2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor – Click above for high-res image gallery

Although some of us have an unabashed love for all-things off-road, the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor didn't register a huge blip on our collective radar. We figured it would be a performance kit that was much more kit than performance, or an off-road wunderkind that makes life a Hobbesian kind of brutish when used anywhere but the moon. We spent two days in Southern California, one of which in the Raptor's Anza Borrego Desert birthplace, to discover one thing: We were wrong. The Raptor is all that. And a bag of chips. And dessert.

All photos copyright Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs Inc.

A few years ago, some of the gents at SVT decided to try their expertise on a truck that would put their particular brand of oomph on the dirt instead of on the streets. Incredibly, there were other SVT gents who weren't so keen on the idea, thinking an SVT joint is a tarmac performance vehicle, not a... truck. Yet in 2006, Ford marketing data pointed to the ascent of off-road performance as a consideration for people buying pickups, with street performance as the end-all on the decline. Thankfully, for anyone who likes bombing the dirt on four wheels, the first group of gents won. What they've given us is the Raptor, and it is terrific.

The Raptor is a clean-sheet truck. The SVT engineers wrote down what they wanted, then they took other trucks out to benchmark them. Then, according to SVT, they broke all those other trucks and still hadn't experienced anything like what they wanted. So they took their specifications list to outside suppliers, like their axle maker, Fox and BF Goodrich. And those outside suppliers laughed at them. When the SVT engineers didn't laugh, the outside suppliers said "Oh, wait – you're serious?" And then everyone got to work.

Comparing the Raptor to an F-150 is nearly useless.
Built at the F-150's production center, the Raptor rides on a chassis seven inches wider than its donor sibling, and according to one SVT fellow, "It just barely fits down the line." But comparing the Raptor to an F-150 is nearly useless. It makes far more sense to look at the Raptor as what an F-150 would be if it were the most intense off-road retail truck imaginable.

The Raptor's bed box is from the F-150, but the rear outer box is unique, as is everything forward of the A-pillar. It rides on a widened version of the F-150 frame, and the suspension points match the F-150, but some tweaks were made to the mounting of a variety of parts, including the shock mounting bolts that were moved to make clearance for the suspension travel. Mounted to those rails are a suite of beefy, highly engineered components: aluminum squeeze-cast control rods, rear axle tube shafts that are thicker and of a higher grade steel than on Super Duty trucks, upgraded hydro-mounts for the engine, microcellular jounce bumpers, high-strength steel for the rear lower shock mounts and more heat shields.

To top it off there's a unique skid plate package and a full-sized spare hanging out back. The spare is black, not grey like the standard wheels, because of the government mandate on non-TPMS-fitted wheels. Outside, the running boards are cast aluminum and coated in a Rhinoliner-like material, and they flex instead of bending irretrievably.

The wheels are 17-inches in diameter, and SVT didn't want to go any bigger because they wanted the tallest possible sidewalls for the 35-inch BF Goodrich All Terrain tires. Those BFGs, while made in the same molds -- and carrying the same tread pattern -- as traditional BFGs, have a unique compound. SVT found that the standard compound didn't work well in mud and snow, which would be a huge obstacle to Midwestern buyers (and the Michigan-based SVT workers themselves), so they worked with BFG and changed the thickness, belt angle, and compound to create a tire that could handle actual seasons and not make a lot of noise while doing it. With all that, the tires are just $200 each to replace.

Inside, it's mammoth. The seats are custom, more highly bolstered to attend to off-road jostling, but the cabin is large enough for a whale pod. The orange trim is unique, and the steering wheel gets an orange center mark to keep you apprised of what's happening up front. There are also auxiliary switches included so you don't have to patch-job them in when you want to add two light bars.

The Raptor only comes in four colors: orange, black, white and blue. The orange-accented interior trim is available as an option on the orange and black exterior-colored versions. Otherwise you get a gray metallic treatment, which we liked just because we're low-key like that, but the orange isn't bad. For the outside, we prefer black. The Raptor is a machine of function, and like most such things, it isn't, to our eyes, a looker. It is cool and awesome and badass and all that – it just isn't the most handsome thing around.

The Raptor rides 9.8 inches high, and because it's seven inches wider, the DOT mandates that it have marker lights. The two out back are red and on the rear fenders; in front the amber array sits atop the grille.

