From the March 1980 issue of Car and Driver.
About a year ago the Ford public-relations department asked us to drop by for a sneak preview of its 1980 offerings. We were tantalized by hints of an all-new Thunderbird, all-new Lincolns and Continentals, and all-new light trucks. In fact, we were told, FoMoCo had just finished spending the last few dollars of a $700 million pot on the new trucks. They were smaller, they were lighter, they were the trucks of the Eighties.
Imagine our surprise when, after seeing those all-new Thunderbirds and those all-new Lincolns and Marks, a picture of a new 1980 Ford light truck was flashed on the screen and we couldn’t see any difference from the truck it had replaced.
Real nice, we muttered, or something like that. Seven hundred million dollars, right? Uh, what did you spend it on?
Well, nothing comes cheap these days, we were told. That truck up there on the screen was 200 to 300 pounds lighter and aerodynamically cleaner, we were told. And there were new grilles, new instrument panels, new paint schemes and such besides.
Ford, if we could judge by the satisfied smiles on the other side of the table, was pleased as punch with what it had done with its trucks. The least we could do, we decided, sublimating our thoughts of Japanese-size pickups with V-6s and turbo fours, was see what Ford’s $700 million had wrought. So by early winter we had taken delivery of a new Bronco, which, since it’s based on the F150 pickup, was a recipient of that massive redesign program.
A dramatic reduction in size was never Ford’s goal in the 1980 truck program. Several buyer clinics had revealed that people who want trucks want them to retain their passenger and cargo carrying space. So, armed with such strong public opinion, Ford decided to reduce weight, improve airflow, and generally give the public a better truck, but one it couldn’t tell from the old version. In the case of our Bronco Ranger XLT, that meant some rather small changes. Overall length is down 2.7 inches, width 1.1 inches. In an industry where downsizing has meant a reduction in overall length of up to eighteen inches and in width of four or five inches, that isn’t impressive.
Weight was another bogey, and Ford sliced out as much as 300 pounds. Our Bronco, admittedly optioned to the teeth, came to us at 5000 pounds. If a comparable 1979 version weighed 5300 pounds, that’s a reduction of just 5.7 percent. Hard to see what Ford is so excited about. Hard to see that Ford got its $700 million worth.
We decided our Bronco would be an at-home-in-any-situation, go-anywhere-in-any-weather, all-purpose machine. It would be the Bronco/Blazer/Jimmy/Ramcharger/Trail Duster/Scout that is most commonly bought; a four-by-four that is typically the only car in the family and never sees the dreaded off-road . Just 10 percent of all four-by-fours, we’re told, ever do.) We opted for the 5.0-liter V-8. A 4.9-liter in-line six and a 5.8-liter V-8 are available. (Performance figures on the specifications page are from a 5.8-liter Bronco, the only version available to us in California, where our winter instrumented testing takes place.) The 5.0-liter returns fifteen miles per gallon, and although there are no official EPA figures for the 1979 Broncos, a good guess is that the 1980 version is about 2 mpg better. If our Bronco is a little shy in the fuel-economy area, it maxes out in comfort. The XLT option got us a terrific paint-and-stripe treatment for the outside and such niceties inside as cloth seats—we also ordered the adjust-every-which-way captains’ chairs with armrests—leather-wrapped steering wheel, plushy-plush carpet, a color-keyed headliner that seems to absorb a lot of noise, all kinds of courtesy lamps, a terrific stereo, tilt wheel, A/C, and the wonderfulness of a Cola Bola (?) wood-tone instrument panel. Those things helped make our Bronco a nice place to be. (They also did a lot toward pushing the as-tested price from a base of $7897 to a stratospheric $13,078.)
Several sizable handfuls of the 700 mil also went into giving Ford’s “new” four-by-four trucks independent front suspension. Ford’s solution was again subtle, but effective: take the twin-I-beam setup from the conventional trucks and hang a redesigned (for lightness and improved efficiency) transfer case on one of them. Simple in concept, very expensive to engineer. There are a four-inch inside-diameter coil spring and a shock absorber on each front corner. Manually operated locking hubs are standard; automatic hubs are optional. Although Jeep’s full-time four-wheel-drive Quadra-Trac system has been an artistic and practical success, Ford never considered a full-time system for its reborn four-by-fours. Simply too inefficient in the fuel-consumption department, and with 1980 trucks now under their own CAFE requirements, every mpg counts.
The Bronco’s rear suspension is about as complicated as corn flakes: shock absorbers and variable-rate leaf springs. Unlike the new front suspension, which works quite nicely, the rear suspension is diabolical. On smooth surfaces both ends roll along quite nicely with a minimum of road noise filtering through, offering up much less harshness than a machine with such brutish off-road capability should logically provide. But let the surface get a little washboardy, or offer a few smallish potholes in rapid succession, and the Bronco’s tail will dance to one side or the other with enough enthusiasm to require some serious countermeasures with the steering wheel.
We spent a lot of time with the Bronco, using it, despite its still-imposing size, as we would any scoot-about econobox. We used it on a variety of road surfaces: dry, wet, snowy, icy, and serious off-road mud. We hauled groceries from the store, kids to school, dogs into the woods, and friends to dinner. Small kids and smallish wives found the giant step up into the cabin a serious problem. It’s okay for an eight-year-old to climb into a vehicle on all fours, but a little ignominious for her mother to have to adopt the same procedure.
