2021 Ford Bronco reveal
Engineered for no-excuses off-roading, the 2021 Ford Bronco features 11.6-in. of ground clearance, a 29-degree max breakover angle, a 37.2-degree departure angle and up to 33.5 inches of water fording capability. (Ford)

2021 Ford Bronco aims to kick some Jeep

For the return of Ford's storied 4x4 nameplate, a keep-it-simple approach to off-road functionality was the development team’s mantra.

“There is nothing on this truck that is superfluous – no decorative chrome or extraneous styling. It’s designed for function, not fashion,” explained Paul Wraith, chief designer for Ford’s much-anticipated 2021 Bronco. “Super-short overhangs for aggressive approach, departure and breakover angles. Slim ‘hips’ for off-road agility. Everything is exactly where you need it. Getting that stuff right is harder than you think,” he admitted.

To create the much-anticipated U725 (as the new 2- and 4-door Bronco is known internally and by suppliers), Wraith and his team decided to veer outside of Ford’s traditional product-development process. It was the only way to execute the program’s broad scope and unique requirements. “As we developed the truck, we invented a new human-centered methodology,” Wraith told media ahead of the Bronco’s July 13 unveiling. “We made low-fidelity models out of foam-core packing materials which drove our [prototype] shops crazy,” he said. “And we ended up skipping a whole bunch of typical studio processes. This stirred things up quite a bit.”

Hours before a major program review, Wraith was asked why he had no scale models to show management. “Well, we didn’t make any,” he admitted. “Instead, we storyboarded. The designs emerged by ideating key real-world moments and identifying issues.” The design team’s “doodles” went straight to fast CAD and the foam-core inducting. But when it came time to put Bronco into Ford’s virtual reality lab, the team discovered the VR software didn’t include enough virtual environments to fit Bronco’s almost infinite potential use cases. “So, we created new VR environments. And when we realized that wasn’t enough, we wrote new VR code and changed the program,” Wraith said.

Development of the reborn body-on-frame 4x4 began in 2015 and included a nut-and-bolt 3-D laser scan of VP of Design Moray Callum’s pristine 1966 Bronco. The first-generation (1966-77) Bronco provided packaging and proportioning data and a guiding light for the U725 program. “Seeing it [Callum’s], spinning in CATIA, overlaid with future components, contemporary ‘legal zones’, radar-visibility cones, wading depths and a million other constraints was pretty wild,” Wraith said. “But that little Bronco helped inspire the Bronco that we’re launching now. I don’t think Ford has ever developed a product in this way,” he offered.

That includes extreme-conditions off-road testing that far exceeded Ford’s standard testing regimen, according to chief engineer Eric Loeffler. One of Ford’s most-storied nameplates, Bronco returns after a 25-year hiatus as a discrete brand that includes the Bronco Sport, a unibody 4-door SUV derived from the C2-based Escape. The U725 program “allows us to compete in the segment of the market where the most growth is: the Rugged Utility Segment,” noted Bronco consumer marketing manager Mark Grueber.

No question that Jeep Wrangler is Ford’s target here, setting the bar for off-road capability and customer personalization. Annual Wrangler sales have been near or more than 200,000 units/year since 2015, while driving a nearly $1 billion/year accessories aftermarket that’s not lost on Ford. The new Bronco launches next spring with more than 200 factory-available accessories “with more to come,” Grueber promises.

Innovative simplicity
Keeping the vehicle as simple as possible – “innovation doesn’t always need a microchip,” quipped Wraith – was a mantra among the designers and Loeffler’s engineers. There’s a one-piece grill with round LED headlamps and separate powder-coated front bumper with removeable end caps.

The long list of practical features includes thick rubber hose-it-out floor matting incorporating drains; modular interior grab handles; one-piece silicon-rubber control switches and optional marine-grade vinyl seat covers for wet-weather running; a clever rail mounted across the top of the IP for securely mounting smart phones and GoPro gear, and removeable front-fender peaks that serve as tie-down locations and “trail sights” to help avoid scratching the truck’s sides on narrow off-road tracks. All critical driveline controls are located well within the driver’s peripheral vision, Loeffler added.

The Bronco’s architecture also is simple: a fully-boxed, high-strength steel ladder frame and steel-intensive body structure, with removable composite-plastic roof panels. The wide-opening rear swing gate features a slide-out tailgate that doubles as a seat. The quick-release frameless doors are aluminum and can be stowed on the truck, rather than “chained to trailside trees” as Wrangler owners reportedly lamented during Ford’s customer interviews. “Doors are a major pain point,” Wraith noted. The truck’s side mirrors are body-mounted.

