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First Drive Review: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport deserves all its engineering accolades

The verdict is in on the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport. Its engineering is a winner.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

It's the inevitable curse that comes with being a crossover. Buyers think you look okay and assume you're little more than a comfortable daily driver. Whatever pre-conceived notions you have about the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport being a crossover that just so happens to be lucky enough to wear the Bronco badge will be thrown out the window the moment you get into any sort of terrain off the paved road.

That's where the Bronco Sport shines. Unlike its closest competitors - among them the Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Nissan Rogue - the Bronco Sport takes its off-roading chops seriously. For the model, its powers isn't just a drive mode or available all-wheel drive. The Bronco Sport is extremely capable.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Edition Ford allowed the Bronco Sport First Edition to be put through its paces at a former quarry outside of Detroit.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

That capability starts with a bunch of equipment the average buyer will never see. The Bronco Sport First Edition, the model's most capable offering, comes standard with an advanced 4x4 system that has a class-exclusive twin-clutch rear-drive unit with a differential lock - something you traditionally find on much larger SUVs and trucks. This system allows the SUV to have virtually all its rear axle torque delivered to either wheel making getting out of sand, through mud, or over rocks easier.

How much torque is allocated is managed by the Bronco Sport's G.O.A.T. Modes. Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, and Sand are offered as standard drive modes while Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl models come on the Badlands and First Edition model.

The drive modes work in conjunction with the SUV's High-Performance Off-Road Stability Suspension (H.O.S.S.). The Bronco Sport First Edition that was the tester was fully loaded with the system and the available Bilstein Position Sensitive Dampers. Ford developed the tech by test driving the prototype Bronco Sport SUVs on some of the roughest terrain in the U.S. and it's paid off.

In deep sand testing while in Sand Mode the Bronco First Edition maintained its stability at relatively high speed through a cone course without causing too much driver feedback. When crawling up rocks, the Rock Crawl mode performed as advertised.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Edition Even when encountering deep ruts and soft sand, the Bronco Sport was a champ.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Switching over to the experience in the less pricey 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Outer Banks the stability followed suit onto the open road where the traditional jolting of Michigan-sized potholes was swallowed up by the system in Normal mode and not allowed to permeate the cabin. The same held true over rougher washboarded dirt roads covered in loose gravel. The Ford Bronco Sport might just be the smoothest ride on the market today.

The First Edition SUV also scored a win with its Trail Control technology, which allows the cruise control to be set going up to 20 mph forward and 6 mph in reverse for vehicle-controlled throttle and braking. On a steep incline, the system was very easy to control with moving the SUV's speed up and down proving to be an easy exercise allowing for 99.99 percent of the concentration to be on the terrain ahead. Maneuvering within the trail is easy enough thanks to connected steering and good wheel feel.

In the quarry cum off-road park where the Bronco Sport First Edition was tested, the fine dirt was a light brown color. The forward facing camera, in combination with the SUV's standard 8.0-inch infotainment screen, had difficultly displaying the nuanced differences in the terrain in bright sunlight driving rendering the camera fairly useless on a bumpy road. In the shadows it performed better, but contrast was still an issue The camera's picture display on the dashboard screen was also delayed to the point where the driver would need to be creeping along to use the technology effectively.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Edition The SUV's Trail Control technology made easing down this hill a breeze.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The First Edition's 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine delivers best-in-class 245 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. That means that the model has zero problem getting up to speed on the road and even less trouble keeping up on the trail. The Bronco Sport's eight-speed automatic transmission delivered the type of smooth shifts one would expect.

Ford could stand to give the Bronco Sport some additional top-end braking power.

As tested in the 2021 Bronco Sport Outer Banks, the smaller 1.5-liter EcoBoost engine proved up to the task as a daily driver power plant. Its 181 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque were more than plenty with two adults in the vehicle whether quickly pulling away from a stop or creeping through traffic, it's hard to see why most drivers would need more power on a regular basis.

Ford's biggest failure with the Bronco Sport is the line it walks between form, function, and aesthetics. In the high-middle grade Outer Banks model, the Bronco Sport isn't plush. It's also doesn't feel or look as rugged as the Jeep Wrangler's interior. Like the Ford Escape, the Bronco Sport's dashboard and center console components and materials feel a bit like afterthoughts made up of parts bin pieces in an effort to save money to pay for all of the model's the engineering. It looks much better in pictures than it does in person. The Jeep Cherokee, perhaps the Bronco Sport's closest competitor, has more aesthetically pleasing interior that appears hardier.

