In 1966, Ford introduced the world to the Bronco, a sharp little off-roader with utilitarian style that has become legendary among trail enthusiasts thanks to a long line of Baja 1000 appearances and wins. A couple decades later, the 1998 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road initiated a new package for the Japanese brand’s four-wheelers, blending rugged durability with excellent performance on the trail. It’s since arrived on the 4Runner and Tundra, too.
Now, both families are going slightly more mainstream: Enter the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport and 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road. Unlike any of their predecessors or contemporaries, the Bronco Sport and RAV4 are unibody small SUVs with all-wheel drive and single-speed transfer cases, seemingly built more for suburban confines than off-highway trails. But both companies claim their respective offerings can actually tackle the wilderness as well as deliver decent fuel economy and passenger comfort. Two proud brands, distilled into a completely different segment. Will these cute utes follow in the family tradition or let down their ancestral roots?
“Is that the new Bronco?” That question, which we heard no less than four times in our week with the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands, is a credit to Blue Oval stylists, who somehow managed to turn a compact crossover based on the same modular front-wheel-drive platform as the roly-poly Escape into a proper Bronco right out of the box. Credit goes to the flat hood, short front and rear overhangs, upright seating position, and stepped roof. Our tester’s optional 235/65R17 all-terrain tires and 17-inch alloy wheels (styled to look like safari-ready steelies) help too. All that style for an as-tested price of $36,880 feels like a bargain.
Inside, the Bronco Sport uses clever design to dress up its litany of cheap plastic materials. Cross-hatch embossing appears on the dash top to reduce reflections, while funky orange accents pepper the cabin, accompanied by high-touch surfaces that get a surprisingly rich-feeling anodized texture. The floating 8.0-inch center display makes room for a slim storage cubby beneath that’s perfect for a phone or wallet. The Sync 3 infotainment system looks dated and lacks a physical home button, but otherwise, it’s easy to use, with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto helping matters. Still, why didn’t Ford give its newest baby Sync 4?
The 3,707-pound Bronco Sport Badlands comes standard with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, whose 250 horsepower and 280 pound-feet absolutely shames the RAV4’s 203 hp and 184 lb-ft. All Bronco Sports get an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive with driveline disconnect. To that, Badlands models add a twin-clutch locking rear differential, a liquid-cooled power takeoff transfer case, and a four-wheel-drive–lock function that keeps the rear wheels engaged to prevent loss of traction on slick surfaces. The GOAT Mode terrain selector features settings for Eco, Sport, Normal, Mud/Ruts, Slippery, Sand, and Rock Crawl.
Twin-tube front and monotube rear shock absorbers control Badlands-specific springs and hydraulic bump stops with 7.4 inches of suspension travel. Our tester’s optional tires gave it slightly more elevation than other models – 8.8 inches of ground clearance compared to 8.6 for other Badlands or 7.8 for lower-trim Bronco Sports. The all-terrain-equipped Badlands also boasts an approach angle of 30.4 degrees, with 33.1 degrees of departure and 20.4 degrees of breakover. Those numbers aren’t quite equal to what you’d find in a Wrangler (or big Bronco), but they’re near or at the top of the class among other small off-road crossovers.
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Toyota and Ford were both asked the same question – What does the ideal off-road crossover look like? – but their answers couldn’t be more different. While the Ford feels a bit old-school, the RAV4 is decidedly modern, with angular headlamps and a nearly trapezoidal grille that look plucked right from the Tacoma pickup. A faster windshield and hatch angle give the RAV a sporty rally-car appearance, with more visual flair coming via our tester’s white contrast roof. All TRD models get flow-formed, matte-black wheels mounted on Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires, making the RAV4 a sporty-looking little crossover.
Inside, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road gets Toyota’s SoftTex faux leather upholstery, done up in black with red stitching and TRD logo embroidery. Matte red accents on the cupholder trim and wireless charging pad provide a pop of color that livens up the cabin (though not quite to the level expected of our $42,050 tester). Otherwise, the padded door panel tops, armrests, and dashboard fascia are RAV4 business as usual, as are the logical climate controls (yay!) and an inscrutable infotainment system (boo!). Displayed on an 8.0-inch touchscreen, the software is low-resolution and difficult to navigate, ensuring we’d use CarPlay only on this trip.
