Desert sports car
Ford's Raptor pickup can hold its own on ragged trails
By Mark Maynard
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
Raptor is eight inches wider at the front than a standard F-150 and has a 7-inch wider track, with a unique, sheet-molded plastic front end from the windshield pillars forward. The front bumper is hydroformed steel with 4.5mm thick skid plates protecting vital parts. From the cab rearward is basically an F-150 FX4, with a full line of convenience and comfort features. -
2:00 a.m. September 12, 2009
Twenty-two miles in 25 minutes isn't a commute time worth bragging about -- but it's a brisk clip behind the wheel of a Ford Raptor on the San Felipe Wash of the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.
Ford was at the off-road area recently for the media debut of its V-8 powered Raptor SVT, a modified F-150 pickup. This truck has no fear of going a mile a minute -- and much faster -- over the ruts and rocks of the desert. I had some high-speed off-road runs, climbing exercises and nearly 150 miles on road in this specialty truck, whose highlight is a sophisticated, new shock absorber system by Fox Racing Shox of San Diego.
Driving 60 and 65 miles an hour on such rocky, ragged trails is unsafe and largely impossible in a public-access area, but Ford held the event on a closed course with numerous vehicle spotters and helicopter support. There were no accidents, injuries or even a blown tire in four waves of North American auto writers.
Thousands of San Diegans know the runs of Ocotillo Wells as well as their neighborhood streets. And now, so does Ford's Special Vehicle Team, which has been hiding out in our desert for the past three years developing Raptor into an ultimate prerunner. The team did much of its engineering work and trail driving at a privately owned facility near the off-road area and would travel back and forth between their Arizona proving grounds near Phoenix.
The San Diego desert has more variation in terrain than the sand in Arizona and it's similar to Baja California, where the team entered a Raptor last year in Class 8 of the Baja 1000. In near production form, it finished the race and was third in class, competing among some trucks that are, essentially, tube-frame racers with just remnants of a production vehicle appearance.
Baja race teams build prerunners similar in ability to Raptor for $500,000. The turn-key Ford model starts at $38,995 for the 5.4-liter model. A 400-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 goes on sale later this year for $41,995 with no additional features.
This is the first off-road truck for SVT, which has been known for its high-performance street vehicles, including the Lightning pickup. Its latest street car is the 540-horsepower, 2010 GT500 Shelby, so it is no stretch for this team of about a dozen engineers (male and female and all car enthusiasts) to put their know-how into a high-speed off-roader.
Ford calls Raptor purpose built for off-road, but road friendly. I call it a sports car for the desert, but with a 6,000-pound trailer capacity and 1,000-pound payload. Stopping power is absolute with 13.8-inch vented front discs, 13.7-inch vented rear.
Raptor is eight inches wider than a standard F-150 with a 7-inch wider track. The in-your-face front end is sheet-molded plastic from the windshield pillars forward. The front bumper is hydroformed steel with 4.5mm thick skid plates protecting vital parts. From the cab rearward is basically an F-150 FX4, with a full line of convenience and comfort features.
The wider track enhances stability. Fox Racing Shox control the ride. The company was tasked to create a shock absorber system that was comfortable on-road but also superior off-road — able to make table-top jumps without leaving parts behind.
“Fox Shox have the best hardware you can buy,” said Kerry Baldori, SVT chief functional engineer.
Raptor's ride quality seems almost soft on the road as the shocks compress and release, but dive into a corner and this truck really handles. Off-road the shocks firm up considerably when pushed, but I didn't make it so far as to hit the microcellular jounce bumpers. There are 11.2 inches of front wheel travel and 12.1 inches rear.
“The ability of the shock to go from soft to hard is what prevents it from bottoming,” said John Marking, vice president, Fox Racing Shox.
The rear-axle gearing is a fairly short 4.10 ratio, but it doesn't feel aggressive with the tall, 35-inch tires. At highway speeds, the engine is revving at a very comfortable 2,200 to 2,500 rpms. But even with a six-speed automatic transmission, fuel economy is challenged at 14 mpg city, 18 highway.
The 5.4-liter V-8 has peak horsepower of 320 at 5,200 rpm when using E85 gasoline. Power drops to 310 on 91 octane.
Climbing and crawling ability is enhanced by Hill Descent Control, which will hold speed to 2 mph. It can be raised incrementally to 15 mph.
An off-road mode recalibrates the engine throttle map for more driver control, allows some wheel slip, adjusts anti-lock braking to allow slide and prevents air bags from discharging without completely disabling them.
Ford hopes to sell about 6,000 Raptors in a full year. This may not be the ideal time to debut an 18 mpg, ultimate performance truck, but few automakers have gone after the off-road segment with a dedicated vehicle. And they aren't likely to now in this era of scrutinized budgets.
Raptor is a purpose-built truck for San Diego off-roaders.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at email@example.com
Download podcasts of Maynard's Garage weekly Internet radio show at signonradio.com. And click into Maynard's Garage blog site at garage.uniontrib.com/.