Ford Engineered the 2022 Bronco to Give Jeep the Willies
Independent front suspension leads a list of technology choices that are well integrated into Ford’s new 4x4.
Ford engineers refused to utter a single bad word about Jeep Wrangler during the course of the week-long 2022 Bronco media drive event in Austin, Texas. In fact, some among that gracious bunch admitted, ahem, that they may have owned and modified a Wrangler or two in their lifetimes. Jeep’s profit-spinning 4x4 icon has that effect on competitors and fans alike.
And it “has had this space to itself for decades,” noted Eric Loeffler, chief program engineer for U725, Ford’s code for the new Bronco. About five years ago, Ford decided to unseat the Jeep’s monopoly. The result is a modern take on another historic nameplate that finally brings Wrangler a truly serious competitor – and beats it in at least three key areas.
SAE’s Automotive Engineering comprehensively covered the new Bronco’s unveiling and technical specifications last summer. Our recent drive experience was in various 2- and 4-door Broncos among the seven available trims, with hard and soft tops, on all manner of Texas public roads as well as on the challenging trails of the 360-acre Grey Wolf Ranch converted by Ford into an “off-roadeo” compound. And it affirmed our suspicions about Bronco’s potential. The rural facility near Marble Falls is one of four such dedicated 4x4 driving camps in the U.S. offered free to everyone who buys a new Bronco.
In Texas we sampled vehicles powered by both the turbocharged 2.3-L inline-4 and 2.7-L V6, backed by two available transfer cases and two transmissions: Ford’s 10-speed automatic or the Magna-sourced MT-88 manual gearbox. The latter is a 7-speeder featuring a slightly notchy gearchange and unique “crawler” gear (6.588:1 ratio) staged below 1st gear. It allows the Bronco to move forward as slowly as 1 mph with no clutch slip required. While this will please the relatively few hard-core gear-shifters in Bronco’s audience (thus justifying the cost-add of integrating and certifying the MT-88, according to Loeffler), the truck’s crawling performance in low range with the 10-speed auto is also outstanding.
Some key wins for Ford: First, Bronco is superior to Wrangler in pavement driving. (Ford had two new Wranglers at the Texas ranch for back-to-back comparison drives versus Bronco.) This is largely due to Ford’s choice of an independent front suspension (IFS), rather than a solid “live” axle as has graced every Wrangler and CJ since 1945. Thanks to the IFS, Bronco’s steering and tracking are not disrupted by rippling and potholed pavement. “There is less head-toss over rough terrain when the wheels are free to move independently,” noted Gavin McGee, Bronco vehicle dynamics engineer.
Wrangler’s live axle, by comparison, requires the driver to make constant steering corrections, and bump steer has become part of Wrangler ownership lore. Wrangler is the last Jeep model to still use a live front axle because it is demanded by the hardcore off-roading Jeep owners. They claim a live axle is more durable. But try to find a recent military tactical truck that doesn’t have IFS.
A close look at Bronco’s set-up reveals short, stout half-shafts and CV joints and boots that are well protected within the front suspension-corner and knuckles. Durability will be either proven or disproven by Bronco off-roaders in short order, but the bet is on the former. Will Jeep Engineering adopt IFS to the next generation Wrangler? It took years for the Jeep owner base to accept coil springs; a Bronco test drive may change some minds.
There’s also the matter of suspension articulation, another regularly argued metric among off-roaders. Live axles typically offer greater overall articulation than independent set-ups, when measured using an RTI (ramp-travel index). But according to Loeffler, Bronco offers 17% more front-axle articulation than Wrangler, and 10% more in rear. Let that battle begin.
Bronco also beats Wrangler, based on our experience, in its 4x4 drive-mode control. Ford engineers specified a rotary dial module that also includes pushbutton Hi/Lo Range selection. The rotary control falls easily to hand, located on the center console next to the driver’s right thigh. Rotary dial transmission controls have a natural operating feel, making them the new standard in passenger vehicles and even sports cars. By comparison, Jeep Nation still demands a stick-type range control that looks and feels increasingly clunky and obsolete.
Bronco’s overall human-machine interface and driver/passenger ergonomics are more contemporary and well considered than found in Wrangler. Basic driver-to-pedals and driver-to-steering wheel geometries deliver more roominess and comfort, compared with the remnants of the old sit-up-and-beg attitude that Jeeps have endured since the Willys-Overland era.
The third key area in which Bronco’s engineering is superior to Wrangler is in the overall refinement of subsystems. As Jeep engineers will discover when they wring out their first Bronco for competitive evaluation, the Ford systems are electronically sophisticated and increasingly unobtrusive. The automatic swaybar disconnect effectively makes and breaks an hydraulic circuit to connect/disconnect the ‘bar without the “bang” found with some competitive technologies. It uses pressure sensors to detect leaks.
Bronco’s clever Trail-Turn Assist is a handy feature for use on tight trails. It relies on steering-angle sensing and discrete use of brake pressure to help spin the vehicle, effectively shortening its turning circle by 40%. The Dana locking differentials are mostly invisible in their operation. The same attention to detail is engineered into Bronco’s slick-operating 1-pedal drive and the deft mapping of the ZF electric power steering. “We have all these discrete components that we treat as an orchestra,” noted Jamie Groves, the vehicle engineering manager. Think of this new 4x4 as a symphony, expertly conducted by Ford.