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Tested: 1978 Ford Bronco Takes the SUV Out of the Dark Ages

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 7/13/2020 Steve Thompson
a vintage photo of a truck driving down a dirt road: From the Archive: The second-generation Bronco grew Ford's SUV from an agricultural off-roader to a potential daily driver. © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver From the Archive: The second-generation Bronco grew Ford's SUV from an agricultural off-roader to a potential daily driver.

From the January 1978 issue of Car and Driver.

Research

Trucks aren't cars. Everybody knows that. But a funny thing has happened recently: Trucks have been selling like cars, and their manufacturers have discovered that many of the people who buy them treat them like cars. And the manufacturers, never slow to spot a dollar waiting to jump into a corporate account, have responded by giving those folks trucks that are even more carlike. So for every genuine killer Baja-buster with monster tires, roll cage, massed banks of quartz-halogen lights and mile-high door sills you see, there are ten mild-mannered supermarket trucks out there running back and forth everyday to the PTA, grocery store and office. Repli-trucks, you might say.

Why has Ford introduced a '78 Bronco that can be ordered with air conditioning, cruise control, luxury upholstery and imitation wood-grain paneling, a Bronco that can cost as much as $10,000) and still have less cargo room than a good mini-pickup? Who's buying these things? And why?

We'll have to say right here that even after a lengthy test period with this Bronco and prior experience with other trucks, we're not sure. Certainly there is a huge mass of buyers for what the manufacturers have come to call "sport trucks," buyers for whom the look of rugged machismo is as important as the look of sleekness is to any sporty car guy. But one thing is sure. The bulk of the buyers for this kind of truck are, according to Ford, under 30 years old.

Ford also says it tailored this new Bronco just for those people. Essentially a pickup from the B-pillar forward, the new Bronco is much larger than the old one; over two feet longer, ten inches wider and five higher. Positively awash in new features, its only real resemblance to the old box-basic Bronco of yesterday seems to be its name. Viewed with automotive eyes, the metamorphosis is strikingly reminiscent of the days when cars got "better" by getting longer, lower, and wider.

a truck parked on the side of a dirt road: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

The basic Bronco package is called the Custom (which used to mean special, but has been successfully twisted by non-speak to mean standard), and includes a 351-cubic inch V-8 with two-barrel carburetor, a four-speed manual transmission with synchromesh on only the top three gears, and part-time four-wheel drive with manually locking hubs. Inside, the Custom delivers little more than what seems like minimal comfort in car terms, with two bucket seats and no rear seat (a front bench and rear folding bench are optional items), and a detachable fiberglass cargo-area roof. The basic Bronco rides on rigid axles in front and back. Two control arms, a big Panhard rod, coil springs and single shocks keep the front in line, while the rear axle is lashed to hefty six-leaf semi-elliptical springs.

All of that in a Custom will cost you around $6500. But even with the sport­-coupe styling on the side and the big-hauler replica grille, you can tell you'll want a bit more. So you can start ticking off the options boxes and when you've duplicated our test truck, you'll have a distant relation indeed to the Spartan bush-basher. In fact, when you grab a handful of chromed door handle and lever yourself up into a Bronco like ours, you'll probably feel like you've stepped into a Galaxie 500 instead of something designed to climb 60-degree dirt banks.

a small truck parked in front of a car: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

You sit high up gazing out over a big square hood (through tinted glass, naturally), grasping a leather-covered steering wheel and sitting on a comfy bucket seat with center panels of Scandia cloth. Your feet nestle in plush color-keyed carpet that literally climbs the walls. A dash that could have come from any Ford car stretches away to the passenger side, and a big, roomy storage bin fits neatly between you and the right seat. In the dash, an AM/FM stereo radio, powerful air conditioning and a big CB jack make life on the road bearable. The only giveaway that this is something other than a roomy sedan is the transfer-case shifter sticking out of the floor on the transmission tunnel. Flat black and businesslike, it seems completely out of place.

The visibility from your lofty throne is superb, broken only by a very thick B-pillar right next to your left ear. Already you can feel a sense of separateness from the scurrying world you just stepped up and out of. A twist of the key and the 351 murmurs to life somewhere up ahead; a discreet toe on the throttle pedal to see if it's running okay—you have to strain to hear it at idle—and you're ready to find out what life in the fast lane is like.

a motorcycle that is sitting on a chair: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

The Select-Shift Cruise-O-Matic three­-speed automatic trans feels just like a Maverick's. The steering is nice and light in the parking lot, the truck fairly maneuverable (it'll turn curb-to-curb in 35.4 feet, less than some big cars), and that gives you confidence. Unhappily, as soon as the traffic speeds up and you try to thread the big, square Bronco through the crowd, the lightness turns to vagueness and then to steering feel and response that falls somewhere in the same-day category. The more you drive the Bronco, the more the steering demands your attention. At extra-legal speeds on anything other than four-lane pavement, the road seems uncomfortably narrow, and it only gets a little better under the speed limit. It seems at times as though the steering is only connected to the front wheels by the wispiest of strings.