Ford engineers did not seriously consider a “military-grade” aluminum body for Bronco, Loeffler told SAE’s Automotive Engineering. Structural strength was achieved through rigorous CAE work and careful design of both steel alloys and section geometries. The vehicle has no B-pillar crossbar so that rear-seat passengers can enjoy a full view of the sky. The Bronco features independent front suspension as proven on the F-150 Raptor and used on large military trucks.

“This offers the best combination of on- and off-road performance,” Loeffer said, along with “better ride control and significantly less unsprung weight” than a live front axle. Ford calls the setup HOSS, for “High performance Off-road Stability Suspension” and it earned significant focus from the chassis engineers.

Optional Bilstein position-sensitive dampers offer improved sand running, while a unique electro-hydraulic disconnect front sway bar gives optimum wheel travel, axle articulation and increased ramp angle. The bar can be disconnected/re-connected with the vehicle on an angle, under load. It automatically re-connects at speed on a flat surface. According to Loeffler, Bronco offers best-in-class suspension travel – 10 inches (254 mm) front and more than 10 inches on the 5-link, live-axle rear set-up.

Powertrain and driveline specs include an optional twin-turbocharged 2.7-L V6 and a standard turbocharged 2.3-L inline-4, the latter delivering SAE-certified 310 lb-ft (420 Nm). The standard transmission is Ford’s 10-speed 10R80; optional is a Magna-sourced 7-speed manual (which Magna calls the MT88). The manual is basically a 6-speed with ultra-low (6.8:1) “crawler” gear below first gear that delivers a 94.75:1 overall crawl ratio. The two transfer-case choices include a standard electronic shift-on-fly [ESOF] unit and an advanced electro-mechanical ‘box with additional drive modes that interface with the Bronco’s stability-control system.

“We sourced Dana’s lightweight AdvanTEK-44 differentials even before we sourced Bronco’s frame,” noted Loeffler. The AdvanTEK design features a compact 220-mm/8.6-in. ring gear. Their Spicer Performa-Trak lockers can be engaged manually or automatically. “Our work on the Bronco program dates back to the initial launch in 1966, and we are excited to once again collaborate with the Ford development team to offer a robust suite of advanced driveline technologies for this exciting new vehicle lineup,” said Dana CTO Christophe Dominiak,.

GOAT makes better drivers 
In keeping with the Bronco’s “keep it simple” development theme, the truck’s electronics package is designed to offer practicality and user-friendliness with an eye toward safety and convenience on the trail. Bronco is among the first Ford products to have Sync 4 infotainment technology with twice the processing power of Sync 3, explained Dr. Donna Bell, Ford’s technology strategy director.

Sync 4 enables more precise voice recognition, gives hands-free voice control and greatly enhanced navigation, including a new off-road feature set built from the existing Ford GT performance app. It includes a library of more than 1,000 trail maps from well-known digital cartographers including NeoTreks. The vehicle’s 360-degree camera offers ‘spotter views’ through the 8- or 12-in. displays, an aid for serious rock crawling. Bell added that Bronco’s electronics offer over-the-air (OTA) updates.

Off-road dexterity for both dirt novices and experts comes through a selection of drive modes for various mu conditions and gradients Ford calls GOAT—"Goes Over Any Type” of terrain. Loeffler describes the system’s seven driver-selectable modes as “powerful tools” his team engineered to help drivers “elevate their off-road game.” GOAT provides auto control of throttle tip-in, shift points, transfer-case selection, diff locks, stability control and more.

Trail Control mode serves as “cruise control for low-speed trail driving” that allows drivers to focus on wheel placement rather than low-speed throttle modulation. Ford is claiming “class leading” 33.5-in. (851-mm) water fording capability for Bronco, enabled by its high-mount air intake and optional 35-in. tires, the latter being the centerpiece of a “Sasquatch Package” available on all trim levels that includes big-lug wheels and locking diffs.

Trail Turn Assist is designed to alleviate the need for making 3-point turns in tight spots on the trail. Its calibration enables subtle torque vectoring via applying the inside rear wheel’s brake to tighten the vehicle turning radius by pivoting it around that wheel. And with One Pedal Control, the driver can modulate acceleration and braking with one foot.

Ford’s debut of the 2021 Bronco prompted FCA to add a V8 to Jeep Wrangler’s option list, a warning shot that Jeep is prepping for 4x4 war. Interestingly, Ford built nearly half of the 600,000-plus Jeeps produced in World War II and is responsible for that vehicle’s classic “face.” Bronco and Wrangler enthusiasts are likely to settle capability arguments out on the trail.

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