December 6, 2021

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Automotive forever

Looking for Fun? Here It Is

Ford Bronco Full Overview

A year and a half after I first laid eyes on the all-new 2021 Ford Bronco, actually testing this Area 51-colored (the paint is alien-skin gray, get it?) Outer Banks model taught me enough. To wit: Does the 2021 Ford Bronco Outer Banks grab the Jeep Wrangler by the scruff of its neck and shake it to death? No. Jeep has continuously built and improved the Wrangler since World War II, and no carmaker can best nearly eight decades of know-how after such a long layoff since Ford built the old Bronco. But is the four-door Bronco Outer Banks a good SUV, one you should consider purchasing?

What Is an Outer Banks Bronco?

Somewhat confusingly, Ford launched the all-new Bronco right out of the gates with seven trim levels, although there are only six if you don’t count the sold-out First Edition. The Outer Banks trim falls smack in the middle of the lineup, above Base, Big Bend, and Black Diamond, but below Badlands, Wildtrak, and First Edition. Jeep of course will sell you 17 different Wranglers (that’s counting three versions of the 4xe PHEV model). The four-door, 116.1-inch-wheelbase Ford Bronco Outer Banks starts at $42,945 and seems to slot between the $40,745 Wrangler Sahara and the $44,340 Sahara Altitude. Options, however, are a thing, and this Bronco Outer Banks had an as-tested price of $53,655.

While you can opt for an Outer Banks with Ford’s 2.3-liter turbo I-4, our test vehicle was equipped with the $1,895 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6. MotorTrend contributor Basem Wasef simultaneously happened to be driving a two-door Bronco Outer Banks with the four-cylinder, and he felt that even in the smaller, lighter Bronco model, the little engine is weak sauce. Additionally, the Outer Banks trim only comes with a 10-speed automatic transmission, and since you can’t get any manual Bronco with the V-6, the big engine is absolutely the way to go. Unconvinced?

This new Bronco is no lightweight, as it tipped our scales to the tune of 4,828 pounds. To put that in perspective, a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara (“Unlimited” is Jeep-speak for four doors) with a 3.6-liter V-6 weighs 4,391 pounds. There are more than 400 pounds of additional beef on the Ford. Yes, you want the V-6.

The 2021 Ford Bronco Outer Banks rides on not-so-knobby, 18-inch mud-and-snow Bridgestone Dueler tires, sized 255/70. But an amazing thing about the Bronco is that if you want bigger, better off-road tires, any model can be had with the Sasquatch package that adds 35-inch LT mud-terrain tires, plus bigger fenders, better shocks, a more capable transfer case, and a locking front differential. Prices vary depending on which Bronco you decide to bigfoot. The Sasquatch package for the Outer Banks costs a very reasonable $4,200. That said, the Bridgestone Duelers no doubt result in a finer riding Bronco, one that on the street humiliates its Wrangler nemesis in terms of smoothness and refinement, and in terms of simply not rattling. Driving a Wrangler Rubicon from Moab, Utah, to Los Angeles, the shaky, jittering, shuddery ride quickly got old. Ford focused on making the Bronco more pleasant—but not fast.

One big complaint about the new Ford Bronco is the wind noise that comes through the multipiece roof. Even with the optional Sound Deadening Headliner (which our example featured), at right around 70 mph, the cabin sounds as if the windows are open. During a phone call, while driving, the person on the other end asked if it was raining. Another person who came along for a ride—and who has a Bronco on order—asked, “Are you kidding me?” “Unacceptable” is a bit too strong of a word here, but there is a lot of room for improvement. We’ve documented that Ford has had trouble with some Bronco roofs. Here’s hoping the wind noise is just an early-build gremlin and will be fixed soon. Otherwise, prepare for ear fatigue, as the cabin is simply loud at freeway speeds.

As for the interior, give credit where credit is due: The 12.0-inch Sync screen is lovely, functional, and impressive in a vehicle of this sort. The 8.0-inch instrument screen is also quite legible. The massive G.O.A.T. Modes selector knob is excellent; the rest of the industry should take note: That’s how to do a knob. But just getting into the Bronco, it feels cheap. The frameless window design (which makes the removable doors smaller and lighter) means the glass shakes and wobbles as you open the door.

There are several more examples of building it to a price. For instance, on a Wrangler the passenger grab handle above the glovebox is so sturdy it feels like it could be used as a tow hook. The handle to the right of the Bronco’s gear shifter can be moved about a centimeter in either direction with a single finger. Lots of other flimsiness abounds, and it’s surprising as well as disappointing.

Put to the Test

Noisy roof aside, the 2021 Ford Bronco Outer Banks is notably enjoyable to drive. The engine’s 315 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque (330 hp and 415 lb-ft with 93-octane gas) make the SUV feel quick off the line, a sensation that’s surely helped by the 10-speed’s gearing. As you keep your foot in it, the Bronco seems to run out of steam. We recorded a 6.6-second sprint to 60 mph, and a 15.2-second quarter-mile time at 91.0 mph. The less powerful (but lighter) Wrangler Sahara makes 285 hp and 260 lb-ft, yet it hits 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and runs the quarter in 15.3 seconds at 89.9 mph.

