The Checkered History Of Ford's First Compact SUV
If you were to ask car fans what the first compact SUV made by Ford was, most of them will likely say "the Escape." While the Escape is popular, well-designed, and has been around for 20 years, it's not the first compact SUV put out by Ford.
Back in the early '80s, long before compact SUVs were even a thing, Ford introduced the Bronco II, a smaller, more affordable, and more efficient SUV, which both introduced a new trend in the SUV segment and sold rather well during its 7-year production cycle.
Despite the fact that Bronco II was very innovative for its era, this little SUV was soon forgotten. Thirty years after the Bronco II was discontinued, Ford was back with another baby Bronco model – 2021 Bronco Sport – which proved to be a worthy successor to the Bronco name and a continuation of the same compact SUV concept introduced in the early '80s.
However, while the Bronco II idea was great in theory, its realization was far from ideal, and this little SUV developed big problems during its production. Even though production stopped in January of 1990, the Bronco II's problems and reputation plagued Ford's SUV program throughout the '90s.
The Beginning of the Bronco II
The first-generation Bronco (1966 to 1977) was a small and compact SUV, but when the series moved onto the F-150 platform in 1978, the Bronco grew significantly and became a bulky full-size model. Ford was just following the trend of SUVs at the time -- despite the fact that the car industry was downsizing in the late '70s on the whole, SUVs remained big, with the Chevrolet Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger, both also using a full-size pickup platform.
Even though the second-generation Bronco sold incredibly well, Ford realized that it needed a smaller, cheaper, and nimbler model for customers who needed a capable vehicle but didn't want a big Bronco with a thirsty V8 engine.
At the same time, Ford, along with then-partner Mazda, started developing a compact pickup platform. The ladder-type chassis was designed to be a scaled-down version of the larger F-150 architecture, and Ford's product strategists realized that it could be a perfect underpinning for the upcoming small SUV model, along with the forthcoming compact truck.
Using the same platform and front-end design, as well as engines and numerous other mechanical bits, lowers production costs and raises profit margins, which was all Ford's executives needed to greenlight the production.
So, in early 1983, two new Fords debuted – a compact truck called the Ranger and a compact SUV called the Bronco II. Although the Bronco II didn't have anything in common with the standard model, Ford decided to use the name, since the Bronco moniker had enormous marketing appeal and stood for toughness, dependability, and unmatched off-road capabilities.
Ford Bronco II (1983 to 1990)
When the Bronco II was first released, the market reacted very favorably. Ford now had a proper competitor to the small Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, as well as the new Jeep Cherokee XJ. Customers and magazine testers alike praised the fresh design, lineup of modern engines, well-laid out interior, and affordable price.
For just a $9,998 base price, buyers could get a light, nimble, and decently-equipped 4x4 compact SUV with enough interior room and off-road usability. Compared to the regular Bronco, the Bronco II was almost as capable but cheaper to buy and run.
At first, the only available engine was a German-built, 2.8-liter V6 unit with 115 hp. In 1986, Ford began offering a more modern, 2.9-liter V6 with fuel injection and 140 hp. At the same time, the 4x4 drive train became optional, and standard Broncos gott rear-wheel-drive only.
Interestingly, Ford decided to introduce Mitsubishi's 2.3-liter diesel unit as an option, but it was soon withdrawn due to poor performance and slow sales. The diesel powerplant delivered only 84 hp, and although it was economical, it was painfully slow.
The market loved the Bronco II, and initially, it easily outsold its bigger brother. From 1983 to 1990, Ford managed to sell 627,304 units of the Bronco II in seven years, which is an enormous success.
This model mainly appealed to the younger crowd, and it was marketed as a fun, weekend vehicle for people with active hobbies. Low price, off-road capabilities, and practicality were the selling points, and Ford even exported the model overseas.
However, when it was time to introduce a second-generation, Ford decided to keep the full-size Bronco, abruptly kill the Bronco II, and concentrate on the new Ford Explorer as their prime SUV offering. At the moment, that decision seemed unreasonable, since the Bronco II was pretty popular, but Ford had to do it.
The Handling Controversy
Even before the Bronco II's handling controversies became a nation-wide scandal, several car magazines, and Consumer Reports stated that Bronco II handling characteristics were far from ideal and that the car was prone to rollovers. The first reports about Bronco II's ill-handling started circulating in 1986 and 1987, but class-action and individual lawsuits soon followed before the problem was widely publicized.
Ford initially responded that inexperienced drivers and specific driving conditions caused the potential rollovers. Still, independent surveys showed that there was, in fact, something wrong with the Bronco II's road holding capabilities. An NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) inquiry opened in 1989 showed that there were more deaths and injuries connected to the Bronco II than with any similar model, which was alarming.
Things got worse when the investigation showed that Ford actually knew about all of this back in 1981, when Bronco II was in its testing phase. The company even destroyed some documents stating that the vehicle needed more engineering work to adapt its truck-based platform for passenger SUV use and on-road driving conditions.
Probably wanting to save on development costs and present the Bronco II as soon as possible, Ford deliberately chose to ignore those reports and introduce the production version knowing that its handling was a bit sketchy. This was a disastrous mistake that cost the company an enormous amount of money through lost lawsuits and subsequent penalties and damaged its valuable reputation and market share.
Unfortunately, the Bronco II problems were only the prelude to a much larger Ford Explorer handling scandal that devastated both Ford and the auto industry on the whole in the '90s.
Even though the Ford Bronco II's handling controversy ultimately signaled its demise, we can acknowledge its importance to both Bronco history and the SUV genre in general. The first compact SUV from Ford was a great idea, and it offered customers the perfect alternative to the big and hefty full-size Bronco.
However, it also taught Ford a harrowing and valuable lesson and, through its problematic example, helped raise safety standards throughout the industry.
Today, almost 40 years after the Bronco II was introduced, Ford stands ready to tackle the same concept and the same market with the modern, well-designed, and thoroughly proven Bronco Sport which is destined to clear its name and re-established the Bronco brand as Ford's most popular SUV offering.