Yo, Jeep: Better check that mirror. You’re about to get some company on what has been a pretty lonely and profitable off-road climb.
In an investor presentation this month, Dana revealed that it had won the driveline work for the return of the Ford Bronco in 2020, along with the Ford Ranger in 2019. Dana confirmed that both vehicles will have “front and rear axles featuring our latest AdvanTEK gear technology.”
What does that mean?
It means the midsize and body-on-frame Bronco in 2020 -- like the current and next-generation Jeep Wrangler -- will have Dana solid axles front and rear. The Toledo Blade reported on the presentation on Jan. 10.
And it means that Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford wasn’t kidding when he said this month: “It will be a true, tough Bronco; a real off-road vehicle.”
A Ford spokesperson declined to comment on the Bronco's features, but said "it will meet the needs of our most demanding off-road enthusiasts. We will have more information to share about Bronco’s suspension closer to launch."
Ford first introduced the Bronco in 1965 as a direct competitor to the Jeep CJ. The Bronco shared many -- but not all -- of the CJ’s attributes, such as solid axles, a small wheelbase and a removable top. Dana even made the axles for the last Broncos.
But Ford discontinued the Bronco in 1996, largely ceding what was then a relatively small off-road world -- a world inhabited by solid axle vehicles with disconnecting sway bars contorting their way over seemingly impossible terrain -- to Jeep.
Instead, Ford focused on volume vehicles such as the Explorer, with an independent front suspension that guaranteed a far superior on-road ride, even if it couldn’t mountain goat its way up Hell’s Revenge in Moab, Utah. It was Ford’s strategy, and the company made a ton of money going that direction, so far be it for me to question it.
But Ford’s decision in the 1990s to kill the Bronco let the Wrangler roam free, with little worry of predation. For the first decade or so, it didn’t matter much; Wrangler sales seemed to hover each year between 60,000 and 80,000, depending on the economy, especially as Jeep starved under the thumb of a combined DaimlerChrysler.
That changed in 2006, however, when DaimlerChrysler had the once-in-a-lifetime smarts to add two rear doors and a usable back seat to the venerable Wrangler, transforming the former niche off-roader into a profit-making war machine.
I’ve always believed that Wrangler’s secret sauce has three main ingredients: confidence, community and customization. People buy the Wrangler -- let’s be honest, is not a very comfortable or tech-savvy vehicle -- primarily because of these three things:
1. They know it will go through almost anything that life can throw at them, and get them home.
2. Their purchase is rewarded socially every time they pass another Wrangler on the road with the unofficial Jeep Wave.
3. They can easily take a stock Wrangler and begin making it unique by adding layer after layer of widely available accessories.
The next-generation Wrangler, scheduled to go into production in November, will improve on the current one, but it won’t fundamentally change the secret sauce. It will keep its solid axles, made by Dana, which means it will continue to be able to do all of those ridiculous-looking contortions and can still be lifted for extra clearance and outfitted with big, knobby tires.
And here’s a kicker: The Bronco’s axles will be made in the same new plant in Toledo, Ohio, that is about to begin making axles for the next-generation Wrangler.
It looks like, two decades on, that lonely seven-slot grille up on the hill is about to get some company from a blue oval.
Frankly, I can’t wait.