Imagine how hard life would be if your parents named you Beyoncé. Those are the sort of mononymous shoes the Ford Bronco Sport has to fill. While the big Bronco is an all-American off-road icon that gets the people going, the Bronco Sport is born to be mild. It’s more about looking stylish in the Target parking lot than traversing Hell’s Revenge. So how well does the Bronco Sport blend on-road refinement with blocky good looks? I borrowed one in Outer Banks trim to find out.
[Full disclosure: Ford let me borrow this Bronco Sport Outer Banks for a week so long as I returned it with a full tank of gasoline and wrote an article on it.]
What Makes It Tick?
Given how the Bronco Sport is based on the Escape, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that things under the skin are nigh-on identical. All Bronco Sport models, save for the top Badlands trim, get Ford’s 1.5-liter Ecoboost engine. It’s a little three-cylinder lump that’s been turbocharged to produce 181 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 190 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,000 rpm. Hitched to an eight-speed automatic and driving all four wheels through a reactive all-wheel-drive system, this motor is a bit of an oddball. Output-wise, it’s right in the same ballpark as the larger naturally-aspirated engines in the Mazda CX-5 and Toyota RAV4, but features a significantly earlier torque peak.
Three-cylinder engines aren’t exactly known for being quiet, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see a relative lack of engine insulation on the Bronco Sport. There’s no felt hood blanket, no engine cover, just a bit of felt on the firewall and that’s it. Then again, Ford is known for not covering up engines in transverse applications, so this is really just more of the same.
The Bronco Sport does gain special dampers compared to the Escape, but the suspension components are largely similar and thus largely brilliant. The rear suspension arms are simple and stamped, the divorced rear coil springs sit nicely inboard, and everything suspension-wise looks very sound in principle. There’s nothing groundbreaking going on here, just MacPherson struts up front and a fairly simple independent rear suspension, but this is a mass-market compact crossover so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. Sometimes simplicity is key, and Ford hasn’t complicated the Bronco Sport’s suspension any more than necessary.
Taking a closer look at the underbody reveals some curious details. Clearance is impeded by plastic wind deflectors ahead of each wheel arch, although they look fairly easily removable. It seems like simple hex hardware holds the front deflectors on, while the rears are attached using a combination of hex hardware and clips.
Speaking of close looks inside the rear wheel arches, a few interesting decisions stand out. The first is slightly spotty paint application on the rear chassis rails, a somewhat interesting oversight. While a little bit of exposed primer in certain vehicle areas isn’t the end of the world, the rear chassis rails seem particularly vulnerable to chips given their location inboard of the rear wheels.
The second is a little more glaring in terms of corrosion potential. The rear wheel arch liners on my test vehicle don’t fit particularly tightly around the lower forward edge of each wheel arch. The area behind the arch liner seems like a pretty great slush trap in wintry conditions and raises some questions on whether the arch liner design might accelerate corrosion.
How Does It Look?
While the Bronco Sport draws heavily on ‘60s Bronco styling cues, the silhouette and proportions are more reminiscent of another previous Ford product: The first-generation Escape. What we have here is an upright compact crossover with soft edges and unpainted bumpers, just enough rugged touches to seem active without being overbearing.
Let’s start with the squared-off silhouette. I’m a sucker for a stepped roofline, and the Bronco Sport doesn’t disappoint here. Best of all, it compliments the stepped beltline perfectly to give this small family crossover a pleasingly tall appearance. Adding to that is the use of chunky unpainted plastic cladding that elevates the visual height of the vehicle. While bare cladding is a bit played-out in the compact crossover segment, it fits really well with the Bronco Sport’s aesthetic.
Things look good around the back as well, with pleasantly detailed tail lights, separately-opening rear glass, and a bare rear bumper with no paint to scratch when loading and unloading bulky cargo. The rear end may be a bit simple, but it’s properly handsome and utilitarian. Job well done there.
However, the front end of the Bronco Sport is a little bit of a mess when it comes to surfacing and materials. The convex painted panels beneath the headlights clash with the sharp hoodline, while the middle grille looks like an afterthought. Throw in a glossy black grille and an unpainted lower bumper, and there’s just a lot going on. Still, the front end isn’t enough to kill the Bronco Sport’s design. Sure, surfacing is a bit odd and the center grille isn’t cohesive enough for my tastes, but the overall design of the Bronco Sport works quite well.
What’s It Like To Drive?
Despite being a compact crossover, the Ford Bronco Sport drives quite large. Evidently, Ford’s engineers and stylists have been hard at work playing up the image of SUV heritage, because the baby Bronco pairs old-school sightlines with plenty of body motion. Thanks to the square, contoured hood, the view through the windscreen is rather imperious and indeed a bit silly. You could rent out the space between the valve cover and the hood for $1,600 a month as a rugged studio apartment, so the twin hood bulges come across purely as posturing. Combine that with a rear-view mirror that’s just a touch too small for the rear glass and massive C-pillars, and the Bronco Sport doesn’t quite have the outward visibility of a Hyundai Tucson or Nissan Rogue. Oh, the price of vanity.
