2021 Chicago Auto Show: Taking the Ford Bronco ‘Off-Road’

Considering it tackled Hell’s Gate, it’s clear the 2021 Ford Bronco has genuine off-road chops. But sometimes, the best way to convince someone is to let them experience something firsthand. And that includes seeing if the Bronco is truly off-road-capable. Luckily, at the 2021 Chicago Auto Show, I got a chance to just that—sort of—and you can, too.

The Ford Bronco can go off-road at the 2021 Chicago Auto Show—kind of

A diagram of the Built Wild Ford Bronco Mountain Experience off-road at the 2021 Chicago Auto Show
2021 Chicago Auto Show Ford Bronco off-road course diagram | Ford

Besides various vehicles, Ford also has several ‘experiences’ set up at the 2021 Chicago Auto Show. For example, you can get a ride in the electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning. Alternatively, show-goers can take an off-road ride in a 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport. Well, a simulated off-road ride, at least.

This ‘off-road’ ride is courtesy of the Built Wild Ford Bronco Mountain Experience (actual name). Set up outside of McCormick Place, it’s a course designed to show off the SUV’s off-pavement capabilities without requiring a Rubicon Trail trip. And while the 38° ramp—the eponymous ‘Bronco Mountain’—might be the most prominent feature, it’s not the only one.

The 38-degree 'Bronco Mountain' ramp on the 2021 Chicago Auto Show Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport off-road course
2021 Chicago Auto Show Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport off-road course ramp | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

The Ford Bronco off-road course starts in a sandpit to demonstrate the SUV’s Trail Turn Assist. This brakes the inside rear wheel in a turn, theoretically letting the Bronco execute 180° turns, The Drive explains. The course then moves to a water trough to test fording depth, ground clearance, and breakover angles. After that, there’s an off-camber ramp section devoted to the obstacle- and line-spotting cameras and the Ford Bronco’s ability to drive on an angle.

The off-camber ramp section also shows off the Ford Bronco’s off-road articulation somewhat. But the next part, a series of elevated wedge-shaped blocks, test it even more. And finally, there’s Bronco Mountain. This demonstrates the SUV’s approach and departure angles, powertrain, various off-road modes, and hill-descent control.

What’s the 2021 Ford Bronco First Edition like on the off-road course?

The dashboard and center console in a 2021 Ford Bronco First Edition
2021 Ford Bronco First Edition dashboard | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

My Ford Bronco off-road passenger ride took place in a First Edition, the fully-loaded limited-edition top Bronco trim. It’s essentially a Badlands model with the optional Sasquatch Package, Car and Driver explains. So, it offers off-road features like front and rear locking differentials, an electronically-disconnecting sway bar, Bilstein remote-reservoir shocks, 35” all-terrain tires, beadlock-capable wheels, and a shorter axle ratio. Plus, the Ford Bronco First Edition has an extra off-road driving mode for rock crawling.

Given that I was a passenger throughout the course, I can’t tell you if the Ford Bronco is easy or difficult to drive off-road. However, in terms of raw capability, this SUV impresses.

The Trail Turn Assist lets the Bronco pirouette through the sandbox, and with the Sasquatch Package, it has a 33.5” fording depth. As for the off-camber ramp, the Bronco has prominent ‘prongs’ on its hood to make it easier to keep track of its edges. This also, in theory, helps the driver with line-spotting. But they’re almost superfluous with those obstacle-spotting cameras feeding visuals to the center touchscreen.

A silver 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands Sasquatch on a simulated off-road course
2021 Ford Bronco Badlands Sasquatch side articulation | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Being able to follow lines easily is vital in the off-road articulation section, the Ford employee driving the Bronco told me. I assume it’s because otherwise, you’d slide right off the blocks. Speaking of the blocks, the Bronco First Edition took them in stride. As you can see from the photo above, the SUV can easily handle having a wheel in the air. And disconnecting the front sway bar was giggle-inducing with how the Bronco softly dropped out of its angled position.

38° doesn’t seem like much on paper. Yet Bronco Mountain is steep enough that, on the descent, I started dangling from my seat belt. But the Bronco’s hill-descent control and off-road modes meant going up and down was otherwise drama-free.

Does this make the SUV off-road-capable in the real world?

To be sure, Ford wouldn’t send the 2021 Bronco on an off-road course it knew the SUV couldn’t handle. And it’s difficult to say anything about an SUV’s off-pavement capabilities without getting behind the wheel.

That being said, when I went off-roading in a 4Runner TRD Pro, I came away thinking that it was more capable than me. And I had the same feeling after riding in the Bronco First Edition. Not every Ford Bronco owner will take their SUV to an off-road park or a place like Moab. But the Chicago Auto Show course makes it clear that the Bronco can handle both. And if you still don’t believe it, seat-time sign-ups are open.   

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