The 2010 Ford SVT Raptor (Ford).

Somebody at Ford Motor Company is either nuts or has got serious guts. How do you explain the existence of the 2010 SVT Raptor, a pickup truck that's about as politically incorrect as a vehicle can be in these green-focused, recessionary times? Second on the chutzpah scale is that the company has just released another larger and more powerful engine for the truck, a 6.2-liter, 411-horsepower V8.

This wild truck is a product of a small group of engineers within Ford called the Special Vehicle Team (SVT). This assemblage has long been responsible for creating the highest-performance vehicles sold by Ford in the U.S., like the Shelby GT500 Mustang. These are classified as attention-getting, low-volume "halo" vehicles that add flash to Ford's vehicle lineup, ostensibly drawing customers to dealer showrooms. When SVT went looking for their next new vehicle idea, they saw an opportunity that Ford seemed perfectly suited to execute: No other manufacturer had ever built an ultra high-performance, off-road truck. This was virgin territory that could earn Ford props among truck lovers as well as off-road racers.

Introduced last September, the 2010 Raptor is what they came up with. We first drove the all-new Raptor in California's desolate and unforgiving Borrego Desert. There, we experienced the Raptor's mind-bending off-road capabilities. More practical experience came when we had the Raptor in our Detroit fleet for a week. It proved amenable to carrying out day-to-dry driving duties. This is not a one-trick truck.

The 2010 Ford SVT Raptor (Ford).

Both driving environments revealed that the base 310-horsepower, 5.4-liter V-8 produced barely enough power for the three-ton truck. But SVT had a plan. As muscle car enthusiasts are apt to say, "There's no replacement for displacement." In other words, if you want more power, get a bigger engine.

That's exactly what SVT just delivered. Now available as a $3,000 option, the Raptor can be equipped with Ford's newest truck-oriented V-8. The 6.2-liter was developed and introduced in the 2011 Super Duty. SVT engineers gave the new engine even more power in the Raptor by modifying the engine's overhead cams, recalibrating the engine for premium fuel, and changing the engine's cooling fan from a belt-driven mechanical one to a more efficient electric. The result is 411-horsepower, up from 385 hp. Importantly, torque is also up to 434 lb-ft from 405. Running regular octane results in a drop to 401 hp, but won't damage the engine.

All Raptors send engine power to a six-speed automatic transmission. The center differential has three shift-on-the-fly modes; two-wheel drive with just the rear wheels powered, four-wheel-drive high, and four-wheel-drive low. To keep the huge 35-inch Goodyear All-Terrain tires spinning, the stout 9-3/4-inch rear axle features short 4.11 gears.

Sophisticated electronic driving aids add to the truck's capabilities. The Raptor's Advance Trac system includes a sport mode that is specially calibrated for off-road driving and can work in concert with an electrically locking rear differential. Standard hill decent control works in drive as well as reverse, providing an extra measure of safety descending steep grades.

The 2010 Ford SVT Raptor (Ford).

Given its inherent capabilities, the Raptor greedily absorbed the 6.2-liter's additional power. At Ford's 3,000-acre test facility in rural Romeo, Michigan, the truck certainly felt livelier. The extra power was especially welcomed in the heavy mud we experienced on the off-road trails.

Ford even had us driving over two jumps on one of the off-road courses we navigated. Depending on how much speed you carried onto the gravel ramps, the Raptor flew as far as 20 yards. Landings became more brutal as the day wore on because the tires created ruts in the landing zone. The raised center hump attempted to cave in the truck's front skid plate, but never succeeded. The Raptor couldn't have cared less, seemingly enjoying the brutal pounding as much as we did. Don't get any ideas about trying this at home in your own stock pickup.

The Raptor's impressive suspension travel (11.2-inches front, 12.1-inches rear – about double what you'd find in a standard pickup) is the key enabler to this type performance. SVT nearly doubled the F-150's stock suspension travel by using a wider track, thereby increasing the distance of the suspension's articulation. SVT engineers relied on off-road specialist FOX Racing Shox to develop the truck's front and rear shock absorbers. Standard production shock absorbers fail after a few miles of washboard roads or fast travel over rough terrain. Not the special heavy-duty units in the Raptor.

The 2010 Ford SVT Raptor (Ford).

On paved roads, anyone familiar with today's best pickups can feel how differently the Raptor handles and steers. One consequence of added ground clearance and the long-travel suspension is that the truck feels soft and floaty. While it steers accurately and tracks well, it doesn't impart the same direct feeling that you get in a regular pickup.

With the standard 5.4-liter V8 engine, the Raptor gets 14-mpg city and 18-mpg highway. The newly available 6.2-liter V8 should get even worse mileage, but because the truck weighs over 6,000 pounds, no official mpg numbers are published.

Apparently, these are compromises that thousands of truck buyers are willing to make. Ford told us it had sold or had firm orders for more than 7,000 Raptors. More than 3,000 orders were for 6.2-liter units even though the truck is identical to the 5.4-liter units; there's not even a badge to identify the larger engine.

Of course, for those in the know, that SVT badge has already said enough.

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