Retro Off-Roader Design Battle: Bronco vs. Wrangler vs. Defender

Retro Off-Roader Design Battle: Bronco vs. Wrangler vs. Defender

Nouveau-Retro Style Meets Rugged All-Terrain

It's a good time to be alive if you're into buying an off-road SUV straight from the factory. There are some great choices out there, and it looks like the new 2021 Ford Bronco has a lot of potential to be one of the best. Of course, there's no way to know for sure until we get to drive one for ourselves. As we patiently wait for that day to come, we can occupy ourselves by comparing it to its closest competitors: the 2020 Jeep Wrangler and the 2020 Land Rover Defender.

All three are iconic SUVs. They celebrate their heritage with motifs and design elements that go back several decades and then back it up with impressive specs and modern engineering. The common thread? They're boxy, have short overhangs (the length of the vehicle that goes past the front and rear tires), and are specifically designed to be more capable off-road than the typical crossover SUV. Otherwise, they have wildly different approaches to design.

2020 Jeep Wrangler - Group Picture

2020 Jeep Wrangler - Group Picture

Jeep Wrangler

Let's start with the Jeep. In a lot of ways, it could be considered one of the originators of the class. It's easy to see the resemblance between the newest Wrangler and the original Jeep from World War II.

The current Jeep Wrangler and the Willy's MA (an early prototype Jeep) are both purpose-built and simple in design. The Willy's MA shows the origin of the Wrangler's distinctive grille with vertical metal slats. There are also the flat fenders and a slab-sided body that are similarly recognizable. Other Jeep staples include the fold-down windshield and removable doors. The later MB version is the one we recognize as the standard military Jeep. Its grille is stamped steel rather than welded with slats. That helped speed up production. After the war, Willy's introduced the first civilian Jeep, which is where the company's CJ model designation came from.

Jeep dropped the CJ title in favor of the Wrangler name in the late 1980s. There have been evolutionary changes over the decades — more rounded shapes, for instance, or the thankfully short-lived square headlights from the first Wrangler generation — but the profile is still easily recognizable as a Jeep. This is the kind of brand equity that is earned, not bought. The Wrangler's fanbase is very dedicated.

2020 Land Rover Defender - Group Picture

2020 Land Rover Defender - Group Picture

Land Rover Defender

The Land Rover Defender's heritage can be traced back to the early Land Rover Series 1, 2 and 3. These models were originally developed for agricultural and commercial purposes in postwar Britain. Like the Jeep, they were simple and rugged. In the 1980s, the Defender came on the scene with the squared-off style that many of us have come to love.

The two main versions — the Defender 90 and the longer 110 — were only offered in the U.S. for a few years. This rarity helps explain why they've been considered by off-road enthusiasts as forbidden fruit. A bare-bones attitude, with exposed rivets and sharp corners, had a charm all its own.

The Defender underwent its only true redesign last year. It's a more modern reinterpretation rather than an evolution. It's softer in its style, which might be a disappointment to the Defender loyalists, but it might also attract more shoppers as a result. To use a movie reference, it's great to earn critical praise, but sometimes you need a blockbuster to keep the lights on.

There are hints of the original Defender here and there, but the new model simply isn't as imposing as before. Sure, it has some mean-looking headlights and a chopped-off tail section, but the rounded-over fenders and corners are reminiscent of a Honda Element from certain angles. There's no doubt it's a very capable off-roader, and if current Land Rovers are any indication, the technical wizardry makes it a lot easier to navigate terrain.

But. There's always a But.

Part of the allure of off-roading is the struggle. The sensation that you're an integral part of reaching the destination. The Defender may make it too easy, if that's even possible. The interior is a good example. It has echoes of its past, but it's overpowered by the modern and luxurious setting. It's likely a great glamper and maybe better on the road than the Wrangler or Bronco, but we're certain we'd feel bad about mucking up that lovely cabin.

2021 Ford Bronco - Front 3/4

2021 Ford Bronco - Front 3/4

Ford Bronco

Has the revived Bronco split the difference between the Jeep and the Defender? No, it definitely trends more toward the Jeep. In some ways it's what we were hoping for from the Defender, with its strong retro identity and many of the latest tech and convenience features. Ford introduced its original Bronco SUV for the 1966 model year and produced it in a few generations before ending production for 1996.

On the new model, some people might say Ford was a bit too heavy-handed with the heritage design. But overall, it just seems to work really well together. What also resonates is that Ford didn't really include any retro elements that don't serve a purpose. For example, those fender peaks look great, and they also help the driver know where the corners of vehicles are.

On the whole, it's the details that make the Bronco special. It's almost as if Ford let Jeep blaze a trail for two decades only to take a massive shortcut that isn't on any map and show up at the same destination. If successful, the Bronco may usher in a new wave of cool off-roaders. At least, one can hope. We'd love to see a Toyota FJ revival and, in a Hail Mary pass, maybe even an International Scout. In the meantime, we'll be looking forward to comparing the Bronco, Wrangler and Defender in an epic off-road comparison. Stay tuned.