SVT engineers had a choice: make another Lightning or do something no manufacturer has ever done before — produce a high-speed off-road super truck. The 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, the fastest off-road vehicle we've ever driven, is the result.
Full Disclosure: Ford wanted us to drive the Raptor so badly they flew me out to San Diego and put me up in a swanky hotel. They also fed me steak one night, then steak fajitas for lunch the next day. It's nice to see that Ford knows how to save money by making the most with leftovers.
Based on the stock 2009 Ford F-150, the Raptor adds little more than some fancy suspension, fancier electronics and some sporty exterior design. It retains the stock engine, the same 6-speed automatic gearbox (albeit in a less enthusiastic state of tune), the stock frame and a gussied-up stock interior and flared exterior. But oh, what suspension and electronics.
Headlining the changes are the internal triple bypass Fox Racing shocks. Like other off-road suspension packages, they add lots of travel (the total now stands at 11.2" of travel at the front and 12.1" at the rear), but unlike other systems they take radical steps to control that travel with the damping becoming four times stiffer at the end of the shock's travel as it is at the beginning. The initially soft, progressively stiffer damping means the Raptor floats over undulations both off-road and on, but controls that float so there's no bouncing around on the springs.
Drive along at whatever speed, hit a bump and the jolt is absorbed with no further impact on the experience. The suspension compresses to the extent required to clear the obstacle, then extends back to its normal position rather than compressing and extending through a few decreasing cycles like on virtually every other suspension setup.
That control isn't just down to the dampers, the Raptor increases the width of the F-150's track by seven inches, necessitating the use of unique "SVT" stamped upper and lower control arms and the wild new bodywork. The result of that is stability, especially noticeable at high speeds.
Connecting that new suspension to the road are bespoke 35-inch BF Goodrich tires on same-size, but unique-looking, 17-inch wheels. They use the same tread pattern as other BF Goodrich off-road tires, but everything else about them is designed to boost on-road refinement while retaining off-road ability. They're dead quiet even while bouncing off the 100 MPH speed limiter on the road, yet grip rocks and loose sand just like their off-road-only brothers and sisters.
Helping all that out is an "Off-Road" mode button that lets the ABS lock the wheels up at low speeds for more effective braking in the dirt, makes the shift programming and throttle response much more aggressive and backs off the traction and stability control.
That we've just spent five paragraphs describing the fancy suspension and electronics should give you some idea just how special they are. In fact, they transform the F-150 from a practical and luxurious utility truck into the most bitchin' multi-purpose vehicle we've driven all year. It's just a shame about the transmission.
That the Raptor is fast, refined and utterly stable up to its limited top speed belies its true nature as an off-roader. We were initially disappointed in the truck because we couldn't imagine a situation where all this roadability couldn't come at the expense of off-road speed. The thing is, we were wrong.
Designed for high-speed desert running, the SVT engineers didn't find it necessary to sacrifice any rock-crawling or mud-plugging ability. The extra ground clearance, improved approach and departure angles, beefed-up half shafts and other assorted upgrades like the huge SVT-branded aluminum skid plate actually make the Raptor more capable in the slow stuff than the stock F-150. All that truck's off-road aids are retained in the form of super slow-motion hill descent control and locking differentials.
And then you get to the go-fast stuff.
There's plenty of trucks, SUVs or whatever that can competently tackle a boulder. There's none available straight from a show room that are designed to run across the desert at 100 MPH. That's exactly what the Raptor does.
Push the "Off-Road" button, turn off the traction control and engage the rear axle locker in two-high and you're in the unofficial sport mode. This sets you up to tackle the loose surfaces, bumps, jumps and corners of your average desert. Point it down a dry creek bed or across the open desert and hit the gas. Add some corrective steering to overcome that slide and you're good to go. It's like driving your average pickup down a dirt road, only, in the Raptor, you'll be going twice as fast and you don't need that dirt road.
The triple bypass dampers absorb any bump small enough for the Raptor to actually make it over or cushion the landing off just about any jump. You'll find yourself going so fast - we bounced off the 100 MPH limiter without a thought - that when it comes time to steer around that boulder or cliff you won't realize how much you need to slow down until you're right on top of that obstacle. That's ok, because the off-road ABS programming has been tuned so perfectly that it can bring the Raptor to a rapid halt even on loose sand. It does that by allowing a controlled amount of wheel lock at low speeds to build up a berm in front of the tires, but keeps the wheels from locking at higher speeds to retain steering control.
