From the April 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
It’s not always the product alone that compels people to line up outside the Apple Store for the latest iPhone. The idea of being the first to get your hands on the newest, hottest thing can be nearly as enticing as the shiny device itself.
That proved to be true for the new Ford Bronco Sport, which sold out of its limited run of First Edition models even though it’s not the Bronco everyone is most excited for. A smaller unibody crossover stablemate to the body-on-frame off-roader that won’t arrive for a few more months, the Bronco Sport already appears to be a hit. These things are thick on the ground near our Michigan headquarters, and they attract plenty of attention.
We needed to find out if the baby Bronco is just a cheap way of capitalizing on the Bronco mania that’s currently sweeping the nation or if it’s something worth lining up for on its own. That meant pitting it against other compact SUVs, which, if you haven’t heard, now make up the bestselling segment of the market.
Ford sent a Badlands model as its representative. Unlike lesser trims, which come with a three-banger, the Badlands has a 250-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four as well as a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, tow hooks, and additional drive modes. At $36,300, our Bronco Sport Badlands was missing the Badlands package (we’re confused, too) but did come with an optional set of all-terrain tires, aluminum wheels that look like steelies, and a bundle of driver-assistance features.
Serving as the first foil to the Ford is the Jeep Cherokee, one of the oldest vehicles in this class but also the most rugged. The Trailhawk version is outfitted with tow hooks, all-terrain tires, and a four-wheel-drive system. Loaded with option packages, this example stickered for $42,525, which makes it the most expensive ute here. Its naturally aspirated 3.2-liter V-6 makes it the most powerful entrant, too, with 271 horses underhood. (It’s also why we chose the Cherokee instead of the cheaper Compass Trailhawk, which boasts but 180 horsepower from an unboosted four-cylinder.)
Then we have the Mazda CX-5, which fits in with the others on a spec sheet but undoubtedly resides on a different end of the SUV spectrum. Sans rock-crawling aspirations, this sleek number is here simply because it is good. A reigning comparison-test champion and 10Best winner, it trades on sharp handling and a luxurious aura. While the Ford and the Jeep wear trim-level names evoking ATVs and hiking boots, the CX-5’s Signature label sounds like a house wine from Costco. It includes all-wheel drive and a 250-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four, and ours rang up at $39,400.
We headed to northern Michigan to see what these crossovers are made of—and we don’t mean that in a down-and-dirty sense. While we did explore some remote, snow-covered byways, we mostly evaluated these three the way people will actually use them: on paved roads, with the occasional off-pavement adventure thrown in for good measure. And we got stuck only once, oddly enough in the Jeep (our fault, not the Cherokee’s).
Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
Highs: Comfy ride, capable off-road, lots of features.
Lows: Sluggish V-6, lifeless steering, poor fuel economy.
Verdict: A dated, confusing SUV that’s compelling neither as a Jeep nor as a mainstream crossover.
The Cherokee is full of contradictions. It’s the biggest on the outside but has the smallest cargo area. It’s the most expensive by several thousand dollars but far from the most luxurious. And while Jeep hides a couple of fun Easter eggs inside—for instance, turn on adaptive cruise and, in the display, the car ahead is rendered as a WWII-era Willys—the design itself is uninspired. Shorn of the seven-slot grille and the Trailhawk’s red tow hooks, chunky tires, and Trail Rated badges, it would look like any of those amorphous Brand X crossovers in an insurance commercial.
The surly sound and creamy power delivery of the V-6 are charming, but the Cherokee’s 4377-pound heft (644 pounds heavier than the lightest-in-test Bronco Sport) makes it the slowest competitor to 60 by a wide 1.5-second margin. The six was also thirstier than the turbo fours, averaging just 17 mpg during our time with it.
We enjoyed the Jeep’s cushy ride on the freeway, and the Firestone Destination A/T tires were quieter than expected. But there’s too much play in the numb steering, which not only dulls the Trailhawk’s responses when cornering but also necessitates an annoying amount of course correction when traveling straight. Plus, the angle of the wheel itself made us feel as if we were driving a bus.
Poorly grained black plastic and cheap-feeling upholstery sour the interior, and the graphics in the gauge cluster and infotainment system look dated. We had no qualms with the simple operation of the optional 8.4-inch touchscreen, however, and the Cherokee’s bevy of features—a panoramic sunroof, an automatic parking system, a heated steering wheel, and a highly adjustable driver’s seat among them—offered some justification for its high price.
