There's something wholly satisfying about using a well-designed tool to its full potential. The best tools are arguably those that deliver better results the harder they are worked. Call it grace under pressure, call it fitness of purpose, call it whatever you like, it's clear the 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor 4x4 has exactly this sort of virtue baked into the marrow of its frame, and boy, is it a thrill to discover and exploit.

Although it arguably doesn't look much different from last year's model, this Raptor is indeed substantially new. This pickup truck not only benefits from nearly all of the 2021 F-150 model line's substantial interior and tech improvements, it also gains even more impressive off-road chops thanks to a sophisticated new five-link rear suspension and the availability of hulking 37-inch tires. 

Before you ask, one thing that remains largely unchanged is the 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6, once again matched to a 10-speed automatic transmission and tuned for 450 horsepower and 510-pound-feet of torque. There's a higher compression ratio, revised software for better throttle response and new high-power cooling fans for more confident off-roading and towing, but that's about the scope of the changes underhood.

Now entering its third generation and finally facing its first genuine competition in the form of Ram's formidable 1500 TRX, this is the model that will carry the Raptor nameplate into its teenage years. Fortunately, a day of pounding through the Mojave desert, assaulting sand dunes, blitzing over whoops and galloping across rock-strewn washes reveals not a trace of awkward adolescence. Better still, thanks to an all-new multi-mode exhaust system, the Raptor's voice has dropped appreciably, bellowing more loudly and more authoritatively in a lower register. 

37-inch tires on the road

My first drive of the Michigan-built 2021 Ford Raptor starts off innocuously enough, in the shadow of the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas. I set off from Sin City, driving on paved roads an hour out to Pahrump, a town of around 40,000 whose notable economic drivers include -- [checks Wikipedia] -- Spring Mountain Motor Sports Ranch, Front Sight Firearms Training Institute and a pair of legal brothels. 

Here be 37-inch monsters.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

The drive, including a detour to check out Nevada's beautiful Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, gives me a chance to get acquainted with my test vehicle, which is riding on mondo meats: a set of newly optional 37x12.5-inch BFGoodrich T/A K02s, the largest tires I've ever seen fitted to a production pickup (they're actually bigger than the Sasquatch feet on Ford's new Bronco SUV). These tires come as part of the Raptor 37 Performance Package, a multifaceted $7,500 option group that includes beadlock-capable wheels, unique shock absorbers, fetching Rhapsody Blue Recaro seats and a slew of interior and exterior trim tweaks. The tires deliver killer looks and better ground clearance, albeit at the expense of some suspension travel and unsprung weight (around 6 pounds per corner).

Big cabin and tech upgrades

Like most roads in Nevada that aren't in the mountains, the road to Pahrump is featurelessly flat, straight and sunbaked. But while it isn't a great place to test the Raptor's handling, it is a good time to note the Raptor's supple ride quality and quite well-controlled NVH (noise, vibration and harshness). The big tread blocks on the BFGs don't deliver excessive tire roar and while the steering is light on feel and a little squishy just off center, it's just fine and shouldn't be off-putting to anyone used to driving a full-size pickup.

It's also a good time to take stock of the biggest news for the Raptor's on-road manners, which have nothing to do with the vehicle's dynamics: the new cabin. Like the rest of its F-150 siblings, it's here where Ford had fallen behind its arch rival, the Ram 1500 (and rather substantially, at that). For 2021, the 14th-generation F-150's interior is of noticeably higher quality. 

Raptor's vastly improved cabin is a major quality-of-life update.

Ford

The dashboard is totally new and it's something of a tech bonanza. With a standard 12-inch digital gauge cluster and a matching 12-inch touchscreen running Sync 4 infotainment, you're looking at a major quality-of-life upgrade versus the 2020 model. The graphics are sharper, the response times are snappier and the feature set is deeper, bringing conveniences like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Importantly, the system also incorporates a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, enabling bumper-to-bumper over-the-air updates for the first time. This ensures that not only will the Sync 4 continue to offer the latest and greatest infotainment features, new functions and bug fixes can be downloaded for the rest of the truck, too -- powertrain included. Additional features like the $765 360-degree camera package (which shows real-time tire paths for smarter off-roading), a deployable center console table and an available 18-speaker Bang & Olufsen Unleashed audio system are real pot sweeteners, too.

