Building a vehicle that is quiet and comfortable when traveling at 60 mph is hardly an impressive feat. These days, it’s pretty much par for the course -- unless the course is a sandy arroyo with a washboard surface peppered by large rocks, and the vehicle is a Ford pickup truck.
The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor is the strangest bird to come out of Detroit in a long time. As close as you'll get to a showroom stock desert racing truck, it is the first of its kind from a major manufacturer, and flies in the face of today's fuel efficient, save-the-planet carmaking conventions.
Developed by Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT), an in-house performance unit better known for its work on the Shelby Mustangs, the Raptor was designed with one purpose: to go like stink, anywhere.
Built on the same assembly line as the standard F-150, the Raptor gets a special suspension and a suite of electronic goodies that would make a Stepside toss its gun rack out the back window in a jealous rage.
The changes underneath are apparent before you even look into the wheel wells. The Raptor's body is eight inches wider than the stock F-150, with a seven-inch-wider track front and rear. To accommodate this sideways stretch, it has big, bulging composite fenders up front, and steel ones sticking out from the sides of the bed. There is so much added girth that, by law, the Raptor requires marker lights, which are integrated into the Ford billboard that passes for a grille.
Besides offering increased lateral stability, the suspension has 11.2 inches of wheel travel in front, and over a foot in the rear. Impressive, but not unprecedented. The remarkable thing here is what the truck does with it.
The Raptor has custom Fox shocks that use a unique triple bypass design that makes the dampers get stiffer as they compress, so they can take a substantial beating from bumps without bottoming out. Think of how your legs work when you land after a jump, there's lots of movement at first but gradually you flex your muscles to avoid snapping your knees. It’s the same basic principle, but a lot more fun in a truck.
I'm far from a seasoned desert off-roader, but over the course of a 22-mile loop through California's Anza-Borrego desert, including long stretches of whoop-de-doos that would have been difficult to walk over, let alone barrel through at high speeds, the suspension never hit its bump stops, despite my best, unintentional efforts. On the flat sections, an electronic locking rear differential that operates up to the Raptor's limited top speed of 100 mph makes doing heroic powerslides a breeze.
Short of running it straight into the 10-foot wall of a dry riverbed, the Raptor is as unstoppable as it is unflappable. The suspension eats up rough surfaces so well that if you let off of the gas pedal it barely slows down. It's like cruising to a stop at a toll booth on freshly-laid asphalt.
For times when you need to decelerate more abruptly than that, a selectable off-road mode adjusts the anti-lock brakes so that they actually do lock up a little. That might sound counterintuitive, but on loose surfaces it lets the tires dig in to brush off speed more effectively. The setting also changes the way the transmission shifts, but not quite enough.
The Raptor features the same 6-speed automatic that comes with every F-150 fitted with Ford's 310 horsepower 5.4 liter V8, which it also has. In the real world the pairing is fine, but in the Baja 1000 fantasy camp that surrounds the Raptor wherever it goes you always want more, and you want it now. As it is, there's no manual shifting option, and, like most automatics, the transmission is a little slow to downshift, sometimes achingly so. Leaving it in Tow/Haul mode, which makes it hold gears longer and kick down when you tap the brakes, helps some, but it just seems wrong using it unless you have a trailer full of extreme sports enthusiasts attached to the hitch.
The engine is flex-fuel, however, and when you run it on E85 the output increases to 320 hp, while torque jumps from 365 lb-ft to 390 lb-ft, so there's adequate power on tap, eventually. But if that's still not enough for you, sometime next year Ford will be offering the option of a 400 hp 6.2L V8. Until then, just get up to speed and revel in that unstoppable momentum.
Given the chance, you will. Often and for long periods of time. The Raptor has the least-punishing ride of any vehicle approaching its capabilities, and the interior is as plush as they come. The leather and cloth-trimmed seats are substantially comfortable, and conspired with the suspension to coddle my backside so well I was ready to do 10 laps of that loop if I’d been given the chance.
On the other hand, switching it into 4x4 low and heading for the hills was a lot of fun, too. While rock crawling is far from the Raptor's primary mission, those shocks and tires are as good for getting you over boulders and serious blue sky-steep inclines as they are for tearing it up between the dunes. For the trip down the other side, the Raptor has a unique hill descent control system that uses the brakes to hold it at whatever speed you choose. Just lift your foot off the throttle and it moseys on down while you handle the steering. I took on a slope that would make a good black diamond run if it was covered in snow, and the Raptor never flinched. If you wimp out on the way up, the system also works in reverse.
By the way, on a nice paved highway at 60 mph, the Raptor is quiet and comfortable. Even better, driving along the switchback road that makes its way up the 3000 rise from the desert floor in Borrego Springs to San Felipe, the big truck handled as well as just about any pickup has a right to, even with those giant off-road tires. All of that wheel travel is held completely under control, which probably isn't a surprise after seeing what the suspension can do under extreme conditions.
Since the Raptor is at heart a run-of-the-mill F-150, plenty of features and creature comforts are available. There’s Ford’s voice activated Sync technology, navigation, a Sony satellite audio system, and four pre-wired auxiliary switches on the center console to hook up all of your off-road bling, like spotlights and winches.
Why Ford decided it needed to make something like the Raptor right now is beyond comprehension, but they have created a nearly perfect tool for the task at hand. It's so good at what it does that the San Diego County Sherrif's office has ordered a few to use as desert patrol vehicles, and the U.S. Border Patrol is also interested in picking up a couple. Unfortunately for the guys and girls in Homeland Security, the U.S. General Services Administration has deemed the Raptor too luxurious for your tax dollars to buy, in its current form, what with all the leather and stuff.
Let’s see if SVT is as good at taking stuff out of it as they are putting it in.
Base Price: $38,995
Type: Front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 2+2-door pickup truck.
Engine: 5.4L V8
Power: 310 hp, 365 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 14 city/18 hwy
Tow rating: 6,000 lbs
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.