Likewise unaltered is the RAV4’s powertrain, a 2.5-liter inline-four with 203 hp and 184 lb-ft – not much for a 3,655-pound SUV. All-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox are standard, portioning up to 50 percent of the engine’s twist to the rear wheels where a Dynamic Torque Vectoring differential can send it entirely to the right or left, depending on wheel slip. The front and rear drivelines can lock into an even split under 25 mph, and the rear axle can also disengage entirely to save fuel. Six drive mode settings (Mud & Dirt, Sand, Snow, Sport, Normal, and Eco) tailor the vehicle’s throttle and stability controls accordingly.
Like the RAV4 Adventure, the TRD Off-Road offers 8.6 inches of ground clearance, a good score for this class of vehicle. However, a 19.0-degree approach angle and a 21.0-degree departure angle hamstring the RAV, and it’s a shame the most rugged trim doesn’t get a suspension lift, high-clearance bumpers, or both. That said, the TRD Off-Road does get unique piston valving for its twin-tube shocks, as well as an internal rebound spring that reduces body motions and improves control when driving down a trail. Firmer red coil springs and shortened jounce bumpers reduce roll, with incremental improvements to wheel travel as well.
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Enough talk, it’s time for action. Our terminus for the day would be a dry lake near the Mojave Desert surrounded by a variety of off-road trails. However, the three-hour drive to the lakebed took us through miles of rush-hour traffic, stifled by strong winds that required a steady hand on the wheel. Such conditions are the daily mettle of many small crossovers, and we learned a few things about our competitors. For one, it’s not hard to understand why the Toyota RAV4 is such a popular choice in this class. Getting comfortable in the spacious front seat is a cinch, thanks to a carlike step-in and familiar ergonomics.
Meanwhile, the Ford Bronco Sport feels much truckier, with a taller stance that forces passengers to sit up rather than lean back. Acclimating to the secondary functions takes a moment – while we appreciate the physical climate controls, they’re not quite as intuitive as those of the RAV4. However, pairing a phone, tuning the radio, and navigating to a destination are far simpler on the Ford than the Toyota. On the road, the seating position, upright windshield, and narrow (for a modern vehicle) roof pillars create exceptional forward visibility, and the flat and square hood makes it easy to place the Bronco Sport in traffic or parking lots.
By the tape measure, the RAV4 offers less passenger room than the Bronco – 37.7 inches of headroom, 41.0 inches of legroom, and 54.3 inches of hip room up front, where the Ford measures 41.5, 42.4, and 55.3 inches respectively. In the back, the RAV offers 39.5 inches of headroom, 37.8 inches of legroom, and 47.7 inches of hip room, contending with the Bronc’s 41.7, 36.9, and 53.4 inches. But the Toyota somehow feels more spacious than the numbers suggest, thanks to exceptional thigh support and an airy, long windshield. And in back, the RAV4 makes the most of that legroom advantage – a reclining rear seat allows passengers to kick back in comfort.
The Bronco does decently in its own right, with a low beltline that alleviates claustrophobia for all passengers. Cargo access is via either the full tailgate or just the glass portion, helpful if you want to shelter your passengers from an arctic blast of cold air. And aimable LED lights on the inside of the hatch make for good campsite illumination. We don’t need qualitative arguments for the TRD’s cargo room, though – with 37.5 cubic feet with the seats up or 69.7 with them down, the RAV4 trounces the Bronco Sport’s 29.4 and 60.6 cubes. The Toyota also offers a quieter ride, with the only unwelcome noises coming at full-throttle.
Unfortunately, the RAV4 owner will need to make peace with that intrusion, since it’s going to happen frequently. Merging in traffic or climbing a freeway grade requires a heavy right foot, smashing through the Toyota’s eco-minder light in the gauge cluster. The thrashing engine makes an unbecoming racket under the hood, accompanied by merely gradual acquisition of speed. And that was with one passenger and limited cargo on board. With a family of four and all their stuff, the TRD Off-Road must surely feel glacial. Handling seems unbalanced too, with the smooth ride yielding too much bob-and-float over expansion joints.
In these situations, the Bronco comes into its own. The EcoBoost engine delivers a whiff of turbo lag before full torque comes on at 3,000 RPM, but more importantly, power builds in a linear fashion even at higher engine speeds. In Normal and Sport drive modes, the Bronco Sport never feels out of breath, and the quick-witted eight-speed automatic transmission is always ready to serve up a downshift. Eco mode, predictably, blunts the throttle and demands earlier upshifts, but not unreasonably so.
The Bronco Sport’s tall seating position makes for a decidedly un-carlike driving experience on the freeway, a unique change of pace from the laid-back RAV4 and many other modern crossovers. However, the Bronco Sport doesn’t demand a stiff ride or ungainly handling in exchange for its vintage stance and appearance. Instead, the suspension soaks up bumps well without wallowing through corners, combining for a charming, fun-to-drive commuter. Of course, being a member of the Bronco family, the little SUV won’t survive on nippy on-road handling alone, and what of the slick RAV4? Is it down to get a little rough?
