LOS ANGELES, California — I’ve just finished a nearly 400-mile stint in the 2017 Ford Raptor, and I feel perplexed. If you absorb the messaging Ford created for this truck—just take a look at it competing in and completing the Baja 1000 and then driving hundreds of miles back to home base—you might start to imagine the production truck at your local Ford dealership is a purpose-built, knobby-tire monster with enough suspension travel to mimic Baja’s more hardcore race trucks. Yet after a day that included a romp through the ruts, jumps, and the desert landscapes that make up the El Mirage Dry Lake off-road area, I realized my imagination may have gotten the best of me.
Going through the Raptor’s spec sheet, several bullet points affirm my original expectation. Key bits include a strengthened frame to cope with the stress created by off-road use, Fox Racing-sourced shocks with internal bypasses—giving the Raptor more than 13 inches of suspension travel (13.9 up front, 14.0 at rear)—an electronic locking rear differential with a 4.10 ratio, Terrain Management with six selectable drive modes including Baja mode, and 315/70R-17 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires. Add a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 that is related to the one used in the Ford GT supercar, here generating 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque.
Out among the scrub brush and loamy sand of El Mirage, however, I felt as if my fillings and every single one of the truck’s bolts would shake loose. “This couldn’t be the truck Ford took to the Baja 1000,” I thought to myself.
While El Mirage is best known for its large dry lakebed, where people come to set land-speed records, many are unfamiliar with its Off-road Highway Vehicle (OHV) area. On the outskirts of the lakebed, the desert terrain is something very much out of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and its paths and trails are what you’d expect if someone used toad skin as tarmac, ranging from soft and sandy to rutted with slight jumps. None of it is smooth and all of it requires a firm grasp of just what your automobile—and its occupants—are capable of enduring.
Unfortunately, I took my parents along on my off-road adventure and based on the “ouch,” “ooh,” and “could we please slow down” exclamations coming from the rear-seat area, the actual experience of beating on the Raptor didn’t seem to match the idealic image I expected.
At the start of our trip, I had plenty of confidence in the Raptor. On the highway, the truck wallows and undulates with the ribbon-like freeways of the Los Angeles area. The ride is reminiscent of an old Cadillac’s—soft, supple, and squishy, to the point you might become entranced by the road’s rhythmic ripple. It felt very similar to other off-road trucks I’ve driven or ridden in. This only increased my anticipation for running in the dirt.
But unlike those trucks, the Raptor isn’t a pure race vehicle inside and out. Ultimately it is made for the real world, so its seats are almost luxurious in terms of leather quality and soft padding; very different from the hardback, fixed position racing seats in ready-for-anything off-roaders. Then there’s the working air-conditioning, a must in the slightly hellish 104-degree Southern Californian sun, which kept the entire cabin a cool 71 degrees for the entire trip. It even has a Bose-sourced stereo system, which while not as good as Volvo’s Bowers & Wilkins system (which in my opinion is the best in the industry), provided crisp high notes and seat-vibrating bass notes. It provided great backing tracks through the barren landscape.
But as we transitioned from the lakebed’s smooth, almost pavement-like texture, the squishy cadence withered away in the desert heat as we made our way onto the OHV area’s rocky and rolly terrain. We crossed the lake’s once-wet shores and the truck immediately felt out of place to me. As did my parents, who bounced up and down, nearly hitting their heads on the Raptor’s ceiling.
The terrain began with large mounds of hard-packed dirt, which we had to take slowly, then progressed to small faster ruts, and finally ended with forgiving sand and a fast little rhythm section. It was a true off-road experience, the first of my parents’ lives. But while the truck came out the other end uninjured and ready for more, the same couldn’t be said for our merry group of adventurers.
Every bit of heaved and rippled substrate made itself known through the chassis and jolted its way into the cabin. My right shoulder ached by the end, reminding me of the motorcycle wreck it took the brunt of some years ago. My dad was giggling but his back hurt. And both my mother and my wife checked to see if half a day’s worth of trail driving rearranged their internal organs. At one point during the drive, the truck bounced, rattled, and shook everyone inside the cabin so much that my mom asked me to stop along the rutted path for a moment as she was getting a headache. All of us felt like we had just gone through a tumble cycle in a rock-filled dryer with knives added for good measure. Of course, the experience of riding in a real honest-to-goodness Trophy Truck across Baja is also a long, long way removed from being chauffeured around town in a Rolls-Royce Wraith. So yes, I might have, ahem, misrepresented to my family what they were in for. I suspect they would have preferred the Wraith route, had it been an available alternative.
The rest stop and momentary spinal reprieve it provided gave me a chance to contemplate the Raptor’s real-world manners. I recognized how I allowed those initial marketing campaigns to convince me the Raptor would be a Trophy Truck-style, race-ready off-roader that could soak up ruts, pits, rocks, crevices, jumps, and any other type of geographic protuberance with aplomb. And actually, it did well to cope with all I threw at it. But if you have ever, as I did, imagined what the ride is actually like, know that it feels more akin to an off-road modified street truck, although with noticeably more capability than your average road-going F-150.
That’s not to say we didn’t have fun—we hit the outskirts of the lakebed and drifted through its soft surface layer, kicking up a rooster tail and caking the truck’s undercarriage with enough fossilized animal material to start our own natural history museum. We also found a small jump, which is when both my mom and dad decided to exit the rollercoaster as they didn’t want any other Raptor-induced aches. But not unexpectedly, the truck, and both my wife’s spine and mine, handled the small jump well, although my dad told me I could’ve gone bigger. Funny how quickly bravado returns when you are no longer suffering its effects in real time, isn’t it?
At the end, I admitted I let my own perception, and love of all things off-road, get the best of me. By the time I finally drove the Raptor in its “natural environment,” I foolishly expected a trophy truck experience. I was wrong. Way wrong. While the Raptor is definitely capable of taking an absolute beating, it’s still very much a road-going truck with some very good off-road credentials. It’s also a hell of a deal compared to true race-ready Baja machines which retail in the mid-to-high six figures, or just six to seven times the price of the $54,065 Raptor SuperCrew seen here. Regardless, I had a great time playing off-road hero for a day. I just have to accept the fact a showroom-stock Raptor and I won’t be challenging Robby Gordon for the Baja podium without some additional assembly required.
2017 Ford Raptor F-150 SuperCrew
|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 truck|
|EPA MILEAGE||15/18 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||231.9 x 86.3 x 78.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.1 sec|
|TOP SPEED||105 mph|