It's all okay - not great - but okay. There are technological highlights that will improve your impression of the cabin including the 6.5-inch driver information display and the infotainment touch screen, which are run by SYNC 3 software. That software operates as expected providing adequate responsiveness and easy-to-read graphics. The system is Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa compatible. Bronco Sport also has satellite radio.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport First Edition The Bronco Sport's interior is a blend of utility and parts bin buttons and knobs. It's not bad, it's just not great.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The seats in the Bronco Sport are comfortable and there's good enough room for four adults plus their cargo for a trip. It also has a good amount of thoughtful additions for buyers who want to take their Bronco Sport along for their adventure including liftgate LED flood lamps, MOLLE straps to carry extra gear, zippered seatback pockets, and a built-in bottle opener in the cargo area. Those are all little pluses that add up.

Ford has given the Bronco Sport lineup its suite of advanced driver-assist technologies called Ford Co-Pilot360 as standard equipment. Its roster includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, forward collision warning with dynamic braking support, blind spot monitoring with cross traffic alert, lane keeping, automatic high beams, and a rearview camera. An upgraded version of the system, Ford Co-Pilot360 Assist+ includes adaptive cruise control with stop and go and lane centering, evasive steering assist, and voice-activated touch screen navigation. Available Ford Co-Pilot360 Assist 2.0 technology adds adaptive cruise control with stop and go, lane-centering, and speed limit sign recognition.

Let's face it. Very few Bronco Sport buyers are likely to do any sort of real off-roading with their SUV. That doesn't mean that it's not exceptionally capable. Against the crossover odds, Ford has made a proven, true off-roader with its Bronco Sport that will appeal to drivers not just because of its name.

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The Passport was lightly modified for competition.

Honda

Honda recently announced a line of off-road-oriented trims and packages for its vehicles. Called TrailSport, the trim brings rugged appearance upgrades to the Honda Passport and will eventually offer more performance upgrades for other vehicles in the automaker's catalog. To further prove its mettle in the off-road space, Honda built a 2022 Passport rally truck to compete in the American Rally Association race series. The truck debuted over the weekend in Michigan and had a reasonably successful run for its first time out.

2022 Honda Passport Two Honda engineers handled driving duties.Honda

Importantly, the Passport's drivetrain and suspension were left untouched for the rally. The 3.5-liter i-VTEC V6, nine-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, and suspension in the rally vehicle are the same components that you or I would see if we bought a new Passport today. Honda did add a transmission fluid cooler, but even then, it's the unit that everyday buyers can get with the available towing package. The SUV's interior was stripped and modified for safety and performance.

2022 Honda Passport Honda is pushing deeper into the off-road with its TrailSport trims.Honda

Honda did upgrade the Passport's wheels and tires for the event by fitting 17-inch BRAID Winrace T rally wheels and Maxxis RAZR M/T or A/T tires. The automaker also made modifications to the SUV's underside with custom 1/8-inch thick aluminum oil pan and rear differential skid plates. High-density panels protect the fuel tank and other sensitive components, while Carbontech XP12 brake pads and high-temp racing brake fluid slow things down.

2022 Honda Passport The Passport's interior had to be stripped and modified for the event.Honda

The ARA National and Regional Championship Series events feature modified street vehicles that travel at speeds well in excess of 100 mph. The courses include gravel, dirt, mud, and snow, and cover hundreds of miles. The Honda Passport rally vehicle was first driven by two Honda engineers and ran in the top ten out of 42 teams. Honda says that a tire de-bead eventually slowed the team, leading to a delayed finish.

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The Bronze Edition model builds on the XLE trim.

Toyota

The Toyota Highlander entered its fourth generation for the 2020 model year, which brought sleek style, updated tech, and a premium-look interior. A new XSE trim joined the lineup for 2021, and for 2022, Toyota is adding a new hybrid-only Bronze Edition trim.

2022 Toyota Highlander Bronze Edition The Bronze Edition adds useful features, such as a hands-free power liftgate.toyota

The new Bronze Edition Highlander builds on the XLE trim with:

  • Rain-sensing wipers
  • Digital rearview mirror
  • Ambient interior lighting
  • Memory driver's seat with 10-way power adjustments
  • Hands-free power liftgate

Toyota notes that the Bronze Edition previews features that will show up with the greater 2022 Highlander release. Among them are the new Wind Chill Pearl color, which replaces Blizzard Pearl from the previous model, and height/tilt passenger seat adjustments.

2022 Toyota Highlander Bronze Edition The Highlander is a supremely comfortable SUV with room for the family.Toyota

The Highlander carries on into 2022 with a standard 3.5-liter V6 that makes 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. It's paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and either front- or all-wheel drive. A Highlander Hybrid is available, which mates a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with two electric motors. Combined system output is 243 horsepower. With the V6 on board, the Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

2022 Toyota Highlander Bronze Edition The Bronze Edition is available for Highlander Hybrid models.Toyota

All 2022 Highlander models get Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+, which includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, road sign assist, full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane departure alerts, lane tracing assist, a sway warning system, and automatic high beams. Those features and the Highlander's excellent crash testing scores were good enough for the SUV to earn a Top Safety Pick + designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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