Whether using the Bronco’s GOAT Modes or the Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Select, setting either vehicle up for the trail is a simple turn of the dial. Our off-road playground lay at the end of a 3-mile washboard road that gave us our first taste of these SUVs’ chops, using Sand mode for both. The Bronco Sport compensated for its slightly shorter wheelbase with exceptional wheel control, while the RAV4 required a more careful line and lower speeds to keep it from rattling around on the road. When the road gave way to a gorgeous lakebed, both vehicles settled into a groove, absorbing the sandy whoops without complaint or loss of traction.
Turning toward the hillsides that surround the lake, we opted for Mud and Dirt mode in the Toyota and Mud/Ruts in the Ford, meaning slightly later stability control intervention than normal. Climbing a trail littered with scree rock was no issue in the Bronco Sport, which simply pointed its nose up the hill with no perceptible loss of traction, thanks to an electronic-locking rear differential. However, the RAV4 yielded to some early wheelspin on this particular line, its right rear and left front tires grasping at nothing thanks to a too-stiff platform that didn’t allow the wheels to move with the terrain.
In conventional off-road wisdom, once you lose traction on a relatively solid surface, it’s best to let off the throttle, then gently ease back on to coax the vehicle forward without digging it into the ground. The Toyota’s torque-vectoring rear axle feels somewhat reactionary, so it required ignoring that impulse and allowing a wheel to break loose, thus signaling the software to send power to the opposite side. We’d prefer a conventional rear differential lock to this electronic solution. Even more so, we wish the RAV offered more wheel travel to prevent such a situation from occurring in the first place.
To its credit, on smoother dirt surfaces, the RAV4 could carry a lot of speed, feeling almost like a rally car – it soaked up bumps masterfully without losing composure. But on technical stretches, the Toyota’s car-like approach and departure angles demanded far more attention than we like in an off-roader. Keen to experience the Ford unencumbered, we parked the RAV4 at the bottom of a hill and took the Bronco Sport up a few surprisingly challenging trails, which it handled with absolutely no drama. The buckin’ Bronquito reminds your author of an old Suzuki Samurai – nimble, capable, and lots of fun, despite its unassuming form factor.
Every automotive decision requires some compromise. In the case of the Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, you lose out on suspension travel, approach and departure angles, and driving excitement to get excellent fuel economy (28 miles per gallon combined), tons of luggage room, and the ease of ownership one would expect of the brand. The Ford Bronco Sport Badlands offers genuine off-road performance, fun and fresh styling, and some real powertrain verve, but you gotta stop for fuel more frequently (23 mpg), and oh by the way, not all of your stuff is gonna fit in the cargo area, so you’d better get a roof box.
But in our pursuit to decide if these two crossovers were worthy of their heritage-laden badges, only one stood out. While the TRD Off-Road is undoubtedly more capable in the rough than any other RAV4 variant, it doesn’t come close to either the Bronco Sport or any other TRD Toyota when the road gets rutted and steep. Calling it a stuffed shirt would be too harsh, because the RAV4 is genuinely fun to blast across the open desert, with the same composure on the dirt as it has on the highway. But it feels too much like your grandparents’ XLE to bear the vaunted TRD Off-Road badge, with a high price compounding our lack of interest.
On the other hand, we loved every minute behind the wheel of the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands. The smooth whoosh of turbo boost made it good fun on the pavement, as did its truck-like seating position and attention-grabbing styling. While a single-speed transfer case precludes tackling serious obstacles, it still has more talent than most of its owners will ever need, thanks to quick-witted all-wheel drive and plenty of suspension travel. Fun, friendly, and loaded with personality, the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is a welcome member of the bucking-pony family. That’s worthy of a win in our book.
|2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands||2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road|
|Engine:||Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4||2.5-liter I4|
|Output:||250 Horsepower / 280 Pound-Feet||203 Horsepower / 184 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||Eight-Speed Automatic||Eight-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||All-Wheel Drive||All-Wheel Drive|
|Efficiency:||21 City / 26 Highway / 23 Combined||25 City / 32 Highway / 28 Combined|
|Weight:||3,707 Pounds||3,655 Pounds|
|Cargo Volume:||29.4 / 60.6 Cubic Feet||37.5 / 69.7 Cubic Feet|
|Towing Capacity:||2,205 Pounds||3,500 Pounds|
|Ground Clearance:||8.8 Inches||8.6 Inches|