From the December 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Even if you live under a rock, you must’ve felt the seismic buzz caused by the Ford Bronco’s return. Like the original Bronco that went after Jeeps in the ’60s, the new one is positioned against the strong-selling Wrangler. Jeep’s icon has thrived in the 21st century largely by maintaining its simple four-wheel-drive ethos, but there’s an asterisk next to the enduring popularity of today’s Wrangler: For every mud-caked trail rig out there climbing boulders, far more serve as street-driven incongruities with unscarred underbodies (no judgment here). Considering that the basic layout of the quintessential Jeep has changed little since World War II, it leaves ample room for improvement.
We already know that the new Bronco deserves a good bit of its hype. To see how it matches up against the Wrangler, we took lightly equipped examples, the kind most consumers will buy, on a 450-mile adventure of our own, one that would force us to appreciate sound insulation as much as locking differentials, ride comfort as much as suspension articulation.
The tamest four-door Bronco we could lasso was an Outer Banks model. That midrange, luxury-biased trim ups the base price from $34,695 to $42,945 and comes with body-colored fender flares, LED headlights, and a range of niceties. The $3590 Lux package (12.0-inch touchscreen, adaptive cruise control, 10-speaker stereo), the $695 removable hard top (a soft top is standard, as it is on the Wrangler), the $1590 advanced four-wheel-drive system, and several other extras brought the as-tested price to $52,555. A 10-speed automatic is the only transmission available on this model, and we passed on the optional 330-hp twin-turbo 2.7-liter V-6 because the base 300-hp 2.3-liter turbo four is more on par with the Wrangler’s 2.0-liter and saves $1895.
We asked Jeep to lend us something comparable but received only offers for the latest eccentricities of the Wrangler lineup—a plug-in hybrid and a 470-hp V-8 beast—leading us to rent this entry-level Unlimited Sport model with a $34,065 base price. That figure swelled with a $3200 bundle of convenience features, a $1545 hard top, and other options such as parking assist and heated front seats. Upgrading from the wheezy 285-hp V-6 to the optional 270-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four and its mandatory eight-speed automatic cost $2000. The final tally: $46,870.
Our dual-natured outing would take us through driving rain, numbing highway miles, and sloppy mud and sand in the far north of Michigan, testing both trucks over the full spectrum of their abilities. While both excel as weekend warriors, their varying appeal in day-to-day use quickly became apparent.
2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport
Highs: An off-road fixture for good reason, powerful and efficient turbo four, plucky agility.
Lows: Woefully uncouth on the road, uncomfortable interior, waves from other Jeepers.
Verdict: A pack mule with a fun personality and poor manners.
The Wrangler’s old-school novelty hits you hard in more ways than its rough ride. You sit upright and close to a similarly erect dashboard, the windshield seemingly inches from your nose (when it’s not folded flat atop the hood). The views outside are expansive, and the outboard fenders make dodging shopping carts and weaving through tight trails easy. Its agility—bolstered by more ground clearance and better approach, departure, and break-over angles than the Bronco—is charmingly toylike.
Although its wheelbase is 2.3 inches longer than the Ford’s, this Jeep is 2.0 inches narrower and weighs 444 pounds less. With the eight-speed gearbox orchestrating the turbo four’s 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, the Wrangler dashed to 60 mph in a short 5.8 seconds and won almost every acceleration test. Plus, it consumed less fuel during our trek (giving us 20 mpg versus the Bronco’s 19).
There are downsides, though, the greatest of which stems from the Wrangler’s continued use of a solid front axle with recirculating-ball steering. Both trucks feature live rear axles, yet the Bronco employs a control-arm front suspension with rack-and-pinion steering, a modern setup. The Church of the Seven-Slot Grille traditionally frowns upon anything but a stick axle up front because the gospel preaches that independent suspensions are too complex for the trail and, when fitted with an anti-roll bar, limit articulation. In normal use, the Wrangler delivers an irritatingly choppy ride, steering that feels only loosely related to the front wheels, and an annoying unsteadiness at speed. Staying in your lane in a crosswind with two hands on the wheel is a challenge, and taking one hand off at 80 mph to manipulate the 5.0-inch touchscreen is a gamble.
The Wrangler’s old-school shape has an unfortunate effect on its accommodations, which are particularly tight up front. Your left foot aches from the lack of a dead pedal to rest it on. The drone of wind noise around the A-pillar makes this Jeep a chore to live with, although $525 worth of hard-top insulation did help keep slightly more of it out of the cabin at 70 mph than in the Bronco.
Selecting four-wheel drive requires a firm tug on the transfer-case lever sticking out of the floor. The fancier Sahara models offer a full-time system with a welcome automatic four-wheel-drive mode. The Bronco’s Advanced package nets an automatic transfer case, but our Wrangler featured the standard part-time setup with only 2Hi, 4Hi, and 4Lo modes. However, even if it had all the extras and the convenience and capability they bring, we’d still have to drive this vehicle on pavement, the place where, quite frankly, it is least at home. Iconic as the Wrangler is, we’re fine with not doing that regularly.
2021 Ford Bronco Outer Banks
Highs: Badass retro design, spacious cabin, refinement extends to pavement and dirt.
Lows: Chintzy interior materials, porky curb weight, even louder inside than the Wrangler.
Verdict: An effortlessly cool off-roader that isn’t a chore to drive daily.
Getting into the Bronco after 90 minutes on the highway in the Wrangler, forearms and mind exhausted from constant steering corrections, is massively refreshing. Its attention-grabbing rugged exterior opens to a relatively large cabin with plenty of room for stretching out. The interior layout is nearly devoid of compromises, and the Bronco tracks down highways and around corners with the composure of an on-road-skewed SUV. Thicker pillars make for a more restricted view out, and some ride stiffness is apparent over rough pavement. But the relatively direct steering provides good control, and the modest 0.75 g of skidpad grip is more than the Wrangler can muster. At 189 feet, the Bronco’s 70-mph stop also is a smidge shorter than the lighter Jeep’s.
Though the Bronco is slower in a straight line, its responsive engine pairs well with the 10-speed automatic to return a decent 6.5-second run to 60 mph. At full throttle, the 300-hp four’s 80-decibel din is significantly louder than what you hear from inside the Wrangler, yet its low-frequency thrum was never grating. We rarely needed to spur the Bronco hard to get up to speed, thanks in part to its 325 pound-feet of torque at 3400 rpm.
There are plenty of low-rent plastics inside the new Bronco, but four-door versions bring a generous cargo hold and a back seat that fits three adults. Since this vehicle was a respectively grander trim level than the Wrangler Unlimited, we tried not to be taken by our example’s higher luxury quotient. Yet we quickly appreciated its intuitive and large infotainment touchscreen.
Engaging the four-wheel-drive system was as simple as tapping a button on the center console and twirling the six-position drive-mode selector to the appropriate terrain setting. Our truck also featured an electronically locking rear differential and the ability to use the brake to drag its inside rear wheel to pivot around obstacles. While its larger Bridgestone Dueler A/T RH-S all-terrain tires performed no better in the muck than the Jeep’s all-seasons, the Bronco could comfortably bound over rough ground at speeds that would buck the Wrangler out of control. It wasn’t difficult to position in the woods once we got used to looking out over the broad hood.
The Wrangler’s rudimentary makeup may be preferred in certain extreme overlanding conditions that these examples weren’t outfitted for. But in a vehicle that exists primarily for enjoyment, no matter the terrain or trim level, we’d rather not sacrifice so much livability. In the Bronco, we don’t have to, making it the superior go-anywhere machine.