It was hard to suppress a yawn as Ford Special Vehicle Team driver Matt Johnson drifted the new F-150 SVT Raptor through some deep sand, mere feet from a rock wall. Behind us, a rooster tail of hot, dry dust has plastered the assembled photographers. A thrilling scene to be sure, but it's all in a day's work for the Raptor, the truck that makes high-speed off-roading easy.
The Raptor dates back to about 2006. At that time, when everyone pretty much thought that SVT was dead, Ford's skunk works was actually deciding how to treat the upcoming F-150. The obvious path would have been a reborn SVT Lightning. That high-performance street truck is something of a legend, and SVT presumably had plenty of go-fast parts to work with, including a supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 from their own Shelby GT500. Instead, SVT engineers decided to do something completely fresh. And by fresh, we mean dirt.
"We wanted a truck that you could drive on the street and kick everyone's butts with on the sand," said Johnson.
To illustrate the first part of the Raptor's mission, Ford handed us the keys to a bright orange example in San Diego and sent us on a four-hour on-road drive to Borrego Springs. Through city traffic, highways, and eventually, winding mountain passes, the SVT Raptor behaves every bit as well as a standard F-150 - which is to say, not that well. It's heavy, a bit underpowered (the 5.4-liter V-8 carries over from the regular model), and understeers at the first hint of g-forces. It's all a little underwhelming until you remember that you're riding on what appear to be monster tires and on a suspension that's been modified for more travel - usually the opposite of what you want when you're trying to make something handle better. SVT engineers countered these changes with a carefully retuned steering system and special-compound BFGoodrich All Terrain T/As, which run quiet on the highway despite their fist-sized tread blocks. It's a job well done, and it almost has us wondering how good the F-150 might have been had the SVT guys been working on its suspension from the beginning. More to Ford's point, the Raptor is a truck you could live with everyday. Couple that with its $38,995 base price - slightly less than an F-150 King Ranch - and it's not hard to see how the Raptor could become popular among those who think a wilderness adventure is a drive to Jones Beach.
That's a shame, because the Raptor is simply incredible when the ground goes soft. Steering that's a bit too slow and light on pavement suddenly feels confident and dead-on accurate, and the extra bit of body roll allows for a relatively silky ride over terrain that would shake apart many passenger vehicles. A number of tweaks, including beefier control arms, bigger brakes, a redesigned power-steering system, a stiffened structure, and the aforementioned 35-inch BFGoodrich tires (which increase the tread width more than six inches and require flared front and rear fenders) keep the truck and the driver in one piece. But the biggest addition is the dampers. The triple-bypass Fox racing Shox get progressively stiffer as they compress, meaning the Raptor can soak up just about everything the desert has to offer without bottoming out.
What this list of modifications doesn't tell you is how effortless everything feels to the driver. After letting some air out of the tires, just pull out the transfer-case-control switch to lock the rear differential (it'll stay locked at high speeds), put stability control in competitive mode with a tap of a button, and press another, equally nondescript-looking button to go into Off-Road Mode (which adjusts ABS to allow for more lockup and brings on more aggressive shifting and throttle mapping). That's it. Mash the pedal, and you're off in a spew of sand. Before you know it, you're power sliding between boulders, charging across whoops at 60 mph, and confidently cresting hills even when your eyes tell you that you're about to drive off a cliff. Oh, and you'll get airborne. Like the best on-road-performance cars, the Raptor quickly makes you feel like an excellent driver.
For now, the Raptor is available only with an extended cab and a 5.5-foot box. More power is on its way in the form of a 6.2-liter V-8. Whether we'll see more variants depends largely on how many people these days are looking for a street-worthy off-road racing truck that gets 14 mpg in the city (we got about 6 mpg in the desert). Even with the economy still out of sorts and the SUV's heyday far behind us, we're guessing there will be a taker for every one of the approximately 1500 Raptors Ford has built so far.