Greg Foutz is trying to make me vomit. I’m certain of it. He seems nice enough. An easy smile is always half a second from his lips. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d suggest a heavy Italian meal the night before whipping the 2017 Ford Raptor around California’s Lake Elsinore Motorsports Park, but here we are. We’ve spent the morning turning lap after lap, jumping and sliding the fresh bruiser around the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series course, as my innards leaped from my throat to the floor and back again. Being accustomed to the lateral forces of a track day, I know how to read the line on a tarmac circuit and brace for the coming stress, but this is different. It’s omnidirectional.
Foutz has one hand on the wheel, one on the console-mounted shifter. His posture is that of someone sitting in his living room, clicking through infomercials before bed. We’re doing 50 mph over the packed, corrugated earth, charging into Turn 1 — a wild, fast sweeper with deep banking and a decreasing radius. Foutz is in the middle of a relaxed physics lesson.
“Picture the truck as a Matchbox car,” he says. “Now put a stick under the middle, and balance it perfectly. Everything you do with the gas or brake changes the attitude of the truck.”
His right hand, thick and muscular, floating in the space between us, tips forward and aft, moving around an imaginary pivot point. As the outside wall gets ever closer, he looks directly at me, his kind brown eyes checking to see if I get his meaning, one salt-and-pepper eyebrow cocked.
I mumble an affirmation. He hasn’t considered coming off the throttle. The turbos howl beneath the sprawling, louvered hood, shoving atmosphere into the 3.5-liter V-6. The engine’s happy to gulp it down to belt out its full 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque. We’re in the middle of a broad slide, great curtains of roost rocketing out behind us, pelting the tall catch fence.
“You can feel the truck will just want to unload on its own here,” he says. He’s speaking quickly but not out of excitement or anxiety. He’s trying to keep up with the truck. “You can’t stop it. You just have to set up for it early.”
There’s a moment of hesitation as Foutz lifts off the throttle, and all 5,518 pounds shift to the front tires. So does my stomach. The Raptor tucks in neatly, and we’re no longer headed toward the wall. We’re gunning for a towering table-top jump. “That’s the Matterhorn,” Foutz says and buries the throttle again.
I ask Foutz about the decision to abandon steel. “It made perfect sense to me,” he says. “Aluminum isn’t something we’re scared of. You can’t replace weight with horsepower.”
This is a master class in wringing the most out of the second-generation Raptor taught by the man who knows best. Foutz has been the muscle behind Ford’s off-road racing efforts since the late 1990s. He’s been to Baja 14 times, enduring the 1,000-mile race in everything from the old I-beam Ranger to the massive F-250 Super Duty. In 2008, the company brought him a pre-production Raptor. He never looked back.
This is no Super Duty. It’s barely an F-150. Even skulking around in Shadow Black paint, it’s clear just how wide it is. Swollen fenders bulge past the headlights, wrapping themselves around special-compound BFGoodrich KO2s. They’re massive. Big, bruising 315/70R-17s, a sliver under 35 inches tall and more than a foot wide. Foutz says the tires were engineered specifically for the Raptor, built to withstand the kind of idiot abuse and speed a truck like this can yield. They’re also the reason Ford limited the Raptor to 107 mph. The soft all-terrains weren’t up to the task of diving any deeper into triple digits.
The 2017 Raptor has a full 6 inches of width on its base brother, and that span means the number of shared suspension parts could fit in a coffin. Brakes and knuckles, mostly. The rear axle is half a foot wider. The springs are unique. And there are the miraculous Fox shocks, with canisters a half-inch larger for 2017 and nine-stage damping. The bigger cans hold more oil, and the greater volume can handle more heat than before.
Foutz seems keen to find out exactly how much. We’ve been pounding around the track for half an hour; I’m trying to memorize his line, his brake points, but it’s all written in a foreign language. I’d hoped there’d be some similarity between driving this truck and whipping an all-wheel-drive rally car around a course, but there’s none of the loose-everywhere feel of gravel under car tires. The Raptor has glorious grip, and it’s using it. There’s an electronic locker in the rear differential, and a Torsen limited-slip unit up front. The two combine for impressive thrust. Ford also coaxed more travel out of the second-generation suspension, now up to 13 inches in front and just shy of 14 inches in the rear. It means those heavy tires stay in contact with the sticky dirt, and that means more speed. You can feel the confidence. We’re cresting each tabletop at 50 mph or better. The Raptor does not care.
There’s a brief moment of compression as the track rises up and the truck presses down on those soft springs. I feel my limbs get heavy as I sink a little deeper into the big, bolstered leather seats. Then comes the crest, followed by weightlessness. We’re sailing, all four tires well off the ground, hell-bent on low orbit. We commence re-entry. With nothing to brace against, my arms and legs move for the ceiling. I am inertia’s Muppet. When we touch down, I expect violence, the bang of bump stops, or the slam of skid plates. There’s none of that. Just grace and fury.
We pull to a stop to give the truck a rest before I take the wheel. Heat comes shimmering through the vented hood. I imagine there’s plenty of it. Ford abandoned the brawling 6.2-liter V-8 in the previous Raptor for the high-output twin-turbo V-6 found here. The engine uses a list of tricks that don’t show up in the standard 3.5-liter EcoBoost. Piston-cooling oil jets, an upgraded crank with unique bearings, a lightweight cam, an electric waste gate, and variable displacement oil pump all help give it 39 more horsepower and 76 more lb-ft of torque over the old V-8. It weighs less, packages better, and gets better fuel economy, up to 16 mpg combined compared to the old truck’s 13.
