AUTOS

Payne: The fearless, peerless Ford Bronco Raptor is an off-road beast

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Johnson Valley, California — Sixty miles north of Palm Springs, Johnson Valley is synonymous with Ultra4 racing — America’s most demanding off-road competition. Every February, 75,000 people descend on this 96,000-acre desert pasture to watch insane, all-wheel-drive 1,000-horsepower dune buggies on ‘roids vie for the King of the Hammers crown over high-speed flats, mountain passes and extreme rock-choked trails.

Incredibly, this alien landscape is also the natural habitat of the Ford Bronco Raptor.

Like tackling Road Atlanta — one of America’s greatest race tracks — last July in a production Porsche 911 GT3, I assaulted the Hammers course with a production Bronco Raptor. In extreme 116-degree temperatures, Raptor not only survived — it thrived.

Ford’s latest performance beast is part of an emerging breed of super-trucks — SUVs and pickups built on ladder frames — that can take on the most challenging off-road adventures just as supercars have taken on asphalt race tracks for years.

And like the Porsche GT3 supercar, Bronco Raptor is the new standard for super-trucks. Not the most powerful, not the most expensive, but the most versatile. Taking the Bronco’s basic goodness and then weaponizing it with premium shocks, tires and turbo-V6, there are few places where Raptor won’t go — just like the Ultra4 racers that inspired it.

With my lead foot planted on the floor, I tore across the desert floor at 75 mph. Wearing ginormous 37-inch BFGoodrich tires aired down to 24 PSI and live-valve Fox shocks, the Raptor absorbed ruts, whoops and moguls. Tearing into a left-hand sweeper, I stabbed the brake — the Scandinavian flick on sand! — like a rally-racer, swinging the rear end out so I could power thorough the turn, sending up plumes in my wake.

I’ve done this before in the F-150 Raptor, the first super-truck that redefined off-road performance. With a nearly identical suspension, width and big tires, I reached speeds beyond 100 mph in the Borrego Springs desert in 2016. Some Hammer hot shoes in Johnson Valley told me the Bronco Raptor can run in triple-digits too, but F-150 Raptor does it more confidently thanks to its longer wheelbase.

Important to Raptor’s athleticism is an independent front suspension, a major departure from the off-road model pioneered by the Jeep Wrangler, Bronco’s arch-rival. Like F1’s Hamilton and Verstappen, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about Bronco without talking Wrangler too.

Learning from F-150, Bronc’s independent front suspension allows pilots to assault punishing terrain without having their limbs shake off. What elevates Bronco Raptor over Big Brother, however, is that it can transition from high-speed flats to rock crawling in an instant. Like a Bronco Badlands. Or Wrangler Rubicon.

I’m a speed freak, but the Raptor’s rock-crawling prowess is truly extraordinary. As I contemplated the rocky inclines of the Hammers course, my jaw dropped. We’re going up that?

The 2023 Ford Bronco Raptor shows off its underbody armor for rock crawling.

“Yeah, we raced this at Hammers,” said Ultra4 racer Brian, who works for Driven Experience, a firm that specializes in off-road insanity. “The Ultra4 trucks will do this at about three times the speed of the Bronco Raptor — 7-10 mph — and we need to make sure there are multiple routes for when Ultra4s break down. You know, from broken driveshafts, flat tires, flipping upside down."

My steed suffered no maladies. It simply crawled up the boulders like some sort of mechanical spider. The same Foxes and Goodriches who had launched me across the Means Dry Lake bed carried me over boulders.

But what about that independent front? Off-road purists will note that Jeep’s solid front axle allows greater suspension travel across uneven ground. But Raptor — mindful not to throw the Bronco out with the bathwater — makes up the difference with the 37s and ridiculous 13-inch front (14-inch rear) suspension travel (for comparison, an Ultra-4 racer sports 20 inches).

The 2023 Ford Bronco Raptor comes only in a four-door, hard-top configuration.

GRONCH! Rock-crawling is a social sport, and a spotter motioned for me to back up when I got stranded on a frame rail. Shift back into Drive. Change a tool. Change your line.

Love those tools ... Raptor comes equipped with every trick in the Outback book: front-locker, rear-locker, detachable front swaybar, multiple camera views, Trail-turn assist, One-pedal drive, AWD low, AWD high. All are accessed with a simple push of an electronic button, different from the more analog Wrangler.

Where Bronco lags Jeep is in the engine compartment. I pined for the Wrangler’s 392-cube V-8 whenever I punched the Ford across the desert. Now that’s the sound of a predator. The Raptor’s turbo-6? More a bark than a roar.

Bronco’s’ state-of-the-art tech transfers to daily commutes as well since, naturally, few need commute over the San Bernardino Mountains to work. Despite its enormous tires (not to mention doors ‘n’ roof that come off for when you want to get closer to nature) Bronco Raptor was surprisingly compliant around town with little cabin noise and a smooth ride.

The 2023 Ford Bronco Raptor's twin-turbo V-6 engine spits out 418 horsepower.

That daily comfort is also a big benefit over F-150 Raptor, which is like owning a pet whale — and the inconveniences that come with it. Despite its smaller size, the Bronco Raptor still has F-150 Raptor-like presence with its bulging fenders, F-O-R-D grille stamp, wide stance and cartoonish 37-inch spare out back (so big that engineers had to change the rear architecture to accommodate it).

Raptor is roomy inside — which us tall guys particularly appreciate. I could fit under the rollbar with a helmet on (unlike, say, in a Porsche 911), and I never bounced off the roof even when bouncing along the desert at 75 mph.

Love those 37s. The 2023 Ford Bronco Raptor shows off its BFGoodrich off-road tires.

Naturally, Ford knows that many who can afford this comprehensive $70K off-road weapon want premium trim. My tester included swish blue leather seats with felt inserts. La-di-dah. Let me recommend the standard washable vinyl seats with rubberized flooring for when you get this thing dirty — which should be often.

As I tell my supercar friends: if you don’t track it, you have no idea of its capabilities. Ditto Raptor owners.

Michigan offers plenty of opportunity to push the off-road envelope — whether at Silver Lake in west Michigan or Holly Oaks and Flint ORV parks up I-75. Like skiing, however, the big hills are out west.

The 2023 Ford Bronco Raptor comes in a washable, vinyl interior (recommended for off-road use) or this posh leather and suede option.

So when you get your Bronco Raptor, put Johnson Valley on your bucket list. It’s the ute’s home away from home.

2022 Ford Bronco Raptor

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger, compact SUV

Price: $70,095, including $1,595 destination fee ($72,700 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6

Power: 418 horsepower, 440 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, (mfr.); towing capacity, 4,500 pounds

Weight: 5,731 pounds

Fuel economy: 15 city/16 highway/15 combined; range, 312 miles

Report card

Highs: Insane off-road bandwidth; easy-to-use tools

Lows: No V-8; width could be tight fit in garage

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.