1966 marked the introduction of the legendary Ford Bronco, a compact off-roader that quickly gained popularity among trail enthusiasts. Known for its utilitarian style and impressive track record at events like Baja 1000, the Bronco became an icon in the off-road community. Decades later, Toyota joined the off-road scene with the 1998 Tacoma TRD Off-Road package, which combined durability with excellent trail performance. The success of the Tacoma TRD Off-Road led Toyota to offer the package on other models like the 4Runner and Tundra. Now, both Ford and Toyota are venturing into the small SUV segment with the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport and 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road. Unlike their predecessors, these compact SUVs feature unibody construction, all-wheel drive, and single-speed transfer cases. While they may seem more suited for suburban life than off-road adventures, both Ford and Toyota claim that their respective models are capable of tackling the wilderness without compromising on fuel efficiency or passenger comfort. It’s a unique fusion of two proud brands in a completely different segment. So, the question is, will these “cute utes” stay true to their family heritage or fail to live up to their ancestral roots?
Let’s start with the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands. From the moment you lay eyes on it, you can see the effort that Ford has put into capturing the essence of the Bronco. Despite being based on the same front-wheel-drive platform as the Escape, the Bronco Sport manages to exude a rugged and capable persona. The flat hood, short front and rear overhangs, upright seating position, and stepped roof all contribute to its off-road allure. Additionally, the optional all-terrain tires and alloy wheels give it a more rugged appearance. Considering the style and features it offers, the Bronco Sport Badlands feels like a bargain at its as-tested price of $36,880.
Inside, the Bronco Sport doesn’t disappoint either. While there is an abundance of cheap plastic materials, clever design elements help elevate the cabin’s overall feel. Cross-hatch embossing on the dash reduces reflections, and funky orange accents add a touch of personality. The high-touch surfaces feature a rich anodized texture, and the floating 8.0-inch center display provides a slim storage cubby perfect for your phone or wallet. The Sync 3 infotainment system may look dated and lack a physical home button, but it remains easy to use, especially with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support. However, it’s puzzling that Ford opted for Sync 3 rather than its newer Sync 4 system.
Powering the Bronco Sport Badlands is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine that delivers an impressive 250 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. This power easily surpasses the RAV4’s 203 hp and 184 lb-ft. All Bronco Sports come with an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive with driveline disconnect. The Badlands trim adds features like a twin-clutch locking rear differential, a liquid-cooled power takeoff transfer case, and a four-wheel-drive lock function to ensure traction on slippery surfaces. The GOAT Mode terrain selector provides settings for various driving conditions. With its capable suspension and all-terrain tires, the Bronco Sport Badlands can handle off-road adventures with ease.
Moving on to the 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, we see a different approach to off-road capability. The RAV4 boasts modern styling with angular headlamps and a trapezoidal grille reminiscent of the Tacoma pickup. The sleek design gives it a sporty rally-car appearance, especially when paired with the white contrast roof. All TRD models, including the RAV4 TRD Off-Road, come with flow-formed matte-black wheels and Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires, further enhancing its sporty look. Inside, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road features Toyota’s SoftTex faux leather upholstery in black with red stitching and TRD logo embroidery. Matte red accents add a pop of color to the cabin, although the infotainment system remains dated and difficult to navigate.
Under the hood, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is powered by a 2.5-liter inline-four engine that produces 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. While it may not match the Bronco Sport’s power output, it offers decent performance for a vehicle of its size. All-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission are standard, with a Dynamic Torque Vectoring differential that can distribute power to the rear wheels as needed. The RAV4 TRD Off-Road features multiple drive modes to suit different terrains. With its 8.6 inches of ground clearance, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road can handle moderate off-road trails, although its approach and departure angles limit its capabilities compared to the Bronco Sport.
On the road, both the Bronco Sport Badlands and RAV4 TRD Off-Road offer a different driving experience. The RAV4 provides a comfortable and smooth ride, with exceptional visibility and a spacious interior. Its fuel economy is also commendable, with a combined rating of 28 mpg. However, it lacks power and can feel underwhelming during acceleration, especially with a full load. The Bronco Sport, on the other hand, offers a more engaging driving experience, thanks to its turbocharged engine and quick-witted transmission. Its tall seating position and unique styling make it stand out on the road. However, its fuel economy is lower than the RAV4’s, with a combined rating of 23 mpg.
When it comes to off-road performance, the Bronco Sport Badlands reigns supreme due to its dedicated off-road features. Its electronic-locking rear differential, power takeoff transfer case, and GOAT Mode terrain selector ensure that it can tackle various terrains with ease. The RAV4 TRD Off-Road, while more capable than other RAV4 variants, falls short compared to the Bronco Sport. Its limited suspension travel and less impressive approach and departure angles make it less suited for challenging off-road trails. However, it handles smoother dirt surfaces admirably and offers good overall composure.
In terms of passenger and cargo space, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road excels. It provides a spacious and comfortable interior, with the rear seats offering enough legroom for passengers to relax. The RAV4 also offers superior cargo capacity compared to the Bronco Sport, making it a more practical choice for everyday use. On the other hand, the Bronco Sport’s design and layout make it feel less cramped, with its low beltline alleviating claustrophobia.
Ultimately, in our comparison between the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands and the 2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, the Bronco Sport comes out on top. It delivers on its promise of genuine off-road performance while still offering a fun and engaging driving experience. The RAV4 TRD Off-Road, while enjoyable to drive, doesn’t fully live up to its TRD badge in terms of off-road capability. Additionally, the Bronco Sport’s unique styling and attention to detail make it a standout in the segment. Despite its slightly lower fuel economy and cargo capacity, the Bronco Sport’s overall package is more appealing and deserving of a win.