Three-cylinder engines are inherently unbalanced, so I was quite thankful for the automatic stop-start system for preventing the Bronco Sport from feeling like a cheap motel bed when sitting at traffic lights. However, once on the move, it takes mere yards to realize that the 1.5-liter Ecoboost lump is a little gem of an engine. The torque band is broad and reasonably robust, peaking at 3,000 rpm to give the feel of a larger naturally-aspirated engine. Sure, the Bronco Sport isn’t quick, but it never feels labored by its 3,467 pound curb weight or the great expectations that come with the Bronco name in everyday driving. It’s a bit pointless to wind this engine out seeing as it only makes 181 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, but planting your foot through the carpet produces a characterful thrashing note, a pleasing celebration of internal combustion in an age of low-noise everything.
In fact, the only thing holding the turbocharged triple back is the eight-speed automatic’s programming in the normal drive mode. The gearbox takes absolute ages to upshift after a spot of hard acceleration and is prone to harsh shifts, particularly on the 1-2 shift during moderate acceleration. Moreover, dial up reverse on the rotary selector and you could smoke a brisket before reverse gear actually engages. Things get much quicker and smoother in Sport mode, which could be called “fix everything mode” if paddle shifters were on tap to command earlier upshifts. While five drive modes on tap is a nifty marketing achievement, I’d much prefer it if Ford focused on making one really good drive mode instead of several imperfect ones.
Fortunately, there is an upside to the powertrain other than engine character. Sure, the automatic gearbox can feel as cumbersome as breakdancing in clogs and the idle in gear is downright 40-grit, but fuel economy seems very much alright. Over a week of driving, I averaged 26 mpg (9.0 L/100km), exactly the same as the EPA’s combined fuel economy figure. Best of all, the Bronco Sport runs happily on regular 87-octane fuel despite turbocharging and an 11:1 compression ratio.
Unfortunately, engine character and good fuel economy are where the positives stop for the Bronco Sport’s driving experience. Ride quality is fairly unpleasant, with a lot of sharp vertical motion over frost heaves and other road nasties. Worse still, this choppy ride doesn’t benefit handling whatsoever. The steering is rather slow and numb, body roll is porpoise-like, and pitch under hard acceleration is really something to behold. Introducing the Bronco Sport to an on-ramp is like asking a moody teenager to take out the garbage. The task will eventually get done, but you’ll experience complaints the entire time.
Oh, and forget any notions of braking confidence. Despite visual indications that the calipers and sliders were working perfectly, stopping my Bronco Sport test car was downright spooky. If I put my foot on the wide pedal, it would summon up an amount of stopping power. Will it always be a sufficient amount? Who knows? Sometimes the brakes behaved like they had air in the lines, with a mushy pedal on par with stepping in wet cement. We’re talking about brakes without bark, let alone any bite.
What’s The Interior Like?
Solid. Precise. Well-crafted. These are all words I wouldn’t have used to describe the interiors of several modern Fords I’ve driven. The last Escape I drove had a gap in the headliner that let me see the curtain airbag, shoddy craftsmanship from a brand that really should know better. In fact, because of that Escape, I had no clue what to expect when I hopped in this Bronco Sport. Thankfully, the quality inspectors at the Hermosillo plant brought their a-game because almost everything about this interior feels absolutely spot-on. Aside from slightly loose window switch bezels, interior panel gaps are remarkably tight. We’re talking genuinely brilliant fit-and-finish here, better than in some luxury cars I’ve driven. While it wouldn’t be fun to slip a trim tool in between components should replacement be necessary, it’s wonderful to see this level of attention to detail.
In addition, little things appear thoughtfully designed. There’s black trim around the door window frames to match the door cards, a handy shelf below the infotainment screen for phones and other personal items, and a Red Bull-sized cupholder for your morning Austrian bull bile cocktail. Sure, some plastics are a bit odd, but I’m cool with the gritty dash pad and door cards should they prove to be suitably durable.
Between the Safari-style roof and the externally-sliding moonroof, there’s a shocking amount of headroom on tap in both rows despite stadium-style seating. While I don’t expect many top hat collectors to be driving around in Bronco Sports, this compact crossover is perfect for anyone fond of wearing a cowboy hat so large that nobody can take them seriously. Doug Dimmadome, eat your heart out.
As for the seats themselves, they’re reasonably comfortable and come upholstered in this lovely mixture of wool-look neoprene, black leather, and saddle leather that looks and feels quite good. Sure, the leather isn’t as soft as on some competitors, but the seats on this Outer Banks model show creative use of materials.
