HOLLY, Michigan — What's better than taking an off-road beast over snowbound Holly Oaks ORV Park? Taking two off-road beasts.
I flogged the Land Rover Defender 90 and Ford Bronco First Edition two-door models over southeast Michigan's premier adventure park for grins — and to see how the two warriors compared. The Bronco has wowed in comparison tests with its arch-rival Jeep Wrangler.
But so good is Bronco that it also matches up against His Highness of Rugged Royalty, Land Rover.
It's good to have the Brit and Bronc back. They are iconic names that disappeared from the U.S. market for years. Defender last sold here in 1997, the Bronco 1996. Credit Wrangler's wild success as a brand halo for Jeep in the Age of Ute for bringing these two legends out of retirement.
Like Wrangler, Defender and Bronco have their roots in World War II. They were first built as rugged, battle-ready General Purpose (GP — or Jeep for short) vehicles. But the Brit and Yank have diverged dramatically since then. Aimed at Land Rover's First Class clientele, Defender now rides on a — la-de-da — air suspension and crisp unibody SUV chassis contrary to the truck-based bruiser of safari legend. The Americans are still based on ladder frames and can be stripped naked of their doors and roof to get even closer to Mother Nature.
Wrangler and Broncos are natural predators and will be hunting each other for years across Holly Oaks and other U.S. adventure parks. But, in a challenge to Jeep, Bronco has updated the off-road formula with state-of-the-art tech — rotary mode shifter, single-button sway-bar disconnect, fully digital instrument displays, independent front suspension.
Its sophistication not only challenges Jeep — but puts it in the same neighborhood as Land Rover for $20,000 less.
A consistent theme of these columns is how the electronics age has shrunk the gap between luxe and mainstream (see Mazda CX-50 vs. BMW 2-series, VW Golf R vs. Audi S3, Corvette vs. Porsche), and Rover v. Bronco is another example. Game on.
Punching the Rover 90's 395-horse, supercharged-and-turbocharged inline-6 across Holly Oaks' frozen tundra, I slewed the 5,000-pound beast into The Sandbox — an undulating sea of sand that tests vehicles' stability and strength. The Defender was solid as a rock (despite an eerie wail from the brakes which my pal, Tom — riding shotgun — surmised was sand in the discs) on its unibody chassis.
The unibody choice raised eyebrows at the Rover's introduction in 2019 — Heresy! Off with the engineers' heads! — but it's more rigid than the old ladder frame and never flinched through Holly Oaks' unsparing terrain.