For over half a century, a select group of manufacturers have created rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles with military and agricultural roots. These incredible machines have granted access to some of the most remote and inhospitable parts of the world, enabling research, humanitarian efforts, and unforgettable journeys for adventure-seeking individuals. In today’s world, where social distancing is encouraged, exploring trails into the wilderness seems like the perfect way to embark on a thrilling adventure.
A while back, we conducted a comprehensive test comparing a plug-in hybrid Jeep Wrangler to the toughest four-door Ford Bronco available. The results were clear: the new Bronco is the real deal. However, my personal preference has always leaned towards a short and nimble two-door rig for off-roading. So, I managed to convince AutoTrader.ca Editor-in-Chief Jodi Lai that taking a 2021 Ford Bronco Wildtrak and a Land Rover Defender 90 on unexplored trails would be a great idea. Well, it didn’t turn out to be as great as we expected, but we did come away with a clear favorite.
Practicality: A Trade-Off
When maneuvering through tight woodland trails, a two-door off-roader with a shorter wheelbase tends to outperform its larger counterparts in terms of maneuverability and breakover angle. However, practicality takes a hit. Whether it’s the Defender, the Bronco, or even the Jeep Wrangler, choosing a two-door means sacrificing passenger and cargo space.
The Defender offers a significant drop in luggage room, with only 397 liters available behind the rear seat, expanding to 1,563 liters with the rear bench stowed. On the other hand, the Bronco provides more space, offering 634 liters with the rear seat up and 1,481 liters with it folded flat. The Bronco’s rear seat bottoms flip forward, creating a flatter load floor and making the space more usable.
Despite their short wheelbases, both SUVs are equipped with towing packages. The Bronco has a towing capacity of 1,588 kg (3,500 lb), while the Defender surprises with an impressive 3,720 kg (8,200 lb) towing capacity. It’s worth noting that a two-door Wrangler is only rated for 908 kg (2,000 lb). When it comes to rear-seat space, both vehicles offer comparable rear headroom, although accessing the Defender’s backseat can be trickier due to its slow-moving power front seat and coupe-like front doors.
Ford Bronco: 6.5/10; Land Rover Defender: 6/10
User Friendliness: An Ergonomic Contest
The Defender presents some ergonomic challenges, with its thick B pillars creating blind spots and a tailgate-mounted spare tire that obstructs rear visibility more than the Bronco’s. However, the Defender compensates with its excellent 180-degree front view, thanks to tall side glass and an elevated seating position. In comparison, the Bronco feels like sitting in a World War II pillbox, with smaller side glass and windshield. Both vehicles provide highly effective camera systems for parking and overcoming off-road obstacles.
Ford’s control layout may appear daunting initially, with numerous buttons for various off-road functions, but the overall design is logical and easier to learn compared to Land Rover’s system. The Land Rover boasts a cleaner dash layout and features built-in Google Maps navigation, lending it a high-tech feel.
Ford Bronco: 7/10; Land Rover Defender: 6/10
Comfort: Tackling Rough Terrain with Ease
Despite being rugged and capable off-road machines, the Bronco Wildtrak and Defender offer decent comfort. The seats are supportive and firm, and the ride quality is surprisingly good. However, the Bronco’s multi-piece removable hard top does contribute to a significant amount of noise.
Both vehicles come equipped with heated seats and steering wheels, but the Defender surpasses the Bronco in terms of sound deadening against engine and road noise. Furthermore, the Defender’s optional air suspension provides a level of suppleness and composure that surpasses the Bronco’s suspension system. Rear-seat passengers will also appreciate the Defender’s rear climate controls, which the Bronco lacks.
Ford Bronco: 6/10; Land Rover Defender: 7.5/10
Features: Modern Technology in Rugged Wrapping
Surprisingly, both the Bronco and Defender offer modern technology and amenities despite their rugged nature. Clear and powerful sound systems, on-board navigation, and convenient plug-in points throughout the cabin can be found in both vehicles. The Bronco lacks the Land Rover’s large sliding panoramic sunroof and three-zone climate control, but compensates with the freedom of driving around without a top or doors. The Defender incorporates additional features such as a heated windshield and headlight washers, which come in handy during the winter months.
While both vehicles can be optioned for city driving, our tested models were designed with off-road excursions in mind. They featured easy-to-clean interiors, multiple trail-specific drive modes, locking differentials, and all-terrain tires. Nevertheless, some design choices left us scratching our heads. For example, the Land Rover’s 20-inch wheels may be visually appealing, but offer less protection when off-roading. Similarly, equipping the Bronco with side steps hinders its performance on gnarly terrains.
Ford Bronco: 7/10; Land Rover Defender: 7/10
Driving Feel: Conquering the Off-Road Terrain
All the off-road equipment these vehicles possess can make even inexperienced off-roaders look like experts. We put these capabilities to the test by taking both vehicles on low-traction muddy trails and challenging them with heavily rutted roads in Ontario’s Niagara Region.
On the first road, which featured a deeply furrowed mud path and semi-frozen splash holes, the Bronco demonstrated its macho abilities, effortlessly conquering the terrain with its impressive ground clearance and tough Bilstein shocks. Some critics argue that the Bronco’s independent suspension is inferior to the Wrangler’s solid axles, but Ford has proven them wrong by constructing an incredibly resilient system.