Sadly, even with the more aggressive programming in off-road mode, the transmission will put itself in too high a gear, causing the Raptor to occasionally bog down, spoiling your tail out fun through some slow corners.
We first drove the Raptor over a month ago here in New York and walked away from the experience distinctly underwhelmed. Rather than finding the extreme race-focused off-roader we expected, the Raptor, in city traffic at least, turned out to be a better-riding, taller and more refined version of the stock F-150. The gearbox kept trying to put itself in sixth gear, no matter what the speed, and was then reluctant to kick down. That means it was slow. Really slow.
Unfortunately that gearbox didn't get better between that pre-production truck and this final-spec vehicle. Trying to get some maintenance throttle through the hairpin curves between San Diego and Borrego Springs resulted in either nothing or, with a bit more throttle, a two gear downshift and way too much acceleration. I almost had to drive it like an ‘80s turbocharged Saab, hammering the throttle before the apex to ensure that there'd be some acceleration on tap by the time the corner exit appeared.
Ford plans to add a 400 HP/400 Lb-Ft of torque 6.2-liter V8 to the Raptor lineup near the end of this year, but it's going to be equipped with the same shitty gearbox as this 5.4-liter, meaning the extra 90 HP and 10 Lb-Ft will largely be wasted. Some sort of manual override beyond the ability to select first, second or third and the ineffective overdrive off switch is desperately needed, but sadly not planned.
Of course, bitching about the lack of an appropriately tuned gearbox in a 6,000 Lbs, 78.4-inch tall truck is indicative of how satisfying the rest of the experience is. Throw the Raptor into an on-road corner and it heaves way over to the outside, but settles into that position through the rest of the corner. Nothing about its cornering ability is wayward, imprecise or challenging. In fact, its far more able than the stock F-150 and is capable of pulling .83 G on the skidpad, which is nearly as much grip as the stock 2010 Ford Mustang GT. 0-60 takes 8.2 seconds, well, if the gearbox cooperates.
The way to get around the ridiculously awful gearbox is to floor the Raptor down every straight, then slam on the 13.8-inch front, 13.-7-inch rear (same as the stock truck) brakes just before a corner. The front dives towards the ground alarmingly and the tires go "fizzzzz" in protest, but the brakes never fade. Stay on them to just before the apex to quicken the steering then slam on the throttle so that you stand some slim chance of accelerating at some point on the following straight.
Ford's PR team carefully planned a jump free route for us to avoid the liability of inadvertently jostling the pacemakers of geriatric buff book hacks, but we managed to channel our inner hoon and find a good ramp regardless. We hit the four-foot high berm at 80 MPH and caught what felt like serious air, but even that failed to overcome the natural stability and the Raptor's ability to soak up anything thrown at it. It landed perfectly and carried on as if nothing had happened. Even sliding sideways into ruts and bumps near the limited top speed failed to provoke any roll or any sign at all that we could do anything to upset the Raptor.
With the stability control off, things got a bit looser, but were still impressively controlled given the amount of sideways action taking place, while with four high locked in, the same speeds were attainable, albeit with less fun.
We'll have to wait until we try a Raptor in an unsupervised environment to definitively declare that it's impossible to flip or roll one, but on this initial trial that appears to be the case.
The Raptor's performance potential is so unique that we have to look outside the car and truck world to find any serious parallels for its ability. Off-road it performs like a faster, taller KTM race quad bike with its huge slides and go-anywhere high-speed ability. But we've never gotten a quad up to 100 MPH. On road the nearest equivalent would be a supermoto - a dirt bike converted for road use with sticky track tires - it's long travel suspension actually boosts cornering ability over the stock vehicle. But we've never ridden a supermoto this refined.
To put it plainly, the Raptor is the fastest off-road vehicle we've ever driven, yet remains a refined, capable and fun daily commuter or work truck. It's ability to travel at extremely high speeds over rough terrain is utterly unique among stock vehicles. It does all that while only asking a $2,900 premium over the F-150 FX4. In a world of cars and trucks designed only to compete with peers in specific classes and on boring things like fuel economy, trunk volume and stereo spec and in a society beset with oppressive liability concerns, the Raptor sets itself apart by doing something no one else has ever thought was a good idea, was possible within the legal framework of an automobile company or, hell, even possible at all. The 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor is fucking awesome.