After months of cloak and dagger development in the California High Desert, Ford’s Special Vehicle Team invited two dozen journalists into their off-road playground in Ocotillo Wells for the official media launch of the Raptor. No longer a secret, Ford’s own low-budget, high-return viral video campaign had already given the Raptor a bit of a mythical aura before any member of the media was allowed behind the wheel. Long-time Ford fans were salivating, off-road enthusiasts were flooding online forums, and naysayers were estimating astronomical prices for a vehicle that was capable of 100-mph desert runs.

What Exactly Makes A Raptor, A Raptor?
Starting with an off-the-rack F-150 frame, Raptor engineers cut, moved, and reinforced exactly zero suspension mounting points. That’s right, the same F-150 frame that underpins every other F-150 that rolls off the assembly line is as equally suited for high-speed desert runs as it is for towing huge loads and serving as a commercial workhorse. Granted, the Raptor does employ extensive skid plates not found on a typical F-150, protecting the chassis and engine from the typical obstacles and hazards you might come across while running high-speed in the desert: rocks, cacti, coyote, roadrunners, ACME-brand land mines, etc. The only difference in suspension mounting we were able to notice on the frame is that the spring pockets use a wedge-shaped mounting ring to cant the coilovers a few degrees outboard to mount to the beefy, pressure-cast aluminum Raptor-specific lower control arms. The upper arms are also Raptor-specific, but are forged steel. Rather than dropping the suspension mounting points, which is the norm for most aftermarket lifts, Ford engineers widened the track of the Raptor like aftermarket long-travel suspensions do. The longer pivot of the new arms allows for a 35-inch tall, extensively-siped and Raptor-specific BFG All-Terrain tire that has 11.2 inches of suspension travel. New, longer half-shafts were needed to compensate for the 3.5-inch increase in width per side. The rear gets an equally-impressive 12.1 inches of travel through a reinforced version of the F-150’s 8.8-inch axle. With thicker axle tubes and stronger axles, the electronic-locker-equipped axle is capable of enduring some hard landings, as evidenced by all of the videos Ford has posted online that have gone viral throughout the off-road community.

But Does It Rattle Your Guts?
While the frame and suspension hardware allow the truck to survive a grueling blast across the desert, what about the fate of those strapped inside? Ford teamed with Fox Racing Shox to develop a remote-reservoir oil shock for the rear and an internal triple bypass coilover for the front. The triple bypass function allows the shock to get progressively stiffer as the suspension moves through its full 11.2 inches of travel so that it never bottoms out harshly. Even if you did bottom out the suspension, soft, closed-cell bumpstops act like progressive air-stops for the last few inches of travel.

What's With The Extra Lights?
The 7-inch wider track necessitated wider bodywork of course, so all of the sheetmetal forward of the A-pillar is unique to the Raptor, and Ford designers have done a good a job as any to make the wide bodywork look top notch. It’s probably the best-looking wide-body truck short of a one-piece fiberglass front end from a trophy truck. The fenders bulge out prominently from the headlights and blend back into the doors by way of a fender-mounted vent. The bedsides also flare out, but are more subtle than the front due to their length. The extra width also called for additional marker lights, which you can find across the tailgate in red and across the grille and front fender in amber. The lights are unobtrusive LEDs that appear white when not lit.

OK, How Does It Drive?
When I had my chance behind the wheel, it was on the road at first, as Ford wanted us to get to know the truck in familiar conditions. My initial reaction was that I felt just as confident as in any truck. The wide track of the Raptor comes with little difference in ride height, so body roll is minimal. As I drove through Highway 78 I pushed the Raptor into corners and the truck responded predictably, with the big BFGs offering minimal tire noise. In fact, it seemed that at highway speeds the combined wind, engine, and tire noises nearly cancelled each other out. Raptor’s anticipated buyers, as with most SVT buyers, don’t mind a more aggressive exhaust, and the SVT team came through in that regard, letting the exhaust play a more prominent role in the sound package. I was not the only one to notice, as several other journalists made comments on the Raptor’s exhaust note, which is a nice mellow lope at idle and a low growl under throttle.

