HOLLY, Michigan – What’s better than taking an off-road beast on snowy Holly Oaks ORV Park? Take two off-road beasts.
I whipped the Land Rover Defender 90 and Ford Bronco First Edition two-door models into Southeast Michigan’s premier adventure park for the smiles — and to see how the two warriors stacked up against each other. The Bronco seduced during the comparative tests with its great rival Jeep Wrangler.
But Bronco is so good that it also measures up to His Highness the Rugged Royalty, Land Rover.
Good to have the Brit and Bronc back. These are iconic names that disappeared from the US market for years. The Defender was last sold here in 1997, the Bronco in 1996. Credit Wrangler’s wild success as the halo of the Ute-era Jeep brand for bringing these two legends out of retirement .
Like Wrangler, Defender and Bronco have their roots in World War II. They were first built as rugged, combat-ready Multi-Purpose Vehicles (GP – or Jeep for short). But the Briton and the Yank have diverged significantly since then. Aimed at Land Rover’s first-class clientele, the Defender now rides on air suspension – la-de-da – and a sharp monocoque SUV chassis unlike the safari legend’s truck-based bruiser. Americans are still based on ladder frames and can be stripped of their doors and roof to get even closer to Mother Nature.
Wranglers and Broncos are natural predators and will hunt each other for years through Holly Oaks and other American adventure parks. But, in a challenge to Jeep, Bronco has updated the off-road formula with cutting-edge technology – twist-mode shifter, one-button stabilizer bar disconnect, fully digital instrument displays, front suspension independent.
Its sophistication not only challenges Jeep, but puts it in the same neighborhood as Land Rover for $20,000 less.
A recurring theme in these chronicles is how the electronic age has narrowed the gap between luxury and mainstream (see Mazda CX-50 vs. BMW 2 Series, VW Golf R vs. Audi S3, Corvette vs. Porsche ) and Rover vs. Bronco is another example. Game on.
Slamming the Rover 90’s supercharged, turbocharged 395-hp inline-6 across the frozen tundra of Holly Oaks, I propelled the 5,000-pound beast into The Sandbox – a rolling sea of sand that tests stability and strength. cars. The Defender felt rock solid (despite an odd whine from the brakes that my shotgun buddy Tom assumed was sand in the discs) on its unibody chassis.
The unibody choice raised eyebrows when the Rover was introduced in 2019 – Heresy! Down with the engineers! – but it’s stiffer than the old ladder frame and never flinched in the unforgiving terrain of Holly Oaks.
Defender knows its customers. For all its off-road chops, Land Rovers are show horses. They spend their time transporting its occupants to country clubs, not ORV parks.
Deploy on the battlefield of Holly Oaks and Rover intuitively recognizes the incongruity of the task at hand.
“Um, do you really know what you’re doing? I’ll take care of it from here.”
What ensues is a heavily managed trip around the terrain, 90s electronics still present to ensure you don’t go too far on your skis. For rock clearance, the Defender’s air suspension stands at 11.5 inches.
The large rotary dial on the dash provides easy access to Defender’s multiple modes: AUTO, GRASS/GRAVEL/SNOW, MUD, SAND, ROCK CRAWL. But no matter the mode, Defender won’t let you disable nannies. As our friends at Car and Driver said: “Tamper-proof stability control sometimes stifles off-road driving.”
The Bronco wants you to push the limits. Four exposed tow hooks are standard — on Rover, exposed tow hooks are optional. That tells you something.
Bronco hits its old-school 11.5-inch ride height — slamming on huge 35-inch Goodyear Territory tires, part of a Sasquatch package that includes dual-locking differentials and performance shocks.
To hell with the air suspension, those balloons with teeth don’t just lift the car, they can scratch Rushmore’s face. Ford encourages its drivers to play with the firepower at their disposal. At the top of the dash are buttons to turn off the stability control, disconnect the sway bars, activate the lockers and even toggle turn assist for a really tight turning radius.
The Ford sped up the intimidating, snow-covered, smooth rock face of Holly Oaks’ Mount Magna. With a 43-degree approach angle, lockers on, and sway bar disconnected, I waltzed Magna as easily as Gretzky stuffing a power-play goal.
The Defender struggled. Regardless of its lack of suspension articulation (the Defender doesn’t offer a stabilizer bar disconnect), the traction control forced several attempts to find grip. Its 37.5-degree approach angle and 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler tires were also relatively limited.
Oh, how I yearn for the Bronc and Territory 35 control knobs. The sequence repeated itself through Holly Oaks – the Ford attacking, the Rover managing. Ultimately, the Bronco’s incredible capabilities took me where the Defender wouldn’t dare.
How different would “No Time to Die” have been if the villains had a Sasquatch package to pursue Bond?
The beauty of the Ford is that, thanks to modern electronics, its controls are as easy to use as those of the Rover. The Bronco’s horizontal all-digital dashboard is strikingly similar to the luxury Rover – then Bronco ups the ante with a giant center screen and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Ride modes – NORMAL, ECO, SPORT, MUD/RUTS, SLIPPERY, SAND/SNOW, ROCK CRAWL, BAJA and MARS (just kidding with the latter) – are accessed via a similar rotary dial. No muscle-building a second shifter like in Wrangler. The modes are then fine-tuned using the aforementioned dashboard buttons.
Bronco also matches Rover for visual drama. Both doors have an athletic look – the Defender in Pangea Green, the Ford in Area 51 Blue – compared to the four-door models. Bronco’s Sasquatch package made my truck buddy Scott’s knees weak when he saw it in the parking lot.
“I have to take a picture for my daughter,” he smiles.
Yeah, girls love these bullies. But these 35 years have a cost for comfort. On the road, the Defender is noticeably quieter. Put your right foot down and the Defender’s supercharged, turbocharged 395-hp inline-6 will take you to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.
Hit the gas in the 330 horsepower Bronco and the turbo V-6 hits 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, but with a roar: WAAUUURRGHH!
If you want a rugged-looking Land Rover, the $66,000 Defender is tops. If you want to go off-roading, the $49,000 Bronco is the bomb.
And you can invest the $17,000 you saved in a $21,000 Ford Maverick pickup truck.
Ford Bronco Advanced First Edition 2021
Vehicle type: Compact two-door front-engine SUV, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger
Price: $49,180, including $1,495 destination tested fee ($31,490 for standard two-door)
Powertrain: 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6
Power: 330 horsepower, 415 lb-ft of torque
Gearbox: 10-speed automatic
Performance: 0-100 km/h, 6.3 seconds (car and driver); towing capacity, 3,500 pounds
Weight: 4,871 lbs.
Fuel consumption: 17 city/17 highway/17 combined
Tops: All-Terrain Beast; easy to use controls
Low: hard top leaks; noisy ride
Overall: 4 stars
Land Rover Defender 90 first edition 2021
Vehicle Type: Two-door, front-engine, all-wheel-drive compact SUV
Price: $66,475, including $1,350 tested destination fee ($50,050 base model)
Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6
Power: 395 horsepower, 406 lb-ft of torque
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0 to 100 km/h, 5.7 seconds (mfr.); towing, 8,201 pounds
Weight: 5,000 pounds
Fuel Economy: EPA, 17 mpg city/22 highway/19 combined
Treble: Outstanding style; compound driving on and off road
Weak: Invincible off-road nannies; no wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
Overall: 3 stars
Henry Payne is an auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at [email protected] or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
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