Payne: Groovy, baby! Ford Bronco Sport Heritage is rockin’ retro Bronco wannabe

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 3, 2023

Johnson Valley, California — The Ford Bronco is awesome. It features retro-cool styling like a Mustang, useful two- and four-door variants, easy-to-use rotary controls, and doors that come off for when the sun shines. If you have the urge to go deeper into nature, it sits on a tough ladder frame and 37-inch Sasquatch tire package. And for the really ambitious, there’s the 418-horsepower Raptor that will bounce around Silver Lake’s sand dunes like a golden retriever off the leash.

But the best thing about this bad boy may be its Mini Me.

Like its more rugged big brother, the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport comes in a Heritage Edition with Oxford White grille, roof and wheels to honor the original '60s Bronc.

Mini Me, aka Son of Bronco, aka Ford Bronco Sport. Bronco Sport is the love child of Bronco and Ford Escape. The Sport is built on the same bones as Escape, but its spirit comes from Papa Bronco. The result is a handsome, affordable SUV starting at 30 grand but that still has an instinct for off-roading.

And while Mini Me — er, Bronco Sport — doesn’t have a Raptor variant (yet), it shares with Bronco a new Heritage model for 2023 celebrating the iconic look of original 1960s Broncs.

On a visit to the King of the Hammers races in Johnson Valley this February, I got a chance to test the full Bronco family, from the race-prepared, V8-powered Bronco DR (DR for Desert Racer) to the twin-turbo V-6 Bronco Raptor to the 2.0-liter turbo-4 Bronco Sport Heritage Limited. The DR and Raptor are some of the most ferocious SUVs the Blue Oval has ever made, but it was remarkable how naturally Bronco Sport fit in.

Melissa Clark of Moab, Utah has twice won the all-female Rebelle Rally in a Ford Bronco Sport.

The Mojave Desert north of Palm Springs demands respect with its endless washboard terrain, deep sand dunes and rocky trails. Off-road driver Melissa Clark is a veteran of the Jeep Easter Safari in Moab and has raced the all-female Rebelle Rally since 2015. She has won the event twice in the X-Cross (unibody SUV) class in a Bronco Sport and has enormous respect for Junior’s capabilities.

“We raced a stock SUV across 1,500 miles of desert,” she said standing next to her 2022 class-winning Bronco Sport, “and this thing is amazing.”

To prove the point, we retraced some of Johnson Valley’s formidable terrain — some of the same terrain that she’d navigated in the ’22 rally. Her winning red-and-black Bronco Sport Badlands was still decked out in race livery complete with sponsor decals and #200 sign boards.

But my yellow ’23 Mini Me was a fashion plate.

Decked out in Oxford White steely wheels with Oxford White fascia and roof, the Heritage model looked like it had just stepped out of a 1966 Bronco catalog. Except … with its digital screens, Apple Car Play and Android Auto app compatibility, four doors, leather seats and eager 250-horse turbo-4 engine, this car is light years beyond the OG in amenities and comfort.

In the Mojave Desert, the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Edition  chases after Rebelle Rally champ Melissa Clark and her Bronco Sport racer.

True to the original, my Sport could fling some sand. The steelies were wrapped in all-terrain tires, and I chased Clark across the desert, charged up sandy hills, crawled over rocks.

Most impressive was the Sport’s performance over the Mojave’s high dunes. Imitating Papa Bronco, I put Mini Me in SAND mode using the G.O.A.T. mode dial — a big, meaty Go-Over-Any-Terrain dial in the center of the console that adjusts for a variety of surfaces.

SAND mode increased throttle response, loosened traction control and threw more power to the rear wheels, which is where my model’s secret sauce was kept. The Heritage Limited’s 2.0-liter turbo-4 gets a twin-clutch pack out back capable of slinging torque to either rear wheel depending which needs it most. That is to say: real torque-vectoring. My favorite Ford Focus RS (alas, RIP in the U.S.) track rat used the same equipment for high-speed cornering.

To get better traction in the Mojave Desert, use SAND mode in the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Limited Edition.

The Bronco Sport uses it off-road and I slid Sport this way and that over the dunes with ease. Key to sand-driving is to, ahem, keep moving lest you sink, but that’s actually easier to do in the 3,700-pound Mini Me compared with the 5,700-pound Bronco Raptor.

The sand was also easier on the Bronco Sport than the stone-choked sand pits of Holly Oaks back home where I had learned (the hard way) that too much aggression can suck rocks into the wheels and pull the tire beads right off the rim (so that’s what bead locks are for). So I resisted the urge to get too aggressive in the middle of the Mojave.

I could not resist, however, the urge to pose the fashionable Sport on top of dunes like a Star Wars movie shoot. Most Heritage model owners won’t have the chance to take their four-wheeler to the top of a dune, but its timeless design will turn heads anywhere.

The 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Limited Edition surveys Johns Valley, California - home of the King of the Hammers off-road race. Note the mud flaps and all-terrain tires.

Also head-turning is the Heritage Limited model’s price. It’s a stiff $46,895.

That’s the same price as the standard Bronco Heritage, which boasts a 300-horsepower 2.4-liter turbo-4 and meaty, 37-inch Sasquatch all-terrain tire package. Oh. Mini Me at the same price as Bronco Sr.?

For those who want something more affordable, Bronco Sport comes in a base 181-horse, 1.5-liter three-banger Heritage edition that lacks the Heritage Limited model’s grunt, all-terrain tires, and twin-clutch rear clutch packs — but still comes loaded with standard features like AWD, upgraded suspension, blind-spot assist, and adaptive cruise control. All that, 3 mpg better fuel economy, and a more appropriate Mini Me $35,485 sticker price.

The 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Limited Edition offers a sunroof and leather seats and sophisticated torque vectoring drivetrain for $46k.

Melissa also helpfully pointed out that overlanding isn’t just about flinging sand in the sandbox. Under its fashionable wardrobe, the Sport features practical SUV goodies like rear floodlights to illuminate your campsite, spare tire, rear carabiner hooks to anchor gear and a square cargo roof so that you can store two bicycles — upright! — back there. The front quarters may be tech savvy but they are also equipped with lots of storage bins and cargo nets.

Take a bow, Mini Me. Papa Bronco would be proud.

Next week: 2023 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Edition

Vehicle type: All-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger SUV

Price: $34,890, including $1,595 destination charge ($46,895 Heritage Limited model as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbo-4

Power: 181 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (1.5 liter); 250 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque (2.0 liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver est. for 2.0 liter); towing, 2,200 pounds

Weight: 3,713 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/28 highway/26 combined (1.5 liter); 21 mpg city/26 highway/23 combined (2.0 liter)

Report card

Highs: Retro good looks; off-road capability

Lows: Heritage Limited gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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