I got to be a badass in a Raptor
"I can take you on a whoops section that nobody has been on, but you have to commit."
So said Ford engineer and driving instructor Gene Martindale riding right-seat as I piloted the 2017 F-150 Raptor across the Ocotillo Wells desert in Southern California during a Ford-sponsored press trip.
I have no commitment issues, at least not with trucks, so we took the more difficult line through the "whoops," bumps in the dirt track about a foot and a half deep occurring one right after the other.
The truck was already in Baja mode, which keeps the revs high, the turbo spooled and the throttle quick. I accelerated to 50 mph and the new 3.0 Fox shocks soaked up the bumps, letting the cab of the truck remain virtually level.
There is no feeling like hitting whoops at high speed when the suspension is dialed in. It's a moment of being one with machine as the truck dances across the terrain. It leaves you feeling exhilarated and breathless, like you've just conquered the world and all humanity must now bow at your feet.
There has been a lot of excitement over the new Raptor, Ford's very popular and heavily modified F-150 pickup, and a bit of skepticism as well. Gone is the familiar 6.2-liter V8 engine, in its place a fuel-efficient 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6. Some say it's sacrilege. I say, "Good on you, Ford."
If you didn't know this engine wasn't a V8, you wouldn't guess. The deep and burbly sound is there thanks to a newly tuned dual exhaust, but more importantly, the power is there too. Thanks to twin turbochargers, this 3.5-liter V6 makes 450 horsepower, about 40 more than the previous V8, and torque is way up, too, at 510 pound-feet versus 434 pound-feet. And with its aluminum body, the Raptor weighs 500 pounds less than the previous generation. The 16 mpg combined EPA fuel economy of the V6 may sound low, but it represents a 3 mpg increase over the V8-powered Raptor.
Call me crazy, but I'll take more power, more torque, less weight and better gas mileage over a V8 any day (You can debate the point in the comments).
The power gets to the ground through a 10-speed automatic transmission. I was dubious at first, but the additional close-spaced gears shift smoothly and easily. It's very well-behaved and doesn't search around like other transmissions with fewer gears (cough Toyota Tacoma cough). Instead it makes decisions quickly and accurately, easily skipping gears when provoked on downshifting and upshifting quickly on aggressive throttle application. In manual mode the transmission holds high revs for as long as you like, only upshifting when the driver clicks the magnesium paddle shifter.
The transfer case, an engineering marvel, combines the expected 2H, 4H and 4L with a clutch-based torque-on-demand system that turns the Raptor into an all-wheel drive truck. While 4H distributes the torque in a 50/50 split, this technology, called 4A, instead puts torque to whatever wheel needs it most, making the Raptor handle better on the pavement in inclement weather.
The Raptor includes a few other tricks with its six selectable terrain modes. Normal, Sport and Weather work best on pavement. Off-road terrain modes are Mud/Sand, Baja and Rock. Each mode automatically selects the best transmission, throttle, traction control and steering parameters, but you can override these selections to comply with your own driving style.
Baja mode's unique anti-lag feature keeps the turbo spooled up, even when you're not on the throttle. Off-road driving requires a lot of throttle feathering, and having the torque available the instant you get back on the gas is paramount to keeping control. Lift just a bit over some rough rocks and then gently squeeze back on the throttle to lift your nose a bit, and if you're lucky (I was), and the terrain is right (it was), you might just catch some air.
And when you send it you'll land pretty solidly. The frame uses high-strength steel for increased rigidity and the new shocks have 13 inches of travel in the front, 13.9 inches in the rear. The Raptor landed so smoothly I was able to get back on the throttle immediately with nary a hair out of place.
Desert driving is not all fastfastfast, but never fear, the Raptor does great crawling the rocks as well. Rock mode shifts the truck to 4L, engages the rear locker and gives plenty of grunt with a 50:1 gear ratio. The Raptor-specific BFGoodrich tires clung to stones, and made easy work of a 21-degree rock climb. In fact, it was a little too easy. With the Raptor, all the driver needs is a keen eye for the correct line and a steady foot on the throttle. The truck does all the work, rolling up the obstacles like it's going to a drive-in movie.
My one complaint comes from the truck's size. It's 6 inches wider than the standard F-150, ballooning to over 86 inches wide, so much that it needs five amber running lights in the front to comply with the vehicle code. Although it only comes with a 5.5-foot short bed, the SuperCab gives it a 134-inch wheelbase, while the more roomy SuperCrew comes in at 146 inches.
That long wheelbase limits where you can go and means you have to make some driving concessions. Narrow box canyons are probably not your friend, nor are any off-road mountain passes, or "goat trails" as they are often called, with sharp and skinny turns. The Raptor has fairly decent geometry, with approach/breakover/departure angles of 30/22/23 degrees. Those are pretty much in line with the Toyota Tacoma and trounce the dismal 18/20/22 degrees of the Chevrolet Colorado, but come nowhere near the 42/26/32 degrees of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
A class of one
Not that those comparisons matter, because none of those vehicles is really in the same class as the Raptor. A Tacoma TRD Pro or Off-Road is certainly capable, but with significantly lower power numbers and less wheel travel, a Raptor would blow the doors off a Taco in a high-speed desert race. That goes double for the Jeep. Both Ram and Nissan have shown us concept trucks that may challenge the Raptor, but the likelihood of those going into production is small. Chevrolet has just announced an off-road ZR2 Colorado model that looks promising and has better geometry than the standard Colorado, but its 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque are still far below the Raptor's power.
I got a few hours of Raptor time on the pavement in a well-appointed SuperCrew with heated and cooled front seats, leather all around, a panoramic sunroof and plenty of room for five good-sized adults. I found Normal mode to be too focused on keeping the revs low for better fuel economy so spent most of my time in Sport mode. The truck takes off like a rocket from the line, belying its 5,700-pound weight. The road manners are exceptional when you consider it's wearing 35-inch off-road tires and running on a softer suspension. My butt was cradled in bolstered comfort on my 2-hour drive, but my producer exited with a sore back.
I was too busy screaming with joy at 95 mph on the dirt to worry about exploring the techie parts of the Raptor. However, based on my experience with other Ford products, the Sync 3 infotainment technology works quickly and easily, a huge improvement over Ford's previous navigation system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both included, and the interface appears on a crisp 8-inch color touchscreen.
The 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor, a race truck right off the showroom floor, is the only truck of its kind. The Raptor placed third in the stock full class in the grueling Baja 1000 this year and if that weren't enough, driver Greg Foutz drove the darn thing home from Ensenada to Arizona afterwards.
Good trucks, however, do not come cheap. The Raptor SuperCab starts at $49,520, the larger Raptor SuperCrew a bit higher, but options easily push the cost up to $69,000 or so, and that is before the inevitable dealer markups. Is it worth it? To a desert gal like me the answer is an unequivocal, "Hell, yes!"
Now, if you will excuse me I've got some whoops to bomb through.