Ford first introduced the Bronco in 1966 – a 4×4 sport utility vehicle with barrels off-road ability and a shot of ride comfort. Across six generations, the Ford Bronco has always been a true 4×4 with the necessary power, torque, and running gear to muscle its way through demanding off-roading situations. Let’s unpack the Bronco lineage to find its best trail-busting iterations.
Ford Bronco 4x4s from 32 model years deliver comprehensive off-road agility. Ford Broncos have powerful engines, optimized torque transfer, diff and hub lockers, high ground clearance, long-travel suspension, wide approach and departure angles, and high-sidewall tires on a short wheelbase chassis.
Successfully competing in the Baja and Mint 400 endurance races in the early 1970s helped establish the Ford Bronco’s reputation as a premier off-road vehicle. Modified racing Broncos have inspired amateur Bronco owners to modify their Broncos for maximum off-road capability. The stock production models were good and still are. But which Broncos make the best off-roaders today?
Which Broncos Are Best Off-Road?
Ford Broncos with the shortest wheelbase, highest ground clearance, widest approach and departure angles, and the greatest amount of torque in their class, make the best off-road 4x4s. Aftermarket modification kits give the pre-2021 Bronco models additional off-road capability.
Each generation of Ford Bronco preceding the latest stable of 21st-century Bronco 4x4s has its outstanding off-road model. Let’s start with the one that started the Bronco modification craze, the First-Generation Ford Bronco.
First-Generation Ford Bronco (1966-1977)
Ford responded to market demand for an off-roader with city car characteristics with the 1966 Bronco, a no-frills two-door 4×4 with a few urban trims – like a steel roof, wood-grain door panels, carpets, and cloth seats. The message from Ford was clear; the Bronco is an off-road 4×4, but it’s fine in the city too. Ford called the Bronco a Sport Utility.
Available in body-on-frame configurations, including, a two-door wagon, pickup truck, and open-body roadster, the first-generation Bronco became the market leader in the burgeoning 4×4 SUV market.
Engine options in the first-generation Ford Broncos included:
- A 105hp inline-six
- A 5L 200hp V8 with 300lb-ft of torque at 2,600rpm
- A three-speed manual transmission
- A three-speed automatic transmission
The synchronized transmission on the early Broncos enabled on-the-fly shifting from RWD to 4WD. Engaging low range and hub lockers required the Bronco to stop.
With a 92-inch wheelbase, coil-spring and shock front suspension, leaf spring rear suspension, a 34-feet turning circle, and 11.3-inches of ground clearance, the early Broncos were the most off-road capable production vehicles money could buy.
Second to Fifth-Generation Ford Bronco (1978-1996)
By 1977, the Chevy Blazer (an SUV with a long wheelbase) was outselling the Bronco. Ford struck back with a Bronco 12-inches longer than its predecessor – a ‘full-size SUV’ with a body length of 180.3-inches.
Powered by a six-cylinder V8, the 1978-’79 Gen-2 Bronco had a power rating of 158hp at 4000rpm, with 276lb-ft of torque at 2000rpm.
Ford’s foray into the urban crossover market began with an SUV replete with plush seats, air conditioning and power steering – ideal for housewives. By early 1980, the Bronco had retained its leadership position in the SUV market.
Ground clearance was relatively modest at 7,8-inches, less than the original Bronco, and with a less powerful engine, clearly specified for urban applications.
But, based on the Ford F-100 chassis, the Gen-2 Bronco was still a truck with a wagon body. With a solid front axle with coil-spring suspension, a solid rear leaf-spring rear axle, RWD, and hi/lo 4WD with hub lockers, the ‘78/’79 Bronco has become a sought-after off-roading classic.
Ford’s third-generation Bronco came out in 1980 with independent front suspension and the choice of inline six-cylinder or V8 engines.
Retaining the 104-inch wheelbase, the Gen-3 Broncos expressed Ford’s experimental mood in pinning down the ideal SUV design and powertrain configuration.