It took about 20 minutes of driving on the roads for us to figure out the urban-route Raptor: it's an F-150. The additional hours we spent behind the wheel on highways, B-roads and serpentine mountainside roads didn't change our minds. With 320 hp and 390 lb-ft from the 5.4-liter, three-valve SOHC engine working through a six-speed transmission, the truck has decent pace. Weighing in at 5,863 pounds, the engine has to put in some effort when you want quick maneuvers, but again, it just feels like a truck.

On the outside, though, it does sound very good. Hit the gas and it roars like a modded truck. On the other hand, inside all you'll get is the sound of a regular F-150.

Of course, that's also meant to be part of the triumph of the Raptor -- it drives like an F-150, not like a desert-eating monster. Even though it's huge inside, from behind the wheel it doesn't feel seven inches wider. Stopping at a 7-11 for coffee, we didn't notice the extra width when pulling in between two cars. The BF Goodrich tires don't roar. The suspension, especially that foot of travel out back, does well on roads – you don't float, nor do you get your brains beaten out by stiffness. On those serpentine roads it understeers pretty quickly if you decide to put it to the test, but again, it's a three-ton truck. There's a bit of bustle out back with an empty bed and rough roads, however the big brakes never cried for mercy and were reassuring at keeping everything under control.

It was the off-road portion of the event where we discovered equal parts praise and lament for the Raptor. The off-road vehicle ecosystem, as with every other, is changing; more vehicles can go more places more easily. The profusion of off-road driving aids means that much of the time, all you need do to tackle a tricky bit of trail is stay alive and steer. What used to require getting out, manually locking hubs, shifting gears and transfer cases, and then paying minute attention to line and throttle is now addressed with the flick of a knob and the common sense to put your coffee back in the cupholder.

Allow us the latitude to compare the Raptor to the Porsche 997. Twenty-five years ago, if you could pilot your 911 in serious anger – heaven forbid it was a turbo – over a snaking bit of road with which you weren't familiar and not end up ass-end forward, you had done something. Now a guy in an automatic 997 could do that same stretch of road faster while making dinner reservations and changing his XM presets and, Gott in Himmel, braking mid-corner. The scale of progress and the ability for Mr. Average to do what were once momentous things is impressive. The loss of that former frightening thrill does make us lament just the teensiest, tiniest bit.

After a day kicking up all kinds of Anza Borrego dust, the Raptor is to those previous modes of high-speed off-road running what the 997 is to the classic 911. What's more, it is to other hardcore off-road trucks what the 997 is to other sports cars. Yes, we said it. And we've spent a week debating and thinking about it. That's our finding.

The Raptor's central function is to travel quickly over the desert, and it does that brilliantly. Our tiny bit of nostalgia for those earlier days resides in the fact that if you haven't ripped through the desert in a truck devoid of aids, like an old Trooper or CJ-5, you'd have little idea of just what you were doing – rather, of just how much the Raptor was doing for you. Point the Raptor, hit the gas. Grab a cool drink at the end of the drive.

All right, so it's not exactly that mindless, but close enough when compared to How it Used to Be in the Olden Days. The Raptor's packing 11.2 inches of travel in front, 12.1 in back. Massive credit for how that travel is used has to go to the engineer at Fox who came up with a set of triple interior-bypass shocks that keep the truck balanced while the wheels do what they need to do. The three-stage shocks get progressively firmer, and also rebound progressively; combined with the generous suspension travel, the shocks have a wide enough window to firm up and release without hitting the proverbial wall of stiffness. The result means that you don't bounce around the way you would expect – you just ride over rough roads, you aren't being pelted. We were told that the oil alone in the Fox shock costs more than another complete shock assembly.

The most common wish was for more power. That's coming in the form of the SOHC, dual VVT 6.2-liter V8 at the end of this year.
Again, that shock and suspension setup works both ways, which is really what makes it where the Raptor's Wizard of Oz lives. Get a wheel, or all of them, off the ground and they don't just shoot back to the end of their travel. They progressively return. In high-amplitude situations, the wheels aren't being utterly victimized by two forces at once: rapid and extreme rebound crashing up against forceful compression.