Prodigious thirst aside, Raptors have always made surprisingly great daily drivers, but this new interior and tech should really make everyday life much easier, even if you don't opt for stuff like Pro Power Onboard, a built-in 2.0-kilowatt generator capable of powering a small job site or a killer tailgate party.

Off-road impressions

The convoy of test Raptors spends the night in Pahrump in order to get an early start to beat the late-summer heat. How early? I'm in the hotel's lobby by 4:00 a.m., then caffeinated and on the road by 4:15 a.m. I have another 50-mile drive to reach California's Dumont Dunes, a vast, 7,620-acre playland that lies in the shadow of volcanic hills and along the banks of the Amargosa River. 

When I arrive, it's still pitch dark, giving me time air down the tires to about 24 psi and to bolt on high-visibility dune flags, as well as don a helmet and HANS device for safety. The sun quickly catches fire, illuminating a stunning martian backdrop that feels like someone clicked the "widescreen" button on my life. It'll be well over 110 degrees before the day is out, so I load in enough water bottles to consume the recommended liter or more an hour and head for the various courses that Ford's team set up.

Playing in the dunes at speed where the Raptor is happiest. 

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Whoops! This performance is no accident

While it's not the first task I tackle, it's the Raptor's performance on the whoops -- a long field of of small, rolling jumps that create a rapidly undulating surface -- that impress me most. Credit goes to the engineers who developed the Raptor's completely new rear suspension, which ditches the leaf springs used on all other F-Series trucks other than the Lightning EV. This all-new five-link setup employs long rear trailing arms, a Panhard rod and gigundous 24-inch coil springs to provide serious travel (15 inches out back on 35-inch-tire-equipped models, or 14.1-inches on my pickup's 37-inch BFGs). Ford says this 2021 model has 25% more suspension travel than the original Raptor, which wasn't exactly lacking in that department. 

Perhaps most importantly, this sophisticated rear suspension enables much more precise location of the axle throughout the suspension's travel -- not just up and down, but fore/aft and laterally, as well. The result is that the truck has an easier time putting the power down and keeping it there, especially with a set of larger, next-generation Fox Live Valve shocks. These electronically controlled, internal-bypass units feature larger 3.1-inch tubes to better manage the punishing thermal load of high-speed desert running. 

How this works out in real life is that the faster you go, the better the Raptor performs across the whoops. What feels juddery at 40 mph smoothes out remarkably at 60-plus mph, the Raptor's newly reinforced chassis staying surprisingly level while its suspension executes a punishing high-speed dance as the truck streaks across the desert washboard. It's a remarkable performance at speeds that could well send the bed on a lesser truck mule-kicking uncontrollably -- regular ol' leaf springs might've subjected this Code Orange Raptor to a Code Brown moment. Instead, I find myself pushing to accelerate to even higher speeds all the sooner, forcing me to rely ever harder on Raptor's capable brakes (13.7-inch discs up front,13.2 inches out back).

The Raptor is a better performer in desert whoops.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Beadlocks for all

Ford coned off a couple of large sand courses that run up and down Dumont's massive dunes, too, giving me the chance to kick up some serious rooster tails while assessing low-grip handling on tires that have been aired down even further to just 15 psi. The key here is momentum -- you never want to slow down for fear of burying the Raptor up to its axles. The 10-speed gearbox is primed to keep the revs up in Baja mode and it's tremendous fun to hang the tail out and jump ever higher and further over a crest. Or, at least it is until I load up the outer front tire in a corner too hard, the BFG rolling over on its sidewalls and popping a bead, deflating the tire and bringing the action a screeching halt. (Other exercises featured the Raptor's available beadlock-capable wheels, but not this one, oddly.) Ford minders quickly shuttle me to another Raptor, later reuniting me with my original Code Orange tester after a fresh rubber swap.