The other systems work flawlessly. It shifts like a car, stops like a car (the big front discs and rear drums working in concert with our test truck's bias-ply Goodyears actually stopped it better than many cars) and about half of the time even rides like a car. The addition of another pair of shocks to the front axle of our truck (what Ford calls "quad-front" shocks), heavy­ duty shocks in back and a rear anti-sway bar all aid in the ride and control of body lean, but even they give up over stutter bumps on the pavement, where the Bronco will skip neatly sideways. Needless to say, the combination of the vague steering and stiff, leap-prone suspension insure that the Bronco driver stays sharp in watching the road—at least if he wants to stay on it.

a side view mirror of a car: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

On smooth road, though, the truck is docile as a puppy and almost as likeable. The Ranger XLT luxury and cruise control make freeway life as easy to take as in a Granada, only no Granada ever had a rear seat with so much leg room (recessed footwells are the benefactors) or a parcel shelf as big as the Bronco's cargo area. Despite not being a true heavy hauler (our Bronco's allowable load was 850 pounds over curb weight), you can still stuff a lot of things in the back. (We've had everything from a mound of racing tires to a Yamaha go-kart in ours.) Loading is fairly easy through the side-swing tailgate, and the outside-mount spare makes sense because you need to use all the limited cargo room for cargo.

If the Bronco is a pleasant but demanding ride on the road, when you aim its blunt snout into the weeds it seems to come alive. We never attempted anything more serious than ancient fire trails and sand dunes, but even bashing at full-tilt down the dim confines of tiny fire-roads the Bronco was a delight. Steering which seemed too light on the road worked just fine climbing a sandy switchback, and suspension only okay on pavement became capable indeed in the unpaved world of the off-roader.

a car engine: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

The bulk of the truck seemed to melt away as we hammered it through the bush. The trees would scrape against its flanks, rocks would jump at the sump and the sun would dazzle us in reflections on the huge hood, but the Bronco ignored it all. The mirrors are sprung to go over-center so that bashing a wall or tree at speed only means they fold back neatly to the door, the radio antenna unscrews quickly and about the only thing to grab debris as you leap through the forest is the trim. Ford has obviously done a good deal of homework on designing a fairly clean exterior.

Inside, the trade-offs made to make the truck comfortable begin to show, often in mid-air. The lack of a grab handle convenient to the passenger is irritating, the seats seem to need a little more support in all directions, and the seat belts slowly cinch themselves up on their inertia-reels until by the fifth or so mile of hard four-­wheeling, you feel as though they'll cut you in half. Nevertheless, the Bronco seems to be confident and sure-footed in the outback.

a vintage photo of a motorcycle: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

The drill to get outback, however, was more tiresome than the ride once there. You drive the Bronco most of the time with the two-speed transfer case in 2-High and the four-wheel drive front hubs unlocked. To get from street to wilderness, you've got to go through the age-old four­-wheel drive ritual: Stop the truck. Get out, twist the hubs to lock. Get back in, keep the gearshift in neutral, jam the transfer­-case selector into appropriate slot. (You can choose from 4-Low, 2-High or 4- High.) Head for the hills.

In times past, such a procedure seemed painless enough, but the advent of full-time has made it seem pointless. Ford even offers a full-time option on the Bronco for the first time this year, and after having the edge taken off our fun in the wilds by the hassle of the part-time procedure, we'd suggest a serious look at it for anyone contemplating a Bronco—unless, of course, you're only going to use your four-wheel drive capability once a month to get to a favorite fishing spot.

a truck that is driving down the road: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

After awhile, though, you can't help but wonder if the Bronco is really a fishing-­spot kind of truck, especially in the city slicker suit ours wore. Actually, we tried two Broncos, the red-and-white version you see in the photos and another one, with yellow-and-white paint, dazzling interior and street tires on alloy wheels, which was used for driving impressions. But both of them seemed more suited to boulevards than rock yards. Would you, after all, spend over ten grand on a truck like this and then risk getting it wedged sideways in some rocky arroyo in wildest Idaho? Not bloody likely.

