No, it’s not a Bronco. It’s a Bronco Sport. This is what you’ll have to explain every time someone asks, “Is this a Bronco?” Well, there's that, and the ‘60s ice cream truck livery that this particular 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage is painted in. But despite the suffix, it is not Sporty—nor is it a real Bronco. It’s a rugged style play on a car-based crossover.
It’s essentially a redecorated Escape (which itself is a lifted Focus underneath) that has been given a real brace of features that make it more capable off-road than it has any business being. It’s a crossover wearing truck clothes, but it might also be a rare jack-of-all-trades-master-of-most in a highly competitive segment. Most importantly, it also doesn’t cause its driver to go into a deep depression like the Escape does.
But for the price of this Heritage as tested, which actually exceeds the MSRP of a “real” base Bronco, it has to offer A Lot. So I decided to take it up a black diamond trail fit for only the toughest 4x4s out there: Rowher Flats.
2023 Ford Bronco Sport Specs
The Bronco Sport is a relatively new institution in the Ford lineup, acting as a possible on-ramp to the full-blown Bronco or as a more comfortable, quiet, less capable alternative. It’s a compact crossover with Bronco-esque styling and the Heritage trim takes that styling a step further with a classic paint scheme and steel-look wheels. Like I said above, it’s based on the Escape but has its own body, interior, and powertrain.
Underneath, it uses a car-like unibody construction, MacPherson strut front suspension, semi-trailing arm rear suspension, and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. All Bronco Sports have all-wheel drive while the top trim versions like this Heritage get a special rear differential with twin clutches that can provide locking in extreme low-traction situations. It’s similar to the unit from the old Focus RS but adapted for off-road.
Inside, the Bronco Sport gets its own interior that is frankly of lackluster quality. The plastics are cheap, and there was even overspray on the white accents of the dash over its black base. It’s an underwhelming first impression, which is a shame because it's actually fairly well put together with minimal rattles. The style here is just convincingly last generation, from the rental-spec gauge cluster to the relatively small and low-contrast infotainment display. Despite that, the seats are comfortable and the driving position projects a commanding view befit for a truck, complete with an absurdly tall hood. And the trunk has a nice divider system and some adjustable LED lights that work as overhead camp lights with the tailgate open.
That tall hood always reminds you of the exterior of the Sport, which is its primary selling point. It’s a cutesy take on the full-size Bronco but gets the gist of it right. It looks and feels tall, and has strong, straight lines all across with nice details hidden within. What is fascinating is that it has the goods to sell its off-road-lite look. Once I got on the road to my fearsome trail of choice, I found a pleasant small crossover.
Driving the Ford Bronco Sport
Well, it’s pleasant but it isn’t inspiring, which is the entire point. The Bronco Sport fades into the background with an enthusiasm unmatched by even the most normal of cars. It’s comfy, spacious, and completely inoffensive. It’s a quality I find admirable and quite excellent.
The pseudo-truckiness of the Sport is its main trick, balancing being tall and imposing with quiet and approachable. The seating position is set high above everything else, with a relatively low beltline helping side-to-side visibility. Everything in the cabin is quite upright and alert but set far below my field of vision. The only real issue from the throne was the height of the hood and its twin bulges that made it difficult to see directly in front.
But before the onslaught of the black diamond trail, it suggested virtually zero ruggedness to me. The Bronco Sport rode well, with nicely isolated cracks and dips and affirmative damping that dispatched motions quickly without being crashy. It actually did feel somewhat sporting with its relatively stiff suspension and was well-controlled around corners. Paired with medium-weight, decently precise steering, it is impressively well-judged for an everyday runabout. It’s no stunner, but it doesn’t do anything weird and understands its customer.
Then there’s the powertrain, which has gluttonous low-end torque and nice, slurred shifts. With a long, slow throttle pedal, that 2.0-liter turbo-four felt bigger and lazier than its specs would suggest. On the road, it was easy to be smooth. The only thing that wasn’t smooth was the driver’s assistance systems. Initial automatic braking was fairly abrupt, and lane keeping made very straight roads incredibly curvy. But this was no longer a worry once I got on the trail.
