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Payne: Ford Bronco Sasquatch vs. Land Rover Defender 90 in the Dirt Bowl


Holly — What’s better than taking an off-road beast over snowbound Holly Oaks ORV Park? Taking two off-road beasts.

I flogged the Land Rover Defender 90 and Ford Bronco First Edition two-door models over southeast Michigan’s premier adventure park for grins — and to see how the two warriors compared. The Bronco has wowed in comparison tests with its arch-rival Jeep Wrangler.

But so good is Bronco that it also matches up against His Highness of Rugged Royalty, Land Rover.

It’s good to have the Brit and Bronc back. They are iconic names that disappeared from the U.S. market for years. Defender last sold here in 1997, the Bronco 1996. Credit Wrangler’s wild success as a brand halo for Jeep in the Age of Ute for bringing these two legends out of retirement.

Like Wrangler, Defender and Bronco have their roots in World War II. They were first built as rugged, battle-ready General Purpose (GP — or Jeep for short) vehicles. But the Brit and Yank have diverged dramatically since then. Aimed at Land Rover’s First Class clientele, Defender now rides on a — la-de-da — air suspension and crisp unibody SUV chassis contrary to the truck-based bruiser of safari legend. The Americans are still based on ladder frames and can be stripped naked of their doors and roof to get even closer to Mother Nature.

Wrangler and Broncos are natural predators and will be hunting each other for years across Holly Oaks and other U.S. adventure parks. But, in a challenge to Jeep, Bronco has updated the off-road formula with state-of-the-art tech — rotary mode shifter, single-button sway-bar disconnect, fully digital instrument displays, independent front suspension.

Its sophistication not only challenges Jeep — but puts it in the same neighborhood as Land Rover for $20,000 less.

A consistent theme of these columns is how the electronics age has shrunk the gap between luxe and mainstream (see Mazda CX-50 vs. BMW 2-series, VW Golf R vs. Audi S3, Corvette vs. Porsche), and Rover v. Bronco is another example. Game on.

Punching the Rover 90’s 395-horse, supercharged-and-turbocharged inline-6 across Holly Oaks' frozen tundra, I slewed the 5,000-pound beast into The Sandbox — an undulating sea of sand that tests vehicles' stability and strength. The Defender was solid as a rock (despite an eerie wail from the brakes which my pal, Tom — riding shotgun — surmised was sand in the discs) on its unibody chassis.

The unibody choice raised eyebrows at the Rover’s introduction in 2019 — Heresy! Off with the engineers' heads! — but it's more rigid than the old ladder frame and never flinched through Holly Oaks' unsparing terrain.

Defender knows its clientele. For all its off-road chops, Land Rovers are show horses. They spend their time ferrying its occupants to country clubs, not ORV parks.

Roll out onto the Holly Oaks battlefield and Rover intuitively recognizes the incongruity of the task at hand.

“Um, do you really know what you’re doing? I’ll take it from here.”

What ensues is a heavily managed trip around the grounds, the 90’s electronics always present to ensure you don’t get too far over your skis. For clearance over rocks Defender’s air suspension rises to 11.5 inches.

The big rotary dial on the dash allows easy access to Defender’s multiple modes: AUTO, GRASS/GRAVEL/SNOW, MUD, SAND, ROCK CRAWL. But no matter the mode, Defender won’t let you tune the nannies off. As our friends at Car and Driver put it: “Non-defeatable stability control occasionally stifles off-roading.”

The Bronco wants you to push the envelope. Four exposed tow hooks come standard — on the Rover, exposed tow hooks are optional. That tells you something.

Bronco achieves its 11.5” ride height the old-fashioned way — by slapping on huge 35-inch Goodyear Territory tires, part of a Sasquatch package that includes dual-locking differentials and performance shocks.

The heck with air suspension, these balloons with teeth not only jack up the car, they can claw up Rushmore’s face. Ford encourages its drivers to play with the firepower on hand. High on the dash are buttons to turn off stability control, disconnect sway bars, turn on lockers, even toggle Turn Assist for extra-tight turning radius.

The Ford swaggered up to Holly Oaks’ intimidating, snowy, slick Mt. Magna rock face. With 43-degree approach angle, lockers on and sway bar disconnected, I waltzed up Magna as easy as Gretzky stuffing a power-play goal.

The Defender struggled. Never mind its lack of suspension articulation (the Defender doesn’t offer sway bar disconnect), traction control forced multiple attempts to find grip. Its 37.5-degree approach angle and 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler tires also were relatively limited.

Oh, how I pined for Bronc’s button controls and Territory 35s. The sequence repeated itself across Holly Oaks — the Ford attacking, the Rover managing. Ultimately, the Bronco’s incredible capabilities took me places the Defender wouldn’t dare.

How different might “No Time to Die” have turned out if the bad guys had Sasquatch package to pursue Bond?

The beauty of the Ford is that, thanks to modern electronics, its controls are as easy to use as Rover's. The Bronco’s horizontal all-digital dash is surprisingly similar to the luxe Rover — then Bronco ups the ante with a giant center screen and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Drive modes — NORMAL, ECO, SPORT, MUD/RUTS, SLIPPERY, SAND/SNOW, ROCK CRAWL, BAJA, and MARS (just kidding about that last one) — are accessed via similar rotary dial. No muscling a second transfer case shifter as in Wrangler. Modes are then refined using the aforementioned dash buttons.

Bronco also matches Rover for visual drama. The two-doors are athletic looking — the Defender in Pangea Green, the Ford in Area 51 Blue — compared with four-door models. Bronco’s Sasquatch package made my truck pal Scott’s knees weak when he saw it in the parking lot.

“I gotta take a picture for my daughter,” he smiled.

Yeah, chicks dig these brutes. But those 35s come at a cost to comfort. On road, Defender is noticeably quieter. Put your right foot down and the Defender’s 395-horse supercharged-and-turbocharged inline-6 will get you to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

Hit the gas in the 330-horse Bronco and the turbo V-6 hits 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, but with a roar: WAAUUURRGHH!

If you want a rugged-looking Land Rover, the $66,000 Defender is the summit. If you want to go off-roading, the $49,000 Bronco is the bomb.

And you can put the 17 grand you save toward a $21K Ford Maverick pickup.

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition Advanced

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger two-door compact SUV

Price: $49,180, including $1,495 destination fee as tested ($31,490 for standard two-door)

Powerplant: 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 330 horsepower, 415 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity, 3,500 pounds

Weight: 4,871 pounds

Fuel economy: 17 city/17 highway/17 combined

Report card

Highs: Off-road beast; easy-to-use controls

Lows: Hard-top leaks; noisy ride

Overall: 4 stars

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger two-door compact SUV

Price: $66,475, including $1,350 destination fee as tested ($50,050 base model)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter supercharged turbo-inline 6-cylinder

Power: 395 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (mfr.); towing, 8,201 pounds

Weight: 5,000 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 17 mpg city/22 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Standout style; composed ride on- and off-road

Lows: Undefeatable off-road nannies; no wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.