Last week, I flew to Austin, Texas, and spent two days driving the new Ford Bronco, on-road and off. To call it impressive would be an understatement. The Bronco is going to change the way drivers think about 4x4s, and probably enable a whole lot of people to get further into the outdoors than they’d ever considered possible.
Off-road capability is pretty easy to quantify. Locking diffs (or advanced modern traction aids) provide traction. Big tires roll over bigger obstacles, while lifting the body out of the way. Suspension keeps tires in contact with the ground, even over crazy obstacles, and at high speeds. Low range gears multiply torque, getting the vehicle up, down, and over steep slopes. More of that stuff makes a more capable vehicle, which is why we already knew the Bronco was going to outperform the Jeep Wrangler—the rival Ford is specifically targeting.
But those off-road advantages have always caused two problems: more off-road capability compromised safety, handling, and live-ability on pavement; and the more capable a truck became, the more intimidating it was to access that performance.
Where past vehicles have upped the ante in the 4×4 world by fitting bigger tires or adding more power or more suspension to existing platforms, Ford flipped that approach on its head with a clean-sheet design that built those high-performance parts in from the beginning, without all the compromises inherent to modifications.
Take the Bronco’s optional winch, for instance. I’ve installed similar devices (also made by the same Oregon-based company, Warn), on all three of my trucks. It didn’t matter if it was the old 4Runner, the new Ranger, or the fancy Land Cruiser; getting a winch on them also required an aftermarket bumper. Even using really high quality components, that meant I was combining parts made by three different companies into one complicated structure mounted right to the front of my vehicles. Mounted right there on the front of the truck, that big, heavy winch-bumper combo is going to be the first thing to connect with another car in an accident. What’s that do for the outright ability of any of those vehicles to save the lives of their occupants in a big crash? I don’t know. And that’s a huge question.
But it won’t be a question for Bronco owners. Ford took the time to develop its own steel bumper, specifically designed to carry that Warn winch. Then it crash tested it, and with that data, developed a specific algorithm for the airbag computers that enables them to compensate for the difference in forces created by the winch and bumper being shoved into the Bronco’s frame. Mount that winch and bumper to your Bronco, and Ford will upload that program to your truck, allowing you to run those important off-road upgrades without compromising your on-road safety. It’s the first time any carmaker has been that thorough.
The same goes for side impacts. There’s a loophole in American crash safety regulations that allows vehicles with removable doors, like the Bronco, to forego some side impact crash tests. But Ford ran the Bronco through those crash tests anyway, making sure its side curtain airbags and frame will continue to provide full protection for the occupants, even if the doors are stored in the back at the time of the accident. It’s also the first time any carmaker has been that thorough for those types of impacts on this type of vehicle.
Ford did not cut any corners developing the Bronco. Where other carmakers will attempt to compete with its off-road capability by jacking up the suspension on their existing vehicles in order to fit larger tires, Ford designed this thing around 35-inch rubber from the beginning. And you feel that on the road. Where other trucks modified to fit a tire that big must compromise their handling, performance, and fuel economy, the Bronco rides on 35s like a brand new, totally stock vehicle that just rolled off a showroom floor. Because it is. It doesn’t feel like it’s constantly on the verge of tipping over. It doesn’t ride like a bulldozer. It feels friendly, fun, and un-intimidating. If you have a driver’s license, you’ll be as confident in a Bronco on 35s as you will be in any passenger car.
You’ll be able to say the same off-road, too. I drove the Bronco alongside a bunch of car writers and YouTubers, as part of Ford’s media launch. A decade ago, I worked for car enthusiast publications too, so it’s with experience and humility that I tell you most car journalists get into the business because they’re passionate about and experienced with sports cars, not 4x4s. I watched one guy, who didn’t appear to have driven off-road before, try and fail to engage the rear differential locker while hung up on an obstacle. It took him a good ten minutes (and some friendly help) to figure out how to push the right button. But once he did, he went on to complete one of the most challenging, dangerous off-road courses I’ve ever seen, without putting a single dent or scrape on the truck.
How does the Bronco make its unprecedented capability so accessible? Again, it’s the thorough execution of a clean-sheet design. By starting with the knowledge that they needed this big of a tire, this much suspension articulation, these angles, and this wheelbase, Ford was able to locate major mechanical components, like the engine and transmission as low as possible, to facilitate an incredible level of stability. It was able to mount the suspension exactly where it needed to be to maximize travel. And it was able to plan for the way the big tires would need to move up inside the bodywork from the very beginning.
Unlike other 4x4s, taking this approach with the Bronco means that all the off-road performance you could ever want is available in showrooms. You won’t need to buy one, bring it home, then spend the next year or two upgrading it, as has been standard practice in the past. All the lockers and protection parts you could ever want, and even triple-bypass, remote reservoir suspension, can come standard on this thing, depending on how much money you want to spend. Not only does that mean buyers will be able to roll the cost of those upgrades into their finance payments, but it also means those parts have been designed into the vehicle from the very beginning. Where my trucks are very much a case of a relatively uninformed person (me), taking a try-it-and-see-if-it-works approach, the Bronco offers a level of capability previously only accessible in the aftermarket.
In addition the truck itself, Ford is also creating a network of off-road driving schools, so that new customers will be able to learn how to get the most from their vehicles in a safe environment. The media launch was held at the first of those facilities, outside of Austin, Texas, and there’s already another one in Moab, Utah. Additional schools are planned in the Northeast and Las Vegas, Nevada.
In short, an entirely new audience will be able to access an entirely new level of off-road capability. It doesn’t matter if you’re someone who commutes in a city, whether you’re a new driver, or if you have never been off-road before. You will be able to fit a Bronco into your life, and you will be able to safely use it on-road or off with total confidence.
Everyone who recreates outdoors at some point must use a car or truck to facilitate that. The more capable and confidence-inspiring that vehicle is, the more areas you’ll be able to explore, the more far-away places you’ll be able to see, and the more exciting your life outdoors is going to be. The new Bronco is going to open America’s incredible system of public lands to more people than ever before, and make using those lands something anyone will be able to feel confident doing.