The Ford Bronco is finally here and Jeep should be worried

We’re not talking about the Bronco Sport, which you’ve probably seen around. That model smaller, and somewhat related to the Ford Escape and the new Ford Maverick small pickup. The new Bronco is bigger and taller and built to take on much more serious off-road terrain. It’s somewhat related to the Ford Ranger truck.
So while the little Bronco Sport can drive off-road, the Bronco can drive places where “road” shouldn’t really be part of the word.

The Bronco has just begun production in Michigan. Prices start at around $28,500, slightly higher than the Bronco Sport. Prices for the improved and more complete version start at over $40,000.

The advantage shoppers get with the Bronco is a free ticket to one of four off-road driving parks, called Bronco Off-Roadeos, that Ford is opening up across the country.

Ford invited reporters to try the first one to open outside Austin, Texas. We were able to ride the Broncos up and down its steep hills, through its rain-soaked tributaries and across its slippery rocky incline.

We also rode various Broncos with both optional turbocharged V6 engines, 270 horsepower base motor and a larger 310 horsepower engine. Both come standard four-wheel drive, and, with the smaller engine, a manual transmission is also available at seven speeds, including a low-speed “crawler” gear for off-road.

I’m not an experienced off-road driver, but I’ve done it before in Land Rovers, Jeeps and, more recently, Nissan Pathfinders. I’m used to the seemingly physics-defying capabilities of a good four-wheel drive system and proper off-road tires. But the Bronco really seems to be on another level. He can do things that no sane person would ever think of with a four-wheeled vehicle.

For example, it has something called Trail Turn Assist, which locks the brakes on the inner rear wheel when turning so the SUV essentially rotates around that wheel. That allows for super tight turns in small spaces. Once I reached the top of the steep, rocky hill, the trail turned almost 90˚ to the right. I pressed the Trail Turn Assist button and drove to face the narrow ridge.

I also tried the Bronco’s single-pedal driving feature, which allows the accelerator and brake pedals to be operated with just the accelerator pedal. I’ve practiced driving an electric car that way so it’s easy to master and making bumpy surfaces easier than having to use two pedals.

Some of the Bronco’s off-road prowess is simply a matter of design. The wheels are far near the front and rear ends. This allowed the Bronco to drive up steep hills and, just as it looked like the front bumper was about to hit it, the front wheels grabbed at the base of the hill and pulled it up.

His Its shoebox-shaped body also makes it easy to see where the front corners are, a valuable feature on narrow roads. More than once, I passed a tree or rock face with a few inches left, but knew I was clearing it when I turned a corner.

Like the Jeep Wrangler, the doors and roof of the Bronco -- both soft-top and hard -- are removable.

The Bronco also has a range of cameras available to help with that, too, which helps the driver see obstacles on the trail and see from under the hood when climbing steep hills.

As with many SUVs, there are also different driving modes for different environments. In addition, there are buttons for doing various more specific things like locking the rear differential. The differential is a set of gears that allows each front or rear wheel to turn at a different speed than the one on the opposite side. This is necessary, because, when turning, the wheels on the outside of the turn must turn slightly faster than those on the inside. (This has a longer path to travel.) Locking the differential keeps both wheels turning at the same speed, but also ensures both wheels get full engine power. It’s not very good at turning, but can be very useful when driving on dirty or slippery surfaces. During my test drive, it allowed the Bronco to climb over a damp surface that was basically a giant rock.

A heavy rainstorm on the night before our off-road trip also tested the water’s wading skills on the Bronco. I will jump to A doorless Bronco for a test drive — like on the Jeep Wrangler, the door can easily be removed — when someone warns me, “Not that one. You’ll want a door.”

Yes. I drove down a steep, muddy trail and plunged into a rippling brown stream. Without a door, I would have fish swimming around my feet as the water poured in from the side. I stopped for a few minutes while the photographer was getting ready to take pictures and I heard a strange blaring sound like a motorboat. It was a Bronco exhaust bubbling through muddy water. With the camera ready, I move down the river pushing the waves of water in front of me.

Where the Bronco really stands apart from the Wrangler, is in the way. The ride is smoother and easier to control on smooth pavement. On its optional off-road tires, there’s a slight tendency for the Bronco to stray off the track when not watched carefully, but that’s not bad. With these tires, the steering provides a decent feel and response. Also, the lane guard assistance system warns me when this happens. It’s not particularly fast, but the Bronco’s turbocharged V6 engine helps pull it up hills on the road, as well as downhill.

Recently, a number of automakers, such as Honda, Nissan, and even Airstream, have rediscovered America’s love of the outdoors. With the Bronco, Ford went further, much further. Be careful out there.

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