Off-roading, in a way, is the last bastion of the un-smart car. While pavement gearheads have long embraced modern things like ABS, traction control, adaptive suspensions and computer-controlled differentials, your average off-road rig is about as digital as a shovel. Enthusiasts like it that way—there's a reason why the Jeep Wrangler, with its four-wheel-drive system operated by a stick, is ubiquitous in the world of 4x4s.
The all-new 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor takes a different approach. With its twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 and drive mode selector controlling where it sends its torque, the Raptor steers the modern sports car paradigm off the tarmac and into the dunes. Think of it as an off-road Nissan GT-R—a truck that, like today's high-end performance coupes, offers unprecedented performance by doing most of the thinking for you.
The sports car ethos goes to the Raptor's very bones. It's stiffer (via high-strength steel reinforcement to the heavy-duty frame) and lighter (aluminum bodywork shaves up to 500 lbs. from the previous model). A steering wheel rocker switch calls up six different drive modes: Normal, Sport, Weather, Mud/Sand, Baja, and Rock Crawl.
On the street, Normal lives up to the name, activating the truck's stop-start fuel saver and shifting the 10-speed auto to keep the revs polite. We need speak of this no more. Dial up Sport, and the throttle response sharpens, the shift points rise, the electric-assist steering firms up, and this desert-bashing truck becomes a genuine hoot on the pavement. The EcoBoost engine delivers its 450 horses and 510 lb-ft of torque from way down low on the tach, with only an eye-blink of turbo lag. Measured by my well-calibrated posterior, I'd estimate the thing can do 0-60 in the low-to-mid six-second range, making decent, stereo-enhanced noises in the process.
On the mountain roads of Borrego Springs, California, the Raptor dismantled most of my expectations of how a lifted, big-tired 4x4 should handle. There's body roll, sure, and despite all that "military-grade" aluminum bodywork, you still feel the heft of the thing. But thanks to the Raptor's added track width and excellent grip from the astoundingly quiet 315/70R17 BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2s, the mountain run was entertaining, not terrifying.
Credit goes to the tires, with a brand-new tread design and compound chosen specifically for the Raptor. But the real magic here is the dampers. Fox Racing Shox provides the three-inch diameter internal-bypass units, firm at the extremes of their travel and soft in the middle, the better to absorb high-speed off-road hits without wallowing on the street. Like any truck, the Raptor's rear axle judders a little on well-worn pavement, and pushed to the inadvisable limit this truck will murder its outside-front tire in understeer. But the rest of the time it's admirably well-controlled. Adjust your internal gyros, and the body motion becomes fun, the nose rearing on acceleration like a sloshy old muscle car.
But you don't buy this thing for the highway slog (or, at least, you shouldn't). Ford has spent a ton of time convincing us that this is the all-around performance truck, the one vehicle that's just at home rock crawling as it is blasting full speed through the desert.
Key in this are the six Terrain Modes. Normal and Sport keep the combination 4WD/AWD transfer case in two-wheel drive. Weather engages 4Auto, which acts like a car's all-wheel drive system, apportioning torque to the axle with grip. Mud/Sand selects 4High, which locks the transfer case, engages the electronic rear diff locker, and softens the steering effort. Baja uses 4High and keeps the turbos spinning with higher shift points—and dedicated anti-lag programming like you find in the Ford GT. Rock Crawl shifts the t-case into 4Low and locks the rear diff. Each mode features unique throttle response mapping and traction/stability control settings, and you can still use the 4x4 rotary switch and locker and traction control on/off switches to fine-tune.
"In the prior-gen Raptor, a lot of people weren't using the right settings, or they didn't know how to use the right settings," Jamal Hameedi, Chief Engineer at Ford Performance, told me. "Now, all you have to do is choose the terrain that you're in. You don't have to touch the 4x4 switch, it will do everything for you, and put you in the optimum setting."
It's uncanny. Clicking into Baja mode for a high-speed blast through the desert kept the engine at a steady 3500rpm boil. The 10-speed transmission downshifted aggressively under braking, but never hunted for gears as we rocketed across washes at highway speeds. The suspension swallowed up long undulations and spine-rattling whoops without pitching or bottoming out; the truck never invoked stability control or ABS, no matter how much countersteer or full-lock braking I tossed at it, as long as it didn't seem like I was out of control.
Street dweebs won't comprehend what an accomplishment this is, but anyone who's fought with a modern 4x4's digital nannies will immediately understand.
The same was true in Mud/Sand mode, where the locked rear and optional Torsen front differential helped the big brute claw its way up a loose, shifting dune with aplomb. Softer throttle response kept the truck from digging foxholes, while the increased steering assist saved my forearms. And on a rough, technical rock path at the other end of the park, Rock Crawl mode let the Raptor grunt its way over keg-size boulders, no sweat. In low range, the 10-speed transmission is a joy—whether you're grunting along in 3rd gear at 6mph or 6th gear at 15, it keeps the engine right around 2500rpm, perfect for delivering torque when needed without bringing an unexpected wallop of twin-turbo horsepower to throw you off your line.
Paddle shifters? It's got 'em. Leave them be. With driveline-preserving programming that delays all but the most mellow downshift and kills boost if you bounce off the 6000 rpm redline, shifting for yourself is a confusing hindrance. And in the rocks and sand, the trans knows exactly what it's doing, always. It'll hold a gear to redline, downshift three cogs, or keep the revs right in the fat part of the powerband, all with psychic precision. Believe me: Unless you're a tractor-trailer driver, your brain isn't used to shuffling through this many gears. Leave it to the truck and you won't get lost.
And that's the whole thing with the Raptor: For a novice, as long as you're not asking it to do something impossible for a truck with its dimensions—especially its breakover angle, 21.8 degrees with the four-door cab, 22.9 degrees with the shorter SuperCab—it'll do it better if you get out of its way. Trust the dial, and you won't find yourself scrambling to shift to 4Hi when you top out in 4Lo, or puzzling over whether you should lock the diff, or wrestling with stability control halfway through a mud pit.
I'm not sure how I feel about this. Part of the joy of off-roading has always been its indifference to posers. Any punk with money can slap a longarm kit and giant gnarly tires on a truck, but putting that stuff to work off-road takes genuine skill. With a truck as smart as the Raptor, some of that skill requirement dissipates.
When the first generation of super-smart performance cars came out—the GT-Rs and all-wheel-drive 911 Turbos and the like—some of us crowed about how the cars made chumps look like heroes on the racetrack. I'm not so sure the same won't happen for the new Raptor. It's a foolish complaint, criticizing a specialized, high-performance vehicle for being too good at its intended task.
But most off-roaders are pretty stuck in their ways. Just look at their rigs. And anything that can help make off-roading more accessible can't necessarily be all bad. Breeding a new generation of off road enthusiasts is just what we need. And if the Raptor can help, we're all for it.