Chevrolet Silverado HDs are made for towing and hauling. HUMMERs are made for off-roading. But what's the purpose of the new 2010 Ford SVT Raptor? Is this just a plain F-150 with a fru-fru trim package made up of big wheels and a stick-on graphics package? Or could this the world's newest super truck?

Those who know trucks will recognize these models that qualify as past honorees of the super truck world: Dodge's Little Red Express, the Chevy Silverado SS 454, the GMC Syclone, the Dodge Ram SRT/10, or two generations of Ford's F-150 Lightning. These trucks oozed performance, and all delivered with a ferocity that would leave most muscle cars in their dust.

But the 2010 Ford SVT Raptor doesn't look anything like these aforementioned super trucks. These were mostly hunkered-down trucks with low-profile tires, and dropped suspensions. They delivered optimal performance on pavement.

In contrast, the Raptor's body sits high, perched on aggressive off-road tires that would just as soon pummel asphalt in pea-size pebbles than roll smoothly over it. But does this truck deliver what its looks promise?

Ford Builds A Desert Racer
While every past super truck was designed for driving on paved roads and tracks, the SVT Raptor promises to literally fly across the surface of the desert. What would motivate Ford Motor Company to introduce such a different kind of super truck?

The answer is threefold. The first is that high-performance trucks attract attention to the entire line of F-Series trucks. Ford's marketing people like this. A second reason is that Ford employs engineers who genuinely love performance. Those engineers aren't shy about offering up ideas on what's they'd like to see in Ford showrooms. The third is that hi-po street trucks have been done before. Ford didn't want to simply microwave warm up an old idea.

Taken all together, these points formed a rationale that helped point Ford toward a new kind of high-performance truck.

Ford's collection of speed-crazed engineers goes by the name of SVT (Special Vehicle Team). This group was responsible for past Lighting pickup trucks, as well as the Ford GT supercar, and the recently released Shelby GT500 Mustang.

The face of SVT is their chief engineer, Jamal Hameedi. He said, "We saw where the truck market was going, and doing another high-performance street truck wasn't the best idea. We needed to do something original, and we wanted something that a different owner segment of the trucking world would appreciate." SVT decided to focus on the fans and participants of desert racing.

Racing trucks, dune buggies, and ATVs through the desert is a popular activity in the Southwest. Off-road races are common in California and Nevada, as well as on Mexico's Baja peninsula. Plus, these states have hundreds of thousands of acres of public land that are open to off-road recreational vehicles. Like a racetrack is for a Shelby GT500, these areas provide a safe place let vehicles like the Raptor stretch their legs.

Raptor's Talons
Manufacturers have offered off-road packages on their trucks for decades. Equipment usually includes skid plates, bigger tires, differently calibrated dampers (shock absorbers and/or struts), and maybe some extra driveline cooling. Packages like these often improve low-speed off-roading capabilities, but compromise higher-speed on-road driving with mushy steering response and a floppy, unpleasant ride.

SVT went much farther with their Raptor. The team's goal was to create a truck that could be driven off road like a Baja pre-race runner while retaining a civil on-road ride. It also had to pass durability tests so that it could carry a full Ford warranty.

Suspension travel is key to running fast in the desert. The Raptor has approximately 50-percent more travel than a standard 4x4 pickup. To achieve wheel travel of 11.2 inches in front and 12.1 inches at the rear, Ford widened the track of the base F-150 Super Cab by seven inches. This allowed for greater articulation with stock suspension pick-up points. As proof of the standard F-150's toughness, the stock frame could more than handle the added stresses, so it remains unchanged.

Ford tapped an aftermarket supplier to help with the design of the Raptor's shock absorbers. FOX Racing Shox engineered and produces the ultra-heavy-duty shocks for the Raptor that look like something built for NASA. These special shocks can absorb huge inputs (like the truck going over riverbeds at 80 mph) without letting the wheels smash into the body. A good thing, to be sure.

Huge BF Goodrich TA/KO 315/70 35-inch tires surround 17-inch alloy wheels. The tires feature a special tread compound and pattern that provides impressive grip and surprisingly great road feel, a completely unexpected combination.

Underbody armor is standard, with a substantial skid plate up front, plus a second unit under the transfer case. Other special hardware includes an electronically locking rear differential, a seriously recalibrated stability control program (with special controls for off-road driving), and practical hill decent control that makes going down steep grades much safer.

The New Wrapper
A nearly all-new body wraps around the Raptor's wider stance; a full eight inches wider than a base F-150. At 86.3-inches, it nearly matches the width of HUMMER H1, and requires additional marker lights to comply with DOT regulations. The front fenders and hood are made from sheet-molded compound (a plastic polymer), as are the rear fenders.

