The 2021 Ford Bronco is shaping up to be a huge thorn in the side of the Jeep Wrangler. While the hardtop versions are currently being held back by the company to address lingering quality issues, the soft top models are slowly making their way into dealer lots. Along with the choice in tops, the Bronco also offers buyers either a seven-speed manual or an optional 10-speed automatic. This presented a very compelling question for us, which transmission choice is better? We were eager to find out.
Manual Equipped Bronco Does A Good Wrangler Impression
While the crowded streets of Woodward Avenue are far from being the rugged off-road trails that typically define the Bronco’s ideal habitat, the 2021 Woodward Dream Cruise still provided us with a very dynamic venue for getting to know the Getrag sourced transmission better. Our Rapid Red Badlands equipped tester is designed for extreme off-roading versus being an urban runabout, but take it for a drive down a long stretch like Woodward, and it becomes clear that Bronco engineers benchmarked manual-equipped Wranglers when developing it.
The shifts are smooth, but the rest of the setup marches in lockstep with its Auburn Hills-based rival. That includes a long travel clutch pedal and a shifter that sometimes felt a bit too rubbery for our tastes. But once your feet get formally acclimated to the Bronco’s rhythm the gearbox transforms into a very commendable partner. Ford even added in a crawler gear, but that’s reserved for low-speed trail driving, with drivers having to actually shift into 4L first to use it.
The 300 hp 2.3 liter EcoBoost four-cylinder is the only engine that can be equipped with the manual (unlike the V6 equipped Wrangler), and while the four-banger is a good fit, it also plays a role in just how much noise enters the cabin of this Bronco when on the move. Our tester had the soft-top and the Sasquatch package with the bigger tires and the wind noise from the top all blending into a consistent racket. Handling is pretty decent for an SUV with a slight lift, but the steering is extremely numb.
Bronco Undergoes Personality Shift With Automatic
Our second Bronco of the day was an automatic-equipped First Edition. Unlike the Badlands we sampled earlier, First Edition models are one-year-only specials and serve as fully loaded launch models for the Bronco. Our second tester also came equipped with a soft top but swapped out the manual for an automatic and the bigger 2.7 liter EcoBoost V6. This particular engine makes 330 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque when drinking premium fuel with regular swill lowering the figures to 315 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque.
This First Edition model proved to be a better on-road steed during our time with it. While the cabin is still a noisy place to spend time in, the automatic proved to be a very commendable fit for the 2.7 liter, with the transmission doing a good job of providing the right gear when we needed it. Ford reps also claim that the automatic can hold its own out on the trail, but until we have the chance to take one out on rugged terrain, we’ll have to wait to issue a final judgment on that front.
As for on-road adventures, the automatic version with the 2.3-liter four-cylinder is also the thriftiest Bronco when it comes to the pump, with those models getting 20 mpg in the city and 22 mpg in freeway driving. The Sasquatch package subtracts two miles from the city total while manual-equipped 2.3-liter models drop that figure even further to about 17 or 18 mpg (depending on who you ask.) This translates into mediocre fuel economy. While the Wrangler is no better in this department, this middling economy may turn off off-road buyers looking to conquer the trail while still maintaining some form of environmental responsibility.
So Which Transmission Option Is Better?
The answer to that question will depend on your driving tastes. We spoke with some Jeep owners that happen to be good friends with us and they told us that they factored in some things when choosing between a manual or automatic-equipped Wrangler. Manual-equipped owners liked having more involvement with their drive and saving some money over a comparable automatic-equipped model. Folks that chose option B liked having less effort in urban driving and wanted something that could offer seamless four-season capability.
Look for similar motives to play into the decision of Bronco owners, and while the automatic will undoubtedly command a higher percentage of sales, we recommend giving the manual a try. It may get less mileage at the pump, but the 2.3 liter is a more forgiving engine for beginners than the Jeep’s high-revving 3.6 liter Pentastar V6. The 2.3 also has better low-end torque and this extra layer of oomph helps the Bronco be a bolder steed in certain situations.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.