The real highlight of the Bronco Sport’s interior is optional but is so brilliant that I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t option it. I’m talking about the most clever cargo cover I’ve ever seen in my life. Not only does it stow out of the way against the second row, it’s made of hardwearing plastic and functions as tiered storage, a cargo divider, and a table. Sure, the Chrysler PT Cruiser had a cargo cover that could be used as a table, but it wasn’t as stable or as easily-cleanable as this. Speaking of easily-cleanable, the cargo area forgoes carpet for much smarter rubber flooring that goes all the way up the second-row seatbacks. It does a brilliant job of preventing cargo from sliding about and simply wipes clean in a jiffy.
Moving onto tech, my Bronco Sport tester featured the unusual move of pairing wired Apple CarPlay with wireless charging. It’s weird, but heaps better than wireless CarPlay with no wireless charging, so it’s not exactly a sin. What’s more, CarPlay works great on this version of Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment, with zero connection hiccups whatsoever. Moving from screen to screen, despite not being a fully-digital dashboard, the gauge cluster does something very clever. A digital speed readout is always top-level information, handy for when you’re going past a speed camera and want to be extremely precise.
While surface-level in-cabin tech is good, things fall down in the audio department. The optional B&O sound system in my test car is flat-out bad. This stereo packs plenty of power, but features all the clarity of frosted glass. The staging is awful, the mids are scooped, and vocals like Julian Casablancas’ on Meet Me In The Bathroom are simply drowned by the system’s front-and-center staging. On the other end of the spectrum, bass is blown out harder than Maxpeedingrods coilovers on a clapped-out Miata, and tracks like Kanye’s Blood On The Leaves make the front door cards rattle like a loose license plate. Music isn’t supposed to sound like mud, and this premium audio system just sucks the fun out of songs.
What’s The Verdict?
So, is the Bronco name too much for the Bronco Sport to carry? Hardly. Sure, Bronco is a synecdoche for exploring the American wild. The problem is that unless you plan on scything through the great wilderness of Alaska, almost everywhere you could get a Bronco to has been Instagrammed to death by someone in a 4Runner or Land Cruiser. All that’s left is this concept of exploration, now attached to a mild-mannered compact crossover. Sure, it may say Bronco on the grille, but you’re not getting too far off the pavement without knobby tires, recovery points, and at least one locking differential.
However, it’s 2022 and nothing has to be honest or earned. Those Toyota-driving influencers? Most of them only sell the image of ruggedness rather than actual ruggedness, and Ford knows that. The Bronco Sport hocks a Ferrero Rocher-sized loogie in the face of authenticity, clinging to the coat tails of its bigger brother’s hype train and ensuring that some image-conscious shoppers end up with a surprisingly okay car. Not only does its boxy form factor offer tons of room, its wipe-down surfaces are a wonderful admission that life can be messy. More importantly, the Bronco Sport has some fun design. Between the nifty storage solutions, pleasant color palette, and unique appearance, there’s a cohesive vision going on here that isn’t Private Transportation Unit Number 46.
Then again, crossover shoppers are spoiled for choice if they want something that doesn’t scream Private Transportation Unit Number 46. The Subaru Outback is an archetype for the sort of thing the Bronco Sport is trying to do, the Hyundai Tucson is bold in a Versace sort of way with arachnid eyes and slick cabin tech, and the Mazda CX-5 is devastatingly stylish inside and out. Perhaps more importantly, all three of these vehicles are better value than my Bronco Sport test car.
Hold your breath, because this is a fairly big figure. My Bronco Sport Outer Banks tester has a base MSRP of $36,045 including a $1,595 freight charge, and best believe it came with options. The lovely Hot Pepper Red paint costs $495; the power moonroof costs $870; the clever cargo shelf costs $150; the trailering package costs $690; the Tech Package with the awful B&O sound system and wireless charging costs $1,285; and the Co-Pilot 360 Assist+ package with stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and evasive steering assistance costs $895. All in, we’re looking at a price of $40,430 before any dealer-installed accessories like splash guards. If you’re a hoser like me, that translates to $47,694 Canadian including a $1,995 freight charge. For that sort of money, you could have a well-equipped Hyundai Tucson hybrid, a Mazda CX-5 2.5 S Premium Plus with thousands of dollars to spare, or a Subaru Outback Limited.
In the end, the Bronco Sport Outer Banks succeeds at making the Escape completely unnecessary. It’s what Ford’s bread and butter compact crossover should’ve been all along, a pragmatic and well-assembled compact crossover. It definitely isn’t the best-driving compact crossover on the market, nor the best value, but its practicality is hard to ignore. Plus, if you look at it as a better Subaru Forester, it absolutely nails that brief.
Who Should Buy It?
So, who should buy this crossover? I say: People who park by feel, collectors of ridiculously tall hats, anyone strongly considering a Jeep Compass, people who’ve VSCO’d mountain landscapes, frequent tailgate attendees, proud slobs, Imagine Dragons fans, John Green daydreamers, millennials with rosé-themed home décor, Z-plan-eligible retirees who like kayaking, former Escape owners, and anyone who just likes the look.
All photos by Thomas Hundal