The semi-Frenched headlights showcase the truck's width, which it wears well. The big FORD grill even looks reasonable in this setting. The headlights, however, are stock F-150 units.

Inside, the excellent front seats that were new on the 2009 F-150 provide even more comfort and lateral support. Bigger bolsters work to keep you in your place whether you're shooting off-ramps or dry riverbeds. Lots of interior choice keeps things interesting, including orange appliqu?and special SVT gauges. Room in the rear of the extended cab isn't huge, but it's adequate for shorter trips or for carrying extra gear.

The trickest interior piece is the leather-wrapped steering wheel with the red stripe at twelve-o'clock high. This visual is especially helpful when off-roading because it tells you when your front wheels are pointed straight.

Being that it is an F-150, all of Ford's modern electronic gadgets are available, including SYNC and a full-featured navigation system with Sirius Travel Link. This system provides real-time reporting of local gas prices, sports scores and more, plus the ability to view local weather and instant weather radar maps.

At first glance, the SVT Raptor looks to be an alternative to the formidable HUMMER H3T. The HUMMER is a great off-road truck in the traditional sense. At a walking pace, the H3T can conquer almost any obstacle. But on the road, the H3T is largely unpleasant to drive. The steering is slow and the suspension feels rubbery.

The SVT Raptor is nothing like the H3T on the road. Surprisingly, it drives smaller than its huge size would suggest. The engine is Ford's familiar 5.4-liter Triton V-8. Short 4.10 gears put the engine's 310 horsepower to good use, so the Raptor feels ready to strike even in city environs.

A 400-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8 is coming sometime after the New Year. While the standard Triton isn't slow, the Raptor would feel even better with more power. Weighing in at a substantial 5,863 lbs., the Raptor can use every horsepower it can get. The transmission backing either engine is a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

In town, the ride is surprisingly comfortable, but it's on the highway and two-lanes where the SVT's engineering magic becomes more evident. Trucks aren't known for their sport-car like handling-and the Raptor is no sport car- but it can be enthusiastically tossed into corners with satisfying results.

Also important to everyday driving is the noise of the big BFGs. They're as quiet as a standard on-road truck tire, which given their huge size and aggressive tread pattern, comes most unexpectedly.

Our only significant complaint about the Raptor's on-road ride comes with this type of pickup body style. The wide body-side opening (for the front and rear doors) and wheelbase (shorter than the limousine-like crew cabs) can't fully eliminate giggly ride motions. On some road surfaces, they get annoying.

If you've ever driven a car or truck on a gravel road and encountered a washboard surface, your vehicle turns into a virtual paint shaker. If you drive fast enough for long enough, the suspension will literally fail because the shocks or struts overheat. Vibrations transmitted through the suspension to the body may also cause parts to actually fall off

Now, take this experience and mentally map it up by a factor of 100, and you can begin to approximate what it's like driving through the desert at over 80 mph. Nothing can prepare your mind for the physical experience not even a really good video game.

Ford's demonstration course for the automotive press ran through public land set aside for vehicular recreational use in Southern California's Borrego desert. Our high-speed "track" traversed a 22-mile loop of dry riverbeds and flats with surfaces ranging from loose silt to hard-packed sand.

Beyond absorbing whoopties and all manner of surface elevation changes, the Raptor's suspension proved its mettle several times in big ways. The one that sticks in your author's memory was when he missed a turn on the course. The error, steering correction, and resulting power slide put the tires on a 45 collision course with a substantial ridge created by a recent storm runoff. I braced for the impact and quickly wondered how many times the truck would barrel roll after the tires were knocked off the handsome aluminum rims.

My navigator and I felt the impact. The Raptor couldn't have cared less. The tires and suspension absorbed the shunt with no change in direction or upset to the chassis. The truck seemed to skate over the ridge.

Attempting anything like what we did in the Raptor with a normal four-wheel drive truck would be stupid. Its suspension would beat itself to pieces and major driveline components would spin themselves into tangled masses.

Ford's Special Vehicle Team succeeded in creating a truck that is unique in market. While it may be aimed at desert racers, the Raptor's style and performance will likely lure buyers from other markets, especially where there is snow and/or frozen lakes to run on.

The base SVT Raptor starts at $39,000, just $2500 more than a similarly equipped F-150 SX4 that doesn't have nearly the same off-road capabilities or style. Plus, the Raptor can still tow 6,000 lbs., so none of a regular F-150's practical capacities are compromised.

While not a new-generation Ford Lightning, the 2010 SVT Raptor certainly earned its way into the ranks of the super trucks.

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