The desert doesn't present a single terrain: berms, washboard, silt beds, dunes, rocks, ruts and holes all mix it up together. There are some fantastic vehicles that are very good for a number of those terrains. And to be honest, most trucks out there could cover all the ground we covered. A Wrangler Rubicon would be hideous overkill if you just wanted to cover terra firma. But none of them, at least none that we've been in, could do what the Raptor does as quickly and as comfortably as we did it. Held back so that we wouldn't hurt ourselves, we did whoop-de-doos at 35-40 mph. Given a hot lap with one of the Raptor test drivers, we were doing them at 60-65 mph and above. In Baja you'd want a buggy for that kind of work.

But then you'd be in the hurt when it came to beds of sand and the wide-open stretches. No such word as "hurt" exists for the Raptor. Sand was a laugh. Open stretches were invitations to see how fast your SVT co-pilot would let you go. On that hot lap we did 100 mph more than once. And it was exciting, sure – but it felt about as difficult as drinking tea. That's how good the Raptor is.

And we spent the entire day in two-wheel-drive.

Beyond that there were two features of the truck that stuck out. There are several different settings for the Off-Road Mode that works in conjunction with AdvanceTrac and ABS. You can't turn the ABS off, but there is an off-road setting for the ABS. Press the Off-Road button, and the throttle mapping and transmission programs are recalibrated. Press the AdvanceTrac button after that, and you get an Off-Road Sport mode that tells the Raptor you need some latitude when it comes to wheelspin, sliding and braking. The difference stood out most in the sand, when the truck let you slide around more, yet unlike some other off-road systems we've sampled, it didn't just cut power if it decided you needed help. There are vehicles out there that force you to make a devil's bargain between maintaining a conservative line or getting bogged down in the sand by the supposed driver's aids. The Raptor does not.

The ABS braking is also altered slightly. It relaxes a bit so that when you make a hard stop, the wheels will lock up some and allow sand to build up in front of them, shortening the braking distance.

The other feature we noted was Hill Descent. The same as on the F-150, it offers the kind of control we like. As opposed to a set speed or speeds, you control how fast you go, up to 20 mph. Once you let off the gas the Raptor holds that speed. If you hit the accelerator again, the Raptor holds that new speed. Hit the brake, the Raptor then holds that speed.

Keeping in mind what the Raptor is – an F-150 – it is hard to find anything wrong with it. The most common wish was for more power. That's coming in the form of the SOHC, dual VVT 6.2-liter V8 at the end of this year. The jump to 400 hp and 400 lb-ft (both numbers are estimates for now) will give the Raptor a welcome dose of dig-deep power. Still, the request for more grunt was usually phrased as "It could use more power," or "I'd like the 6.2," but we never heard it put "It needs more power." The 5.4 is better than fine; the 6.2 will be simply better.

It is so much more than Built Ford Tough. It's Built Raptor Good.
We'd also like to see some grab handles over all the windows, including the folks in back. There's a handle on the A-pillar for the passenger, but that's it. The steering wheel, while great to grab, is huge. It's an F-150 wheel, wrapped in two different coverings, and it's fine enough, but we'd fit something a little smaller.

When we asked some SVT folks what they would do if they were going to take the Raptor up a step, the only thing mentioned was installing a limited-slip diff in front. Of course, they're happy with the setup as is, but if you were looking for a modification, that's all anyone in-house could recommend.

The Raptor was designed in and for the Anza Borrego terrain. The truck performed beautifully, but after three years of constant testing over the same courses we drove, the only surprise would be if it didn't do well. We want to get a Raptor in some other desert elements, and in some situations that it wasn't purpose-built for, slow off-road environments like rock crawling and mud. Then we'll see where the Raptor really stands.

Nevertheless, there is one final Raptor feature that inclines us to think that as long as it's at least capable in other environments, there is nothing else that can beat it as a comprehensive vehicle: the price. The 5.4-liter Raptor starts at $38,995, which includes the destination charge. The coming 6.2-liter adds a few grand more at $41,995. If you built up a truck yourself to Raptor specs it would be tough to match those numbers, and then you wouldn't get the expertise of teams of engineers making sure it all works together properly, nor the warranty that comes with it. For $39K you get an F-150 with a 1,000-pound payload capacity and 6,000-pound towing capacity that doubles as a beginner's guide to trophy truck driving – but still acts like an F-150.

The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor is so much more than merely Built Ford Tough. It's Built Raptor Good. And for that, we applaud them-and shed a tear and tip a glass to The Good Old Days...

All photos copyright Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs Inc.

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