The Bronco is a tall beasty and that means you’re away up there above the traffic, where the visibility is great. Until you look over either shoulder, that is. That’s where the doorframe and the fiberglass rear roof meet to create one of the granddaddys of blind spots. The rear window also seems quite narrow, and the optional rear-mounted spare tire poking up into your vision doesn’t help a bit.
The anemic five-liter is barely up to the task, so we can’t recommend the six cylinder even if you want its additional 1 mpg. However, once up to speed the ride is relatively smooth; wind noise, thanks to the aerodynamic improvements, is quite low (the tread on our Uniroyal Land-Trac tires provided the most noise); and the seats and the driving position are comfortable.
Obviously, we had to give the Bronco an off-road test, so we headed for the infamous Soup Bowl testing area at the Chrysler proving grounds. The Soup Bowl had been tough enough the previous summer when we did a head-to-head test of the Chevy and Toyota mini four-by-fours there (November, C/D). But it had also been dry . The Bronco, however, was “blessed” with water. And mud. Lots of mud. Not to worry, it seemed to say as we eased onto the first slippery-slidy. It was as if the Bronco—through all that grocery storing, going to schooling, and general running arounding—had been waiting for the Soup Bowl. It went up every hill in sight, through a miniature pond in the bottom of the Bowl—several times—and up and down a narrow defile so slippery that, when we stopped, the weight of the vehicle would slide it into the ditch. From which it could easily extricate itself, by the way.
The new independent front suspension smooths out the rough stuff while keeping each wheel in firm contact with the ground. Shifting from 2H (two-wheel drive, high) to 4H or 4L is a breeze with the new transfer case, although going into 4L requires a complete stop.
There was a glitch in the off-road experience. Second gear mysteriously went away, and it was not from overwork. When you’re seriously fourwheelin’, low gear gets the workout. We can only surmise that it was from the repeated dunkings, because by the time we got back to town, second gear was just as mysteriously back (dried out?) and has continued to function properly. If the water somehow did it, let’s hope there’s a bit of that $700 million still lying around that could go into some improved sealing.
We’ll live with the Bronco for several months. As time goes by it will crop up here and there, so you’ll be able to keep tabs on our long-term experience with it. Already we know a few weaknesses, but mostly strong points. We wanted Ford to create something really new with all those millions, but somehow that was never the goal. Too bad. A smaller, lighter Bronco, better matched to a small V-8 or a turbo four, would be a wondrous thing indeed. But until that comes along, this Bronco will do quite nicely, thank you.
The Bronco is a curious device. When I first heard that Ford was spending roughly two and a half times what GM spent to introduce the Vega on this new down-sized and aerodynamically refined Bronco, I visualized a really slippery little four-by-four about halfway between current American pickups and the little Japanese half-tonners. Wrong. Aside from crisper, better styling, I can’t see the difference on these trucks at all. While the two-wheel-drive models are much more civilized than last year’s, the new Bronco actually seems to trail vehicles like the Blazer and the Ramcharger in all-round drivability. However competent it may be in the brush, it’s a tad coarse on the road. The two things I liked best were the super-zoomy exterior paint-and-decal treatment and the van-like interior with its truly adjustable front seats—something we still don’t get in most domestic cars. The thing I didn’t like most was the sheer size and bulk of it, and the emasculating effect of all that tonnage on performance and gas mileage. Not a great leap forward. —David E. Davis, Jr
Could someone please direct me to the Ford management people who okayed the 1980 light-truck program? I’ve got a bridge they might like. Two, even.
Of course, they might not even have any spare change after blowing their wad on this bill of goods. I applaud their good intentions, but the result is something else again.
We need the new Bronco the way a moose needs a hatrack. The new wave of small, efficient four-by-fours makes this better 4wd idea for the Eighties look like something exhumed from the La Brea tar pits. It’s a dinosaur, folks. You’ll never notice the few hundred pounds Ford trimmed off the old Bronco—on the road or on the trail. And the improvement in fuel economy hardly puts a dent in the Bronco’s heavy gas habit. FoMoCo simply didn’t get its $700 million worth out of this downsizing program. So unless you want to pay for Ford’s mistakes, I advise you to shop elsewhere. —Rich Ceppos
Hey, buckaroos, Ford’s got just your kind of rec vehicle. Climb up into the observation platform of this Bronco and get ready to check out the heifers. You can cruise the highways and byways of America, looking down on those summer blonds in their Pintos and Hondas.
Just don’t chase ’em off-road, or you’re liable to get the Remuda Red, eighteen-ounce, 100 percent nylon cut-pile carpeting all muddy. And the cockleburs are hell to get out of the Plateau Plaid seat covers. But at least you’ve got the electronic aquamarine digital clock right there on the dashboard to tell you when it’s time to get back from lunch.
I used to think an LTD Brougham was a product of corporate cynicism, but it’s a pillar of high-mindedness next to this glitzy Bronco. —Patrick Bedard
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