Automobile

Tested: 2021 Ford Bronco Manual Brings the Fun

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

The pony liked it. Well, she licked it, which is a sign of affection, right? Perhaps she recognized the 2021 Ford Bronco’s badge and presumed it was a new member of the herd.

Getting equine approval seemed important for a truck named for a horse, which is why we swung by a stable during our week of testing. Several riders brought their mounts over to scope out the two-door Bronco, although they demonstrated their interest in a less mouthy manner, peering in the open roof and commenting on the truck’s retro looks and easy-to-clean interior. Equestrians are big on easy-to-clean interiors.

It’s not just horse people who are drawn to the new Bronco. Everywhere we went in this dusky Antimatter Blue steed, someone waved us down to get a closer look. Many of the interested parties told us they had one on order. If you’re aiming to up your popularity around town, we suggest making the rounds in a Bronco. It’s a lot easier than being rich or having a good personality.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

HIGHS: Retro done right, smooth-shifting manual transmission, beginner-friendly off-road modes.

Speaking of which, the Bronco lineup has seven distinct personalities, ranging from the minimalist base model to the maximalist First Edition. No matter which you choose, you can make your pony more or less outdoorsy, off-road focused, or luxurious with various packages. Unless, of course, you need three pedals.

If your perfect Bronco comes with a seven-speed manual gearbox, you’re going to have to give up a large chunk of the Ford option sheet to get it. You’re limited to the Black Diamond and Badlands trim levels. The 2.7-liter V-6 is off the table and so is the off-road-oriented Sasquatch package with the big 35-inch tires. You’ll have to wait for the 2022 model to pair the big tires with the stick.

The $37,545 Black Diamond trim with a turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four and manual transmission strikes us as a sort of sweet spot in the vast lineup. We took one for a bit of trail-riding to see if we’d miss the extra tire and engine displacement offered by the higher trim levels.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

LOWS: Wacky tachometer design, poor fuel economy, sticky seats.

Looking at the outside, we have no complaints. The Bronco is upright and blocky like the original, yet it’s not cosplaying as an old car. Ford scaled it for the modern age, and its wide-eyed headlights are a pleasant change from the angry squints seen on many contemporary vehicles. The Black Diamond comes with a heavy-duty front bumper that costs $825 extra on other trims. It also boasts black 17-inch steel wheels, which are more discreet than the bigger and flashier options. The steelies come wrapped in 32-inch-tall General Grabber A/TX all-terrain rubber. They’re more than adequate for most off-pavement excursions and reasonably quiet at freeway speeds too. For the Snowbelt readers: These Generals are severe snow service rated, meaning they will do just as well off road as they will in the white stuff.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

Not that the traffic on freeways in Southern California allows motorists to reach the posted speed limit. The long, slow slog to the off-road park gave us plenty of time to think about the interior, which is less of a slam dunk than the Bronco’s exterior. It’s spacious and usable, we’ll give it that. There’s maybe even too much room for shorties. This five-foot-three writer needed a substantial stretch to push in the clutch, and our photographer, who’s two inches taller, also had to reach for it. Those of you who won the leg lottery: Congratulations, you won’t have this issue and you will fit comfortably in the rear seat too. But should you allow anyone of shorter stature to pilot your Bronco, prepare to hear some complaints after they hit their knee on the dash for the 100th time. Also, it’s a good thing L.A. traffic isn’t moving well today, because stopping from 70 mph requires a lengthy 217 feet.

We expect most enthusiasts will consider a bruised knee worth it for a clutch this light and forgiving. The gearbox is easy to downshift quickly on a mountain pass or while bouncing along a dirt road. Two hundred miles of stop-and-go traffic had us wishing for a restroom but never an automatic. Hey, maybe this is what the creeper gear—the lowest of the seven—is really for, rather than trying to get the Bronco to pop a wheelie.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

The rest of the interior uses a lot of plastic, but that’s on purpose. Easy to clean and durable, plastic meets the brief for an on-/off-roader like the Bronco. Ford coated the grab handles and vent tabs in a black and painter’s-tape-blue textured material. The seats are two-tone vinyl—thank you, Ford, for not calling it vegan leather. The wipe-clean thrones are comfortably padded, but a painful fate awaits any shorts-wearer who enters a topless Bronc on a hot, sunny day. Even with the roof on and the air conditioning blasting, the seats will make you sweat like, well, like you’re sitting in the pleated pleather buckets of a 1970 Bronco. Historically accurate, at least.

It’s a scramble to get into and out of the two-door’s back seats, but they offer more legroom than we expected. The instrument cluster features an analog speedometer and a digital tachometer that looks like the readout of a graphic equalizer. That display might be great for music but not so hot for shifting. We would’ve preferred an analog tach and a digital speedo. There are some neat graphics on startup in the center touchscreen, but nerds will find the “baby” Bronco Sport’s expansive display more impressive.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

When we finally turned off the freeway onto an open road, we had a chance to see what the Bronco could do. You can hustle this horse. We were delighted by its willingness to take on turns. It’s still a soft ride. You won’t find sports-SUV handling here—the Black Diamond pulled 0.71 g on the skidpad, which isn’t particularly brag worthy—but the Bronco feels more willing and planted than the numbers suggest. It’s squishy but not sloppy. The slow steering—3.5 turns lock-to-lock—feels tighter and more direct than expected, and it doesn’t wander off like its competitors. Hard braking and acceleration will make the Bronco buck but not enough to win you a big belt buckle at the rodeo.

Our test truck’s 2.3-liter inline-four churns out 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. That’s more than enough for casual driving, especially if you stay in the boost. But revved to the redline through the gears, the four got the Bronco to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

Not quick enough for you? Move up to the automatic-only V-6, which offers 30 more horsepower and a serious torque gain of 90 pound-feet. To us, the four never felt underpowered. We’d describe it as frisky and prone to surges of power rather than quick. And while neither engine is economical when it comes to fuel use, the four-cylinder definitely has the upper hand, with EPA ratings of 20 mpg city and 22 mpg highway.

As for its prowess on the dirt, the Bronco has a big advantage over the four-by-four competition. It offers the easiest mode controls of anything we’ve ever kicked up dust with—perfect for beginners. Even someone who thinks 2-Hi is what happens when you overindulge after a trip to the weed dispensary will be able to engage the rear locking differential and put the Bronco in the appropriate drive mode. The Bronco has seven preset modes: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand, Baja, Mud/Ruts, and Rock Crawl. Rotate the dial until the description matches what you see out the windshield and the Bronco will decide how many wheels you need to drive and how the stability control can help you. Feel free to choose the driveline setting for yourself, though. The same dial has options for that, and there’s a button above the center screen to electronically lock the diff.

Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver

This trail ride was nowhere near as extreme as our earlier test of the heavily optioned and high-priced First Edition Bronco—which we did our best to turn into a Pegasus—but we managed to put the Black Diamond through its paces, seeing some steep angles and sliding around long enough to get it respectably dusty. The Bronco climbs easily and provides excellent visibility all around, even if you don’t get the 360-degree camera offered in higher trims.

We tossed the Bronco every which way, forgetting all about a pie we’d left in the cargo area. Fortunately, it survived the day intact, which speaks well of the truck’s cushioning. On trails, the Bronco wants a wide berth, and while the paint is durable, the plastic cladding scratches easily. We stuck to conservative tracks and still came home with some permanent lines on the mirror backs and fender flares. The obvious solution would be to keep it dirty all the time. Because even covered in mud, this Black Diamond still sparkles.

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