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Ford Bronco 2-door, 4-door and smaller Bronco Sport. Photo: Ford

Last week I got to ride shotgun in the hotly anticipated 2021 Ford Bronco at a thrilling off-road vehicle playground in Michigan.

The big picture: The original Ford Bronco SUV was introduced in 1966, inspired by the military vehicles Ford built during World War II, and later built a cult following for off-road racing after it won the brutal Baja 1000 in 1969.

  • Fun fact: There are two famous white Broncos. One carrying O.J. Simpson was chased by Los Angeles police in 1994. The other carried the Pope on his first visit to the U.S. in 1979.
  • Ford discontinued the Bronco in 1996 as vehicles like the Ford Explorer and Expedition took its place.

Now the Bronco is back, but as an entire family of SUVs, including two- and four-door Broncos plus a smaller Bronco Sport, all available with a dizzying array of personalized accessories.

  • It's part of Ford's broader strategy to focus on its strengths — iconic vehicles like the F-150, Mustang and Bronco — while pivoting toward new mobility services and electric vehicles for commercial fleets.

I rode in two different Broncos: the two-door "Outer Banks" version, outfitted with the extreme off-roading "Sasquatch" package, and the Bronco Sport with the higher-end "Badlands" trim. (Because these were pre-production models, I could only be a passenger.)

  • Each comes with up to seven driving modes: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, Sand, Baja, Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl.
  • A variety of power train options, including a seven-speed manual transmission, is available.
  • There's a ton of available technology, including cameras that can see past blind spots, over hills or around tight corners and a trail-mapping system that lets users select one of hundreds of curated trail maps and then record their adventures to share with others.

Key takeaway: Jeep, the leading rugged SUV brand, should be worried.

  • Even the smallest Bronco Sport can handle challenging off-road terrain, making it a good choice for mountain bikers or other weekend thrill seekers.
  • With more than 200 factory-backed outdoor accessories, no two Broncos will be alike.

Where it stands: The smaller Bronco Sport goes on sales at the end of this year. The two- and four-door Broncos will arrive in dealerships next spring.

  • A lot more detail is yet to come, including pricing, but Ford has said the base two-door Bronco will start at $29,995. You can easily expect to pay twice that much for a fully equipped two- or four-door Bronco customized with accessories.
  • Ford says nearly 170,000 people have put down $100 deposits, and the company is already looking for ways to boost production to meet demand.

What to watch: There are rumors of future Broncos, including a potential pickup truck.

  • Retiring CEO Jim Hackett toyed with reporters, crediting his successor, Jim Farley, with the idea of creating a Bronco brand family, not just bringing back one iconic vehicle.
  • "Family means you can have more children," Hackett said.

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