The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor pickup emerged in 2007 as a desert runner, was recast as a Michigan mudder and then as a snowbird-slash-missile-site-transporter. For its fourth phase, Ford is positioning the long-travel-suspension pickup as a rock crawler. Having never scrabbled the Earth's craggy layer in a truck before, I was a natural sucker for Ford's latest demo of the Raptor's abusage cycle in Moab. Who would crack first, the truck's frame or the on-roader's spine?
Full Disclosure: Ford wanted me to drive the 2012 Raptor so bad, they flew me to Grand Junction, Colorado, put me up in a rustic lodge near Moab, Utah, fed me cowboy steak and taught me how to inch over vast sandstone formations in a truck. And to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes while peeing..
When I'm told I'll be driving the 2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor in Utah, I get giddy and daydreamy with anticipation:
I'm bombing down some barren dry wash with a rooster tail of desert dust at my back. I catch air over a rock shelf, then arc across a scrub-strewn bend at full lock, just as a Bell JetRanger helicopter swoops in to join the chase.
We're gaining ground on that fleeing sand-rail buggy – the mysterious drifter I caught in the sack with my wife, the ungrateful redneck tramp. Shots ring out…
No, I'm told. We're going rock crawling in Moab. Crawling? Sounds kinda, you know, slow.
Really, that's the point. Among some new gear Ford's installed in the latest-model Raptor is a Torsen limited-slip front differential, which apportions torque between the right and left sides as needed to maximize traction. This bit of drive hardware replaces the previous models' open diff, and elevates rock-crawling in the Raptor's capability profile.
The new Raptor also has a grille-mounted camera with a wide-angle lens. The camera's wired to the eight-inch navigation display, allowing an enhanced view of what's happening in front during high-angle ascents up dangerous-looking rock formations, even when there's nothing but clouds in the windshield. That's definitely not something you'd need while speeding (factory-rated speeding, of course) down some old codger's whiskey trail, but very welcome for, you know, rock crawling.
And so, here we are in Moab. The name comes from the Book of Genesis. You remember Lot? (The pillar-of-salt lady's husband.) He fled the smoldering Sodom and Gomorrah with his two daughters, who happened to really want a brother. One night, Lot got drunk. Nine months later, he was the father (and also grandfather) of two kids, one of whom took the name Moab (Tiberian for "seed of the father"). Moab eventually led a society of Moabites, who weren't really known for much of anything except drinking and screwing around and getting taken over by Pharaoh Ramses II. (Right. The condom guy.)
That's not this Moab, of course. This Moab, in southeastern Utah, was founded in the 1800s by religious zealots. It became a boomtown in the 1950s after one of the locals found enough uranium to obliterate the world 15 times over.
Nowadays, Moab is known for the recreational opportunities provided by its "slickrock," those vast, pale-orange knobs nestled amidst the Colorado river like the world's puffiest down jacket. Slickrock, formed of Navajo sandstone, isn't particularly slick at all; the lichen-dappled surface is semi-porous and resembles medium-grained sandpaper. Mountain bikers and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts love this place because they can drive for miles and miles, up and over all the slickrock knobs, and barely even get irradiated at all.
In structure, slickrock are petrified sand dunes dating back to the Jurassic period, when the Earth's equator sat just south of the Colorado Plateau. Along those dunes ran wild a particular theropod dinosaur, a 20-foot-long, 1,500-pound beast now referred to as the Utah raptor. Aha. Clever, Ford.
The trail on which we'll be traveling in a convoy of Raptor SuperCabs, is called "Hell's Revenge." The U.S. Bureau of Land Management calls Hell's Revenge "a six and one half mile roller coaster ride. It is extremely difficult, and recommended only for very experienced drivers with advanced equipment."
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management does not tell us that the trail starts out on a humpy bit of slickrock that Moab regulars call "Oprah's Butt."
We get to the trailhead in the early morning to air-down the Raptors' 35" BFGoodrich all-terrains to about 17 psi. The lower pressure will give us a broader surface area for a surer grip over the slickrock. Our guide is rock-crawling expert Dan Mick, a bearded, plus-sized Moab fixture who knows the slickrock like he knows his way around a tall tale and, evidently, a tender Porterhouse.
We engage the trucks' low range and off we go, straight up Oprah's Butt.
We're inching up a rock face as narrow as a dinosaur's back, guided by two, oily streaks, tinted carbon-black from countless passes of knobby rubber. I'm riding shotgun for the first half – around three miles. That doesn't sound like a lot of miles, but at the single-digit speeds we're going, wrapping up Hell's Revenge will take all day. I occupy myself by taking artsy photos in the side-view mirror and watching the trail unfold on the console screen, as the truck's nose is pointed toward Ursa Minor.
After a while, I give up my sidekick's chair and climb behind the wheel for the next leg. As it turns out, crawling over miles of slickrock is like pushing Matchbox cars over a stack of couch cushions really, really slowly. The Raptor's long travel and new Torsen make quick work of the climbing, and I find watching the front camera is almost as entertaining as actually driving. On a few of the more dramatic obstacles (I think we drove up a dead whale) we'd engage the rear locker by way of a pull-out knob on the 4WD switch. With the rear locked, we could have probably crawled up a McDonald's.
A little about the front diff. Ford boffins set the preload on the helical gearset to zero, to minimize torque steer during straight-line acceleration. Hardcore rock crawlers would want to set the preload higher to assure much of the torque is applied to the gripping side, say, if a wheel is airborne. It's a tradeoff the Raptor can largely compensate for on the rocks, using traction control (in four-wheel high only) or by locking the rear diff, which can be accomplished on the fly by a dashboard knob.
Indeed, I'm surprised at the Raptor's capability on this terrain, though I'm feeling a little edgy from using the throttle the way a neurosurgeon uses a cranial drill. We stop for a demo of the truck's extreme-ascent capability, up a steep, narrow chasm called "Hell's Gate." "Momentum is your friend, speed is your enemy," Mick tells me, as we watch the driver inch upward toward us, feathering the throttle like Dolly Madison tickling the president with her quill pen.
We continue along the six-mile trail, meandering over rocks and navigating through dry washes and onto slab surfaces as big as shopping malls, all the while in low range at single-digit speeds. A remote-controlled video helicopter trains its gyroscopically-stabilized eye on our every climb and dip, recording us for posterity — or on the outside chance one of us tumbles, roof-first down a 100-foot ledge. We snake past delicate desert ecosystems and teeter atop monster-sized bowler hats, guided only by a few, painted wheel-placement lines and the tentative hand gestures from our guides.
Soon, we're at the "hot tub." Eons of erosive forces have carved out holes in the rock the size of semi trucks. Off-roaders use these natural rain barrels as proof-of-truck obstacles. When it's our turn, we inch down into a 20-foot hole, gather our testicles, then slowly climb up the other side. Some of us take more than one shot at it, but we all make it.
Then, a final, rocky descent down a winding track that provides some of the most stunning canyon views in the world. The landscape in our windshields includes a plot of land of where a development group, the latest Moabites to stake a claim to all this physical drama of the West, wants to put a resort. It's a plan they'll have to pry out of the locals' cold-dead hands. And Oprah's Butt.