First Drive

2021 Ford Bronco Manual Off-Road Review | Creeping with the crawler gear

We took the 7MT out for a trail drive; here's what we learned

AUSTIN, Texas — We finally got to share our 2021 Ford Bronco review this week, and we're here to offer you another course of horse. We managed to squeeze some time in behind the wheel of a Bronco equipped with the seven-speed manual, which is exclusive to the 2.3L four-cylinder. Ford brought along a so-equipped Black Diamond model in Cactus Grey over steel wheels, like the one pictured above, only with four doors instead of two as pictured, inviting participants to fight over it. Nobody else in our group bothered, so, hey, more for us. 

It's appropriate that the British idiom "at sixes and sevens" refers to a state of confusion, because Ford's stick-shift is a tad unconventional for a road car. On paper, it's a seven-speed, but not in the way a Porsche 911's is. Rather, it has another gear slotted below first, with a super-short 6.588:1 ratio that will allow you to creep along at low-single-digit speeds without having to worry about hopping on and off the clutch. It's so short that Ford put it behind the same pull-ring lockout that prevents you from accidentally engaging reverse while moving forward, preventing owners from inadvertently grabbing "C" rather than second on their way up through the gears. The result of that would be spectacularly expensive. 

A shorter gear ratio lets a manual-transmission vehicle creep along slowly without stalling, which is the name of the game when it comes to technical off-roading. That's half the reason why a two-speed transfer case (or something that performs an equivalent function) is a requirement for any vehicle with serious off-road pretensions; the other half is the fact that shorter gears mean greater torque multiplication. Put simply, it allows you to put more torque down over a much narrower speed range. 

Imagine your target speed is the bulls-eye on a dart board. A good thrower can probably hit it pretty consistently at regulation distance, but for everyone else, good luck. Now, imagine standing just half as far away; that's shifting the transfer case to low-range. And now somebody just came along and replaced the bulls-eye with one twice as big; that's your crawler gear.

A low range will do the same thing for a car with an automatic transmission, but the crawler gear isn't necessary with one of those because unlike a clutch, the torque converter in your automatic doesn't have to be fully engaged to the engine's flywheel in order to function. That means it won't stall out, obviating a key benefit of the crawler gear. 

Another benefit is that you don't actually have to shift the Bronco's transfer case into 4L in order to keep your speed in check. This means you have the flexibility to tackle both high-speed trails and narrow, technical obstacles without having to go through the trouble of shifting in and out of 4L, which requires stopping the vehicle entirely. We got to try this out for ourselves on one of Ford's Off-Roadeo trails in Austin, and we came away quite impressed. 

We encountered only one stretch of Ford's Jalapeño trail (level 1 of 3) where the combination of 4H and crawl wasn't quiiiite slow enough, prompting a shift into 4L to keep us from having to resort to the two-foot dance. Still, with a little more speed from our lead vehicle, even that wouldn't have been necessary. The manual would have made our jaunts on Off-Roadeo's two more difficult trails a bit more challenging (and we suspect that's why Ford didn't even give us the option), but certainly not deal-breaking. Out here, that crawler gear keeps the manual relevant, and that's a good thing, because the gearbox itself is a joy to use. Like the Jeep Wrangler's available six-speed, the Bronco's 7MT offers reasonably short throws and good feedback.

If you've never done any serious off-roading, it's hard to impart the convenience of being able to tool around at just 2-3 mph without lugging the engine to death or two-footing it with the clutch. It's also great having the flexibility to hit normal two-lane speeds, which are largely out of reach of a low-range gearset. In the competition, low-speed crawling effectively forces you into 4L, even if you have no need for its other benefits. This widens your turning circle and puts quite a bit of added stress on the running gear. Simply put, you don't want to use 4WD, and 4L, specifically, any more than you really need to for the sake of parts longevity.

If your most recent experience with a 4x4's manual gearbox was a last-generation Jeep, let this owner of one assure you that the segment (that's what it is now, thanks to Bronco) has come a long way since the JK Wrangler. These new manuals are not only quite good, they're equally so in regards to gears one through six. That makes the Bronco's extra crawler gear a deciding advantage. While it may seem like a purely situational benefit, that seventh gear makes a big difference when it matters, and it's added incentive to stick with the simplicity of a stick. Even if it's most often paired with a top-down drive along the riverfront or through the hills, the capability is still there.

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