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2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands 4×4

New Bronco Sport a just-right size, mild-cost off-roader …

Ford’s new Bronco Sport is going to be a winner for the blue oval folks, but it has a major challenge ahead of it: how to avoid grow too big or too luxurious.

In theory that’s what the new bigger Bronco will bring, whenever it finally is launched. But for now, the smaller Bronco Sport is a spunky hunk of off-roading fun with all the utilitarian touches it needs, plus enough modern safety equipment and comfort to make it a superb match for economy minded off-roaders.

There’s really nothing else like it, plus it carries the rugged off-roading looks reminiscent of a Land Rover. Think of it as a Brover!

I was fully prepared to think of this as just another small to mid-size crossover/SUV. I was wrong. It’s an eye-opener.

The Bronco Sport, a new vehicle and new name for 2021, that rides on the familiar Ford Escape platform. Ford could have so easily just made a restyled Escape. Bronco Sport is much more and is aimed at the Wrangler crowd, not the Jeep Compass that so many say it’s targeted for. Nope, Compass is more of a tall wagon/crossover with plenty of luxury, depending on the trim. Bronco Sport zeros in on weekend off-roaders, campers and bikers, who desire stylish weekday drives to work.

It’s priced mid-market so one can justify taking it into the muck and maybe scratching a fender, not like a Land Rover Defender that it mimics in styling. Nope, this one runs roughly $28,000 to $38,000, not Rover’s $70,000 and more.

I tested a Carbonized Gray Bronco Sport Badlands 4×4 edition that lists at $34,155 with delivery and including a couple options hit just $35,745, almost exactly the median price for a new sedan, but well under a middling SUV or crossover.

Watch Mark’s video review: https://youtu.be/5Fi7Y9nsoi0

Styling is boxy with white Bronco and Bronco Sport badging front and rear. There’s a rear hatch with a window that will pop open for easy loading if you needn’t flip up the whole hatch. There’s rubberized flooring so that it’s easy to wash up the mud and slop of an off-road adventure. The cargo area in back is sturdy with a nubby rubber flooring and the rear seat backs that split and fold flat feature the same, so throw all the camping gear and trail bikes you want in there, or maybe a couple pups.

Bronco looks blocky like a Rover, and features a notched roof.

Oh, and the roof is notched like the former Nissan Xterra So you can actually stand up two mountain bikes in the cargo bay. That my friends is off-road, camping, hiking and biking friendly. Not many other vehicles offer this sort of outdoorsy friendliness and space, certainly not a Wrangler unless you move up to the Unlimited, which sort of requires similar unlimited funding.

Then there’s also under-seat storage in row two on the passenger’s side, along with zippered pouches on the front seat seatbacks for protecting your iPads, etc. In back there’s a cargo area light with switch, and oodles of hooks to hang your carabiners off of, or secure backpacks. Plenty of outlets and USB hookups here too, but sadly no wireless phone charger.

That’s just the accouterments for outdoorsy use.

Consider performance, which starts in the Badlands edition with a 2.0-liter EcoBoost I4 that pumps 250 horsepower from its turbocharged unit. Torque is a strong 277 lb.-ft. So scrambling up to highway speeds is a cinch and there’s plenty of grunt for rock crawling and mud-slinging.

In fact, this Badlands edition raises it suspension a full inch from the 7.8-inch standard ground clearance and adds better shock dampers to cushion any off-road excursion. On the highway of course it’s fine with just a bit more tire noise from the 17-inch off-road tires. Special body-colored wheels added $795 to compliment the monochromatic look of the test truck.

Setting the Bronco Sport up for various off-road or slippery road excursions is easy too, with the GOAT dial on the console. GOAT? Goes Over Any Terrain!

Wing the dial clockwise and you go from Normal to Eco to Sport to Slippery. Naturally Eco lowers the power to save fuel while Sport tweaks the 8-speed automatic to hold lower gears longer for more off-the-line power. Slippery helps engage the 4-wheel-drive system for wet or icy roads. Another button allows you to lock the rear differential or another to simply engage 4WD.

But that’s not all, wing that GOAT dial counterclockwise and you can choose from Mud/Ruts, Sand, or Rock Crawl. I admit there were no big rocky areas for me to try the latter, but in a sloppy field the Mud/Ruts setting helped me power through swamp grass, tall cat tails and some soppy mud-clogged ruts and divots. It was a blast and never a thought of getting stuck!

