Will the New Bronco Have Solid Axles?
Our educated guess on a front beam axle or little flappy wings.
There has been a ton of speculation about the new 2021 Ford Bronco. Questions range from will it be a rebodied Explorer or Expedition, or a "real" off-roader, to will it have a removable hard top. Will it have tube doors? Will it do the Bronco name proud? Will it have a solid front axle? Heck, some of us even wondered if it will have a solid rear axle (although that sure seems to be the case). Either way, all this is nothing more than speculation to all but the most trusted Ford employees, and perhaps a few folks from the media who either don't care, or are apparently very good at keeping their mouths shut about this aspect of Ford'dom.
Our self-assigned task for this article is to speculate, speculate, and speculate. By making an informed guess about whether the new Bronco for 2021 will be a real JL eater (which would require an aim toward rock crawling and a beefy solid front axle and coil suspension (like older Broncos), or more of a continuation on what the Ford Raptor, Toyota Tacoma, GM Colorado/Canyon have done for go-fast desert cars, an evolution of the later, TTB Broncos, namely a finely tuned and truly independent front suspension. Here's our take.
Solid Axle Vs Independent Suspension
This is one of those never answered questions for the ages, and the truth is that with many fine distinctions, the answer lies in opinion and experience, both of which are subject to inconsistent variables and human error. Here are the facts: Solid axles are a bit more robust to heavy rock crawling, while specially built custom IFS can excel at higher-speed use off-road. The proof is in what kinds of cars have won events like King of the Hammers and just about every race venue for off-road cars and trucks (few of which use factory parts either IFS or solid axle). Go-fast Desert trucks, both 2WD and 4WD are IFS, full stop. Custom-built IFS with gobs of travel is better for going fast in the dirt (until the rocks get really big). Winners in KOH have bounced back and forth between solid axle and IFS, generally favoring solid axles in the races with harder rock sections and favoring IFS in those races with longer desert loops.
Another fact is that solid axles that work well in rocks are generally cheaper and less complex than IFS that works well in rocks or at speed. This is an extension of the KISS rule: Keep it simple, stupid. You can beat on a 1-ton solid front axle with 37-inch tires with confidence; the same cannot be said for factory-fresh 1-ton IFS. Solid axles just use fewer components and are less constrained by weight concerns, so they're a bit stronger than most if not all factory-built IFS axles.
Still, IFS has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 20 to 30 years, and OEM 4x4s with IFS have set the bar high, much higher than we expected, for what factory IFS can do off-road. For example, Raptors, ZR2s, and TRD Tacomas are pretty potent rock crawlers (Raptors are a bit wide for tight trails).
What We Expect From Ford in the New 2021 Bronco
Flat out, we'd expect Ford to design the Bronco around IFS. For reasons only engineers know, IFS is currently the "safe route" to go for just about anything the OEMs manufacture. We've been told that that is related to keeping weight lower and ride characteristics that IFS provide. Still, vehicles seem to be getting larger and larger. Mini trucks are dead, evolved into mid-sized trucks. Full-size trucks seem to be getting bigger and bigger (the Raptor is a half-ton truck with mandated clearance lights due to its width) as the years pass, as do Jeeps and SUVs. In our experience, larger trucks need heavier-duty parts, not lighter-weight parts. It can also be argued that since the Jeep Wrangler is the only real off-road aimed SUV besides the Toyota 4Runner (H2, H3, Xterra, FJ Cruiser, Bronco, Bronco II, S-10 Blazer) that has survived, and did so with a solid front axle, that might actually be the safe route for Ford to have taken. Having said that, we don't think they will.
What We Can See in Pictures That Have Been Released of the 2021 Bronco
Based on what we could see on and under the 2021 Bronco test mules (and later in articles revealing the suspension like this one) and the leaked photos of the Bronco in the factory, we'd say that IFS is on lock. That's a bit of a bummer, but we will try to keep an open mind. After all, Bronco does have a heritage in going fast off-road (albeit with a solid front axle for many years), and with two iterations of the Raptor under Ford's belt we're betting the 2021 Bronco will be a blast in the bumps. Now the question is, will it have lockers? We'd be surprised if there wasn't an off-road package with a locker of some sort (hopefully selectable), but will Ford be brave enough to offer a selectable locker in the front IFS axle to keep up with the ZR2, Wrangler, and Gladiator Rubicon? We hope so.