Old Dale and Black Eagle Mine Roads 4WD trail, where posted signage warned “Proceed at your own risk: Deep sand and rocks-- stranded drivers have died from heat exposure on park roads.” Truth is, this is just the kind of picturesque and formidable place that 4WD enthusiasts love to explore with a truck that can take you there—and bring you back safely.

2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2Chev updated the Silverado's interior with better tech and upscale luxury features.Chevrolet

What makes the ZR2 with its rear leaf-spring set-up abona-fide off-roader? In front are tow hooks and a skid plate underneath the high-mounted steel front bumper, with a 31.8-degree approach angle. Other numbers of note are the: 23.4 breakover angle; 23.3 departure angle; 11.2 inches of ground clearance; with 9.84 inches of suspension travel in front and 10.62 inches in the rear. Its width is 81.2 inches, which helps compared to some of its competitors, as it is more “parkable” in many garages and we found it maneuvered well when navigating through narrow sections of rock. Engineers have also repositioned the dual exhaust for added protection.

One of the truck’s top cool new features is the selectable Terrain Mode that allows for one-pedal driving; this cruise-control-like technology is particularly useful for motoring over rocks and up and down steep slopes. To engage, we locked the ZR2 into 4WD Low, set first gear and let the engineering do the driving, using the throttle to increase speed and the brake to decrease speed, when needed. A forward-facing camera provides visibility to the front and sides, as well as to the back which is another great feature for navigating technical terrain.

*Fuel economy estimates sit at 14 mpg in the city, 17 on the highway and 15 combined. the 24-gallon ZR2’s 360-mile range.

**FAST FACT: Chad Hall Racing also helped test the Chevy Colorado ZR2 off-road technologies in competition — and is still going strong with them. The Colorado ZR2 has been racing since 2017 in the Best in The Desert series and is the only truck in its class to have finished every race entered. It has accumulated more than 22,500 miles of racing experience.

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The CX-50 is surpsingly capable off-road.

Mazda

I have driven all of the Mazda vehicles that have been sold in the US market over the past three decades. On everyday roads and on racetracks. I’ve appreciated their “zoom-zoom”. Good power. Punchy torque just where it was needed. Well-balanced and sporty handling. A bit of growl for the versions that called for it. Plus, tasteful-but-modest styling and more or less elbow room, depending on the model. Mazda’s have been made for sports-car enthusiasts and to ferry families. But, I had never known a Mazda called an “overlander”. Until now.

2023 Mazda CX-50Towing capacity extends to 2,000 pounds.Mazda

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 moves this traction-sophisticated automaker into the lands where the pavement ends and now takes the brand ‘off-track’. Although it’s not a new thing for many of today’s carmakers to add a backcountry model or two to their lineup, it’s new for Mazda. I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to check out this all-new crossover built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform that is shared with the smaller CX-30. This 5-passenger utility is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5 that rides on the previous generation’s underpinnings. The CX-50 has been crafted with a roomier second row and more cargo room for the goods and gear that weekend warriors and adventurers want to carry.

The CX-50 comes with a choice of two engines: a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter turbo-charged powerplant with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; both shift through a six-speed automatic transmission. The sport ute can tow up to 2,000 lbs. with the naturally aspirated motor and up to 3,500 lbs. with the turbo-charged mill and Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) that brings a tow mode as well as Normal, Sport and Off-Road. The newest Mazda model has been made for North America only and is built in Alabama. It is the first Mazda vehicle with auto start/stop that can be deactivated.

2023 Mazda CX-50Mazda is a master of upscale interiors. Mazda

The new crossover starts at $26,800 and comes in S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus with the base motor. Turb-charged versions come in Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus that tops out at close to $42,000. A long list of technology and safety features are standard or available. Mazda says that Meridian, a fourth turbo trim will arrive soon with even more off-road cred; it will be set up with 18-inch black wheels AT, hood graphics and other backcountry goodies.

When you look at the CX-50, the first thing you’ll notice is exterior styling that speaks to its adventure-ready mission. Muscular bodywork, such as extra cladding, wide fender flairs and larger, more aggressive tires mean that this crossover has been designed not only to give a nod to the looks of a rugged crossover but to provide enhanced traction and a tad more suspension stretch for motoring over uneven terrain and along bumpy dirt roads. Planted on its haunches with functional air vents, it eschews minivan styling with a low and wide footprint that allows owners to have easy access to high-strength roof rails for loading gear on top; the roof has been made stronger than other Mazda crossovers to accommodate heavier loads, such as a roof-top tent. A panoramic moonroof- a first for Mazda- and attractive antiglare hood graphics and are tasteful additions.

The interior is attractive and roomy, with horizontal lines and “cleanable” surfaces as a nod to outdoor endeavors. Our Turbo Premium Plus model had bright orange reverse stitching that popped the cabin that has been crafted with uplevel trims and materials and brought heads-up display. A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch version. A wireless charging pad and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. Of note, is the rear power and programmable liftgate to the wide and deep rear cargo compartment, with a load floor that flush with the liftgate opening to help slide heavy items in and out of the back. An available line of cargo accessories makes stowage easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 is family roadtrip ready.Mazda

How did it handle over the 200-plus miles of our ride and drive? The Turbo Premium Plus CX-50 offers a lot like; many of its driving attributes are consistent with Mazda’s tuning and handling priorities across its product line. Traveling along coastal highways, carving mountainous twisties with tight turns and accelerating on flat and straight well-graded pavement, it has great Mazda manners: i.e., there is enough power and torque in the right bandwidth to move it well; precise steering with a slightly heavily-weighted leather-wrapped steering wheel and well-modulated brakes, especially with towing a 3,500-lb. load. We enjoyed using Sport mode for carving corners, as it brings elongated shifts from the six-speed automatic; a crisp response comes when sport shifting in “manual mode” and provides a quick throttle response.

We tried out the Off-Road mode on a course that included flat and uneven dirt roads, as well as hill climb and descent. Although there is no downhill descent control system, the brakes worked well, along with manual gearing. Of note, Mazda would be wide to add downhill descent engineering for steeper and slicker terrain. We were able to test the difference between Normal and Off-Road over a special section of the course with sandy corners and a winding track at a speed of 30 mph showing the improved traction in the Off-Road programming and the aid of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that brings a bit of magic to transfer torque to the wheels where it is needed to keep the intended track-think of it like an enhanced traction control program that helps with steering and yaw control.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 comes with off-road driving modes. Mazda

Other aids for off-road and backcountry travel are: the i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system that is standard equipment on all CX-50s, with a 50/50ish power transfer front to back; 8.6 inches of ground clearance; an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle; and an optional 360-degree camera system.

*EPA reports: base motor fuel economy 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option gets 23/29 mpg and can run on regular or premium fuel.

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