2021 Ford Bronco Sport 1.5T First Drive Review: Low-Buck Bronco

Ford has clearly designed the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport to be the king of the compact, mass-market, crossover-based, rock-climbers hill. And indeed, a fully kitted-out Badlands model appears as though it may have what it takes to leave its Jeep Renegade and Compass Trailhawk competitors on the unflattering end of a winch. But the majority of Renegade and Compass buyers don’t spring for a Trailhawk, and the same is likely to be true of Bronco Sport Badlands models. So just how livable is that turbocharged 1.5-liter three-banger that “powers” most Bronco Sports?

2021 Ford Bronco Sport 1.5T: Acceleration Domination?

Perhaps the most direct comparison is with the Renegade, which also gets a turbocharged three-cylinder—a 1.3-liter unit that currently produces 177 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque. We must note, however, that this engine is only available on Trailhawk, Limited, and Latitude models; a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four with 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque powers base Renegades and all variants of the Compass (the latter of which more closely aligns with the Bronco Sport’s size and pricing).

The Jeeps all employ a nine-speed automatic transmission, whereas the Ford makes do with eight ratios. Based on our only test of a 1.5-liter front-drive Escape, whose engine produces the same 181 hp and 190 lb-ft as the Bronco Sport, that weighed 3,314 pounds (Ford estimates a curb weight of between 3,450-3,500 pounds for this baby Bronco), we’re estimating that the base Bronco Sport should be capable of hitting 60 mph in around 8.5 seconds and crossing the quarter mile in about 17 seconds. By comparison, a 3,659-pound Renegade 1.3T we tested in 2019 (when its torque was just 200 lb-ft) required 8.9 and 17.0 seconds to hit those marks, and a 2.4-liter Renegade needed 9.0 and 16.8 seconds. The slightly larger Compass took 9.4 seconds to hit 60 mph and 17.2 to cross the quarter mile.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport 1.5T: Horsin’ Around

The 1.5-liter Bronco Sport accelerates with adequate urgency for merging with traffic—or at least I thought so until I drove a Badlands model with the 2.0-liter. If you can’t afford that one, don’t torture yourself with such a test drive. That said, if I owned a 1.5-liter Bronco Sport, I’d quickly develop muscle memory for dropping my hand from the start button to the drive-mode dial and immediately twirling it to Sport mode. The default Normal mode is programmed to deliver on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 25/28/26 mpg estimates, providing early shifts that occasionally lug the engine. Sport mode wakes up the powertrain nicely, causing the transmission to hold gears for longer, with the upshift from first to second coming at 6,000 rpm instead of 5,800. That’s still well before the 6,500-rpm redline, but there may be some tachometer lag in first—most of the other upshifts are at 6,250 in Sport.

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The soundtrack that accompanies that acceleration won’t inspire any hyperbole. This triple kind of moans the way most engines with an odd number of cylinders seem to. And whereas Ford’s sound wizards have managed to wrangle some authentic-sounding V-8 music out of the 2.0-liter “EcoBoost” four-cylinder into the cockpit of the top Badlands model, they’re unable to convincingly fill in the more distantly spaced power pulses of this three-cylinder with 2021-level wizarding technology.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport 1.5T: Horse Handler

As we noted in our suspension and all-wheel-drive system explainer, the Bronco Sport gets stiffer dampers with softer springs and anti-roll bars than its Escape sibling, and you can readily feel the difference. Ride quality is somewhat abrupt over larger impacts, though the tall sidewalls help absorb small bumps and surface texture well. It’s never uncomfortable, but the Escape generally rides smoother. Max lateral grip is bound to trail that of the Escape, and there’s a bit more body roll in harder corners, but the adjective “nautical” doesn’t appear in my notebook. The improved articulation afforded by the softer springs and bars certainly seems well worth this modest degree of increased body lean.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport 1.5T: Off-Road Trot

How far off-road can the Bronco Sport 1.5T venture? Well, apparently not up the Inyo Mountain trails on which the Bronco Sport Badlands so impressed Scott Evans, because Ford didn’t bring any 1.5-liter models along on that adventure. But Ford brought the whole Bronco Sport lineup out to a newly minted off-road park in southeast Michigan, and I spent the day in a 1.5-liter Outer Banks model on 225/60R-18 Michelin Primacy AS2 all-season tires. Only the Badlands models were allowed to play on the simulated Moab slick-rock obstacle, and I was ushered around some other rock-climbing events that demand the all-terrain tire grip, additional ground clearance, and individually lockable rear half shafts on the Badlands models.

But we got a dramatic demonstration of what the base vehicle’s GOAT Modes (for Go Over Any Terrain) can do when the leader of our caravan restarted his 1.5-liter vehicle (defaulting it to Normal mode) only to have the traction control’s frequent power cuts prevent him from climbing a hill. Switching to Sand mode got him (and me) up the hill with ease, as it instructs the traction and stability systems to allow a lot more wheel slip and vehicle slip-angle. (This is the setting to choose for hanging the tail out on gravel roads, too, which the 1.5 will do if you cane it hard enough.)

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Base Bronco Sports do without the Trail Control “off-road cruise control” that provides slow, steady progress when ascending and descending difficult terrain. Even without it, in Sand mode, I was able to manually hold a 3-mph speed up a steep and slippery hill, though I’d advise the programmers to dial back the throttle response a few more notches in Sand mode, as it seemed a tad jumpier than is ideal for these maneuvers.

Brake modulation felt spot-on. With firm, steady pedal pressure I manually “hill-descent-controlled” my Outer Banks model down an equally steep and slippery slope without sliding and only ever sensing an occasional antilock brake modulation of one or more corners as necessary—just as would happen with a programmed hill-descent control system.

Another Badlands goody that lesser models must do without is the front camera that helps you see what’s just over that blind precipice you’re cresting. But you probably shouldn’t go wheeling solo, anyway, so just have your shotgun hop out and wave you over.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport 1.5T: Putting the “Buck” in Bucking

The entry-level Bronco Sport costs just $525 more than an Escape S AWD; the Big Bend model is actually $195 cheaper than an SE AWD; and even the swanky Outer Banks model I sampled only costs $1,705 more than a 1.5-liter Escape SEL AWD. Sure, the equipment levels don’t perfectly align, but the Bronco Sport gear that’s not available on Escape—not to mention its many interior and exterior aesthetic charms—make this new little trucklet infinitely more appealing at these prices. Yes, they cost a bit more than equivalent Jeep Compass or Renegade models, and we’ll have to sample them back to back to determine whether they’re worth the extra scratch. Only such a battle royal between icon-adjacent rivals can definitively crown the king of the (base-engine) compact, mass-market-crossover-based, rock-climbers hill.

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