From the January 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
“Why are you doing this?”
It’s a common question at the Rebelle Rally, most often asked out of friendly curiosity; sometimes said in frustration to a partner or misbehaving vehicle; and, at least once during the difficult week of off-road driving, map navigation, and unaccommodating accommodations, queried to oneself, in despair, in a tent infested with ants.
“The Rebelle will strip you down to strengths and weaknesses you didn’t know you had,” said the event’s founder, Emily Miller, in the opening meeting. I squirmed in my seat, fully aware that I lacked pretty much every skill needed for a weeklong navigational run with no GPS or cellphone. I got lost two blocks from my own house the night before. My only off-road competition experience was as a navigator in the NORRA Mexican 1000; our lifted ’57 Chevy broke and had to be towed out by a Subaru.
The Rebelle is an all-women’s event whose participants include Baja racers, Dakar navigators, and all kinds of engineers—effortlessly competent women who look good in those quick-dry pants with all the pockets and can probably start a fire or fight a bear. I wouldn’t be my first pick of people to send camping for eight days and put behind the wheel of a brand-new vehicle to test its off-road readiness. I can’t even pee outside without getting it on my shoes. But Ford had a lot of confidence in its stock 2021 Ford Bronco Sport, enough to enter three of these new crossovers in the Rebelle and allow me to pilot one of them across more than 1500 miles of desert and mountains in the Southwest.
Rebelle is an off-road rally amid abandoned mines and fragrant sagebrush where competitors have to read map coordinates and hit checkpoints within a specific window of time. It’s done with strategy, not speed, as most of the off-pavement areas have a speed limit of 50 mph or below. A trophy truck would barely exceed idle at these velocities, but for a crossover like the Bronco Sport, going 50 mph over a rock-strewn section of whoops is about 25 mph too fast to keep the bumper cover from kissing dirt. Could the Sport, with its small-SUV stance and turbocharged 2.0-liter, take on the rocky realms more commonly ruled by solid axles and big V-8s? Why would anyone do this?
Well, to see if they can. And if they’ve already done it once, to see if they can do it better. The three-car Ford team was a mix of newbies and veterans. The A-team consisted of professional off-road racer Shelby Hall and experienced navigator and overlander Penny Dale, both of whom had come close to winning previous Rebelles but never quite nailed it. Erica Martin and Jovina Young made up the second duo. They’re members of the Bronco marketing team and novices in off-road driving, map navigation, and motorsports competition. They were there, like their vehicle, to test themselves against a brand-new challenge.
Then there was Betsy Anderson and me. We’ve covered my skill set, or lack thereof. Anderson came with actual qualifications: a Baja win, time spent as a navigator for off-road legend Walker Evans, and experience as an endurance racer on horseback—making her the perfect co-driver for the Bronco. Oh, forgive me, Bronco Sport. The Sport is the pony to the big-horse Bronco. In the ever more blurred distinctions between SUV, truck, and raised-up car, the Bronco Sport sits at the edge of the crossover class, with a square trucky shape and surprising off-road capability. The Badlands trim amps up the off-road cred with seven all-wheel-drive modes (lesser models get five), rubberized flooring that cleans easily, and a torque-vectoring rear axle. The reborn Bronco, and the addition of the Bronco Sport, is Ford’s own see-if-I-can-do-it-better moment, and the engineers are upfront about going tire to tire with Jeep, Subaru, and Land Rover.
We started in Nevada’s Monte Cristo Mountains. At least, I think we did. I don’t remember much but a steady stream of imperatives—and then expletives—directed at me from the passenger’s seat. They escalated in tone from “Stop driving like a grandma” when I was going too slow to “WHAT THE F*CK ARE YOU DOING? YOU ARE HORRIBLE AT THIS!” when I sped up. “I bet she yells at Walker Evans, too,” I told myself as I cowered and pointed at landmarks and whispered, “I dunno; you said to go there?”
“She not only yells at me, she hits,” said Evans, when I asked him later. “He flipped us off a sand dune so I punched him,” said Anderson.
