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2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands Road Test | The best version on pavement, too

In the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport range, the Badlands is marketed as the off-road specialist. To back that up, it includes an array of off-road-oriented features. As it turns out, though, some of those features also make it the most entertaining version on the street. Add in ample convenience features and competitive pricing, and you have the best Bronco Sport and a serious competitor among rugged, entry-level crossovers.

Distinguishing the Badlands from other Bronco Sports are the mechanical upgrades. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 250 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque (on premium fuel). Those are increases of 69 hp and 87 lb-ft over other Bronco Sport models. It’s coupled to an eight-speed automatic sending power to all four wheels, but it gets a torque-vectoring dual-clutch rear differential. And in addition to providing torque vectoring, it, and the center differential, can be locked for extra traction. The transmission and rear diff get their own oil coolers, too. The Badlands comes standard with 28.5-inch all-terrain tires as standard, with 29-inch tires as an option. The Badlands also gets off-road-tuned suspension with hydraulic bump stops, skid plates, unique Mud and Rock Crawl drive modes (aka G.O.A.T modes), a front-mounted camera, as well as Ford’s off-road cruise control system called Trail Control.

We’ve previously spent some time with the Badlands off-road, where its trail tools performed admirably. This time, we were able to try it out in its real natural habitat, city streets and freeways, and it more than makes a case for itself here, too. The engine is a sweetheart. Not only does it deliver every bit of its rated output, it does so over a fat power band, making it quick in nearly any situation. Then there’s that trick rear axle. While not the same as what was found in the dearly departed Ford Focus RS, it operates in a similar manner: on either side of the differential is a clutch that can engage or disengage an axle to send power to the wheel where it’s most needed (torque-vectoring). And in sport mode, the torque-vectoring tuning is adjusted, and even more of the engine’s torque is sent rearward. This seriously changes the character of the Bronco Sport, making it more neutral and willing to power through corners. In the default mode, or in the regular 1.5-liter-equipped Bronco Sport that has a more conventional, non-torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, there’s more natural tendency toward understeer. We’d love to see Ford make this all-wheel-drive system available in something like an Escape ST.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands

Not all of these changes necessarily improve the on-road experience, but they don’t really detract from it either. The off-road-tuned suspension can be a little busy and bumpy over mildly rough pavement, something we noted with a non-Badlands Bronco Sport. It does breeze through big potholes, though. There’s some mild-to-moderate body roll, due in part to the crossover’s tall stature. Still, it’s quite responsive and maneuverable. The all-terrain tires also had more than adequate grip and are surprisingly quiet, maintaining the well-isolated cabin’s serenity.

If there’s one area that could use improvement, it’s the slow-shifting automatic transmission – be it left to its own devices or, worse, when prodded by the driver in manual mode.  Fortunately, it’s smooth enough and the transmission computer has a good shift logic, so it doesn’t shift too often and doesn’t have to go through multiple cogs to get to the one it wants.

While the Badlands’ mechanical bits are its main draw, it also receives some nice interior upgrades. Dark blue or orange upholstery replaces the plain black or gray found in entry-level models, and an equally attractive brown leather upholstery is an option. Those colors are mirrored on plastic trim in the doors and dash, which brighten up the otherwise dull interior and distract from some of the cheaper hard plastics on display. Ford also offers an optional brown and black leather and faux suede that’s even fancier. Regardless of upholstery, the front seats feature heating and multiple ways to adjust them, with the driver getting power adjustment. Automatic climate control is standard, with dual-zone as an option.

The Badlands comes standard with the same 8-inch infotainment system as every Bronco Sport along with also-standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and four USB ports. The touchscreen is bright, sharp and responsive, and located where it’s easy to read and reach. The instrument panel relies on traditional analog gauges bolstered by a 6.5-inch central display. It features eye-catching graphics, which is generally a good thing, but when selecting drive/GOAT modes, it takes forever for the system to cycle through the special mode-specific animation. The lag time between turning the mode dial and its confirmation onscreen is far too long, though also an issue we’ve found in other Fords.

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands

It doesn’t miss out on too much compared to the nearly identically priced, but far less powerful, Outer Banks trim level. The ostensibly more plush Outer Banks includes dual-zone automatic climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, ambient lighting, leather-trimmed seats, a heated steering wheel, remote start, and rain-sensing wipers. Most of these features are available on the Badlands with the addition of the $2,595 Badlands Package. But even without that, we’d take the Badlands over the Outer Banks for the much improved driving experience.

Besides being an attractive package compared to other trim levels, the Bronco Sport Badlands is a highly competitive rugged crossover. Not that it’s easy to identify obvious apples-to-apples competitors. It’s roomier than Jeep’s Renegade and Compass Trailhawk models, and offers more power and better handling while featuring at least as much off-road capability. It’s also pricier ($4,000 more than Renegade; $2,000 more than Compass). Above it in size and price are the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Subaru Outback XT and Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, but their powertrains hardly align and the latter pair are hardly rock crawlers.

Of course, the Bronco Sport, particularly the Badlands, has broad enough appeal that it can easily be considered by those who have no intention of ever going off-road. So, if you’re simply in the market for a stylish, capable little crossover, you owe it to yourself to check out the Bronco Sport, and in particular the Badlands. Sure, it will get you surprisingly far off-road, but it will also keep you quite entertained on the road, all at a reasonable price.

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