First Drive: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands

It may not be as heavy as its big brother, but this little truck still has real off-road capabilities

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The revival of the Ford Bronco is big news, and it’s definitely one of the most anticipated vehicles of the year. But wait – it’s not. This is Bronco Sports.

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Think of it as a brother from the Bronco with a full-fat ladder frame arriving later this year. While the big Bronco would rule Jeep Wrangler territory, this little kid was targeting the Cherokee and the Jeep Compass. Tested here is the top-tier Badlands, fully equipped for off-road duty.

Built on the Ford Escape platform, the Bronco Sport comes in four flavors – Base, Big Bend, Outer Banks and Badlands – starting at $32,199; to $40,199 for these Badlands. The lower three trims work with an 181-hp 1.5L turbo four, while the Badlands get a 2.0L turbo four that makes 250 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. There are no front-drive models, and all have an eight-speed automatic transmission.

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Ford has thrown an engineering punch at the Badlands. It gets 8.8-inch ground clearance, aggressive approach and departure angles, skid plates, and standard 28.5-inch all-terrain tires. Unique to the Badlands are the off-road-tuned dampers and a dual-clutch rear drive unit with differential lock. Softer springs and non-roll bars offer greater articulation in obstacles — a best-in-class 7.4-inch.

Ford entered the Bronco Sport with a bit of fun, starting with a kick-off safari roofline, bold white lettering, and here, the cheeky-named Area 51 blue paint. Lots of “Easter eggs” too. Eagle-eyed video editor Clayton Seam found small profiles of the three 1966 Broncos along with their model code stamped under the fuel cap. Well, that’s some serious nerdy stuff.

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The Bronco Sport’s terrain management system is dubbed GOAT (“Across All Terrain”) and Badlands gets two additional settings – mud/wheel and rock crawl – on top of the standard Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand.

Badlands has a wide-angle front camera for better terrain visibility, and Trail Control — off-road cruise control that adjusts crawl speed in increments of up to 32 km/h. This little Ford can also wade through two feet of water.

Are we going to take Ford’s word for all of this? Gosh, no. We looked our Bronco Sport right in the snout and said, “Time to put your money in your reins.” Very dirty, snowy, icy and flooded terrain cues along with some quiet mining action, which Badlands ignores with a bit of a cry. Most of this is achieved in Mud/Ruth mode with the rear diff locked. Bonus: in off-road mode, the exhaust tone gets rough. No, I didn’t rip the exhaust.

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Being a pressure vehicle, this specimen is fully loaded. The $850 Co-Pilot 360Assist+ adds a full suite of safety and driver assistance, while the $3,000 Badlands Package provides dual-zone climate control, reverse sensing, a sunroof, 10-speaker Bang and Olufsen audio, HD radio, and wireless charging. With a $600 Class II crane package, Badlands will tow up to 2,200 lbs.

An important question for many who will shop this tough guy Badlands especially for pictures: What about as an everyday driver? Pretty good, I must say.

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There’s a premium solidity to this little truck, reflected in its quietness and general refinement. The Badlands interior with brown faux leather inserts is attractive and quite unified. All analog controls work with satisfying precision and there are plenty of soft-touch surfaces. Even hard plastic pieces avoid the dreaded cheap sheen. Ford’s Sync 3 interface, here played on an 8-inch touchscreen, is one of the better of its kind, exhibiting clear menu structures and docile voice controls.

The swivel gear selector is an ergonomic delight and proved useful when I needed to quickly switch between Drive and Reverse for some sneaky off-road maneuvers.

While the Bronco Sport’s wheelbase is shorter than the Ford Escape’s, the upright seating position and high roofline give the cabin a sense of space. Rear seat legroom is acceptable for this class, and visibility from all seats is panoramic. With the rear seats folded, Ford claims two upright mountain bikes will fit. The view beyond the square hood with its yellow bumps makes you want to go to the boonies.

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When nailed, the Badlands moves pretty smart, although sometimes you have to wait a while for the turbo to spin and the transmission to find the right gear. This is the only Bronco Sport to get a paddle shifter. Steering could be more pronounced, but overall the Badlands is agile and handles fairly well, even on these tall winter tires. I was hoping the other less off-road-y variants of the Bronco Sport would exhibit more button-down road behavior, but they don’t get the more powerful Badland engine.

There’s a lot of fun and funky functionality built into the Bronco Sport. Step inside and a small video showing a falling rock turning into a Bronco icon greets you on the Sync screen. The rear window opens separately from the hatch, and with the hatch raised you’ll find two LED overhead lights and a bottle opener tucked into the opening. The cargo area is lined with a rubber hose, and there’s a 110V outlet to power all your lifestyle accessories. Attractive for rooftop camping, the Bronco Sport lid can support up to 600 lbs.

Being fresh on the automotive landscape, people are paying attention to this Bronco Sport, and more often than not asking, “Is this the new Bronco?” Well, for now. And it turns out that this Badlands variant is not just blowing smoke. It has several genuine off-road chops with its tough man charm. Priced at just over $45K, this specimen is the most you’ll ever spend on a Bronco Sport, but it presents an interesting mix of capability, features and personality. And if it is misinterpreted as his older brother, there is no offense.

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