- The best Bronco was the 1984 iteration with the 210hp Windsor V8 from this generation.
Forth and fifth-generation Broncos saw the introduction of a five-speed manual transmission, fuel injection, and improved hub lockers.
The drivetrain remained the same, and the only marked change was the introduction of a 210hp V8 with a four-speed automatic transmission in the last 20th century Bronco, released in 1996.
The ill-fated Bronco II
Ford attempted to recapture the glory days of the original Bronco with the release of the ‘compact SUV’ Bronco II in 1984. The Bronco II went through six iterations to 1990 with Ford tinkering with several engines, driveline, and transmission options, including a diesel Mitsubishi engine.
By 1990, after a slew of crippling multi-million dollar safety lawsuits, Ford scrapped the 94-inch wheelbase Bronco II. But the idea behind it was good – return to the original design, which happened in 2021.
Sixth-Generation Ford Bronco (2021-2022)
The new Ford Bronco has entered the off-roading community with reinvigorated enthusiasm, offering a range of two and four-door 4×4 options on a design closer to the 1966 original than the 1996 model.
- With removable doors and roofs, the new Bronco range captures the freewheeling spirit of the original Bronco Roadster.
Equipped with modern driver-assist technologies and several automated driving modes ideally suited for off-road driving, the 2021-’22 Bronco range has a trail-munching beast for most off-roading applications.
The new Bronco powertrain includes:
- A 300-horsepower turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder
- A 330-horsepower twin-turbo 2.7-liter V6
- A 400-horsepower twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6
- A 10-speed automatic transmission with four-wheel drive
- A seven-speed manual transmission (with the four-cylinder engine)
Active and predictive driver assist technology in the form of Ford’s G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Terrain) modes automate traction control for easy navigation of various terrain types (sand, snow, mud, and rocks), including:
- Normal Mode
- Eco Mode
- Sport Mode
- Slippery Mode
- Sand Mode
Class-leading off-roading features include:
- Locking differentials
- Multiple skid plates
- On-demand sway bar disconnect for greater wheel articulation
- Low-speed cruise control
- A 94:1 crawl ratio with manual transmission
- A 67:1 crawl ratio with automatic transmission
The new Bronco range fitted with the Sasquatch package sits higher off the ground than any of its predecessors with 11.6-inches of ground clearance, thanks to lifted suspension and 35-inch tires.
- The 100.4-inch wheelbase with minimal front and rear overhangs afford the new Bronco an approach angle of 35.5-degrees and a departure angle of 29.8-degrees.
The forthcoming 2022 Bronco Raptor boasts 13.1-inches of ground clearance, 37-inch tires, a twin-turbo 400hp V6 engine, and a $70K price tag.
The Bronco’s Off-Road Roots Go Deep
To understand the genesis of the Ford Bronco, go back to World War Two when American GIs fell in love with the Willys Jeep, the first-ever mass-produced 4×4 that in no small measure helped the Allies win the war.
The Willys Jeep’s rugged 4×4 versatility carried troops across desert sands, through jungle bogs, and across treacherous mountains with legendary aplomb.
By the 1960s, veteran WWII soldiers had become family men. Still, many remained adventure-hungry and sought a vehicle that offered more comfort than the Willys Jeep and other bare-bones 4x4s on offer in the mid-‘60s, notably the Jeep CJ-5, International Harvester Scout, and the Toyota Land Cruiser.
In 1964, Ford undertook some savvy market research, applied lashings of design ingenuity on the proto Bronco, and by 1966, the legendary little Bronco was chewing up the trails across North America.
Serious off-roaders with a budget for a showroom 4×4 will boost their potential with a 2021/’22 Bronco Badlands Sasquatch or the pricey but monstrous Bronco Raptor. Off-roading modification enthusiasts will find ideal DIY build platforms in the 1996, ’94, ’84, and ‘78/’79 Broncos. For retro-loving 4×4 owners, any of the first-generation Broncos will fit the off-roading bill – stock, or modified!