The CIM-10 Bomarc surface-to-air missile was a lunatic collaboration between the Michigan Aerospace Research Center and Boeing. A rocket/ramjet hybrid of the rip-roaring postwar military-industrial complex, the Bomarc was designed to hurtle itself into an advancing formation of Tupolevs at 2 1/2 times the speed of sound and detonate a 10-kiloton atomic fireball. With the rise of the ICBM, the Air Force took to using them as target drones and had retired the arsenal by 1972. The very next year, the American auto industry began its protracted slide into unmitigated messiness.
Given Ford's much-ballyhooed product renaissance, it seems somehow fitting they invited us to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to put the new SVT Raptor SuperCrew through its paces at a disused Bomarc missile site — using a repurposed artifact from an era when we led the world to showcase one of the prouder products of an industry desperate to prove its relevance to a jaded populace.
Not far from Lake Superior, the former Raco airbase's Hoth-but-for-the-trees winter climate makes for an excellent spot to wring out vehicles in extreme cold. And to these Golden State bones, temperatures between 6 and 20 degrees are extremely cold.
Disclaimer: Ford sprung for the flight to and from Sault Ste. Marie, MI, a room at the Soo Locks Lodge, a dinner at the hyper-kitschy The Antler's [sic] restaurant, some really fine mac and cheese at the test facility and enough gas to get me to Pine Stump Junction and back. I also helped myself to two free hats and a couple of thumb drives. It also bears mentioning that I was part of Ford's 2009 Fiesta Movement promotion.
Like the Bomarc, the desert-bred Raptor's a collision of Western why-not ingenuity and Midwestern engineering know-how. It doesn't, however, share the unbridled batshittiness of the missile. Rather, the truck's got more in common with its namesake, the hypermodern F-22 fighter. Engineered within an inch of its life, loaded with computers and supremely competent, SVT's latest surprises more with the breadth of its capability and livability rather than any one ramjet-and-nuke party trick.
The SuperCrew wasn't originally on the drawing board when SVT launched the short-wheelbase Raptor at the end of ‘09. But before that truck hit the street, customers were inquiring about a true five-place version of the showroom prerunner. With a business case in hand, the Special Vehicle Team put pen to paper and began working up the extended-play version. Tweaks include quicker steering to make up for the 12-inch increase in wheelbase, a 36-gallon fuel tank (up 10 from the SWB model) and firmer springs to compensate for the added heft (which offer up the added benefit of a one-ton increase in towing capacity to 8,000). New for 2011 across the board are the 411-hp 6.2L SOHC two-valver as the only available engine and Ford's SelectShift transmission - which allows a sequential lockout of every gear down to first - a 110V inverter and socket in the center column and a telescoping steering wheel.
Yes, Virginia Slim, it's civilized — about as far away from Big Oly as Olympia, WA is from Dearborn. Look past the straight-outta-Riverside flatbill posture and SVT's latest high-performance machine might be the ultimate vehicle for outdoorsy middle-class families — safe, stable, spacious and well-appointed.
Tossed through a slalom set up on one of the old airbase runways, the Raptor's electronics were generally intuitive as to my intent — though in driving like a bit of an irresponsible nut while attempting to predict their reactions, I managed to wind up horribly off-line, sliding to a sideways stop before a gate because the stability control didn't kick in as expected. In sport mode, the electronic helicopter mom held the truck to around a 40-degree yaw angle, allowing for fairly impressive ass-out roostertails through the cones. Around a 300-foot snow-and-ice circle, it was a different story — the stability control kept knocking the truck off-line. Discouraged and feeling like I must be at the limit of my ability if I was running sideways into the nanny and not recovering in a predictable manner, I pulled off the circle and let another group of journos have a whack at it.
Emboldened by the joyous wall of snow sloughing off the rear tires of a truck clearly sliding around the track with the safety programs deactivated, I headed out for another spin with the assists switched off. And that, friends, is when things got glorious.
I'm not an experienced frozen-surface driver. I grew up on the flatlands and the coast of California. Snow is something one goes to, preferably when it's not snowing. But after two spins around the circle, I'd found the sweet spot Ford's Special Vehicles Team had built into the Raptor's chassis and made hot and holy work of sawing the wheel to full opposite lock, keeping the truck on line with the front wheels while showering the outer ring of the circle with a momentary whiteout condition of my own making. When SVT Chief Engineer Kerry Baldori had run down the myriad computerized features of the truck during the pre-drive briefing, I was worried that the Raptor's vaunted performance might be all due to compensatory gizmodic trickery. It assuredly is not.
On the other hand, despite its American-4x4-as-conceived-by-an-anime-artist looks and astounding capability, the Raptor lacks some fundamental wild hair that tends to deeply endear vehicles to me. In a sense, it recalls the Rolls-Royce Phantom, a vehicle with similar power and weight figures that also drives smaller than its Iowa-class size and is similarly able to toss off considerable feats of speed and agility as effortless bits of piffle.
In fact, the SuperCrew may well have more rear legroom than the Roller. (As a side note, the Phantom's wheelbase splits the difference between the O.G. Raptor and the SuperCrew.) It's not that the truck's IMSA-esque flare job and talk-of-the-town Fox external-bypass shocks are a lie in any way. The 7-inch-wider stance offers an implacable sense of stability and the suspension easily soaked up anything I threw at it during my time behind the wheel. It's just that the Raptor feels as if it needs something to slightly unbalance its fantastic poise — some flaw that can be exploited for fun's sake at a low threshold. Or perhaps it just needs some sort of wicked intake cackle from the engine bay.
That said, the truck's no-surprises nature was a boon on the unpaved, snow-covered logging roads we covered after we left the test facility. Even as a newbie to the conditions, 50 mph on fresh powder didn't seem like an unreasonable speed much of the time. And the electronic watchdogs became welcome allies, telegraphing when we might be getting near the edge of the envelope in unfamiliar conditions. In short, any drama was almost assuredly the fault of the driver, not the truck.
The Raptor SuperCrew is essentially a sledgehammer as a precision instrument. Yes, it's tall and hefty, but the wide track and excellent suspension tuning make everyday life with the Raptor a feasible and tempting justification for purchase. Throw in the roomy back seat and uprated towing capacity of the SuperCrew model and it becomes a compelling proposition over a similarly-equipped F-150 FX4, a truck which isn't particularly hard to spec over the Raptor SuperCrew's $45,885 starting price. Yes, 46k isn't chump-change for a pickup — it's double the ducats of the basest base F-150, after all — but one couldn't build the truck for that money, and as of now, it's the only way to get the most powerful 6.2-liter engine in one of Ford's half-ton trucks without opting for the Platinum model, which isn't exactly designed for off-roading, or stepping up to the more expensive Lariat LTD or Harley Davidson F-150s.
Now if SVT could only dial in a dab of Bomarc...
Photo Credit: Davey G. Johnson; Mike Levine
Editor's Note: We really, really, really wanted to run this as the splash shot atop the review, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the story. Still, we thought it would make at least a handful of you laugh.
Also, if you want the top shot and a couple of the other shots from the Raptor SuperCrew first drive event as wallpaper-sized images, head to our Facebook page.