Ford’s Bronco Sport is ready to play in the dirt

Let me clear up a thing or two about this year’s hottest newcomer, Ford’s reimagined Bronco.

Firstly, the version I’m driving here isn’t the highly anticipated Bronco ultimate off-roader, the one that will lock horns with Jeep’s go-anywhere Wrangler.

That version comes with removable doors, rock-crushing tires and an old-school, ladder-frame chassis reputed to be made of Kryptonite. 

No, this is the Bronco Sport, perhaps better described as the Bronco Lite, or even Baby Bronco. It’s based on Ford’s cute-ute crossover, the Escape, and you can get it with a, yikes, three-cylinder engine. 

Adding to the confusion is the fact that both versions are priced pretty similar. The four-door Sport runs from $27,215 to $38,160, while the bad-boy Bronco kicks off at $28,500 for the base two-door and climbs to $49,475 for the four-door Wildtrak version.

Whereas the Bronco Sport went into production at the end of last year at Ford’s Hermosillo plant in Mexico, the first Bronco Broncos came off the line in Detroit plant just this past week. 

Of course all this could have been a marketing disaster, with diehard Bronco fans branding the Sport “The Great Pretender.” 

That might have been the case had this new Bronco Sport not been so brilliantly capable. I swear this thing has traces of mountain goat in its DNA. I kid you not. 

With no rocky mountains to clamber up here in Tampa Bay, I had to make do with the Gandy’s sandy beach to test out my Sport tester’s off-road chops. 

With its wheels intentionally sunk deep into the soft sand, I was expecting to have to put a call into 1-800-Triple-A for a tow. But I was underestimating the magic of G.O.A.T., as in Goes Over Any Terrain. 

This smart terrain management system offers five distinct driving modes, from Eco, Normal, Sport and Slippery, to Sand. Dialing up the Sand mode, and giving it a little gas, the baby Bronco just clawed itself right out. 

Did I mention four-wheel drive comes standard with every Bronco Sport? 

While there are three Sport models to pick from, it’s the range-topping Badlands version I’m driving, named after South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. 

It’s the most rugged and capable of the bunch, with its metal bash plates to protect the undersides, 8.8 inches of ground clearance, and knobbly Falken Wildpeak tires on lovely retro pressed-steel wheels that are actually aluminum. It’s a steal at $36,300.

And in place of the base 181-hp turbo three-banger, the Badlands gets the more muscley 250-hp turbocharged 2-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission.

Of course, you probably don’t need all that off-roading tech. It’s like buying Gore-Tex-lined Salomon X Ultra hiking boots for a stroll in the park. 

But when the apocalypse comes, or Hurricane Whatsername floods the streets, it’s nice to know you have it. 

What’s surprising, however, is that this Badlands Sport scoots along with all the smoothness and refinement of its Escape soft-roader sibling. 

Off the line there’s little to no turbocharger lag, it’ll hit 60mph from standstill in just 5.9 seconds, and is happy to cruise at 75 with hardly a hint of tire roar. Impressive.

Through the curves it feels agile and planted, with nicely precise steering and plenty of grip from those chunky-treaded gumballs. 

Inside, the cabin feels bigger than a PODS storage unit, thanks to that mile-high roofline which offers plenty of headroom. While there’s no shortage of space up front, rear-seat kneeroom is pretty tight. 

But that boxy exterior makes for impressive load-carrying. Open the hatch and a couple of mountain bikes can fit standing upright with the rear seats folded. And I like that the rear window can open separately from the tailgate — perfect for throwing in a gym bag. 

Already this new Bronco Sport is a runaway sales success. And it paves the way nicely for the more rugged Bronco that’s on its way to dealers now.

For adventures of the urban kind, however, this new Bronco Sport might just turn out to be the better steed.

Try out the new Bronco Sport at Elder Ford, Bill Currie Ford and Veterans Ford in Tampa; AutoNation Ford in St. Pete; Walker Ford, and Ferman Ford in Clearwater; and Brandon Ford