Ford Motor is taking a run at the nation's No. 1 off-road seller, the Jeep Wrangler, with its highly anticipated relaunch Monday night of the Bronco SUV — a boxy utility vehicle that developed a cult following after it was discontinued in 1996.
Ford is pricing the new Bronco starting at $29,995, including destination charges, just $205 above a base Jeep Wrangler. Top-end models with additional features and equipment can top $60,000. A limited "First Edition" Bronco model starts at $60,800, according to Ford's website.
The two- and four-door Bronco models, according to Ford, are similar in size to the Wrangler, which is regularly among Fiat Chrysler's best-selling vehicles in the U.S.
Ford originally confirmed its relaunch in January 2017, but fans had been awaiting the return of the Bronco for years before then.
"It's a long time coming. The market is waiting and ready," said Jeff Schuster, president of the Americas and global vehicle forecasts for research firm LMC Automotive. The Bronco is the Jeep Wrangler's first direct competitor since General Motors' Hummer, which is being relaunched next year, was discontinued in 2009. "We expect this to stack up nicely compared to the Wrangler."
The Wrangler was seventh in sales last year among all compact SUVs and crossovers, according to LMC.
Like the Wrangler, the new Bronco models feature removable roofs and doors as well as more than 200 factory-backed accessories. All Bronco vehicles, Ford said, also will come standard with four-wheel drive.
"With Bronco, Ford is making a clear push into the off-road segment of the [North American] SUV market," Credit Suisse analyst Dan Levy wrote in a note to investors Monday. "While we expect Wrangler to remain the leader in the off-road segment, we nevertheless see attractive opportunity for Bronco given its heritage."
The Bronco, according to Levy, would contribute nearly $1 billion to Ford's North American pretax earnings if sales reached 125,000 units. That's based on profits per vehicle of about $7,500. That would make the Bronco one of Ford's most profitable models, according to Levy.
Kumar Galhotra, Ford's president of the Americas & International Markets Group, has said the company projects it will sell hundreds of thousands of new Bronco SUVs a year.
"They're going to add substantial volume to the company, and they're going to be growth volume because none of the vehicles exist today," Galhotra previously told CNBC. "It is a net-add to the portfolio, net-add to volume and profitable volume."
Ford unveiled its new "family" of Bronco off-road vehicles, including a smaller Bronco Sport SUV, online with a video narrated by actor Bryan Cranston.
"This time it's not just one horse. It's a whole family," he said as the vehicles scaled rocks and drove through treacherous terrains. "Built with the toughness of an F-Series and spirit of a Mustang; built to be the future of off roading."
The Bronco Sport is expected to begin arriving in dealerships by the end of this year, followed by the Bronco next spring. Ford began taking $100 refundable deposits for the vehicles Monday night.
Ford compared the Bronco Sport, which will be built on a different vehicle platform than the Bronco, to a Jeep Compass, a less truck-like compact SUV. The vehicle is expected to be more mainstream than the Bronco but still have off-road capabilities, according to Ford.
"This absolutely belongs in the family of Broncos and will surprise and amaze people," said Dave Pericak, Ford's director of icon vehicles such as the new Bronco models. Ford, according to officials, expects the Bronco and Bronco Sport to appeal to different buyers.
The Bronco, like the Wrangler, features a removable roof as well as doors that can easily be taken off, Ford said. Four-door models come standard with a cloth soft top. Two-door vehicles come with a standard three-section removable roof system.
The Bronco Sport will be powered by a 1.5-liter EcoBoost engine with a targeted 181 horsepower and 190 pound-foot of torque or a 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine projected with 245 horsepower and 275 pound-foot of torque. Both engines are paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The Bronco will come standard with a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine expected to deliver 270 horsepower and 310 pound-foot of torque. A 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 engine projected at 310 horsepower and 400 pound-foot of torque also will be available. The engines are combined with a seven-speed manual transmission or 10-speed automatic transmission.
The Bronco Sport will be produced at the automaker's factory in Hermosillo Sonora, Mexico. The Bronco will be produced at a plant in Michigan.
Using the Bronco name on several vehicles is part of a larger plan by Ford CEO and President Jim Hackett to leverage the company's most recognized and iconic brands to lead its $11 billion restructuring.
"It's a really big product year. I would say an unprecedented product year," Galhotra said. "We are building on products that are iconic."
Ford last month unveiled the next generation of its F-150 pickup, including a new hybrid model, and announced plans to resurrect a well-known performance model of the Mustang called the Mach 1. It's also using the "Mach" name for the Mustang Mach-E, an all-electric crossover that's expected to go on sale later this year. An all-electric version of the F-150 also is scheduled to be released in the next two years.
Mark Grueber, Bronco consumer marketing manager, declined to comment on any potential all-electric or hybrid versions of the Bronco.
Ford's Pericak said one of the biggest challenges for his "icons" team is balancing out the history of such well-known vehicles with more modern design elements and new tech-savvy features.
"The pressure is immense. It's huge," he said. "It's a constant battle to find the balance between leveraging the fantastic and rich heritage that we have with a lot of these nameplates but not living in the past. That would be a mistake."
For the Bronco, that included keeping classic design elements but adding useful features such as a new off-road navigation system, large interior screens and up to seven driver-selectable modes: normal, eco, sport, slippery and sand as well as mud or rock crawl modes for off-road driving.
"We're going to separate ourselves a bit," Pericak said regarding Jeep. "We're not afraid of competition. It's about time we shake this up a bit."