Ford Bronco vs. Ford Explorer - Comparing Ford's Rugged SUV with Its Refined Descendant
Recently, we took a look at how the new Ford Bronco stacks up against a well-heeled rival from across the Atlantic — the Land Rover Defender 110 S. Now, we’ll move on to another comparison, this time pitting the new Bronco against a member of its own stable: Ford’s ultra-popular Explorer.
Fans of Ford history will probably recall that it was the Ford Expedition, and not the Explorer, that took the Bronco’s place on the assembly line in Wayne, Michigan when its original 30-year run came to a close in 1996. Nonetheless, the Ford Bronco and Explorer also have an intertwined history and shared six model years together in the Ford lineup (1991-1996). And as the Bronco was becoming increasingly viewed as somewhat of a relic in light of a sweeping trend toward more refined SUVs that put a premium on everyday driving over off-roading, the Explorer also holds plenty of significance as one of the earliest examples that illustrated Ford’s attempt to change with the times.
In retrospect, Ford’s forecasting abilities couldn’t have been much more accurate. During a time when the Bronco’s perceived outdatedness and lack of refinement had begun to lead to slowly decreasing sales figures, the Explorer was introduced to an enthusiastic market and was a resounding success. The model topped the quarter million mark in sales just one year after its 1990 debut, crossed the 300,000 mark by 1992 and then breached the 400,000 mark in 1996 and stayed there for several years. While the nameplate no longer enjoys quite the level of dominance it once had, the Explorer is still a very popular model for Ford and continues to exceed 250,000 units sold per year pretty consistently.
The two models also share another bit of history, in that the introduction of the 2-door Explorer Sport ably filled the gap left when Ford discontinued the Bronco II. On a more “macro” level, the Explorer already made the miniaturized Bronco II seem a little obsolete, but with its stout appearance enhanced by a shorter wheelbase and a 2-door configuration, the Explorer Sport variant made the Bronco II look downright frail by comparison.
As we’ve noted in previous blog posts, the price tag of a new Ford Bronco, as well as that of an Explorer, makes it very likely that either will see plenty of weekday use, so a certain level of versatility would rightfully be expected from both SUVs. And, of course, the relative desirability of either of these vehicles ultimately comes down to your priorities. If you’re someone who is almost totally focused on off-roading, then this comparison is likely to restate what you probably already knew — the Ford Bronco holds a decided advantage once you’re off the asphalt and would be the logical choice. On the flip side, if you put a particularly high premium on driving experience while commuting, the opposite will apply and the Explorer will be the more appealing of the two.
But, if your anticipated driving mixes both off-roading and commuting and you’re curious as to what you’ll gain and what you’ll give up by opting for the Bronco, let’s have a look. For the sake of comparison, we’re sticking to the 4-door Bronco, largely because a) There is no 2-door Explorer currently offered (that Explorer Sport was sure a great looking ride in its day, though) and b) Anyone opting for the new 2-door Bronco probably puts off-roading pretty high on their list of priorities and is not going to view the Explorer as serious option.
The View From Outside
While these two vehicles were designed with different priorities, they’re pretty similar in size, with the Explorer, despite its more passenger-centric identity, being only the slightly larger of the two. Its 119” wheelbase is just three inches longer than the Bronco’s, but the Explorer’s 198” overall length is 9 inches more than that of the Bronco because it’s carrying more overhang beyond its front and rear wheels. The mainstream SUV niche has seen a recent trend toward a lowered stance — possibly an influence of the burgeoning popularity of crossovers — and the Explorer’s height reflects this, as it’s both three inches shorter than the Bronco 4-door, as well as three inches wider and it rides on a slightly wider track.
Inside the Doors
The Explorer was originally introduced to meet the demand for an increased level of interior comfort and refinement and it has been consistently refined over the years with this priority in mind. Since the available passenger room inside the cabin plays a large part in determining a vehicle’s comfort level, it’s not surprising that it holds an advantage over the 4-door Bronco in most dimensions, and yet the spatial distinction between the two SUVs is only consequential in a couple of areas.
Front and second row headroom comes in at 40.8” and 40.1” for the Bronco, which puts it in a virtual dead heat with the Explorer. The same goes for front legroom — the two vehicles have nearly identical dimensions here — while in back the Explorer offers a slight advantage. As far as latitudinal measurements are concerned, the Explorer fares better, with about a 3 and 4 inch respective advantage in front and rear hip room and a slightly larger lead in the area of front and rear shoulder room.
One noticeable point of differentiation is the Explorer’s third row. This feature is not available on the Bronco, so if ferrying a fairly large group of passengers is part of your routine, the Explorer becomes more attractive. It’s rated for 7 passengers in most cases, versus the Bronco’s 5.
What Happens Once You Leave the Asphalt?
Just as you’d expect, the new Bronco asserts itself once the terrain gets more rugged, but the advantage it presents grows ever greater as the ground beneath it becomes more extreme. For departures from the asphalt that are limited to unpaved or icy roads that aren’t too precarious, the Explorer will likely get it done with no real issues — Ford’s Intelligent 4-wheel drive is an option on all of its trim levels, so it’s not likely to get stranded all that easily.
On the other hand, if actual spirited off-roading is on your menu, the gap between the two models becomes insurmountable. Armed with the 35” tires that are likely to be the preferred choice for anyone sharing a penchant for overlanding, the Bronco offers a 43-degree approach angle that more than doubles that of its Ford stablemate, and also holds a decided advantage in departure angle (37 degrees vs. 22), as well as in ramp breakover angle, which measures a vehicle’s ability to be driven over the crest created by two converging surfaces without scraping the undercarriage.
When the comparison shifts to the ability to cross a stream or standing body of water, the results aren’t really surprising, given the Bronco’s adventure-centric design. Armed with those 35-inch tires, it can ford a depth of 33.5” — just a little short of three feet! Meanwhile, the Explorer features a component and underbody architecture that’s fairly similar with its larger brother, the Expedition, so it’s not recommended that any water depths greater than those reaching its mid-hub be attempted.
Even when equipped with their most modest respective engines, both of these SUVs arrive with more than enough power to navigate both on and off-road terrain with relative ease. The soon to arrive Bronco is propelled by your choice of either a turbocharged 2.3 liter EcoBoost inline 4 cylinder that’s rated at 275 horsepower and 315lb-ft of torque on regular fuel, or a 2.7 liter twin turbo V-6 that’s good for 315 horsepower and 410lb-ft of torque. Interestingly, both powerplants turned out to be a bit more potent than originally thought and their outputs climb a even a bit more with the use of premium fuel.
The Explorer has also been a decided beneficiary of Ford’s engineering attention and now boasts the power through its various engine options that reflects it. These choices range from a 2.3 liter EcoBoost that puts out 300 horses and 310lb-ft, to 3.0 liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 that’s good for an impressive 400 horsepower and 415lb-ft of torque. The enhanced numbers that this latter engine features provides warranted speculation as to whether it may find itself in the Bronco’s engine compartment at some point — that extra 85 horsepower it would provide over the current top tier Bronco engine is pretty substantial.