If It's Such a Hit Now, Why Was the Bronco Discontinued in the First Place?
Plenty of buzz, a mountainous stack of orders and a reservation-to-order conversion rate that’s nearly unparalleled collectively provide plenty of proof that Ford’s gamble on resurrecting the Bronco is paying off. Even with a seemingly endless sequence of setbacks — mostly due to the Covid pandemic — enthusiasm for the new Ford Bronco seems to be boundless.
This begs the question — if there’s so much love for this model, why did Ford discontinue the Bronco in the first place?
Over the years, there has been a consistent belief that O.J. Simpson’s infamous slow speed chase was the final straw in Ford’s decision to discontinue the Bronco, but this wasn’t the case. For starters, that age old axiom “any P.R. is good P.R.” generally holds true, at least to an extent. It may not have been the kind of exposure Ford would have hoped for, but no reasonable person would have watched that infamous and now ubiquitous news footage while drawing the conclusion that the featured SUV was somehow responsible for criminality or was the favored vehicle of would-be felons. The Ford Bronco in question didn’t even belong to O.J., but instead belonged to his one-time teammate turned “wheel man”, Al Cowlings.
In reality, a number of factors contributed to what would be the temporary demise of the Bronco and, while it’s accurate to say that the model had become somewhat dated, at least based on evolving automotive tastes and preferences, that in itself doesn’t really tell the whole story.
Going back as far as the 1980s, American consumers were beginning to view the SUV as the logical descendant of the once revered station wagon. It’s certainly no coincidence that the increasing popularity of SUVs coincided with the demise of the station wagon. SUVs were gradually perceived as more capable and simply “cooler”. Just as is the case with minivans today, the station wagon was rightfully associated with family transportation to dance recitals, grocery missions and the like.
By contrast, with its high, prominent stance and generally substantial wheelbase, the SUV commanded a certain amount of respect, regardless of what it was actually being used for.
Of course, its uses almost invariably included hauling around passengers, so the Bronco’s 2-door, 2-row configuration soon came to be seen as a detriment. Contrary to another common belief, by the time of its pending discontinuation, the Bronco wasn’t lacking in rear seat accommodations as far as sheer space was concerned. Sure, it had started out as a modestly sized utility vehicle — “utility” has always been right in the middle of the SUV designation, after all — but by the introduction of its fifth and temporarily final generation, the Bronco was actually respectably spacious in back. In fact, the 1996 Ford Bronco offered rear headroom, legroom and hip room that exceeds the new 2021 Bronco in its 2-door configuration and even compares favorably with the 4-door using these measures.
Just as it had done so effectively before launching the Bronco back in the mid-’60s, Ford began surveying the competitive landscape and its findings told a very clear story. America now strongly preferred 4-door SUVs. Foreign competitors, like the Toyota Land Cruiser, were experiencing outstanding popularity and when Chevy unveiled its Tahoe, which was offered in both 2-door and 4-door versions, the writing was on the wall. Passengers could get in and out of the second row of those cars relatively easily, but the placement of the Bronco’s front seat required quite a bit more agility and effort on the part of backseat passengers.
With the model’s sales already waning in the early ’90s, creating a 4-door Ford Bronco didn’t make much sense from a cost perspective. There’s no arguing that, in order to remain successful, any model requires some freshening up every now and then and Ford had hardly neglected the Bronco over the years. As you’d have expected, the Bronco received plenty of upgrades over time, so while it was viewed as somewhat less evolved than its ever-growing group of competitors, it was far from a primitive SUV.
Ford added fuel injection to the Bronco’s inline 6 by the mid-’80s and made it standard on its 5.8 liter V8 by 1988. One year earlier, rear anti-lock brakes also became the norm for the model. Recognizing that consumers were putting a higher premium on the driving experience their SUVs offered, Ford even switched from its revered live front axle to an independent front suspension in order to equip the Bronco with a more refined ride on the asphalt.
Configuring the Bronco as a 4-door, on the other hand, would prove to be a bridge too far. It would have required a thorough, expensive retooling of both the Michigan Assembly Plant and the model itself, so Ford instead chose to develop the larger and heavier Expedition, beginning in 1993, and would release the model to coincide with the Bronco’s departure in 1996.
With its limited wheel clearance and substantial curb weight, the Expedition never has been much of a force off the asphalt, even though it was offered with full time 4-wheel drive from its start, but the success of the model is beyond question, as has been its longevity — in a 2016 study by iSeeCars.com, more than 5% of all Expeditions were still on the road after having logged 200,000 miles, well past the average 1%.
At present, the 4-door version of the 2021 Ford Bronco is outselling the 2-door by a somewhat substantial margin — it was a 60/40 ratio when orders first began last year and that margin is widening a bit. Interestingly, it’s likely the continued popularity of 4-door SUVs that’s making the 2-door Bronco more viable this time around, at least in Ford’s estimation. With so many 4-door SUVs already on the road, many families already have their de facto “people hauler” standing by in their garage, so instead of looking for Ford’s latest answer to the somewhat sedate SUVs on the market, the manufacturer is probably betting that a substantial portion of today’s SUV enthusiasts are looking more for a competitor to the Jeep Wrangler, albeit with a more refined driving experience blended into the mix.
Even assuming that the ratio of 2-door to 4-door Bronco orders is now more like 35/65, with nearly 200,000 total orders in so far, that’s still a lot of cars, so at least for the present, it looks like Ford has guessed correctly.