I Wrongly Doubt Ford Bronco

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Photo: Zach Bowman

I have given New Ford Bronco side eye since it debut, and if I’m honest, I don’t know exactly why. Something about Ford suddenly deciding it wanted to bite into the cake that Jeep had been baking for nearly 80 years surprised me the wrong way, made worse by the fact that the Bronco name wasn’t attached to a true billy-goat off-roader. since The first generation ride into the sunset in ’77. Ford pretends the Bronco has always been a CJ/Wrangler competitor, doesn’t it full size luxury brute or malaise era econobox feel, well, dirty. Other parts of the company (and industry) where is the latest revisionism pattern lighting not a Lightning and Mustang is not a Mustang. Debut of Escape-based Bronco Sport a year before the real Bronco only made things worse.

I roll my eyes as one friend, then another, wade through series from production delay to bring home their own Broncos. I attribute their excitement to the reality-altering euphoria that accompanies every new car purchase. And as the reviews roll, I take it all with a Bronco-sized grain of salt because some reviewers use machines for more than splashing through puddles of mud or traveling through midtown Manhattan. Not the kind of thing that makes or breaks true offroader.

Then I spent two weeks on the four-door Wildtrack with the Sasquatch package. I’ve never been happier to admit that I was wrong.

Image for the article titled I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco

Photo: Zach Bowman

The Bronco’s real strength is that it doesn’t try to excel at everything. The great folly of modern automotive journalism is the belief that every vehicle on the road should be a fast count, a quiet church, and a soft couch. That’s a lie, and that’s how we end up in a world of increasingly homogeneous vehicles, all more or less interchangeable in design and specs. The Bronco is comfortable, but makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s a factory-available body-on-frame SUV with 35-inch tires. There was the sound of the wind, the sound of tires, the creak and the rattle. But it also tends towards politeness in a pretty even sorted way JL generation Jeep Wrangler can’t match.

The Bronco drives great, handles better than it should. The back seat is huge. The cargo area is also spacious. Most roof off in seconds, rest in minutes. It’s fast and quite efficient. And because of that, I find myself driving it more than anything else, looking for excuses to go here and there, basking in that rare vehicle that invites the outside world instead of dumping it on the far side of acoustically laminated glass.

Image for the article titled I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco

Photo: Zach Bowman

Still, I didn’t completely fall in love with the Bronco until one particular afternoon. I was on my way home from work in North Knoxville, Tennessee. The direct route is a quick shot down I-75, through downtown Knoxville, then into my neighborhood south of town. One hour with some traffic. But as I rolled south, I realized I was going through Caryville, the back door to the OHV Windrock Park. It’s a stretch, with more than 300 miles of trails, and the northern end is a less visited section, dominated by a former World War II-era airstrip that is now home to herds of deer and one of the best views in the area.

I don’t have a map. Not recovery equipment. No axes or saws. Just some jerky, water, an inReach GPS finder, and Bronco. Running through the park can take six hours or more. If everything goes perfectly, I’ll be home after dark.

But that’s the thing about a good off-roader. It sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear. Saying, “fuck it. Try.”

Image for the article titled I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco

Photo: Zach Bowman

The back door of the garden is unmarked, and it’s been over 10 years since I entered from that side. Most people don’t realize that Appalachia is a deciduous rainforest, and a clear trail one year can be overgrown and impassable the next. Just like my memory today, I guess. I ducked off the goat trail that served as the main road up the mountain and quickly found myself on the wrong track. I inched my way down two narrow lanes punctuated by steep water bars, the occasional fallen tree threatening to graze the Bronco’s hardtop.

This is when off-roading is at its most terrifying and brilliant. Pick the wrong lane, and I could put a quarter glass on someone else’s new SUV, or put the asshole on a stump or rock. Choose the right one, and the right machine can run across the terrain with the grace of a long-legged cat. It’s not much different from grabbing a sports car by the scruff of its neck and tossing it down a winding canyon road, the separation between excellence and failure in the width of your choice.

I fully expected Ford to slide on its own at that first hurdle, sitting there high like a beetle on a pin. Not. It just went up and down without touching his stomach. And when the path hit a dead end in the mud, with the only reasonable path blocked by a rock the size of a mini-fridge, I dropped the Bronco into a low four, clicking front and back lockersand edged past it without much of a scratch.

Dear.

Unused WWII-era military structures are constantly being consumed by nature in Windrock.

Unused WWII-era military structures are constantly being consumed by nature in Windrock.
Photo: Zach Bowman

The surprise is how well the Bronco works with you. If you’ve spent a lot of time in a modern Ford, it’s something of a surprise. Companies make amazing products, but most of them believe they are smarter than you, hitting you warning after warning, reminding you not to pick your nose or chew with your mouth open. Nurturing you for wanting to get behind the wheel. Bronco is not that. It doesn’t try to select a terrain mode based on your driving. It does not re-engage traction control in the middle of an obstacle. He trusts you to know what you are doing.

It lets you enjoy what you’re doing too. Lets you shake the day off your skull and inching into the vast wilderness, even if the wilderness is less than an hour from one of the largest cities in the state. When I finally steered myself in the right direction, the Bronco trudged up and down the runway, then picked through a cobblestone field onto the main trail. This time of year, the routes through Windrock are all tunnels of trees, lined here and there lined with Tennessee wildflowers. Everything was so green, the air was like looking through a river. Then you turn the corner, there’s a gap in the trees, and all of East Tennessee lies beneath you, the soft blue outline of the Smoky Mountains in the distance.

Image for the article titled I Was Wrong to Doubt the Ford Bronco

Photo: Zach Bowman

Up there, everything seemed far away. News. World. All the worries they both carry. That’s the gift of any good vehicle, whether it’s a sharp and supple sports car or an incredibly tough off-roader. When the minutes seem short, the right engine can propel you off the highway and onto the distant road home, no matter how crooked the route may be. To faraway places and moments past the grasp of every chaotic driver with eyes on their phone.

That’s what the Bronco gives you.

The truck ate Windrock. Glide down the mountain and onto the main gravel road. Dipping his fingers in the remaining water up there and lowering me back in my driveway long before sunset, fenders splattered from the day’s adventures. The Bronco’s blue paint was dull, filtering under a layer of fine dust. My mind is clearer for that.


Zach Bowman is UTV Driver Editor-in-Chiefused Senior Editor at Road & Trail Magazinea contributor to Motorcycle riderand suppliers of all manner of punishing off-road trucks that eschew modernity. Find him on Instagram.

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