The Cherokee acquitted itself well in the snow, too, with decent grip and seamless four-wheel-drive engagement. It has the most comprehensive set of off-road tools here, including a low range and a locking rear diff. But people don’t think Jeeps are cool just because of what’s underneath. You can adorn a bland crossover with all the off-road goodies you want, but capability isn’t the same as character.
Ford Bronco Sport Badlands
Highs: Gotta-have-it looks, eager handling, strong performance.
Lows: Cheap interior, noisy engine, uncomfortable seats.
Verdict: The baby Bronco has a character all its own, and we like it despite its imperfections.
Unlike the Jeep, the Ford has personality in spades. You’ll never need to explain to your friends that this is just a car-based pretender to the Bronco throne. The Sport lives up to its boxy shape, round headlights, and blocky “Bronco” lettering on the grille.
It drives as cheerfully as it looks, too. The Sport is sprightly, with quick steering and eager responses that give it an endearing dynamic character to match its appearance. Although this crossover shares a platform with the Escape, Ford’s tuning of the suspension and steering makes it feel more old-school body-on-frame than modern unibody, complete with a subtle side-to-side rocking motion that we’re sure is intentional.
It’s no surprise that the Bronco, as the lightest vehicle in the test, stopped shortest and accelerated quickest at the track. Its cargo hold is capacious even though the baby Bronco’s body is several inches shorter than the others’. The Badlands model’s torque-vectoring rear differential allows for some fun in the slippery stuff, helping to get a nice drift going if you happen upon a big, empty, snowy parking lot. And the handy bottle opener built into the liftgate had us lingering around the Ford even after the driving was done for the day.
So, what can’t you do in the Bronco? Well, we couldn’t get comfortable in the front seats; they are too narrow and have an awkwardly angled bottom cushion that can’t be adjusted. Combined with a bouncy highway ride and lackluster cabin isolation from the coarse and buzzy turbo four, the Bronco doesn’t really know how to relax.
Ford tried to make the most of its pantry of materials inside, strategically using textured plastics and rubberized surfaces to convey a sense of durability, but the result looks and feels low rent. We also noticed several ill-fitting trim pieces and sharp molding in our pre-production unit. The available interior-upgrade package—which adds leather, additional seat adjustments, and nicer trim—likely would’ve improved the vibe. It also would’ve helped make up for our test car’s dearth of equipment, as the Bronco Sport was the only vehicle here without expected niceties such as a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, and a power liftgate.
Even still, there’s something that grabbed us about the Bronco: It may have flaws, but it’s undeniably desirable. We appreciate its strong point of view, and we won’t blame you if you really, really want one.
Mazda CX-5 Signature
Highs: Satisfying ride and handling, well-behaved engine, premium interior.
Lows: Clunky infotainment, soft brake pedal, not as comfortable off-road.
Verdict: It takes more than tow hooks and knobby tires to make a great crossover.
With the best driving experience and interior, the Mazda exudes an air of specialness that’s rare at this price point. Its maturity and well-rounded nature are more than enough to earn it a decisive win. The precision baked into the CX-5’s primary controls is a revelation in this group. We value the communicative steering both on road and off, and the linear throttle response means that the turbocharged 2.5-liter four’s strong swell of torque is always on hand, er, foot right when you need it. While its aggressive stability-control programming put the kibosh on any powdery antics, the all-wheel-drive Mazda has adequate ground clearance and will make it through a reasonable amount of adventuring unscathed.
There are many other reasons to like the CX-5 beyond its delightful dynamics. It has thoughtful, practical touches that aren’t present on the other two, such as a 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat with release handles in the cargo area. We’re not big fans of Mazda’s infotainment system, which has poorly organized menus that can make even simple tasks difficult. But features such as a head-up display, a powered passenger’s seat, and a 360-degree camera are pleasant surprises in a vehicle that costs under $40,000.
All this nice stuff is presented inside a nice cabin, too. There’s lots of leather and plenty of soft touch points, and even the hard plastics are sightlier than those in the Bronco Sport and Cherokee thanks to their graining. Plus, it’s hushed inside, with the CX-5 reporting the lowest-in-test noise level at a 70-mph cruise. Fuel economy was tops as well.
While Jeep and Ford were hard at work distilling the spirit of their rough-and-tumble 4x4s into these more digestible packages, Mazda found a way to capture the spirit of an Audi Q5 or BMW X3 for a whole lot less money. If you want a Wrangler or a Bronco, buy one of those. Otherwise, the CX-5 is still the crossover to beat.