There’s also Trail Control, basically a low-speed off-road cruise control you can set if doing prolonged off-roading. This allows you to cruise at low speeds and just steer!

Ride off-road is well-controlled, just like on-road and certainly more pleasant than many smaller utes and crossovers. Plus the Bronco Sport feels well planted, so on windy days it feels more stable in a crosswind. There’s some body lean in turns, but this Bronco doesn’t feel as tippy as some crossovers or taller SUVs.

Handling also is nimble and more responsive than a truck or SUV. I think it out Jeeps the Jeep Compass to be sure. This feels like an off-roader where you are in command.

Nice clean dash with good digital instrument panel and good-sized info screen.

Inside, well beyond all that rubber mentioned earlier, the dash and doors are gray with blue-gray accents in the seat backs and tiny blue specks in the cloth side bolsters to perk them up a touch. The dash is a soft textured material to soften the interior’s feel and give it a fresh look. Console and steering wheel hub have matte black trim and there’s a Bronco logo on that hub too, and also on the info screen at startup. Some black gloss trims the round shift knob on the console.

There’s a simple 8-inch info screen here, with some buttons beneath, and nicely sized climate control buttons and dials. Only one drawback inside, for me, and that’s the rear-seat alarm. The what? Some lawyers apparently thought folks so stupid as to not remember they have a kid in that rear car seat, so an alarm chimes each time the ignition is turned off, the info screen insisting, “Check Rear Seats for Occupant.” Oh my!

Otherwise, the sturdy cloth seats are moderately contoured on the bottom and more snug for the back cushion, plus the driver’s seat is powered, including a power lumbar. Front seats are heated too. Rear seats have decent leg and knee room and excellent headroom.

The rear window flips up separate from the hatch for easy grocery loading!

Cargo room is spacious at 32.5 cubic feet, growing to more than 65 cubic feet if you lower the rear seats for your bikes, etc. And, if need be, you can tow 2,000 lbs.

Safety gear? The Ford Co-Pilot 360 system is standard with blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, emergency braking and such. The test unit added Co-Pilot 360 Assist for $795. It includes smart cruise control, a lane-centering aid, traffic sign recognition, voice-activated navigation, a touchscreen with pinch to zoom, evasive steering assist and SiriusXM traffic and travel links.

This Badlands model is the first in the lineup with the horsier, yet efficient 2.0-liter turbo. A base model starting at $28,155, along with the Big Bend ($29,815) and Outer Banks ($33,815) models, feature just a 3-cylinder 1.3-liter turbo that makes 181 horses. That’s not bad, but I’d move up to the Badlands for smooth power and more off-road muscle.

Which leaves us at gas mileage, often a bugaboo of mine for crossovers and SUVs. But considering the Bronco Sport’s off-roading ability and rugged appearance, it still weighs in at just beyond 3,700 lbs. and the EPA rates it at 25 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. I managed 24.2 mpg including some off-road time.

Now, Ford must resist the urge to slather the Bronco Sport in leather, put fake wood trim inside with a crystal gear shift knob and then stretch it by 8-10 inches while adding hundreds of pounds of weight. Oh, and then put a bigger, less efficient engine in it, slapping a GT label on it and boosting the price.

Bronco Sport is a winner as is!

FAST STATS: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands 4×4

Hits: Off-road ability matches rugged looks, good power, ride, and nimble handling, plus notched roof allows for two mountain bikes. Heated seats, rubberized cargo area and rear seat backs, zippered back seat storage pockets and under-seat storage, many cargo hooks, rubber floor, and decent MPG.

Misses: No wireless phone charger, annoying alarm every time you turn off ignition warning “Check Rear Seat for Occupant.” Lawyer silliness!

Made in: Hermosillo, Mexico

Engine: 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo I4, 250 hp

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Weight: 3,733 lbs.

Wheelbase: 105.1 in.

Length: 172.7 in.

Cargo: 32.5-65.2 cu.ft.

Tow: 2,000 lbs.

MPG: 25/28

MPG: 24.2 (tested)

Base Price: $34,155 (includes delivery)

Invoice: $33,012

Major Options:

Co-pilot 360 Assist (smart cruise, Stop & Go, lane centering, traffic sign recognition, voice-activated navigation, touchscreen w/pinch to zoom, SiriusXM traffic/travel link, evasive steering assist), $795

17-in. carbonized gray low-gloss aluminum wheels, $795

Test vehicle: $35,745

Sources: Ford, www.kbb.com

Photos: Mark Savage