When thinking about the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, one tends to picture an orange meteor barreling across the desert at absurd velocities, flying through the air, long-travel suspension dangling its dirty bits below. That's partially because desert storming and bombing down muddy, root-strewn fire roads was the Special Vehicle Team's design brief, and partially because those environs have dominated Ford's advertising efforts. Marketing shtick aside, there's little doubt that the Raptor has that Kool-Aid Man "Oooh, Yeah!" wall-crashing thing going on better than any other vehicle on sale today.
In fact, if you tend to picture the Raptor exclusively in terms of yumps and dry creekbeds, you're not alone. Ford and SVT kind of admit they did, too. But in building this street-legal trophy truck, they've come to realize that they unwittingly created a vehicle that's far more versatile than originally envisioned. Case in point: Back in 2009, a massive snowstorm crippled the ability of Ford staffers and media members trying to reach the Chicago Auto Show. In particular, Mark Fields and other key execs had to journey from Dearborn to the Windy City, and company pilots refused to take off in the horrible weather. Fields and some other executives settled on boarding the train, arriving haggard eight hours later and barely making their press conference. SVT boss Jamal Hameedi and his crew elected to travel by Raptor. Driving their trucks through inches of thick slush and ice in the fast lane at more-or-less normal highway speeds (while what little traffic was sharing the road crawled along with hazard lights aglow) was a revelation. Despite building the thing, Team SVT simply didn't expect something with wide, knobby tires and a higher center of gravity to cut through the frigid slurry like that.
It's exactly this sort of discovery process that led us to the foot of the smoothly picturesque red rocks seen here. We had arrived in a convoy of eight 2012 Raptors, having taken the easy hour's drive from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah to tackle Hell's Revenge, a well-known 4x4 trail over this otherworldly terrain that doesn't take kindly to larger vehicles like our full-size SuperCab pickups. Solid bets for tackling Hell's Revenge include Jeep CJs and Wranglers, Toyota FJ Cruiser 4x4s and so on – vehicles with exceptional approach, departure and breakover angles. Even with its raised suspension and ground clearance of 11.2 inches front and 12.1 rear, we couldn't help but feel a bit sheepish about the Raptor's chances.
Despite having the lion's share of a picture-perfect late fall day at our disposal and just six miles of trail to cover, it was clear we had our work cut out for us. Raptors may have been built to bash across inhospitable terrain at highway speeds, but that strategy wouldn't work here – we'd be picking our way carefully over and around at a walking pace – more often than not, a deliberate one. First thing's first – we aired down our 35-inch BFGoodrich tires to 15 psi and selected low range.
In the spirit of "trial by fire," we started with The Intimidator, an appropriately named steep incline that drops off rudely on either side of the vehicle. Powering up the Intimidator, all we saw was hood and sky ahead paired alarmingly with sheer drop-offs out our side windows. The trail width wasn't much more than a handful of feet wider than something like the Raptor, which is itself already broader-of-beam than a standard F-150. We've done a fair amount of off-roading in our day, but this type of obstacle was a first. Thanks to The Intimidator, we found out very quickly that this is spotter country – you'll want a buddy along to get out and walk in front of your rig and act as guide.
Only thing is, for much of the entire day, we wouldn't need a spotter, thanks to a trick bit of optional equipment that's new for 2012. It's a forward-facing, downward-angled camera that displays what's directly in front of the Raptor's prow – particularly useful when the truck's nose is in the air. Accessed through the 4.2-inch gauge cluster screen but shown on the eight-inch navigation display, the camera is great, but we wish it were more intuitive to activate. Like most decent backup cameras, the screen displays both static and dynamic lines showing where the vehicle is headed and the path the tires are angled toward. There's even a washer nozzle to keep the lens free of trail muck. In truth, it's a little unnerving to use at first, because you're creeping forward based almost solely on the information provided by the screen. SVT assures us that they worked hard to assure a realistic perspective without any 'fisheye' effect, but as we weren't on the trail for more than a few minutes before climbing perhaps five stories with little room for error, our nerves were left prematurely frayed. We needn't have worried, the camera is an excellent piece of kit – at $525 (plus the cost of navigation), it practically pays for itself the first few times you use it.
We were mildly concerned about traction levels, having been told in advance that we'd be traversing Moab's "slickrock," but the truth is that the surface is tremendously grippy – at least for tires. The terrain was given its daunting name by those traveling by horseback, for whom we can only imagine would be rather slipperier under hoof. While the horses would've had flies to contend with, we had a two-man video team with a remote control carbon fiber camera-equipped helicopter strafing us and recording our exploits, adding another level of surrealness to the already otherworldly backdrop.