Between the whoops, the dune running and piling along a high-speed course on a wash, it's clear the Raptor is more capable than ever in the rough stuff. Even avid off-roaders are far more likely to run out of talent long before this truck runs out of capability. I'll have to wait for a future engagement to see how the new suspension stands up to the rigors of rock crawling, but the switch to a five-link setup and larger tires hasn't appreciably hurt the Raptor's on-road livability, either.

Sound opinions

As to the carryover powertrain's new sound, Ford fitted a radically different exhaust setup to the 2021 F-150 Raptor, complete with a funky-looking midpipe trombone loop ahead of the muffler to equalize the 3-inch pipe lengths from side to side to ensure optimum acoustics. Combined with active valves with four driver-selectable modes (Quiet, Normal, Sport and Baja), the new exhaust ensures the Raptor has a much more assertive voice when you want it and a don't-wake-the-neighbors tone when you don't. Baja mode's howl is a huge improvement over the rather flaccid-sounding second-generation Raptor, but it remains a long way from the intrinsically satisfying guttural V8 bellow of the Ram 1500 TRX.

The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 engine hasn't changed much, but at least the exhaust sounds better.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Thirsty, but not TRX thirsty

On the plus side, the 2021 Raptor, while hardly thrifty, handily outpoints the much more powerful Ram in fuel economy. Models equipped with 35-inch tires should see 15 mpg city, 18 mpg highway and 16 mpg combined, while 37-inch-tire models fall to 15, 16 and 15, respectively. The far heavier Mopar, meanwhile, nets a comparatively reprehensible 10 mpg city, 14 mpg highway and 12 mpg combined. 

Unlike the TRX, the Raptor is happy to live on regular 87-octane fuel and the Ford has a larger 36-gallon fuel tank, too, enabling more than 500 miles between fill-ups. Your bladder may not last that long on the freeway, but you'll be thankful for the extra capacity when you're caning the EcoBoost off-road in some remote location, getting far less than EPA estimates.

Big price increase

I hate to dwell on the number comparison game with the Ram, but there's one other important set of figures I need to discuss: pricing. The outgoing Raptor held a huge cost advantage versus the Ram, starting about $15,000 less. That's enough of a pricing gulf that one could argue these two vehicles actually existed in different classes -- supertruck versus hypertruck, perhaps. 

No longer; the 2021 Raptor's improvements have triggered a major price increase. The outgoing 2020 Raptor started at $55,090 including a steep $1,645 for delivery. For 2021, a base Raptor will set you back $65,840 (including $1,695 delivery) and a full-boat model can easily top $80,000. By contrast, the TRX starts at $72,120 delivered and can climb above $94,000. There's still a substantial price differential, but it's primarily noticeable on high-content models and with only around $6,000 separating base MSRPs, the Raptor's value proposition is significantly less obvious than it once was.

You can't get into a 2021 Raptor for less than $65,840.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

How did this happen? In part, it's because Ford nixed last year's less-expensive SuperCab body style after just 4% of buyers chose the shorter model's rear-hinged half-doors. For 2021, the only way you can get a Raptor is with Ford's larger four-door SuperCrew body paired with a 5.5-foot bed and its 1,400-pound max payload (towing sits at 8,200 pounds). Further bloating the bottom line is all of that new tech, including a brace of smart towing aids and Ford's Co-Pilot 360 suite of active safety gear, which bundles standard forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, automatic high beams and so on. A prep kit for BlueCruise, Ford's forthcoming partially automated hands-free driving tech, is optional.

At the end of the day, the 2021 Ford Raptor is a substantially improved truck, building on what was already a hugely impressive pickup. This truck's far more advanced suspension will give hardcore off-roaders ample reason to consider the new model, but it's the cabin's much-needed overhaul and the massive infusion of convenience and safety tech that they'll appreciate most in daily life. Unfortunately, the new model's substantial price increase blunts the Raptor's appeal somewhat and it does have me wondering how stratospherically the forthcoming V8-powered Raptor R will be priced when it arrives next year. That aside, there are more reasons than ever to consider parking this 4x4 in your garage. It's one of the best, most expressive vehicles America makes.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.