The thick spray from the rain-soaked highway, plus the constant flip-flop of the wipers after hours of peering at fading white lines and glowing red taillights, is sucking my eyeballs out. But circumstances improve radically outside Waterville, as the downpour stops for the rest of the late-night ride home from Middleboro, Mass.
The four-and-a-half-hour ride after a Jeep product presentation allows for lots of thoughts, not the least of which is how Jeep appears to be targeting Ford at some levels, with its new Grand Cherokee L seven-passenger wagon aiming at Explorer, while the Wagoneer lineup is a direct shot at Ford’s Expedition and Lincoln’s Navigator as well as GM’s successful SUV lineup.
On the other hand, Ford is coming right back at Jeep with both the new Ford Bronco (vs. Wrangler) while our ride home, the new Bronco Sport, is pointed right at Jeep’s Compass, and to a lesser degree Renegade, plus other small crossovers like HR-V, Trax, Outlander Sport and Rogue Sport. After this night, and six more days of daily use, the Bronco Sport is head and shoulders above these rivals.
The Bronco Sport, the smaller, compact class sibling to the midsize Bronco that buyers are still waiting to get their hands on, comes in four trim levels, (Base, Big Bend, Outer Banks and Badlands) with two powertrains — a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder makes 181 hp, while a 2.0-liter turbo-four is the optional engine with 245 hp. Both are teamed with an eight-speed automatic and one of several four-wheel-drive systems available, including the now infamous GOAT mode dial on the console for go-over-any-terrain.
Driving in a fall downpour for hours, splish-splashing through No. 128 traffic and up the Maine Turnpike ($4 York toll now!), the Outer Banks sampled proved an efficient and steady partner. Despite the off-roading claims by Ford, this might be the most severe driving that many Bronco Sport drivers ever attempt, and that’s OK, because it performed admirably.
Ford is crafting Bronco Sports to appeal to a wide variety of users. The base model gets you the Bronco “look” and into a compact/subcompact 4WD crossover at a decent price, starting at $28,170. Big Bend adds more off-roading orientation, but not quite as much as the top Badlands edition ($34,855), while the Outer Banks is the luxury model ($34,355) with heated/cooled leather seating, heated steering wheel, upgraded audio system, power moonroof and much more. The Outer Banks also substitutes the vehicle’s usual rubber flooring for carpet, while augmenting some inherent all-weather attributes with removal plastic-coated panels, like the rear load deck, that make messy gear cleanup a quick process.
Outer Banks models also come with remote starting, reverse-sensing system, Ford’s Sync 3 upgraded graphics and info-screen interface, plus the advanced Terrain Management system in the GOAT mode dial, for snow, mud, sand and chewing up your neighbor’s manicured lawn.
Likes include the tiny low-speed turning radius that makes parking and any off-roading adventures much easier, the low-speed automatic turning lamps that helped illuminate these tight spaces, plus the split-level rear liftgate that enables the upper glass panel to open separate from the whole liftgate. The driver’s seat was supportive for the whole 320-mile-long stint home on day one, plus the mix of dials, knobs and buttons are user-friendly in ways that we used to take for granted.
The 1.5-liter turbo-engine is more than eager and a little raspy under heavy throttle and sometimes at low-speed activity, but the racket quickly dissipates, and the cabin is impressively quiet at a cruising pace. Quiet enough, that the random thought arrived (with a hint of sarcasm) that Honda might buy a few of these and disassemble them to help make their own vehicles quieter. Fuel economy hovered around 31 mpg during the Bronco Sport’s visit, well ahead of the EPA’s 25/28-mpg predictions.
The look is rugged, which carries its own level of panache for many buyers today, there is enough hardware available to truly go off-roading if you want, and the interior is roomy enough for you and your gear (two bikes can fit inside) so that you can become part of a cult of Bronco drivers just like Wrangler drivers, a feel-good story in an era when people want to feel good — about something. Yes, other Bronco drivers waved.
Next week: Hyundai Venue SEL