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Bronco vs. Jeep: off-road SUVs to battle it out this weekend at 4Fest

The Broncos take on the Wranglers this weekend as Detroit's autos showdown expands to Oakland County's Holly Oaks ORV Park for 4Fest sponsored by Jeep, an off-roading celebration.

It's territory the Jeep Wrangler from Stellantis NV has dominated for decades. But after a 25-year hiatus, Ford Motor Co. has resurrected the Bronco nameplate to challenge the king of the hill. With the Bronco getting into customers' hands this summer after multiple delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a microchip shortage and other parts problems, the two finally can battle it out.

Ford Bronco vs Jeep Wrangler at Motor Bella
Autos writer Jordyn Grzelewski compares the Ford Bronco vs Jeep Wrangler at Motor Bella
The Detroit News

"Jeep, for the longest time, was pretty much on an island, in that if you wanted a cool four-door, off-road vehicle that the top and doors came off, you had to get a Jeep Wrangler or Gladiator," said Max Muncey, spokesperson for LaFontaine Automotive Group, a 4Fest sponsor and Michigan-based dealership group that includes five Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram stores and three Ford stores. 

"But now with Bronco coming out, it's giving people in the market another alternative to look at," he said. "We love this competition in the market because it's going to drive excitement and enthusiasm for both brands."

But which is better? It depends who you ask.

"We'll pass up the Broncos," said Chris Fiehn, 61, of Clinton Township, who's observed the boom in off-roading since he traded in a truck for a 2004 Wrangler TJ Sport he's named Carlos SpicyWiener after a "Star Wars" spoof on "Family Guy."

"I have been to Holly Oaks a few times. They are no competition," Fiehn said of the new Broncos. He is curious, though, to see the performance of the Broncos with the off-roading-geared Sasquatch package.

Bronco buyers, meanwhile, say Wrangler is no match for the Ford SUV that matches its competition spec-for-spec but features eye-catching aesthetics, a roomy interior and high-tech features that make off-roading easier. 

"Between the two, I think the Bronco is just way ahead on the technology side: the 360-camera ... and the hill descent control and the (electronic) sway bar disconnect, all that stuff I think is better than the products that Jeep has that are similar to it," said Zachary Digia of Detroit, who owns a full-size Bronco with the Badlands package and manual transmission, as well as the smaller Bronco Sport. 

"The Bronco," he said, "is the Jeep-killer."

Off-road lifestyle takes off

Attendees to the Motor Bella show this week in Pontiac can test both vehicles at the manufacturers' displays. And this weekend, more than 400 vehicles are expected to descend on the Holly Oaks ORV Park daily on Saturday and Sunday for 4Fest. Organizers say it's open to all skill levels. There will be vehicles on display, ride and drive opportunities, and instructional sessions for novices.

Its creator, Tom Zielinski, likened the budding rivalry to the pony car and horsepower wars of the past.

"The Jeep heritage and its roots really play to my heart," he said. "They have been the authentic brand in the middle of this off-road lifestyle. At the same moment, I'm commending the Ford team that said, 'We can’t be afraid to jump into the space that is owned by Jeep.' Ford wasn't kidding. They didn't halfway it."

And it comes with great timing as four-wheeling and overlanding grows in popularity, further boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic that encouraged people to social distance and explore the outdoors.

"Jeep and Ford are exactly at the right place at exactly the right time to push that whole thing forward," Zielinski said.

Jeep sold 118,666 Wranglers in the first six months of the year, up 23% from 2020, including 69,020 in the second quarter. Prior to the launch of the Bronco, Ford had received more than 125,000 orders. It sold 801 in June when it began deliveries. Of the smaller Bronco Sport, it sold 60,514 vehicles in the first half of the year.

In July and August, there were 6,007 Broncos and 9,004 Bronco Sports sold. Jeep parent Stellantis reports sales quarterly. The starting manufacturer's suggested retail price on the 2021 Wrangler is $28,570. The Bronco's is $28,500.

"Both vehicles should be able to flourish," said Stephanie Brinley, principal autos analyst for the Americas at research firm IHS Markit Ltd. "Both of them are capable. It’ll come down to style in some cases between them. The more exposure that Ford can give to consumers to the vehicles, the better shot that they have."

Bronco did have a cult-like following even though production last ended in 1996. Now, it has to introduce the nameplate to a new generation, said Karl Brauer, executive analyst at auto information website

"Ford has to start from scratch of sub-35-year-olds who have never heard of them," he said. "That’s their challenge. The styling is cool, the execution is really well done with the feature sets, the technology it's got."

The SUV's technology options, as well as its interior and the newness of the product, are what drew in Digia, who considered a Jeep before springing for his first-ever Ford vehicles with the Bronco and Bronco Sport.

"The Bronco feels like it's a luxury car," he said. "And looking at what I would have to do to get a Jeep with similar capabilities, I was going to be definitely over the price of the Bronco. A lot of the things that the Bronco came stocked with don't come stocked on the Jeep."

