The home team recovered from an early 10-point deficit to lead by 16 points with 10 minutes remaining before a vocal holiday crowd at the Loftus Versfeld fortress of the three-time title holders.
Advertisement: Story continues below
But seven-time champions Crusaders hit back with winger Zac Guildford crossing for a try Dan Carter converted and replacement back Tom Taylor having another try disallowed before Tom Marshall raced in and Carter converted again.
That left just two points between the southern hemisphere provincial giants and as the hooter sounded for time, Crusaders found themselves with the ball but inside their 22-metre line.
Retaining possession under fierce pressure and receiving two penalties, the visitors forced their way to the halfway line before surrendering possession and a relieved replacement scrum-half Jano Vermaak booted the ball into touch.
Bulls ended with only 40 per cent possession in a match of three phases, but their superiority for the first 30 minutes of the second half reaped 23 points with master goal kicker Morne Steyn in top form.
The Springbok fly-half succeeded with eight of 10 shots at the posts -- two conversions and six penalties -- and his perfectly weighted chip kick set up centre Wynand Olivier for the Bulls second try.
Prop Dean Greyling scored the other four minutes into the second half as he collected a pass from flank CJ Stander, sold a dummy any back would have been proud of and dived over for only his second Super 15 touchdown.
Crusaders retained possession superbly throughout the first half and would not have been flattered by a bigger half-time lead than 13-9, but added just three points before their late scoring surge.
Star fly-half Dan Carter, making his second start after a lengthy injury lay-off that sidelined him during the triumphant All Blacks march to the 2011 Rugby World Cup title, missed four kicks out of seven at goal.
He converted tries by skipper and eighthman Kieran Read, Guildford and Marshall, kicked a penalty and a drop goal and replacement Tom Taylor succeeded with his one penalty attempt.
Crusaders, who defeated lowly Golden Lions in Johannesburg last weekend, return home for a third consecutive clash with a South African side as leaders Western Stormers visit Christchurch while Bulls are away to the Lions.
BULLS 32 (Dean Greyling, Wynand Olivier tries Morne Steyn 2 cons 6 pens) bt CRUSADERS 30 (Zac Guildford, Tom Marshall, Kieran Read tries Daniel Carter 3 cons Carter, Tom Taylor pens drop goal) at Loftus Versfeld.