Staring at a Molten Orange Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, it doesn’t take long for the truck to sear itself onto your retinas, creating an afterimage once you close your eyes. Afterimages disappear after a few seconds, but that’s not the case with the visceral impression of the Raptor, which has been permanently fused with our pickup-truck-driving neurons.
After all of the technical, first-drive and comparison coverage we've given the Raptor, you’d think we'd be bored with it. But every time we get in the factory prerunner, it's a new experience that leaves us wanting more.
As we enthusiastically prepare for the powerful, new 411-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 Raptor to arrive any day now, we thought we'd spend one last week hitting the trails in the 310-hp, 5.4-liter V-8 version.
We were fortunate to receive the Raptor at PUTC's headquarters in Southern California. The truck was developed only 150 miles away — in the unforgiving terrain of the Anza-Borrego desert wilderness — and much of the undeveloped land in SoCal is just about perfectly matched to the Raptor's strengths. But before we could make a run across California's badlands, we first had to escape from Los Angeles.
Driving a clean Raptor on city streets feels about as natural as brake torquing a hybrid before leaving a stoplight; it borders on embarrassing. The last thing we wanted to be mistaken for was being a commuter in a Raptor. We'd rather be caught with pec and calf implants. There was a perceptible difference in the reaction of drivers, too. We got more thumbs up when the Raptor was dirty than when it was shiny.
The Raptor was impossible to hide in Los Angeles. Its color, width (6.6-inches more than a standard F-150) and height were immediately noticeable. That helped in traffic because most drivers gave it a respectable cushion of space, but parking it could be almost as challenging as running the Raptor over a technical trail. Both required some recon and planning before executing, but we weren't going to tear the roof off the Raptor in the desert like we might maneuvering it in a garage. If we thought driving a clean Raptor was embarrassing, we imagined it would be infinitely more humiliating to air down the tires to squeeze out from under a support beam.
This might sound trivial, but if there was ever a truck that could beat Southern California's notorious freeway expansion joints, it's the Raptor and its Baja racing-inspired suspension. The joints are regularly spaced breaks between concrete sections of highway surface, giving roads room to flex and breathe.
Extended cab pickups, like the Raptor, are notoriously prone to up-and-down “beaming” that frequently occurs while driving over these joints. You can go for miles where you have to hold onto your coffee to keep it from spilling.
The Raptor’s special Fox Racing-engineered front and rear shocks feature three shock fluid gates inside their barrels that change the dampening rate as the shock responds to every surface condition the truck encounters, from pothole to mudhole. The ride felt a bit stiffer than expected on the freeway, but it virtually muted all beaming in places where we’ve suffered it before in other extended cabs. We consider this a valuable bonus.
During our first drive of the Raptor several months ago, we mentioned how its six-speed automatic transmission constantly hunted or lazily shifted as it tried to optimize fuel economy over performance. That was our experience again with the truck, and it was particularly noticeable climbing steady grades with slight inclines. The Raptor couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be in 5th or 6th gear, even when we held the truck’s speed using cruise control. As before on our first drive, our solution was to keep the truck in tow/haul mode to hold each gear a bit longer before upshifting. Driving became much more satisfying this way, though on downgrades we’d let the gearbox have full control to avoid an unexpected downshift as the truck tried to slow itself with engine braking, thinking a trailer might be attached.
Off the line performance wasn’t bad though for a heavy off-road truck with a 310 hp engine. In an earlier drive, we timed the Raptor with our VBOX taking a reasonable 8.8-seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph.
One of the marvelous things about the Raptor that doesn’t get talked about enough is its excellent cockpit. The seats are well bolstered and hug your back and hips. Hopping in, you immediately feel supported by the truck and confident driving it. When you close the door, all the controls wrap around you and are easily reachable. The console-mounted shifter, off-road mode and hill-descent control buttons and auxiliary power switches fall on your right side at waist height, so you can adjust the truck’s performance quickly as driving conditions change. And just so you don’t forget it’s Molten Orange on the outside, the seats and instrument panel feature the same colored inserts and highlights.
We’re huge fans of Ford’s Sync system, which easily detected our Blackberry and provided traffic conditions at a glance so we could steel ourselves for gridlock or try to plot alternative routes around LA’s crowded freeways and major streets. But as we prepared to set course for one off-road destination, we noticed one major shortcoming with Sync that really stood out in the Raptor. We couldn’t input latitude and longitude coordinates into the navigation system like we could on other trucks, such as the Ram Power Wagon. Geographic coordinates are important in reaching points off-road where the trails aren’t mapped or you need to carve your own path. Ford spokesman Alan Hall says the next version of Sync, called MyFord Touch, will allow us to enter latitude and longitude.
Our Raptor also came equipped with Ford’s optional Sony audio system. Sound quality was quite good, particularly playing satellite radio, but we weren’t so happy with the aluminum mesh speaker grates in the doors. They scraped the back of our hands like a cheese grater when we reached for stuff in the door pockets.