If math isn’t your thing, the Bronco is 0.1-second quicker in the quarter mile and traveling 1.1 mph faster when it gets there. That’s not much. Despite the extra weight, those two turbos and (at least) a 50 lb-ft torque advantage mean the Bronco should be quicker than it is. However, the engine will only rev to about 2,000 rpm while holding the SUV on the brakes for a hard launch, so there is always turbo lag off the line. Real-world passing power, however, is good.

We discovered a meaningful performance difference when it came to braking. From 60 mph, the Bronco stopped in 136 feet, whereas the Wrangler needed 128 feet. That’s about half a car length of advantage to the Jeep (the Bronco is 15.8-feet long, the Jeep’s an inch shorter), a big deal in a panic-stop situation. In fact, the Wrangler Sahara has the second-best stopping distance of any JL Wrangler we’ve tested (the best was a two-door Sport, in 126 feet). Most Wranglers we’ve had our hands on are big-tired Rubicons and stop from 60 mph in the 140-plus-foot range.

As far as our figure-eight test goes, the Ford Bronco Outer Banks put down a 28.7-second lap, whereas the Sahara did it in 28.3. The Jeep understeered less but neither time is particularly good, as both are in the pickup truck realm. Of course, at-the-limit track-handling performance shouldn’t affect your off-road SUV buying decisions.

Test-track numbers aside, you must look at the front axle to really understand how the 2021 Ford Bronco differs from a Jeep Wrangler in terms of driving. The Wrangler has a live front axle and recirculating-ball steering. The Bronco has independent front suspension along with rack-and-pinion steering. With the lone exception of the Jeep Wrangler 392 (the one with the V-8), it’s rarely fun to drive a Wrangler on pavement.

The Bronco? What a blast! Playful, tossable, hysterical—just straight-up fun. Understeer? Sure, but there’s enough turbo torque to induce a bit of oversteer once the Outer Banks is past the apex (with the understanding, of course, that few owners will ever explore this type of behavior, on purpose at least). We found the same on the figure-eight: There’s not a lot of grip in these tires, and the Bronco understeers dramatically until the exit, but then we would floor it and the Ford would drift slightly. This dynamic characteristic equals big fun in the real world.

One pleasant surprise: There’s not much of a difference in terms of driving feel between leaving all the safety nannies on and switching off the traction and stability control. In other words, you may as well just leave everything on when you’re goofing off on a backroad. Again, the fact you can have any sort of fun driving an American body-on-frame SUV is big news. Wranglers have long been fantastic in dirt, on rocks, and through mud, but wholly forgettable in the canyons. Good on you, Ford.

Ah, but what about in the dirt? As the Bronco Outer Banks we tested wasn’t set up for serious off-roading, we didn’t do anything serious. We did, however, do some professional screwing around in a sand trap near Joshua Tree National Park. Results? The Bronco is even more fun.

Not key, but certainly a large part of the joy is the fact that in 2WD mode, you can lock the Bronco’s rear axle. Yes, 2021 Wrangler Rubicon models’ Off-Road+ setting now allows you to also lock the rear axle without being in 4-Low. However, non-Rubicons can’t do the same. Advantage: Bronco.

Like on the street, the Bridgestones didn’t provide much (if any) grip in the dirt, but that was probably half the reason it was a blast. As such, a group of MotorTrend’s finest took turns kicking up rooster tails and doing massive, dirt-drift donuts. We even got all four tires off the ground. We brought a Rubicon 4xe along with us, and it simply wasn’t as much fun to goof off in, due mostly to its ponderous steering.

End Game

The 2021 Ford Bronco Outer Banks is fun—silly, refreshing, and a good time. Perfect? Not by a long shot, but we’re confident people who buy the new Bronco will love their purchase. Probably exactly as much as Jeep Wrangler customers have loved their throwback off-roaders for literally decades.

Should Jeep be worried? Keep in mind that since the introduction of the 2019 MotorTrend SUV of the Year-winning JL Wrangler, Jeep has sold more than 200,000 of the modern-day anachronisms every year, and that pace seems likely to continue in 2021. The Bronco, while a pretty good effort from Ford, isn’t putting the Wrangler on the trailer. It’s great to see Jeep finally has some competition in the body-on-frame space, but that’s exactly what the Bronco is: a worthy competitor. A rival. A foe to wage combat against for years to come. We’ll have to wait to conduct a full-on proper comparison test to declare a victor, but competition will make both the Ford Bronco and the Jeep Wrangler better. We’re already seeing this happen vis-à-vis Jeep responding to Sasquatch. For now, despite some flaws, the Outer Banks edition of the Ford Bronco is more fun than the comparable Jeep model. And really, isn’t having fun what SUVs like this are mostly all about?

Looks good! More details?

2021 Ford Bronco Outer Banks Specifications
BASE PRICE $42,945
PRICE AS TESTED $53,655
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.7L/315-hp/410-lb-ft* turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,828 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 116.1 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 189.4 x 75.9 x 73.0 in
0-60 MPH 6.6 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.2 sec @ 91.0 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 136 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.72 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.7 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 18/20/19 mpg
ON SALE Now
*Tested on 87 octane fuel; rating is 330 hp/415 lb-ft on 93 octane.