He had never been off-roading before attending the Bronco Off-Roadeo 4x4 school in Texas over the summer, an experience that left him impressed with the Bronco lineup's capabilities and ready to hit some courses in Michigan.

Meanwhile, Jeep executives have said they're not letting up on the pedal. During a media roundtable for the brand's 80th anniversary, Jeep CEO Christian Meunier said: "Competition is great. There is a craving for freedom to make you go anywhere. I think Bronco is going to be a good competitor, a solid competitor, we don’t deny that. At the same time, it puts us on our toes. It forces us to be better and better and better."

The brand already has responded to Bronco. Hours ahead of the Bronco's debut last year, Jeep shared images of a concept V-8-powered Wrangler and later made the V-8 engine available in the Unlimited Rubicon 392, an offering Bronco doesn't have.

Aftersales parts division Mopar introduced a doors-off mirror kit for the Wrangler and pickup sister Gladiator in response to the Bronco, which retains its side mirror when its doors are removed. This summer, Jeep also debuted the Xtreme Recon package that features 35-inch tires from the factory for the first time and has a 100:1 crawl ratio compared to the Bronco Sasquatch package offering 35-inch tires and a maximum 94.75:1 crawl ratio.

Jeep this year also launched a 4xe model that it says was the most-sold plug-in hybrid in the second quarter in the United States. Bronco doesn't have an electrified model, but executives have teased more is to come. This week, Ford teased a high-performance "Raptor" edition of the Bronco.

Whether Jeep drivers are overlanding or doing some extreme rock crawling, they “eat, sleep and drink it,” said Mert Logue, general manager of Peterson Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Nampa, Idaho

“It’s the history,” he said. “This is a vehicle that dates back to World War II. … It’s the most versatile, most accessorized vehicle on the planet. We do a lot of big builds, and a lot of it is people’s personality and the capability and adventure. This vehicle checks all of the boxes. They’re not going to switch.”

Sales data on Broncos remain limited. For trade-ins for the Bronco Sport, however, roughly 10% were Jeeps for each month of this year through August, according to auto information website Inc. That’s compared with about 3% and 4% for all Ford models. And when trading in a Wrangler, customers opted slightly more often for a Ford than other Jeep vehicles being traded in.

“Overall takeaway is that Wrangler trade-ins typically result in a slightly higher portion of sales going to Ford,” Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ senior manager of insights, said in a statement. “From the other perspective, Bronco Sports are often purchased with a Jeep trade-in, and more so than when looking at all Ford models overall for Jeep trade-ins.”

Pros and cons

Ford has said that Bronco Sport's No. 1 source of sales is coming from Jeep. It notes 70% of Bronco orders are from customers who are new to the brand and says the Dearborn automaker's new products, including Bronco and Bronco Sport, are winning over customers from other brands at a rate almost 14 percentage points higher than Ford overall.

"The customer and critical reception to our new Bronco lineup has ... been remarkable," Ford CEO Jim Farley said during the company's second-quarter earnings release. 

Larry Joffe, 57, of New York's Long Island has loved Jeeps since working in maintenance on the beach as a teenager in the early 1980s riding in the old Scramblers. He looked at the Bronco after his 2019 JL Unlimited Rubicon in his favorite Punk’n Orange was wrecked in an accident in July.

"I test drove it, but you just can't get them," he said of the Bronco. "I like having two roofs and have not been happy with the issues with the hard top of the Bronco. Also not happy with the long waits and crazy jacked up prices for the Bronco. Because of my situation in needing to replace my Jeep and not being able to wait for a Bronco or willing to pay a 'dealer tax,' I ordered another Rubicon."

He prefers Jeep's front solid axle and that he can get a Wrangler without a turbo engine. He ordered a 2021 JL Unlimited Rubicon, though he couldn't get it in the orange and is paying the additional $4,000 for the Xtreme Recon package because dealerships told him it was the only way to get the V-6 engine with an automatic transmission in the Rubicon. But he ordered it from a retailer in Virginia where he could get the vehicle for several thousand dollars cheaper than in New York, even with the cost of transporting it home.

It's a house divided for Dan Uress, a Chicago-area First Edition Bronco owner, whose father owns a Wrangler. But Uress says he prefers the smoother ride provided by the Bronco's independent front suspension.

"It is multiple times more comfortable on the road," said Uress. "It’s really a pleasure to drive as a daily driver while also having all of its four-wheel capability right there waiting."

Uress had wanted a Wrangler, but he and other Bronco customers say they've found the Jeep's design — which features a bar running the width of the vehicle behind front-row seats — uncomfortable or unworkable for tall drivers.

"That has always kept me out of being able to buy a Wrangler, which has always been a disappointment because it's something I've wanted for a long time," he said. "When Ford announced that the Bronco would not need to have a bar in that position ... that was the first opportunity I've ever had to buy such a vehicle."

Brian MacConaghy, 40, of Davisburg drives a 2017 Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited identifiable by a fake arm hanging out of the back of the vehicle. He welcomes the idea from the Bronco platform.

"It's the biggest competition for the Wrangler," he said. "It's nice to have the competitor. We need to step up our game and stay on top."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Twitter: @JGrzelewski