The Wrangler has been the undisputed king of the off-road space going back decades now. Many have tried to dethrone the Wrangler, or even just compete in the dedicated off-roader category, but no one has truly succeeded. The closest anyone has come might be the 4Runner, as they are a staple on off-road trails, but that isn’t a dedicated off-road vehicle in the same way a Jeep or even Toyota’s own FJ Cruiser was. The 4Runner is a competent, good looking street vehicle that also happens to do pretty well off-road, where-as the Wrangler is a competent off-roader that is also happens to work on the street. See the difference?
Like I mentioned with the FJ Cruiser, Toyota tried to take a shot at Jeep there, but unfortunately it just didn’t catch on the way they had hoped. Was that because Toyota didn’t go far enough with the off-road-y design by giving it a removable top and a solid axle? Was it the polarizing retro callback design that just didn’t click? Is it because the FJ didn’t offer much in the way of capability over the existing 4Runner?
I would bet good money that Ford took the FJ as a case study when deciding to revisit the Bronco. If you ask me, I think Toyota had a great thing on their hands with it, I just don’t think they took the concept far enough to really take enough sales away from the venerable Jeep. Besides the “goofy looks” as Mike, our social media guy put it, I think Toyota underestimated the value Jeep customers put on core Jeep values, like being able to remove the top, kick the doors off, windshield down, and of course, the solid front axle. These are all things that the original FJ had, but they weren’t the elements that Toyota saw fit to revisit the next time around.
Where Ford is getting it right:
We don’t know 100% just yet, but it has been all but directly confirmed that the new Bronco will have a removable top. Given how much they have covered up of the top in the camouflaged prototypes we’ve seen driving around, it seems like pretty clear confirmation that there something telling about the shape of the roof, and that’s why they went through the trouble of hiding it. Plus the fact that they did this on the 2-door and 4-door models is pretty huge in indicating that this thing probably has a soft top (at least as an option).
Why else would they have that massive rectangle sitting up there? If it was just a flat smooth roof, there wouldn’t be anything to hide. That plus how hidden the upper doors are has me convinced there is a soft top hiding under there.
There is also the fact that Ford filed for a few patents regarding removable doors back in September. This is pretty common for companies to start filing for patents related to a pending release, as the filings are public knowledge, and it doesn’t spoil their plans too far ahead of time. That’s just too much of a coincidence for these to not be for the new Bronco, in my opinion.
The system for removing the doors looks like it simplifies things for the user as well, at least in comparison to Jeeps system. Instead of requiring the user to undo a body painted bolt on each door, Ford’s system looks like it has a built in latch to release the door instead. If true, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jeep follow suit with a similar design.
The removable top and doors are, in my opinion, absolutely paramount in taking on the Wrangler. So what about the foldable windshield and solid axle? The hardcore guys might get mad at me here, but we’re talking about what it takes to make this a commercial success, not just to please the couple guys who will maaaybe buy one used in 5-10 years.
Let’s address these one at a time:
This is a gimmick. I’m sorry, but it just is. I’ve owned three Jeeps, two of them Wranglers, been on plenty of Jeep Club trail rides, and seen who knows how many hundreds of Wranglers out on the trail and in the desert. I have yet to meet one person who saw any actual usefulness in putting down their windshield.
And yes, I have tried it! I did it exactly once on my ’99 TJ, and it only took my 5 minutes to make up my mind that I never wanted to both with it again. Look, this isn’t WWII. I don’t need to fire a machine gun out the front of my Jeep (though that does sound fun), and I don’t need to haul 15ft long mortars across the entire length of my Jeep. It was a pain in the ass to do, and offered nothing but to make me squint horribly at any speed over 15 miles per hour. Windshields are a good thing.
Solid front axle (SFA):
I’m not going to lie, I would love to see the Bronco return to its SFA roots. However, I think Ford is making the right move here in keeping the IFS from the Ranger, and there are a few reasons for this. Road handling, NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness), and day to day liveability are more important now than ever before. You know why? Because besides the Wrangler, SUVs aren’t the compromise they once were.
It used to be a given that a big, wallowy, body on frame SUV would handle like you’d expect a big, wallowy, body on frame SUV to handle. Well with the advent of the crossover, that idea sorta disappeared for the most part. Now even the still truck-like 4Runner is pretty nice and comfortable to drive around day-to-day. The Wrangler, though? Well, it has certainly come a long way in comfort, but compared to everything else on the market, it still handles like a big, harsh, wallowy SUV. A big part of that has to do with the 100 year old axle design that it’s sitting on top of.
Independent front suspension isn’t as much of a detriment off-road as it used to be. We have a great piece coming soon that will be tackling a comparison between the two suspension designs, so stay tuned for that, but the gist is that stock for stock, the SFA isn’t THAT much better off road.
I know, I know, calm down! But honestly, most of the advantages in terms of articulation and flex that a SFA enjoys comes into play only after modifying the suspension. Sure, they have a pretty solid amount of flex stock, but not so much so that a stock Wrangler will utterly leave behind a similarly equipped stock 4Runner. There may have been a time when that was true, but that is not the reality of 2020.
At the extremes, yes, the solid front axle will still have the advantage when it comes to rock crawling. However, this is Ford we’re talking about here, and Ford has the Raptor. And what is the Raptor do best? High speed desert running. And where does the Wrangler fall on its face? High speed desert running.
So the Bronco is trading a little bit of capability in raw rock crawling potential for nice on-road manners and (as we saw with the Baja R concept) to live up to its big brother’s high speed potential. As I’ve mentioned previously in this series of Bronco speculation articles, this is Ford carving out their own space while also having just enough Wrangler appeal that I believe it could really pull people from the dark side.
And if the Jeep diehards don’t get it? Well, it’s a Bronco thing. You wouldn’t understand.
Lead image courtesy of Car and Driver