In her defense, while I hadn’t flipped us off a sand dune, I was not prepared for the intense demands of the job. I had been expecting a series of dirt maintenance roads, and instead, we were picking our way across boulder-laden trails and over hills so steep you could stand at the bottom of one and see the vehicle’s roof as it climbed. I was timid behind the wheel and did not understand the navigation, so Anderson was doing a lot of coaching, and neither of us had paid attention to the rules, so we kept racking up penalty points.
Despite this, we weren’t doing that badly: Of the six teams in our class—formerly called Crossover but changed to X-Cross for 2020—we finished the second day in third place and experienced moments of transcendence amid the friction. Driving through a canyon, I looked up to see wild horses all around us; nine-year-old me would have died. Then they ran up a hill, backlit by a pink-tinged sun like a dang Lisa Frank folder, and we both cried. Another time, we noticed a crossroad on the map but saw no crossroad in sight. We were about to turn around, truly the worst feeling, when I got out and went full Inigo Montoya: “Guide my sword.” And there it was, hidden behind a berm and bush, the most beautiful stretch of gravel going our way.
On the third night, ants got in the tent. The ants were the biting kind.
We were warned the fourth day is often the hardest, but it started out great. Anderson mapped us to several difficult checkpoints and rewarded my improving driving with a rare “Good job.” Near Mojave, California, we were coming into the Trona Pinnacles—which were definitely not referred to by several participants as the “Trona Penisacles,” because we are grown-ups and respect the grandeur of geological marvels—when the Bronco Sport shook a motor mount loose. Fixable but at the cost of an hour’s lost time and a 50-point penalty for requiring on-stage mechanical assistance from base camp. Alas, among the many rules we hadn’t read was the one about making checkpoints before they closed. Perhaps spending another hour feeding a wild donkey apples out of our snack box was not the best use of competitive time. Our day ended up being pointsless but not pointless. Nobody else fed a wild donkey.
The next morning, we knocked a vapor-recovery-system sensor off the bottom of the Bronco Sport, but having learned my lesson regarding mechanical assistance, I simply zip-tied it to the frame and we kept on. As I paid more attention to the maps, I recognized the mistakes we’d made earlier and began to understand why so many people are return competitors in the Rebelle Rally despite its hefty $13,000 entry fee. Navigating by map is addictive. It’s so different from following GPS, where the line goes through the area and the area is irrelevant. On a paper map, the line could be a road, or it could be a stream, or it could be a crinkle from a bad fold. It’s the landscape that matters—the cuts between mountains, the dry riverbeds heading exactly where you need to be. Freeing oneself from the idea that the only path forward is a well-worn one? Inspirational.
The driving became more joyous, too, as we encountered fewer rocks and whoops, which were hard on the Sport. Despite the Badland’s extra inch of ground clearance over other trim levels, it still offers only 8.8 inches of space between earth and machine, and it felt like every rock was 8.9 inches tall. The California desert suited the baby Bronco better than the mountains. The crossover’s quick throttle and smart traction management in Sand mode let it skim the drifts with the confidence of a bulldog on a skateboard. In Dove Springs, red dirt hills rose out of lake beds, looking impossibly steep, and yet the Ford clambered up them without complaint or tire spin.
By the last day, Ford’s A-team of Hall and Dale were neck and neck with a team in a Kia Telluride for the class win, and they set off bravely into the Imperial Sand Dunes in search of every possible point. We set off less bravely, as the towering sand mountains of Glamis rose like waves in a storm. As it had the whole week, the Bronco Sport surprised us with its lack of drama. Even with tire pressures high enough to make any self-respecting buggy driver scoff, the Ford never got stuck, and we rode out the day in air-conditioned comfort.
We found Martin and Young, the marketing duo, waiting for us just before the finish line, and we crossed it together in a nod to Ford’s competition history. We ended up placing fifth and sixth in class, where Hall and Dale took the gold. The 4×4 class win went to Kaleigh Miller and Teralin Petereit in a Jeep Wrangler, giving Ford a pretty strong reason to come back for 2021 with the big Bronco. Everyone wants to go back. It’s worth turning off your phone, pulling out a map, and tracing a new path. Just to see if you can.