a car that is sitting on a bench: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

Which brings us back to those under-30 fun-truck folks. It looks to us like what the idea is with a gussied-up Bronco is to say to the world that you're not going to be shoehorned into some little urban car, or for that matter, into somebody's idea of a personal luxury car either. Everything about trucks speaks of a kind of aloofness, from the way they loom out of traffic jams like ice-bound whalers to the way they impart a certain peace of mind in wall-to-wall noise, traffic and angst. You sit way up there behind your big hood, kept cool by a superb air conditioner and kept mellow by an equally superb sound system, and after awhile it's pretty easy to see in the Bronco an alternative vehicle, as much of an alternative as an electric car. It's true that, like most dual-purpose machinery, it winds up not fulfilling either of its avowed purposes very well, but on the other hand you can't escape the feeling that if the world has to support 6000-pound four-wheelers, they might as well be four-wheelers that can do something besides sit in your driveway and depreciate. It makes you look at big cars in a whole new light.

In the end, the Bronco offers no real surprises. You step down out of the cab after a day's driving in both worlds impressed by many of its capabilities but largely uninvolved with it emotionally. Maybe, since it's ultimately just a super-slick compromise, you can't wind up feeling any differently, especially if you're basically car-oriented. Its road wise character faults are just severe enough to counterbalance its apparently sterling dirt-wise persona, as though Dr. Jekyll had been fused with Mr. Hyde and a smiling but unmistakably average Mr. Everyman emerged.

a bus that is sitting on the seat of a car: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

Like its more rawboned stablemates, the Bronco clearly isn't a car, Ranger XLT package notwithstanding. But unlike them, it's not entirely a truck either. And while such awkward but apparently lucrative ambiguity may make for great imagery, it seldom makes outstanding vehicles. In cars or trucks.

Counterpoints

Why do people persist in taking these fun­ trucks seriously? Trucks have less to do with rational transportation than a moped.

Of course, that's exactly why I'm infatuated with these fat-tired brushbusters. To me, they're the last frontier of the Great American Hot Rod. But the Bronco doesn't exactly make me crazy. True, all trucks should ride as well on black-top, but I can't imagine myself creeping down on abandoned logging road in a fruit-gum yellow Bronco. The mechanicals are fine, but the maxi-Mark V instrumentation and interior of this particular specimen undercut my off-road fantasies.

Housewives may like this sort of wimpy four-wheeler, but this Bronco isn't the sort of thing you'd imagine messing up with guns and dogs and beer coolers and red Georgia clay. Ford seems intent on taking the Bronco out of the men's locker room and making it useful and appealing. Maybe it is. But what's so great about a rational truck? —Michael Jordan

a small truck parked on the side of a road: 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT © Humphrey Sutton - Car and Driver 1978 Ford Bronco Ranger XLT

If it will tell you anything about my reaction to the new Ford Bronco, let me say that I went out and bought myself a brand new '77 model as soon as I saw the '78. I do not believe—as Ford apparently does—that America needs another Blazer/Jimmy/Trailduster/Ramcharger. The old Bronco was nice and small and its square comers were somehow loveable. The new one is big and plush and indistinguishable from all those others I just mentioned. The ride is pitchy, the steering wheel requires constant attention and I almost cut my hand on the seat adjustment lever. The tract-house carpets and rocketship instrument panel affront me. I think Ford put the better idea on wheels with the old Bronco. The new one is just another whopper for me. —David E. Davis. Jr.

This Bronco Ranger XL T is not really a truck. More like a trucklet. Any machine whose payload is pared down to four bales of hay in order to make room for a back seat has purposes other than simple trucking in mind. One look at the simulated-wood grain interior tells me this is a people mover.

But as a car guy, the idea of moving myself in a trucklet—never mind how candy ­coated it may be—suggests a certain requisite masochism. Still, I did my quota of miles and concluded that Ford is selling something more subtle here than self-flagellation. The Bronco is a legitimate excuse to get your head higher than those of other motorists. Even Cadillac and M-B drivers have to look up to you. That same scheme has given pleasure to storybook kings, and I confess it creates a certain feeling of omnipotence in me as well.

But not enough to convert me into a truck guy. And if I'm not going to drive trucks, I don't want anybody else to either because they are a nuisance on the road. You can't see through them. And this is where the Bronco problem gets serious. As trucklike as it is, it's still not bad enough to force everybody back into cars. —Patrick Bedard

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