Car Life Nation

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

A blue 2021 Ford Bronco is shown with a banner that says 'Car of the Nation.'

Introducing the 2021 Car of the Nation

Despite dealing with unprecedented disruption in the past year, the auto industry has rolled out some impressive new models. We have seen Cadillac introduce the ultimate muscle car with the unexpected CT5-V Blackwing, and we have seen Tesla push EVs to new heights with the unbelievably fast Model S Plaid. But while there were plenty of incredible road-going cars released this year, it was the selection of new off-road vehicles that really caught the attention of the CarLifeNation team. The monstrous Ram TRX has redefined what performance truck means, and the iconic Wrangler has added hybrid and V8 engine options for the first time. However, the ultimate winner is the return of a legendary name – the 2021 Ford Bronco.

The new Bronco might not be the biggest, most powerful, or most expensive model on the trails, but it has revitalized the off-roading world, bringing a new level of competition to a segment that was stagnating even as it boomed in popularity. While halo models like the Ram TRX or the Ford Raptor have certainly contributed to the growing interest in off-road vehicles, their high price tags mean that very few are ever seen on the trails. A real enthusiast vehicle needs to provide a certain level of capability but to truly have an effect on the market, it also needs to be attainable. The 2021 Bronco perfectly accomplishes that difficult balancing act, even offering plenty of high-end off-road goodies on its base model through the available Sasquatch Package – something not seen on many modern vehicles.

The Bronco has also done far more than simply introduce a new accessible and highly-capable enthusiast option, kicking off a new off-road arms race between Ford and Jeep in the process. The Bronco has also reversed a trend towards mainstreaming iconic models in pursuit of mass-market acceptance instead of leaning into the nameplate’s adventurous legacy to create an even more hard-core model than its predecessors. Ford has doubled down on the opportunity created by resurrecting the Bronco name to build a new brand catering specifically to car enthusiasts in a world where the enthusiast is increasingly forgotten. If all of that isn’t enough to make the Bronco our 2021 Car of the Nation, we don’t know what is.

A blue 1st generation Ford Bronco and yellow 2021 Ford Bronco are shown in a desert.

Past and Present of the Ford Bronco

Let’s get it out of the way – the new Bronco doesn’t have all that much in common with the Ford Bronco of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Rather than being a large, premium SUV based on an F-Series platform, it is a dedicated off-road vehicle that shares its underpinnings with the midsize Ford Ranger. Ford claims that the new Bronco drew its inspiration from the original 1966 Bronco, which was also a smaller off-road utility vehicle that made its name in the Baja races of the ‘60s, and to a certain extent, that is true. However, the original Bronco was a bare-bones vehicle that offered almost nothing in the way of conveniences or comfort, while the new Bronco has drawn praise for its refined road manners and stable of modern technology.

Ford understood that the nostalgia alone would not be enough to make the new Bronco a success and designed a vehicle that aggressively targeted a new market segment. Rather than playing it safe and building a vehicle that would please the average driver, Ford was hyper-focused on the off-road enthusiast. Like the Chevy Blazer, the Bronco could have morphed into yet another inoffensive crossover for suburban families, but Ford set out to transform it into something even more capable than the original, and for that alone, Ford deserves our praise.

The popularity of off-roading has been growing rapidly in recent years, but at the same time, the number of serious off-road vehicles on the market has been shrinking. Models like the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra have been discontinued, while former off-road powerhouses like the Jeep Cherokee and Land Rover Discovery have softened and moved upmarket to become status symbols for city dwellers. Ford saw the gap in the market and jumped on it. But Ford was not content simply building a new off-road SUV; Ford set out to build the best off-road SUV you could buy and set its sights squarely on the market leader – Jeep.

A Ford factory worker is shown at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center.

Revitalized Competition for the Off-Road Crown

Jeep has been the unquestioned king of the off-road segment ever since the introduction of the Willys MB back in World War II (although it should be remembered that Ford not only built 280,000 “Jeeps” for the Allied powers, it was even responsible for introducing the now-iconic seven-slot “Jeep” grille). With each new Jeep generation, off-road capabilities improved, and with the transition from the CJ to the Wrangler, Jeep even began adding comfort features as well. However, as the off-road market stagnated, Jeep began to relax, and its pace of development slowed. Up until the reintroduction of the Bronco, the most significant change to the basic Wrangler design was the introduction of a four-door model.

While Jeep fans continue to extol the virtues of recirculating ball steering and solid front axle suspension, the truth was that automotive technology was beginning to leave the Wrangler behind. With the Bronco, Ford sought to build a vehicle that could do everything that the Wrangler could do and do it better with more modern technology. Turbocharged engines, rack and pinion steering, independent front suspension, and over-the-air software updates combined to create a hard-core rock crawler that could comfortably cruise at highway speeds. Of course, Ford didn’t forget the traditional off-road elements in its modern vehicle, one-upping Jeep with options for a seven-speed manual transmission, 35” all-terrain tires, and an aggressive steel bumper with a brush guard.

Jeep has since returned fire, coming out with new models like the Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid, the V8 Wrangler Rubicon 392, and the Wrangler Xtreme Recon Package, but the question today isn’t which off-road SUV is better – the question is whether Jeep would have introduced any of the Wrangler options without the competition from the Bronco. By aiming for the crown, Ford has not only given enthusiasts an amazing new off-road vehicle, it has also forced Jeep to put in more effort, revitalizing the segment as a whole. As the back and forth between the Bronco and the Wrangler continues in the coming years, no matter which vehicle eventually comes out on top, it is the car community as a whole that is the real winner.

Charging Into the Future

Finally, there is one more reason why we believe that the Bronco deserves to be our Car of the Nation. Today, the auto industry is focusing more and more on increasing profits and simplifying lineups. Ford itself has been a major offender here as the first manufacturer to eliminate all cars from its catalog in favor of higher profit-margin trucks and SUVs. Unfortunately, in this drive to increase sales, it has largely been car enthusiasts who lost out as fun limited-production vehicles and options were cut in favor of high-volume mainstream models. The Bronco represents a repudiation of this philosophy, launching not only a new vehicle but an entire brand aimed squarely at the enthusiasts.

Ford has set out to make the Bronco more than just a single SUV. The full-size model was launched alongside the more affordable (and incredibly popular) compact Bronco Sport and is expected to be joined in the near future by the high-end Bronco Raptor. On top of having multiple models wearing the Bronco name and bucking horse badges, Ford is making off-roading more accessible with its new “Off-Roadeo” locations, where it will teach new Bronco owners the basics of tackling the trail. With the 2021 Ford Bronco, we have an incredible new vehicle that is already revitalizing the off-road world and the enthusiast car market as a whole, and that is why it deserves to be our 2021 Car of the Nation.

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