HOLLY, Mich. – Jovina Young smiles as she reminisces about driving across 1,250 miles of Nevada and California desert this fall in a new Ford Bronco Sport SUV for an off-road vehicle rally.
Young, who worked in the beer industry before becoming marketing manager last year of the Bronco Sport, had never participated in off-roading before but wanted to experience the capabilities of the new SUV for herself.
The journey took eight days, a lot of camping gear and GPS units were not allowed. It was something she never imagined being a part of until she began working at Ford Motor.
"I wanted to make sure I was being authentic in the message I was talking about with Bronco Sport," the 42-year-old mother of two told CNBC about the Rebelle Rally – an all-female vehicle event.
While an off-road novice may not seem like the ideal candidate for such a vehicle, it's people like Young who are expected to be key to the success of the new Bronco Sport, which is arriving in Ford dealerships nationwide. While off-road vehicles are becoming increasingly more popular, it's outdoorsy, mainstream buyers who are largely driving sales of such vehicles.
"It's really about choice. Right now outdoor activities and off-road-oriented vehicles are striking a nerve with a number of consumers whether they take them off-road or not," said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit.
The 2021 Bronco Sport is a balance of off-road capability and on-road comfort more than its larger, more expensive Bronco sibling, which is scheduled to go on sale in the summer. The Bronco Sport features the styling of the Bronco but is built more like a car or crossover than a truck, allowing for a smoother ride.
"We wanted to make sure we had a balance," Eddie Khan, engineering manager of the Bronco Sport, said during a media event for the vehicle at an off-road event in suburban Detroit. "We were not tuning this vehicle with the on-road or off-road in mind. We were tuning it with both in mind."
The Bronco and Bronco Sport are part of a new highly anticipated "Bronco family" of vehicles for Ford, including the possibility of a pickup truck in the coming years.
While the Bronco SUV has received much of the attention, the Bronco Sport is expected to outsell its larger sibling thanks to it being more approachable, yet capable, as well as its comfort and lower price.
"We expect Bronco Sport is going to be higher volume than Bronco," Brinley said. "It's more affordable and it meets the needs of more people. The capability of the Bronco Sport is more in line with what people need on a given day."
Ford executives have said the company can produce more than 200,000 vehicles a year at the assembly plant in Michigan where the Bronco will be built alongside the Ford Ranger. The company has declined to discuss projected sales or capacity for the Bronco Sport, which is being produced in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico.
The Bronco Sport features the styling of the larger Bronco SUV, standard 4x4 capability and a range of models – from a standard model for under $27,000 to a top-tier "Badlands" model, which Young drove in the rally, starting at about $33,000. That pricing compares with the Bronco's range of $28,500 to $50,000. Pricing for both vehicles exclude a limited first-edition model.
"Especially getting started in off-roading, it's a great entry point for anyone who looks to do that," Young said, adding the Bronco Sport has off-road technologies to assist novice drivers and the overall capability to satisfy more experienced off-roaders.
The Bronco Sport, or "Baby Bronco," marks the first time Ford has used the Bronco name since the original vehicle was discontinued after 31 years in 1996. It's also the first Bronco model to exclusively come in four doors (the 2021 Bronco is available in two- and four-door models).
Having a more obtainable, entry-level model is similar to Fiat Chrysler's Jeep brand, which is the leader in off-road vehicle sales and Ford's main rival for the Bronco lineup.
"We do see Bronco Sport as almost like an entry point into the Bronco family," Young said.
The Bronco Sport is Ford's first direct rival to Jeep since the original Bronco. The company's closest competitor since then has been a full-size, off-road version of the F-150 pickup called the Raptor, but Jeep does not offer such a vehicle.
Ford is currently the top cross-shopped brand to Jeep, according to Lisa Drake, Ford's chief operating officer for North America.
"It's a huge addressable market for us," she said last week during a Credit Suisse conference. "And as the number one cross-shopped brand for Jeep, we think we're in a strong position to aggressively pick up some share. So, very excited about this."