Sturdy ride is a serious contender despite a hard-to-take soft top

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2022 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition vs 2022 Ford Bronco Advanced 4×4 WildTrak: Off the beaten track.

This week: 2022 Ford Bronco

Price: $61,440 as tested. The Wildtrak Series adds $3,590; heavy-duty bumper, $825; towing capacity, $595. More noted below.

Conventional wisdom: Consumer Reports likes the “capability, acceleration and off-road character” but not the “braking, fuel economy or wind noise”.

Marketer pitch: “Introducing the Bronco Family.”

Reality: Tough competition.

What’s new: Ford brought the Bronco back to capitalize on America’s renewed zeal for old-school trail explorers.

It comes in a four-door two-door version or a five-seater four-door version like the one tested.

Up to speed: The 2.7-liter Ecoboost V6 helps the Bronco live up to its name, accelerating to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, according to Car and Driver. That puts it almost neck and neck with the Defender despite being 80 horsepower less at 315. (The standard 2.3-liter four creates 275 horsepower and takes 7.7 seconds.)

Premium gasoline boosts both those horsepower numbers, if you’re, say, a CEO or a wealthy independent and can pay a premium.

A 3.0-liter V6 is also available on the Raptor Tech series.

Sly: The 10-speed automatic operates using a large Jeep-style shifter, with PRND plus manual adjustment.

In automatic mode it generally works well, with the occasional chug chug feeling that accompanies rough trucks.

More disappointingly, however, the manual mode is only for hill descent control and the like. Shift ability only comes from a small button on the side of the shifter, a less than pleasant experience.

A 7-speed manual transmission is standard with all four, and I’d like to try it.

Transfer: The Bronco has a button to access two-wheel drive, 4 high and 4 low, and a version with an all-wheel-drive setting is optional.

On the road: Whether through deliberate planning or simply the laws of physics, the Bronco makes a good approximation of the Jeep Wrangler. The big tires and stiff suspension combine to make handling as loose as the competition, but a little practice makes it feel like it’s all good. It slaloms well on twisty roads and is easy to drive to the straight edge in tight spaces, but the Defender still offers a smoother ride and more balance on the road.

Driver’s seat: It certainly feels Jeepy here, too, with an almost straight windshield and dash, and plenty of controls for big paws. Buttons are rubber coated for watering or splashing in giant waterways. Many handles allow you to hold on.

The leather-vinyl seats ($2,195) offer pleasant comfort, certainly on par with any of the rugged four-wheelers.

The speedo is digital and the tachometer is digital with a scroll bar, not the usual dials. The coloring lacks contrast to see while wearing sunglasses in the sun, which seems like a bad decision.

From top to bottom: I’d love to try the removable hardtop, which comes in two or four doors, because I tried the soft top and it didn’t seem like a good idea.

It seems to beat the Jeep: the roof folds down and the side and rear windows pull out and stow in the back, so it’s nice to have them with you when conditions change. (The hardtop also has a place available to bring the parts.)

But several drawbacks emerged over a week of testing. Raising the manual roof requires over eight feet of clearance, so you can’t get ready in a standard garage, which I would often do with the Wrangler.

Secondly, there is no place to store the windows separately from the cargo, so they could be damaged when transporting other materials. Ask me how I know.

Third, removal is easy, but reinstallation can turn any mild-mannered auto-critic into an Oscar-winning Will Smith. Slide down in channels – easy. Connect the corners of the rear window? I watched the video several times and I always have no idea where the top point connects; I just connected the bottom dot and then hoped for the best.

You’ll know for sure that you don’t have the upper rear window in the right place when the side windows don’t connect properly. Assembling these parts requires a lot of stretching and finger work, and owners of a certain age or strength may not be able to do this.

Finally, at least three of the top clips — basically plastic backpack clips — had a broken piece before my test.

The doors also come off, but I had already spent far too much time on this endeavor.

Fuel economy: Like the rest of the bunch, the Bronco struggled to keep it at 16 mpg. Ok.

Friends and Stuff: The Bronco offers space comparable to the Wrangler. Legroom and footroom are generous in the rear, although headroom is tighter than expected.

Cargo capacity is 35.6 cubic feet in the rear and 83 with the rear seats folded down. Eight-foot boards fit from the console to the rear door, and 10-foot legs can lean against the windshield frame.

Play some tunes: The sound is pretty good, around a B+. The controls are standard Ford – dials for volume and tuning, and a large, easy touchscreen for the rest.

Keeping warm and cool: The heated seats get nice and warm on chilly days with the top down, and the heater blows sauna-like air.

Where it is built: Wayne, Mich.

How it’s built: Like the Defender, the Bronco also gets a 2 out of 5 for reliability from Consumer Reports.

At the end: If you can pump the gas into any of these things, more power to you. Beyond that, it’s a really tough call.

The Defender offers more poise, but the Bronco would be my choice, especially if the 7-speed four-cylinder is easygoing – just give that sweet man a hardtop.

But for now, the plug-in hybrid Wrangler 4xe remains the model to beat, because the time for hybridization is long overdue.

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