Now, How Does It Drive Off-Road?
To paraphrase the great fictional aviator Zapp Brannigan, the Ford Raptor, “is built like a steakhouse, but handles like a bistro.” I don’t know why people don’t quote him more often. I’ll be the first to admit that there were more capable off-road drivers among the members of the media that got to put the Raptor through its paces at its launch, but I can proudly say that I took full advantage of the Raptor’s sophisticated suspension. In the desert I manhandled the Raptor through some I-swear-I-am-in-total-control fishtails in 2wd with the rear locker engaged, but then I got the hang of it, at least a little, and before I knew it, my time behind the wheel of the Raptor was up. Without resorting to woo-hoos and yee-haws, I’ll do my best to put the experience into words. First off, Ford’s collaboration with Fox was time well spent, as the ride off-road is nowhere near as jarring as I would have expected. While any SVT member could hit the upper 90s on the course we had, I kept my speed to 30-35mph over the whoops, and 50-60 mph in the open washes, only breaking into the 70s towards the end of my lap when the wash was a bit wider and my confidence was high. I drove faster and more confidently as time went on, and although I never got the truck airborn, I did cycle through much of the suspensions travel and never felt as though I was being punished. The traction control button might as well be labeled “Push for Fun”, since the traction control elbows its way between your right foot and the throttle to stop any sort of yaw-induced shenanigans, the only way to take any wash at speed is with the system partially disabled, at least if you like drifting through them like I do. Thankfully you have the option.

Speaking of drifting, 4WD drifts are predictable, even though I’ve spent only a few sessions driving off-road. Any time I got a little too sideways I could correct by lifting the throttle and the truck would go back where it was pointed. For me, 2WD was a different story, as I got the Raptor’s rear end loose enough to make the SVT engineer sitting shotgun a little worried that I was going to wreck the bodywork on one of their brand-new toys and cost someone at Ford a bonus.

So, if the traction control button is labeled “Push for Fun”, what about the Off Road Mode switch? Well in my case it could have been labeled, “Push to Laugh Maniacally”. With the traction control off and Off-Road Mode engaged, the Raptor will hold each transmission gear longer, to minimize hunting for gears, and it also remaps the throttle so it’s more suited for both low-speed trails and high-speed desert romps. It was a little weird hearing the engine rev a bit higher, but the sound was the only thing that was odd, as the performance it delivered was just what you’d hope for.

The other interesting electronic function of the Raptor is the Hill Descent Control. A first for a Ford vehicle, the hill descent allows you to focus on steering the truck on the right path while it uses the ABS actuators to apply brake pressure for a slow, steady trip. Ford had a loop of rocky trails for us to try out the crawling and hill descent capability of the truck. This wasn’t the Rubicon, but we did get to see some of the suspension’s articulation. One touch of the console-mounted button while we were stopped at the edge of a steep dropoff and the Driver Information Center (DIC) told us we were good to go, both in the display and with an audible chime. As I let off the brake the truck nosed over the decline and set off on its path at a crawl, with the ABS whirring and growling the whole way. Once we were past the worst of the rocky trail I tapped the throttle and the Hill Descent Control (HDC) upped the pace to fast walking speed. Think of it as a low-speed cruise control that you adjust with the throttle and the brake.

What About The 6.2L?
All of the Raptors at the event were equipped with the 5.4L V-8. We’ve criticized the 5.4L before because the F-150s competitors all offer engines with more power, so no doubt many are eagerly anticipating the new 6.2L V-8 from Ford, with its 400 hp (est) and 400 lb-ft of torque (est). However, the 5.4L was more than adequate when it came to both crawling up steep trails and hauling across the sand. We’re not saying that more power wouldn’t be more fun, but we also don’t think that the initial buyers who don’t yet have the option of the 5.4L will be crying when the 6.2L makes its debut later in 2010.

So What's It Gonna Cost Me?
As of the launch, Ford had 1,700 orders for Raptors, and they said they’d build as many as demanded. As more people become aware of the Raptor we’d expect the number to grow even faster, especially considering the price. The base Raptor comes in just under $39,000, which is about a $2,500 premium over a comparably equipped FX4. The problem is that an FX4 just isn’t comparable. For the extra $2,500 you’re getting one heck of a package. For more of our Raptor photos, search for “Raptor” at truckinweb.com.

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