As it blitzes alongside a railbed slicing through Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert, the 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor sashays gently side to side, its wide all-terrain tires tracking the bumps and ruts in the sandy trail.The ventilated seats are set to high, while our hands twitch the wheel back and forth with minor corrections to keep the truck pointed straight. Well, straight-ish.
We’re creating quite the dust cloud, but that’s less because of the swinging hips than our proximity to the speed governor. The Raptor doesn’t need to be traveling at triple digits through the desert to amaze, but it certainly helps.
Good Riddance to the Old School
For example, its new twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 and 10-speed automatic transmission help the Raptor to amaze in a straight line. Its turbochargers whistle more boost (up to 18 psi) into the manifold than do those of the regular F-150’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost mill, which itself has been updated for 2017.
Combined with a new aluminum block, upgraded internals, port and direct fuel injection, and a lighter valvetrain, the turbos help this engine crank out 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque, increases of 75 horses and 40 lb-ft over the standard EcoBoost 3.5, which suddenly seems wimpy in comparison. More important, that’s 39 horses and 76 lb-ft more than the old Raptor’s 6.2-liter V-8, gains that are immediately noticeable. This Raptor feels much quicker than its predecessor, and we expect it’ll reach 60 mph in the low-five-second range.
With three overdrive gears, the 10-speed is above all a play for highway fuel economy, but its ratio spread does keep the twin-turbo six in the meat of its powerband, too. This transmission, however, is one of the Raptor’s few weak points, despite the genuine magnesium shift paddles. Even under full throttle, it slurs shifts in Normal mode.
For quicker gear swaps, you have to use the mode switch on the steering wheel to toggle the truck into Sport—one of six available settings—at which point those shifts occasionally are rather harsh. And, when cruising, every toe tip into the throttle reminds us what a big number 10 is, as the transmission shuffles down to find the necessary gear.
We did find it amusing, though, that with the transfer case in low range, it’s already in fifth gear by 15 mph. A 5 percent reduction in aerodynamic drag helps the transmission elevate the Raptor’s fuel economy from the old truck’s 12 mpg city and 16 mpg highway to 15/18 mpg. The aero improvement is due not only to the new styling but also to automatic grille shutters and the air-smoothing effect of skid plates, which have an environmental benefit beyond simply reducing the incidences of 5W-30 spilling out of rock-pierced oil pans.
While a commercially available truck that can repeatedly enter and return from (extremely) low-Earth orbit without undue harm is impressive, the Raptor’s ability to do so is in no way surprising. That’s what it’s engineered to do. What is surprising is how well a vehicle with the suspension necessary to do so performs on pavement. The Raptor’s roll control is simply excellent.
Yes, the BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires hinder the truck’s paved-road adhesion limits, but its behavior up until those limits is startling. It’s a genuinely composed and comfortable cruiser, and it handles twisty roads far better than a Mustang would handle desert running. Of course, a Mustang doesn’t have 34-inch-tall, reinforced-sidewall KO2s—which, incidentally, are the reason the speed limiter is set so low—mounted to optional beadlock-ready 17-inch wheels. They look awesome.
The Dirty Bird
Through the Anza-Borrego, we hammered the Raptor over a 50-mile route composed of long stretches of washboard chatter bumps and countless larger whoop-de-dos that tossed the Ford into the air. A lesser truck could crawl over this same terrain without much risk.
But before you attempted to do so at the speeds the Raptor can achieve, you’d want to start a pool for what would happen first: a pricey Fox damper punching through the hood or the bed, an axle rolling out behind the truck, or the nose sticking a landing and throwing you into an endo.
The Raptor just pounds over all of it, its suspension travel of 13.0 inches in front and 13.9 out back ensuring that the driver cries uncle before the truck ever falters. So high is the Raptor’s threshold of abuse that the size of the lump, hole, or other obstacle hardly seems to matter; plow into it, let the suspension soak it up, and carry on.
To better endure the abuse any self-respecting owner will subject the truck to, the Raptor’s frame is strengthened over the regular F-150’s with additional welds and fortified shock mounts. Its Fox dampers are now 3.0 inches in diameter, a 0.5-inch increase from the old Raptor’s.
This allows 44 percent more fluid volume, bolstering heat- and fade-resistance. To enable the Raptor’s surprising on-road aptitude, the shock absorbers are softer in the middle of their travel but stiffen as they near both full compression and full extension—the former to control bottoming out, the latter to manage the suspension’s motion when the truck achieves liftoff.
More Like Bwajaja Mode!
You can turn off the stability control completely. However, excess yaw can couple with unpredictable desert terrain to turn straight-line speed into multiple rollovers and a helicopter ride with no view but the faces of medics leaning over a backboard.
Knowing that, we found the Baja driving mode an excellent choice. In this setting, the stability-control calibration is superb, allowing great leeway and stepping in only under extreme circumstances with smooth, subtle interventions. This mode also relaxes the ABS, allowing some lockup to pile sand in front of the tires, long a favored means of stopping in softer terrain.
Baja mode also tweaks the engine-management program, shutting down fuel flow but keeping the throttle open when the driver jumps off the accelerator. This keeps air flowing through the engine, which in turn keeps the turbos spinning and cuts lag when the driver gets back on the gas.
This function is limited to Baja mode because it negatively impacts emissions and fuel economy. But the best thing about Baja mode is how the transmission hangs onto gears to such an extreme degree, keeping engine response piano-wire tight. It’ll hang within just a few hundred rpm of redline for as long as your foot tells it to, urging you to toe a bit deeper, clear those last few revs, and grab the next gear—and then start reaching for the next.
And drivers will keep reaching again and again. Few vehicles of any kind and at any price—and none near the Ford’s $49,520 base price—offer as many thrills or fulfill their mission as perfectly as the Raptor. Driving this truck off-road and at max attack is as exhilarating an automotive experience as you’ll find.