On Monday evening, Ford held a digital launch event for the new Ford Bronco, resurrecting the brand name for a Sport Utility Vehicle engineered for off-roading performance that is best known for transporting a fugitive along a Southern California freeway.
There isn’t much you need to know about the new Bronco—which I can assure you via Ford’s press release is capable of being driven on any terrain you could possibly want to drive it—because the odds are you will never need the off-roading capabilities this particular vehicle offers.
For John and Jane Q. Commuter, the only thing you need to know about the Bronco—which, unless you regularly go off-roading for sport and thrill, you should never ever consider buying no matter how much Ford tries to convince you otherwise with its massive marketing campaign—is that it does not come with a hybrid or electric version. In the year 2020, this is tantamount to climate denialism.
The Bronco’s devolution from off-road enthusiast utilitarianism to mainstream faux-adventurism lifestyle signaling is emblematic of how the American relationship with SUVs has changed since the Bronco was discontinued in 1996. The Bronco may have a special place in the hearts of off-roading enthusiasts and OJ Simpson trial obsessives, but it was never an especially popular vehicle, because it was never an especially practical one. When it debuted in 1965, Ford never considered marketing it to the masses. Ford produced some 1.1 million Broncos over its 30-year run; by comparison, Ford sold about 900,000 F-series pickup trucks in 2019 alone.
Ford killed off the Bronco because it had essentially replaced it with the Explorer and Expedition, two large SUVs hopping on the SUV craze of the 1990s. They were marketed as commuter vehicles with the same off-roading prowess even though they were essentially pickup trucks where the bed was replaced with seats. As Keith Bradsher wrote in his book High and Mighty: SUVs, the World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, “the new Expedition would be little like the Bronco” from the driver’s perspective. Rather than the Bronco’s minimalist utilitarian aesthetic and form, the Expedition would be loaded with features and accessories, stacked on top of what was essentially the F-150 pickup engine components and parts and sold for a $12,000 markup. They would get Americans to buy this wildly impractical vehicle—a pickup truck without the bed?—by marketing the hell out of it as a lifestyle aspiration.
To achieve the expected sales figures, Ford couldn’t merely shift Bronco drivers into Expeditions. It needed to convert non-SUV drivers into SUV drivers. And they did (to be clear, this was not just a Ford thing; pretty much every American auto company was doing this at the time because they couldn’t compete with foreign automakers on quality and price). In 1991, SUVs were just 6.7 percent of the US sales market, according to Bradsher. By 1997, they were 16.1 percent. Today, the top seven selling vehicles in the US are pickups and SUVs. And 2020 could be the first year SUVs account for a majority of new car sales.
These SUVs are bad for the environment because they get worse gas mileage than smaller, lighter cars, especially if there is no Hybrid or plug-in electric version. Every driver who “upgrades” from a sedan to an SUV is a net-negative for the environment, undoing all of the gains in fuel efficiency since they last bought a vehicle. And over the last several decades, that transition has been the single largest and most significant trend in American transportation.
American automakers have long argued that regulations are an ineffective way to enact positive change, that the free market is the best way to produce progress. But they have proven themselves wrong time and again. From seat belts to air bags to air quality and fuel economy standards—all regulations they fought tooth and nail claiming they would destroy their businesses only to easily accommodate them once enacted—automakers have consistently proven they won’t do the right thing until they are forced to by the heavy hand of government they so often decry.
In the mid-1990s, the climate movement had not reached the urgency it has today, nor had the first hybrid car been released. But with everything we know today, automakers have run out of excuses to be launching fully redesigned SUVs without so much as a hybrid option, which would only begin to mitigate the environmental harm they have perpetrated by ushering in the SUV era. Ford does offer the Escape as a hybrid which gets some 40 miles to the gallon (as well as a plug-in version which does even better) and it is noteworthy that an SUV with a hybrid engine can get better mileage on par with many gas-powered sedans or small cars like the Honda Fit. This is a testament to the fact that the technology exists to make real strides in vehicle emissions. The problem is the auto companies pick and choose when to include this technology in the vehicle, and more often than not they choose not to.
They do this to their own detriment. The most galling part of the gas-powered Bronco is that a hybrid—or even potentially fully electric—option would make it a better vehicle. Electric motors provide more torque and consistent power, which is a plus for off-roading. While off-roading enthusiasts might balk at an all-electric version due to range concerns on multi-day trips, a hybrid engine would only be a plus to everyone. But it’s obvious not everyone sees it that way, including the so-called “Bronco Underground” team at Ford that has been working since 1999 to resurrect the vehicle. Like much of the auto industry, it consists solely of middle-aged white men. It’s hard to shake the feeling the Bronco is yet another front in the culture wars where manly men can drive their big, masculine, gas-guzzling truck wherever they want, libs be damned.
As climate activists and concerned citizens around the world demand more corporate accountability, especially when it comes to the environment, time is running out to let auto companies do the right thing. Corporatespeak and website landing pages about climate goals can only go so far. Ford releasing this high profile SUV—with a starting price of $30,000—in the year 2020 without a hybrid engine is a slap in the face to anyone who is tempted to take the company’s climate concerns seriously.
Ford is marketing the Bronco to people who consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts. One might think outdoor enthusiasts would be particularly receptive to spending a little extra money to assuage some climate guilt and upgrade to a hybrid engine. But thanks to Ford, they won’t have that option.