The new Bronco is taking direct aim at Jeep Wrangler customers, although marketing experts say a mass exodus is unlikely. So, who is Ford’s new utility vehicle for and where will those buyers come from?
Gannon Ward, a self-described hardcore off-road enthusiast, was taking delivery of his 2021 Jeep Wrangler just days after Ford Motor Co. unveiled its new off-roader.
“I like the look of the Bronco,” said the former Cochrane, Alta., chiropractor who recently moved to Utah so he could off-road in the rocky Moab region. “They look cool; they’ve got great styling.
“But all in all, Jeep is still my choice.”
Yet some devoted Jeep fans say it’s about time the brand faced some competition. One such fan is James Knapp — aka “Jeeper Jim” — who owns seven Jeeps and a Windsor, Ont., Jeep aftermarket company called Offroad Rehab.
“Jeep has had a monopoly on the market for too long. They could make what they want and charge what they want. We just had to accept it.”
The retro-inspired Bronco arrives in Canada next spring.
Jeep has had the off-road SUV segment mostly to itself since Ford withdrew the Bronco brand in 1996 after a 30-year run. The Wrangler’s only other competitor, Toyota’s FJ Cruiser, appeared in 2003, peaked at 56,000 sales in the United States in 2006 but was discontinued after selling 11,700 vehicles in 2014.
Ford wants to connect both to customers who remember the old Bronco and to younger drivers looking to “get out into the wild,” said Jeff Burdick, Ford’s vehicle line marketing manager for the Bronco in Canada. That’s why the automaker is using evocative names such as Wildtrak and Badlands, he said.
“It’s going to be a traffic builder. It will bring a new type of customer into our dealerships.”
JEEP’S ‘BRAND INTIMACY’
Ford is competing with a brand that has among the strongest connections with its customers, said Mario Natarelli, managing partner at MBLM, a New York City-based marketing firm.
MBLM recently released a 2020 global study that looked at “brand intimacy,” the emotional bond between customers and their favourite brands. In the United States, Jeep ranked second in the auto industry and fifth among the more than 300 brands in the report.
“It has a powerful connection with its customers and spans age, income and gender,” Natarelli said.
But the Bronco could emerge as a strong competitor, he said.
“Jeep is a brand that speaks to a more utilitarian, adventurous lifestyle. And Bronco taps into that really well, so I think it’s going to do extremely well. It’s unfortunate that it’s launching at this moment, but I think it’s a brilliant strategy.”
The Bronco’s square proportions pay homage to the first-generation vehicle, which appeared in 1966. But the nostalgia ends there.
Its short overhang, wide stance, 30 centimetres of ground clearance and available 35-inch off-road tires are all aimed at matching or one-upping the Wrangler. The Bronco is geared for off-road use with a rack on top of the dashboard to mount smartphones and GoPros and it has removable doors. The side mirrors remain in place when the doors are off.
“They’re definitely more refined than they used to be,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst with IHS Markit in Michigan. “They’re targeting the Wrangler of today.”
Within the first week of the vehicle’s announcement, Woodridge Ford in south Calgary received $100 deposits for 106 Broncos, said David Ross, the dealership’s general sales manager.
“There are a lot of people we know individually who want to buy this vehicle.”
Woodridge has three Ford and four other dealerships in southern Alberta, including a Jeep store.
“There was a lot of excitement with the electric Mustang,” said Gerry Wood, Woodridge Ford’s dealer principal. “But this [the Bronco] has totally overshadowed the e Mustang.”
A BIGGER OFF-ROAD PIE?
Both Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford could benefit from increased competition in the segment if the Michiganbuilt Bronco can attract nontraditional buyers to off roading, Brinley said. Ford is using technology such as trail control, front cameras, off-road navigation and simpler all-wheel-drive controls to make it easier for young people to operate the vehicles in extreme conditions, she said.
Brinley noted that the rugged offroad segment remains small. According to the Automotive News Data Center in Detroit, 297,000 Wranglers were sold globally in 2018 and just less than 294,000 in 2019. In Canada, FCA sold 25,659 Wranglers in 2019 and 7,960 in the first two quarters of this year, down from 13,550 in 2019 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the Bronco, “The plan is to have a bigger pie,” Brinley said. “But one of the questions for me is how much room there really is.”
Ford wants to grow the market with adventure buyers, Burdick said. “But if we get them from Jeep, we get them from Jeep.”
FCA dealers are watchful but “not that” concerned about the Bronco threat, said Mark Gacek, general sales manager at South Trail Chrysler-Jeep in Calgary.
“Wrangler customers are pretty dedicated people. I don’t know if the Bronco buyer is the same as a Wrangler buyer.”
FCA declined comment on the Bronco with Automotive News Canada, but the company is clearly responding to the threat. Hours before the July 13 Bronco reveal, Jeep showed off its Wrangler Rubicon 392 Concept, which features a 6.4-litre V-8 engine. The Bronco lineup does not include a V-8.
“Jeeper Jim” Knapp welcomes the renewed rivalry.
“Competition is good,” he said. “It’s good for products, and it’s good for customers.”
With files from Grace Macaluso