The Raptor sails through the air like something that doesn’t weigh 2.5 tons. This would buckle a standard truck.
That would be an embarrassing number for a V-6 sports car, but for a 450-horsepower, four-wheel-drive pickup rolling on 35-inch tires, it’s some kind of miracle. Ford came at the Raptor’s fuel-economy problem from three sides. The more efficient engine is part of the formula, as is the new 10-speed transmission. The gearbox is a wonder, capable of jumping up or down its ratios nonsequentially to provide the right gear at the right time. It works, for the most part, only occasionally hitting a wrong note. There are gorgeous magnesium paddle shifters bolted to the steering wheel, but they’re little more than showpieces. Using the paddles results in slow responses at best, no response at worst. It’s best to leave it alone, and let it do its job. “Even in the race truck, I’d put it in Baja mode and let it do its thing,” Foutz says later. “It did a better job than I did.”
The truck’s lighter aluminum body structure is also part of the fuel-economy play. Ford managed to pull 500 pounds from the vehicle. I ask Foutz what he thinks about the decision to abandon steel.
“It made perfect sense to me,” he says. “But we’re used to that from the racing community. Aluminum isn’t something we’re scared of. You can’t replace weight with horsepower.”
I eye the truck. Dust and dirt paint its flanks. The functional bead locks are packed with mud. Despite its height, the body looks hunkered. Feral. The LED headlights are blue embers in their housings. Foutz catches my gaze. “The tire comes up so high that the depth of the old headlight was a problem,” he says. “They went to an LED to buy room, so that when the tire’s fully up and turned, it’ll clear the light.
“Ready to give it a shot?”
I get situated behind the wheel, press the start button, and listen as the truck comes alive. The engine’s civil in anything less than an honest thrash, and it settles into an imperceptible idle. Foutz talks me through selecting Baja mode, one of six in the Terrain Management System. Like most drive-mode programs, this one tweaks everything from fuel mapping to transmission logic, traction control, and ABS intervention, but it also selects the correct transfer-case mode for the situation. For the first time, the Raptor comes with a version of all-wheel drive. Select 4A on the dash-mounted rotary dial or pick Weather mode, and a clutch in the transfer case will send power to the front wheels as needed. Select four high or four low, and the transfer case will lock in, sending power to the front and rear in equal measures. Baja mode puts the truck in four high, and automatically sets the electric power-assisted steering rack to Sport. It all takes less than 2 seconds.
With Foutz hammering around, it’s easy to forget we’re in a $50,000 production pickup anyone with a pulse and a nine-to-five can have. But with me in the driver’s seat and the windshield full of nothing but a looming jump and the gray California sky, I’m struck with the insanity of what we’re doing. I hit the crest at 30 mph, every neuron in my skull screaming to slow the hell down. There’s zero drama. The truck doesn’t even lift. The suspension droops, and we settle onto the top of the jump like we’ve pulled onto a four-lane on our way to work.
I spend the rest of the lap picking up speed. The faster I go, the easier it is to string the course together. I’m nowhere near Foutz’s pace, but I’m getting there. I’m having a hard time parking my mechanical sympathy and committing to the speed. More than once, Foutz chides me for kissing the brakes before a jump. Doing so points the truck’s nose down and makes for a rougher landing.
By the second lap, I crest each tabletop at more than 50 mph. It feels pedestrian. The Raptor sails through the air like something that doesn’t weigh 2 1/2 tons. This would buckle a standard truck. But the Raptor is a first-class enabler, the devil’s blackbird on your shoulder, clicking in your ear. A little more. A little faster. Go, go, go.
Greed gets the best of me. We hit the big mesa on the front straight at better than 55 mph. There’s more air than usual, and I’m off the line. The truck’s at an angle, and the landing’s rougher than usual. It’s serviceable but about a mile from Foutz’s easy grace. It’s like that for the rest of the day. I can be smooth here but not there. The truck makes up for my two left feet.
Foutz is unfazed. He has more desert miles in these trucks than anyone outside of Ford. Last year, his team drove a largely stock 2017 Raptor in the 49th Baja 1000, covering the 866 miles in just under 36 hours and finishing third. Afterward, he drove the truck back to his shop in Phoenix.
When my laps are through, Foutz takes the wheel again. It’s like watching a better man dance with your wife. By the time the day’s done, we’ll have subjected this truck to six-plus hours of hard running. It does not care. It goes from ripping the desert floor to commuting patiently through L.A. traffic, the 10-speed imperceptible in Normal mode. There’s mud everywhere, visible in the rear-view mirror after every bout of stop and go. Other drivers on I-15 eye the Raptor like it’s from another world. And it is, I guess. Forged somewhere south of the border.
2017 Ford Raptor Specifications
|PRICE||$50,155/$53,140 (SuperCab/SuperCrew) (base)|
|ENGINE||3.5L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/450 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 510 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD/4WD truck|
|EPA MILEAGE||15/18 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||220.0-231.9 x 86.3 x 78.5 in|
|WHEELBASE||134.2/146.0 in (SuperCab/SuperCrew)|
|WEIGHT||5,518/5,694 lb (SuperCab/SuperCrew)|
|0-60 MPH||5.3 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||107 mph|