City driving behind us, we turned our attention to wheeling in the Raptor. Much of the year, desert temperatures are a furnace that can quickly turn you into beef jerky if you get into a jam before help arrives. But in the wintertime, it's much more hospitable to off-road exploration.
We took the Raptor to three off-road spots: the Trona Pinnacles, Red Rock Canyon and Hungry Valley. Each offered its own unique trails to challenge the Raptor. At Trona, we headed for a wide riverbed that runs between the park’s stunning rock formations. The sandy wash was bone dry on the surface but wet underneath with the moisture left over from last week’s big storms.
Aside from running flat out on a dirt road, there’s probably no better way to get familiar with the Raptor’s high-speed off-road capability than a dry wash. You can run flat out for hundreds of yards or more with little risk of hitting anything larger than worn river rock or a hardy bush. If you need to slow down, letting off the accelerator is usually all that’s needed because the Raptor’s 6,000-pound mass ensures it will start to sink into the sand as it sheds speed, slowing it even further.
We ran the Raptor in four-wheel drive with Off-Road Mode engaged. Off-Road Mode gives the Raptor a linear throttle response, like a race truck, instead of high power at the beginning and tapered at the end, like a street truck. We noticed that characteristic right away, as it took a few moments for the engine and mass of the truck to spool up to Baja-worthy speeds in the silt. Once in the zone and flying through the wash, the Raptor’s transmission found its sweet spot in the power range and held onto its RPMs instead of upshifting, similar to tow/haul mode. Even when we let our foot off the accelerator, using the sand’s friction and depth to scrub speed as we picked different channels to run through, the power was readily available when we needed to call on it again once we knew the way was clear.
Some of the most fun we had was trying to get the Raptor sideways. As much as we gripe about wanting more power from the 5.4-liter V-8 in the F-150, in the Raptor it lets you tail-slide with precision instead of overpowering the truck if you’re accidentally too strong with the throttle. You simply angle the wheel, hit the throttle and enjoy the tail-slide. In flat stretches, you can really let the Raptor rip and drift through the bends. The grippy 315/70R17 BF Goodrich tires and wide stance (about 6.5-inches wider than a standard F-150) add to the stability. Body control is excellent.
After Trona, we headed to Red Rock Canyon’s sandy and rocky trails. Here, we played with the Raptor’s agility on tight paths and followed trails that were little more than single tracks in places. Instead of high-speed stunts, we picked our way around sharp rocks and large bushes with little more than adding a few more desert pinstripes to the sides of the Raptor’s wide fenders.
All day we had looked for a place to jump the Raptor, and in Trona we found just the right bump to get the truck airborne. The amazing part of the jump was that it only took 20 to 30 mph to do it, and from the driver’s seat we almost couldn’t tell. As the Raptor’s suspension fully extended itself in midair, it was totally quiet in the cabin. On landing, the shocks and jounces soaked up the impact, so we weren’t violently pushed toward the roof. The triple bypass Fox dampeners we spoke of earlier only perform stronger the harder they’re pushed. Shock absorption is almost four times better at the end of the travel than when the shock is first compressed. It was simply an amazing performance in an act that probably would have destroyed 99 percent of the vehicles on the highway. Ford’s SVT engineers and the folks at Fox Racing deserve mad props for their suspension tuning and durability in the Raptor.
Finally, at Hungry Park near Gorman, Calif., we played with the Raptor on muddy trails still wet from the runoff of fresh snow. The Raptor didn’t feel quite as comfortable in this situation. The F-150’s weight played against it a bit as it sunk into sticky mud, but the truck’ never let us down when we needed extra power to scoot out of a slick situation.
Though it wasn’t as dramatic as power sliding in a wash, we played with the Raptor’s Hill Descent Control. Several times we let the truck crawl its way down some very steep hills. The HDC walks the truck by modulating the antilock braking system automatically so you can keep your foot off the brake and simply steer the truck in the proper direction. The Raptor’s HDC is the quietest we’ve experienced. The ABS modulations were smooth and unobtrusive. Once, the Raptor started to slide a bit going downhill because of the slick mud, but it quickly regained its footing as the tires bit into more solid dirt.
Each time we started crawling the truck down the grades, a small group of spectators and passing dirt bikers stopped to watch, and each time we gave what was probably a less dramatic show then they thought they’d see.
After two days of off-roading in the Raptor, we returned to city driving before giving the Raptor back to Ford. But before we cleaned it up, we drove around Los Angeles like we were wearing medals of honor. The Raptor was covered in a layer of dried mud and dust. The Molten Orange color was obscured and didn’t blind us with its brilliance as before. But that was OK. The memories of wheeling in the truck are going to last much longer. The Raptor is a truck that makes us want to play in the dirt every chance we get.