Ford courts Bronco buyers

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DETROIT — With the launches of the Bronco SUV and so-called Baby Bronco crossover looming, Ford Motor Co. is reintroducing itself to the off-road community.

The automaker in recent months has inked sponsorship deals for King of the Hammers, an extreme racing event in the Mojave Desert’s Johnson Valley, as well as the SCORE World Desert Challenge Series.

Tens of thousands of spectators gather for the competitions, often running their own vehicles along the trails after the professionals have their turn. Executives say it’s the perfect stage to pitch would-be buyers in the hopes of replicating the success of brands such as Jeep once its new vehicles hit showrooms later this year.

“We see a great opportunity and benefit to go where our customers are,” Mark Greuber, Ford’s SUV marketing manager, told Automotive News. “It’s very much a community event. There’s a lot of core customers here we can connect with and talk to.”

The events also serve as proving grounds for the upcoming utilities. Camouflaged Bronco test mules have been spotted kicking up sand in Johnson Valley, and Ford in November ran a Bronco R prototype, with a production chassis and suspension, in the SCORE Baja 1000.

The automaker is no stranger to off-road enthusiasts. The F-150 Raptor remains a hot seller, and Ford says it’s seeing significant interest in the recently released Super Duty Tremor package.

But Ford is looking to boost its off-road prowess by introducing a new family of rugged utilities, starting with the Bronco and its still-unnamed smaller sibling, in what it sees as a growing market.

Ford says sales of rugged pickups and utilities have been growing at twice the rate of the overall utility segment. The company says rugged utilities are believed to account for about one-quarter of the overall utility segment, doubling their share from a decade ago.

“They’re going to really try to go after what is an extremely desirable buyer profile that Jeep has been successful in leveraging,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive. “If you’re going to go after that kind of passionate market, there’s value in doing what they’re doing. On the other side of that coin, you’re putting a bigger spotlight on a vehicle that, at the end of the day, hasn’t been released. Any car company has to be cautious on the timing of the vehicles they’re touting.”

Ford has taken years to launch the Bronco. News of its return was first reported in 2015, and the automaker officially confirmed the vehicle’s return at the 2017 Detroit auto show.

While dealers have seen prototypes, the public has been teased only with camouflaged test mules. Ford has mostly stayed mum, although it promised a spring 2020 reveal, and in December it launched an online Amazon shop featuring Bronco T-shirts, key chains, car flags and even wrapping paper.

“There’s a balance between building anticipation and overhyping a new vehicle,” Brauer said.

Ford views the events as not only opportunities to win over fans, but also legitimate tests for the powertrain. Take the Bronco R prototype, which competed in November’s SCORE Baja 1000. While certain parts, including the 37-inch BFGoodrich tires, won’t resemble what customers can buy, the prototype was built on a production body-on-frame architecture. The prototype didn’t finish the race, but engineers were able to study how the vehicle performed in extreme conditions.

“There’s a transfer of learnings from competition that impact future product,” Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance motorsports, said in an interview. “We’re testing actual products in the same locations to prove the product is capable.”

Rushbrook likened the Bronco R’s appearance to what Ford did with the GT supercar, secretly racing a production powertrain in a prototype vehicle a year before the actual model competed.

Ford’s SCORE sponsorship includes 13 races through 2022. In addition, Ford gets a presence at related events such as the Lucas Oil Off-Road Expo in Pomona, Calif.

As part of the sponsorship, all teams use F-150 Raptors to do test runs, and Super Duty Tremors provide pit support, a spokesman said.

Ford didn’t compete in King of the Hammers, held this month as part of the Ultra4 racing series, but the event drew the kind of die-hard enthusiasts it hopes to target with the Bronco.

The competition features both desert racing and rock crawling, drawing more than 75,000 spectators and more than 1 million online viewers.

“It helps build the Bronco brand and the reputation and familiarity of our lineup of off-road vehicles,” Greuber said.

While the races are fertile ground to win over customers, Ford hopes its family of rugged utilities appeals to less hardcore fans as well.

“Both of these vehicles are for a growing group of people who want to simplify their life and get out there with their family and friends,” Jim Farley, Ford’s newly promoted COO, said at a 2018 event previewing the automaker’s future vehicle lineup. “For Jeep, that’s rock crawling in Moab. For Ford, our people want true off-road vehicles that are comfortable at high speeds. They don’t want SUVs that look like doomsday vehicles or have spartan, government-issued interiors.”

The Bronco is expected to have two-door and four-door variants and a removable hard top and doors. It will be built in Wayne, Mich., on the same platform as the Ranger midsize pickup. Dealers who have seen the Bronco say it has a retro design, but Ford has promised to pair that with new connected technology.

“We live in a world now where the technology exists to give you a very capable off-road vehicle with minimal on-road compromises,” Brauer said. “You can create these vehicles that are very capable in extreme circumstances that don’t drive away mainstream consumers. Bronco has a lot of potential.”

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