Payne: Mightier Ford Raptor in a class of its own
Where do you exercise your pet Orca whale? Big, ravenous, and capable of speeds in excess of 30 mph, it needs an ocean to play.
A similar riddle plagues the Ford F-150 Raptor pickup.
Though the name suggests a bird of prey or velociraptor of "Jurassic Park" fame (Ford intentionally won't signal either), the 5,500-pound pickup is more of a land shark — an animal of outsized capabilities that needs a sea of sand to really show its stuff.
Based on the formidable best-selling Ford F-150, the Raptor is America’s only supertruck. No one else makes a pickup capable of Baja-like, 100-plus mph off-road speeds. Its fortified steel skeleton, sinewy 450-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 and robust Fox-shocks cartilage enable terrain-shredding capabilities that are awesome to experience.
When I first experienced them in southern California’s Borrego Springs desert in 2016, I was in awe — and sorrow. The vast Borrego desert is a Raptor playground. Miles of high-speed dirt flats where the big truck hit 100 mph. Sandy expanses where its Fox shocks leaped from mogul to mogul. And dry-wash beds where its 35-inch tires dance in dust.
Trouble is, it’s rare earth — far from where the Kraken lives in suburban garages. Mere off-road parks like Michigan’s Mounds or Silver Lake can’t contain it.
Buy a Corvette ZR1 supercar and you can track it at M1 Concourse at speeds approaching 130 mph. Its full limits can be explored at track days at myriad facilities like Mid-Ohio or Road America or Autobahn Auto Club.
Happily, Ford is trying to solve that.
Buy a Raptor — about 15,000 are sold a year — and Ford gives you a free day at Utah Motorsports Park to explore its considerable capabilities.
For 2019 those capabilities have, incredibly, expanded.
Add to its holster electronically controlled Fox Live Valve shocks which adapt to the terrain so the beast conforms to the changing landscape. They reduce roll, pitch and skittishness to make the Raptor even faster off-road. Think of the shocks as the off-road equivalent to magnetic shocks that allow track-focused cyborgs to turn faster laps.
Of course, faster speeds demand better seats. Ford has invited the legendary Recaro into its cabin to design bolstered seats so you can better ride Orca without falling off.
And since long trails ultimately lead into the mountains, Raptor has gained Trail Assist, a sort of low-speed cruise control — pioneered by Land Rover — that automatically pilots the truck at speeds from 0-20 mph up/down steep grades so you can concentrate on steering and navigating.
Ford packs these goodies into a $54,000-$74,000 truck that is cheaper than a supercar, but affords unique off-road thrills.
I experienced the new Raptor at the Ford Performance Racing School outside Salt Lake City like a customer would. With over 100 sold-out dates a year hosting 20 owners each, the Raptor experience won’t disappoint.
Compared to my 2016 Raptor outing, the shocks felt immediately better on-road as we turned out of Utah Motorsports Park for the Wasatch Mountains. Where the previous-generation Raptor felt stiff with a constant empty-bed flutter in the background, the 2019 model was smoother, to the point that I forgot it was a pickup.
Not that anyone else would. Though its innards have been upgraded, the Raptor’s ferocious visage remains unchanged for the new model year. Its ribbed hood looks like a prehistoric predator’s back; its fearsome, black maw looms in the mirrors of cars half its size.
Turning off the asphalt onto twisted trails through Jacob’s City and Sunshine Canyon, the Raptor was in its element. Toggling the steering-wheel mounted mode selector to Baja, I bounded across the landscape inhaling gravel, rock and moguls like they weren’t there. With 510 pound-feet of torque, the beast cries for more. More throttle. More landscape.
And more noise.
I understand the complaints of pals who have held onto their first-generation V-8 Raptors. Though the twin-turbo V-6 offers more power, the exhaust note needs more bass. Tip into the throttle and hear the V-6’s (muffled) roar. I wish I had a V-8.
Back at the school, Ford Performance set up a dirt jump. I floor the beast to 60 mph over the jump and Orca went airborne like it breached the ocean’s surface — WHUMP! It landed down the slope like an Olympic skier nailing a long jump. More!
“With the new shocks, everything performs at new levels of performance,” says John Williams, a school instructor. “It has more ability to handle the terrain and take performance to new limits.”
But even Williams acknowledges he doesn’t know its limits. He hasn’t found sustained trails here where he can hit the Raptor’s 100 mph potential. Even the Utah desert, it seems, is too small for Orca.
So Ford has made sure that the beast can excel at more mundane duties, like crawling up the face of the Wasatch. This is Jeep Wrangler Rubicon territory with craggy slopes, narrow ravines and rocky steps. But the Raptor now comes equipped with something even the Rubicon doesn’t have: Crawl control.
I engaged 4-Low to lock the rear differential and then pushed the Crawl-control button. The darn thing drove itself up the hill at 2.5 miles per hour (yes, digital speedos now do fractional speeds). No fighting the throttle, no lurches, no limits.
All this happens in a leather-stitched cabin as comfortable as your corner office. Playing passenger in the huge backseat of the Supercrew cab, I folded my legs and took in the scenery. The 7,000-foot Wasatch mountains offer breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. With more space than the average New York apartment, the Raptor’s bed will easily hold a family picnic.
Walking around the pickup is like walking around a supercar. Admire the wide track, the power-dome hood, the angry grille. But there are aesthetic touches, too. The tailgate graphic now subtly offsets the dark gray “Ford” from its black frame. The Recaro seat inserts are the same blue as Ford’s GT supercar.
I rowed the GT around Utah Motorsports Park's demanding race track last year, sliding its carbon-fiber chassis to the limits of adhesion, then letting loose 647 ponies down the front straight.
The off-road limits of the Raptor are still out of reach here. That’s not to say the Performance School isn’t worthwhile. It’s a must for any Raptor owner. Because after you have conquered the Wasatch, you’ll be hungry for more.
Hey, Ford, how about a performance racing school in Baja?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2019 Ford F-150 Raptor
Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup
Price: $54,350 base including $1,495 destination fee ($68,845 as tested)
Powerplant: 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6
Power: 450 horsepower, 510 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 10-speed automatic with paddle shifters
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (Car and Driver); 1,200-pound payload; 8,000-pound towing
Weight: 5,518 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 15 city/18 highway/16 combined
Highs: Upgraded Fox shocks improve on- and off-road performance; new Crawl control
Lows: Need a big playground to realize its outsized capabilities; wish it had a V-8
Overall: 4 stars