In contrast, the Land Rover embraced its British heritage, exuding an air of elegance while navigating the challenging terrain. With the push of a button, its air suspension raised the Defender to match the Bronco’s clearance, ensuring a composed ride even at higher speeds. The Defender feels delicate, yet far from fragile.
Unfortunately, our adventure took a turn for the worse on the second pass. The trail, overgrown due to heavy rain, proved to be a formidable challenge. As I confidently maneuvered the Bronco to avoid potential damage, it ended up high-centered and at an alarming angle after sliding into a sizable puddle. Meanwhile, just a hundred meters behind, Jodi and the Defender faced a similar fate in a muddy bog. This incident highlighted a few crucial points: Jodi lost faith in my off-roading skills, the Defender’s control arms occasionally got hung up, and accessing the front tow point proved to be quite the ordeal.
Interestingly, both vehicles boast fording depths in excess of 900mm (35 in), meaning they could have easily crossed the puddles had we committed to it.
Regardless of the off-road scenario, the Defender’s simplicity in terms of drive modes and ride height adjustment trumps the Bronco’s complex system. Additionally, the Bronco Badlands’ lack of a disconnecting front sway bar and the brittle plastic surrounding the front tow points leave room for improvement.
The driving experience on the road presents a similar contrast. The Defender excels in terms of ride and handling, offering superior performance compared to the Bronco, which itself performs better than the Wrangler. The two-door variants feel less stable at higher speeds, especially with the Bronco’s mud terrain tires creating slight instability.
Ford Bronco: 7/10; Land Rover Defender: 7.5/10
Power: Unleashing the Beast
In our test, the Defender (in X-Dynamic S trim) featured a turbocharged 3.0L inline six-cylinder engine, assisted by a mild hybrid system and an electric supercharger. This combination resulted in an output of 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. While the Bronco’s twin-turbo V6 produces a similar torque figure of 410 lb-ft, the Defender enjoys an 80 hp advantage, providing a slightly quicker acceleration experience. Despite the Bronco’s lower mass (only 16 kg or 35 lb lighter than the Defender), it doesn’t quite match the Land Rover’s acceleration, possibly due to the Bronco’s 10-speed automatic transmission optimizing power delivery more effectively.
Ford Bronco: 7.5/10; Land Rover Defender: 8/10
Fuel Economy: Quenching the Thirst
Unsurprisingly, both vehicles consume a fair amount of fuel due to their size, boxy shape, and ruggedness. They achieve roughly 14.0 L/100 km in the city, with the Bronco’s highway rating being nearly identical to the Defender’s. The Defender boasts a more efficient highway rating of 13.9 L/100 km compared to the Bronco’s 13.9 L/100 km. During our test, the observed rates aligned with each vehicle’s combined rating of 12.3 L/100 km for the Land Rover and 13.9 L/100 km for the Ford. The Defender requires premium gasoline, while the Bronco can run on regular fuel.
Ford Bronco: 6/10; Land Rover Defender: 6.5/10
Safety: Protecting What Matters Most
Both SUVs prioritize safety and are equipped with the basics, including multiple airbags and a backup camera. However, the Land Rover goes a step further by including LED lighting, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, 360-degree parking aids, traffic sign recognition, and even a wade depth sensor. Most of these features are available as options on the Bronco, except for the wade depth sensor. Our tested models were also equipped with adaptive cruise control.
Ford Bronco: 7/10; Land Rover Defender: 7.5/10
Value: A Surprising Comparison
The Land Rover Defender’s base price is significantly higher than the entry-level Bronco, but when similarly optioned, the difference narrows considerably. The Defender offers a more refined appearance, both inside and out, with nicer materials and finishes throughout the cabin. However, as luxury and tech amenities are added, the price difference can increase dramatically, with the Land Rover potentially reaching a six-figure sticker price. Fortunately, both brands provide a range of customization options to suit a buyer’s preferences.
Ford Bronco: 6.5/10; Land Rover Defender: 6/10
Styling: Rugged Meets Sophistication
The Defender’s squared-off shape exudes functionality and recalls Land Rover’s earlier generations. However, when parked next to the bold and brash Bronco, the Defender appears remarkably refined, especially when dressed in dignified Pangea Green paint. Ford has successfully captured the essence of the 1960s Broncos, infusing the new model with off-road machismo, amplified by massive 35-inch tires available with the Sasquatch package.
Both interiors are designed for easy cleaning after muddy adventures. The utilitarian blocky designs prevail, but the Bronco’s cabin falls short of elegance due to its cheaper plastics, despite their durability.
Ford Bronco: 7.5/10; Land Rover Defender: 7/10
The Verdict: Adventurous All-Terrain Titans
The Land Rover Defender’s higher base price may lead many to underestimate its competitiveness when compared to the more affordable Bronco models. However, when similarly equipped, these vehicles offer surprisingly comparable performance. The Defender’s refined appearance and driving experience, both on and off the road, make it a standout choice. As the Bronco’s production catches up with demand, it will undoubtedly become as common as the Wrangler, making the Land Rover a more exclusive option.
Nonetheless, the reborn Ford Bronco strikes a balance between road manners, modern technology and amenities, and true off-road capabilities. Its captivating design and enjoyable driving experience make it the vehicle we’d choose for a journey through the wilderness or even a trip to the mall—especially with the doors and roof panels removed during the summertime.
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