Throughout the course of our day, Hell's Revenge would give us countless opportunities to make use of the Raptor's new front camera, as we conquered plenty of steep ascents and obstacles with evocative names like "Hell's Gates," "Dragon's Tail," "Tip-Over Challenge" and "Belly Button Hot Tub" – the latter being one of a series of crazy scooped-out, rainwater-collecting pockets that are perhaps 20 feet deep and not more than a few car-lengths long. With Moab off-road fixture Dan Mick as our affable guide (picture Hagrid from Harry Potter with a sliver of Old West flair), we not only saw countless jaw-slackening vistas, we also received a history lesson ranging from dinosaur fossils to outlaw lore.
Front camera aside, the Raptor's other big addition for 2012 is its standard front Torsen unit. Substituting the 2011 model's open differential for this limited-slip gearset required a redesigned case and retuning of the vehicle's traction control system, but the net-net was worth it. The Torsen marshals torque from the front tire that's losing traction to the tire that still has purchase, pulling the Raptor up and over objects like a mountain goat. Adding a front Torsen can result in unwanted steering feedback when not fully engaged, which is why Ford's engineers say they've engineered zero preload into the system – you basically only notice it's there when you need it. Throughout our day's drive, the new diff acted in concert with the Raptor's Off-Road setting (which disables traction control, ABS and Roll Stability Control and alters the six-speed automatic's shift schedule and throttle mapping for ideal low-speed work), electronic locking rear end (4.10:1) and Hill Descent Control to ensure safe passage up, over and down all manner of obstacles.
Beyond the Torsen, the Raptor's driveline remains unchanged, with the 6.2-liter V8 still delivering 411 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 434 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. Some fine-tuning, however, has yielded a couple of extra miles per gallon on the freeway, so the truck's EPA figures now read 11 city and 16 highway, up from last year's 11/14. We're nonetheless confident that even if Ford eventually decides to plunk the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 under the hood, you still won't see a Raptor infestation at your local Whole Foods.
The rest of the Raptor's alterations for 2012 are primarily cosmetic in nature. Inside, there's a newly available aluminum trim package featuring anodized matte blue accent pieces (it replaces the cheesy orange interior option). In addition, the $2,970 luxury package now includes seat cooling to go along with heating. On the outside, there's a new graphics package option ($900), and Race Red paint replaces the Molten Orange hue that dominated the Raptor's marketing efforts at launch. The Raptor's final major alteration for the new model year can be classified as both aesthetic and functional, as the new 17-inch Euroflange alloys look great while moving their balancing weights to the inside of the rim, reducing their vulnerability off-road.
As we pointed out earlier, off-road trails like Hells Revenge don't take kindly to vehicles of this size, making it even more important to attack obstacles on an angle to avoid getting high-centered or otherwise gashing the Raptor's underbelly. Considering the Supercab's size, approach and departure angles of 29.8 and 22.85 degrees are more than respectable, as is its 11.3-degree breakover. Throughout the journey, we had to remain vigilant about approaching obstacles at wide enough angles and be diligent with the throttle and momentum, taking advantage of the Hill Start Assist and Descent Control. Even so, the red rocks would leave their signatures on each and every truck in our group, primarily in the form of crimped exhaust pipes, but also abraded skid plates, tow hooks and step rails (along with a little patch of scraped paint from the rear bumpers rubbed away at the bed sides by the overzealous). To their eternal credit, there was nary a wince from Team SVT, who understand that minor scrapes are part and parcel of the off-road experience. Besides, a few battle scars on something like the Raptor just looks right – each one a tacit badge of honor that the vehicle is being used as intended. Minor scrapes aside, every Raptor made it through Hell's Revenge, and nary a tow rope was called for.
For what seems like such a narrowcast vehicle, the Raptor has been a screaming success, allowing the SVT crew to justify the model's ongoing development yearly instead of waiting for a mid-cycle refresh. Dearborn expects to move about 10,000 Raptors in 2011, and they aren't sitting around on lots, with an average supply of just 21 days. On one had, that's surprising volume for a niche vehicle that starts at $43,565, but on the other, it's perhaps the most capable all-around off-road vehicle on the market – the closest thing the truck segment has ever seen to an affordable supercar. By that yardstick, the Raptor is a bargain... all that's missing is a cape.