I joined my friend David Tracy of The Autopian to go up the fearsome Rowher Flat trail just north of Los Angeles. While it has a reputation for being a trail for true 4x4 trucks, a bit of smart maneuvering can get some of the more capable car-based SUVs up. And while the Bronco Sport might not be a body-on-frame truck with a transfer case, the combination of locking center and rear differentials, and aggressive brake vectoring gets it extremely close to the real thing. Extremely decent approach, break-over, and departure angles don’t hurt either.
Several driving modes activate the ultimate capability of the Bronco Sport, with Rock Crawl being the most aggressive. David brought his bone-stock Jeep Wrangler YJ which turned out to be a great comparison for the Bronco Sport; one uses raw mechanical grip and the other pulls every new-school ABS and traction-control-based trick in the book. What we ended with was a dead-even battle of off-road capability.
The Bronco Sport climbed over obstacles with a shockingly sanguine attitude toward them. That supple ride quality on the road translated into a smooth, easy way up the difficult trail. It was genuinely great going up the trail and cleared several huge obstacles without a scrape. But its ultimate weaknesses did get exposed when I put it into a situation that forced it to figure itself out.
It will get over everything if you don’t purposely flex it out. It’s no off-road crawler for the person who sees a rock and a tree and decides “I would like to drive over that.” It’s more for the person who just wants to get to the top without trying to push the limits. But if a situation where ultimate capability becomes an issue, the Bronco Sport will get stuck, and in my case, overheat its engine coolant. This isn’t a huge crime considering the absurd capability it does have, but it also means that if there is a situation on a single-track trail, the Sport won’t have any extra tricks up its sleeve to get itself out of a bind like a proper truck would.
But honestly, the only reason I sound admonishing is because the Bronco Sport is that capable. Sure, I had to back down an obstacle once or twice and take the easier way. But at the end of the day, it indeed conquered a mountain normally reserved for the most rugged of 4x4s.
The Highs and Lows
For what is, at its core, a car-based crossover, what the Bronco Sport can achieve off-road is remarkable. But it also manages to remain comfortable on the road and completely inoffensive in how it conducts its daily duties.
Its interior, meanwhile, is its greatest weakness. Especially at $46,400. The materials feel extremely cheap, the tech feels out of date, Apple CarPlay is wired, and the wireless charging pad works better as a phone heater than a phone charger.
Ford Bronco Sport Features, Options, and Competition
The compact pseudo-tough SUV segment is red hot. The Ford Bronco Sport is up against the Subaru Forester Wilderness, Subaru Outback Wilderness, Mazda CX-50, Jeep Compass, and Toyota RAV4 TRD Off Road. All of these SUVs land near $32,000 starting and top out in the mid-$40,000 range. The Bronco Sport Heritage lands near the top of the pile, with the competition being generally less expensive.
There’s plenty of choice when it comes to Bronco Sport trim levels. Starting with the base Big Bend, the range moves up in $1,500 increments through the Free Wheeling, Outer Banks, Heritage, and Badlands. Each model gets incremental upgrades with leather, wireless charging, and an upgraded stereo, but the highest trims get the larger 2.0-liter EcoBoost instead of the 1.5-liter, as well as the trick rear differential.
As standard, the 2.0-liter Heritage gets a basic trail camera system, wired Apple CarPlay, wireless charging, and a Bang and Olufsen stereo. All Bronco Sport trims get all-wheel drive, but the Heritage and Badlands get the better rear differential.
The Bronco Sport is a little below average in the segment in terms of fuel economy. Most get a little better fuel economy but are not as off-road focused, though the Jeep Compass manages to do both.
Observed fuel economy over 320 miles was 24 mpg over a majority of highway driving with 35 miles of off-roading.
Value and Verdict
The 2023 Ford Bronco Sport makes a unique case in the rugged compact SUV segment. It’s hugely capable off-road while being comfortable on-road, gets acceptable fuel economy, and slots neatly into everyday life without really making itself known (silly Heritage paint jobs notwithstanding).
But it suffers from a rough interior and lackluster technology. For how decent the Bronco Sport is at its job, having jerky ADAS and an inside that feels barely acceptable for $30,000 while costing $46,400 is a miss. It presents an interesting proposition for people who value capability over luxury, but it isn't necessarily one that makes it competitive.
The Bronco Sport is a bona fide off-roader built on bones that never had any business being a bona fide off-roader–and that is its real selling point. So, if you don’t mind a bit of hard plastic and you like climbing dusty mountains without the compromise of a truck, this might be the best proposition yet.
Got questions about the Bronco Sport? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org